It’s the question all teenagers dread as they come home. I certainly heard my fair share of it, especially before the advent of cell phones. If the bus got in late from an away football game, if the trip took longer than expected, or if I just lost track of time hanging out with my friends in high school, I’d come home inevitably to the question:
“Where were you?”
I imagine we have all have heard this question many times. So much, that the mere asking of the question can make us feel defensive. The question demands that we explain ourselves. Where were you means what were you doing? Were you into mischief? Probably.
The question puts the spotlight on us, demands that we offer up something, anything, to explain ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable question. None of us enjoy being asked to explain ourselves. None of us enjoy receiving the question, “where were you?” That’s true most especially for Job.
Hear now our scripture, Job 38:1-11
A huge storm of life had come to Job: the loss of his livelihood, his property, his family, and his health. And rather than simply comfort himself with platitudes that deny integrity, rather than decide he’s a victim and sit on his ash heap, Job decides to question God, challenge God, confront God, with his circumstance. He declares that he is not a victim, he will not be silenced, he will shout into the darkness and demand of the storm and of God, “explain yourself!”
The answer he receives is not at all what Job expected. God comes to Job and says, “where were you?”
In various ways, God’s rhetorical question back to Job is this: “where were you?” Like a parent speaking to an ungrateful child who has asked why a parent hasn’t done better for him, God responds by saying, “where were you when I provided for you, when I sacrificed for you, when I created for you, when I established a home for you, when I made you safe…tell me, where were you?”
In fact, God’s challenge is so severe, God tells Job at the beginning to “gird up your loins like a man,” which means exactly what you think it means. Take courage and address me: I demand that you explain yourself, Job! How can you question me? Your vision is myopic, you see only a little piece; I see the whole picture. You can’t judge me. I stand in judgment of you! You are a small piece of the puzzle. I hold and put together the entire puzzle.
When I created all that was and is and will be, where were you, Job!?
Except Job might want to throw the question back at God. Where were you when the storms of life came? Where were you, God, when I lost everything? Family, property, possessions? Where were you?
We, like Job, might also want to hurl that question at God: where were you? Where were you in our own lives when we had a crisis of faith? Where were you in the midst of the storms that take hold of our lives? Where were you when this virus first appeared on the world stage? When doubt comes, when anxiety sets in, when we struggle to believe in you, when something makes us question the very basis of what we believe, where were you?
Where were you, God?
Where were you is the question of doubt. Sometimes in life, no matter how strong we think our faith is, we have doubt. It casts its shadow, calling into question what we think we believe, what we think we know to be true about God. Doubt is often thought of like an enemy, a problem, something to cast off.
And here, in Job, we see how Job is full of doubt as he wonders where God has been? Where has God been while he’s been suffering, while he’s been arguing. Where were you God?
It’s the question of doubt.
For any of us who have known the land of deep darkness where faith is rocked to its core, where we struggle to believe what we used to believe, where our faith feels as though it has failed to provide as promised, we are prone to ask: where were you, God? Where were you when we felt like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle suddenly swept to the floor, crumbling into all its pieces. Where were you, God?
We all have known times when a tragedy occurs: a relationship ends, a job is lost, a financial panic ensues, a death occurs, this virus; something that rocks our stability and makes us doubt that God is just, that God is good, that God works in our favor, that God will provide. When that kind of doubt settles in, where were you, God? Explain yourself!
We want to throw the question back at God and rightfully so! Just like Job, we’ve been righteous, we’ve been good, we attend church, we do the right things, we say the right things, we do our best to be devoted to religious practice, so where’s the benefit? Where were you, God?
Where were you? That’s Job’s central question. And in the encounter in our scripture, God throws the question back at Job. This doesn’t answer Job’s doubts, this doesn’t provide explanation for why Job has suffered such grave injustices. All God does is say, for four whole chapters, that he doesn’t have the offer explanation. God is God, God made everything, God has the larger vision; God answers to no one! Definitely not to Job.
This is the point of God rhetorically asking the question, “where were you?” It’s God’s way of saying, “I need to offer no explanation to anyone.”
But that’s not very satisfying when you’re in the midst of a grave injustice in your life. God saying, “I’m God; deal with it!” doesn’t really make us feel better. We still want answers, we still want an explanation, we still want assurance that God is for us and moving for justice. We want an answer! And so we cry out with Job:
Where were you?
After those four chapters of God rhetorically explaining that he needs offer no explanation, Job comes to accept his place in the order of things: he recognizes that he is not God and that God needs offer no explanation for himself. Job says that he is sufficiently humbled. God has not answered his questions, but Job is satisfied: he is human, God is God. Thus ends the debate.
Job’s been full of doubt. Now that he accepts his place humbly, now that he is restored to faith without doubt, we can expect that God will rebuke his doubt, perhaps even punish his doubt.
But that’s not what happens.
At the end of the book, Job 42:7 says “After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite [one of Job’s friends] ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends: for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Crazy. Job was the one questioning God, challenging God, demanding of God, “explain yourself!” Job’s friends tell him to be inauthentic, to not give voice to his anger, lest he anger God more; but, instead do what they think God wants Job to do. They want Job to try to please God by being inauthentic to himself.
But here, at the end of the book, after all is said and done, it’s Job’s friends who get reprimanded and not Job. Not only that, but God then demands that Eliphaz and his friends offer burnt sacrifices to atone for their sins, in front of Job, and that Job will pray for them on God’s behalf. Job needs offer no sacrifices for God says that Job has done nothing wrong. Instead, it’s his friends who have done wrong.
So Job, who questioned God and defiantly demanded an explanation, who took his anger in prayer to God and accused God of wrongdoing, of injustice; that Job has done nothing wrong?
What sense does this make?
The book of Job is quite odd. There’s much to unpack. But in this dialogue, we discover something powerful for our lives; something of great value for our faith. And that something is this: doubt is okay.
Job spoke rightly, Job did nothing wrong, because he wasn’t afraid of his doubt. He wasn’t afraid to question, to challenge God; to be authentic in his prayer life. Job didn’t tell himself what he was supposed to believe, Job didn’t rely on faith of the past, filling himself with platitudes like “God will provide” or “God has a plan” or “God makes all things work for my good.”
Instead, Job accepted that his faith had failed him. That’s what happened to him. He believed that if he was righteous and did what God asked, God would always provide for him and he and his family would remain safe and secure. How many of us have such a faith?
And when God’s provision crumbled around him and he was left with nothing, literally nothing, he discovered that his faith had failed: he had been righteous and yet, he had lost everything. He couldn’t explain it. And that inability to explain created tremendous doubt. Rather than become a victim, though, rather than simply acquiesce, rather than try to make his old, now dead, faith work, he demands answers. He lives into his doubt. He challenges God. He lives an authentic prayer life. He says, “where were you, God?”
And for that, for the doubt and the challenge, for his authenticity, God says he spoke rightly.
That is the lesson for us this morning: to speak rightly in faith is to speak of our doubt, to lean into our doubt. To speak rightly about God is to challenge God when our faith is challenged. To speak rightly about God is to demand explanations. To speak rightly in faith, to pray correctly, is to always be authentic, even if that means we are challenging, demanding of, or even accusing God.
It’s been said that doubt is the fertile soil in which faith grows. Here, in Job, we have exhibit A of how that is true. Job’s world, his understanding of God and his faith, were thrown into chaos by trauma in his life. By the end of Job, we see that the right way to handle trauma, the right way to handle a faith that’s been severely challenged, is to ask God for an explanation. The right way to handle when life’s storms come is to live into the doubt they create.
The right way to be in relationship with God, sometimes, is to doubt.
Because doubt is the fertile soil in which faith grows.
By the end of the story, Job has a greater understanding of who God is because he doubted, because he questioned, because he challenged. Job has a deeper sense of the nature of God because he was willing to live into his doubt. He knew the faith of old didn’t work for him any longer. And when left with a faith that could no longer supply answers, rather than tell himself what he should believe, or try and reconstruct his old faith that he knew didn’t work, Job asks the questions, the daring questions, the bold questions. He lives an authentic prayer life, speaking to God exactly how he feels, even if that’s accusing God, even if that’s yelling at God; an authentic prayer life, no matter what. And for that, he comes back together better than he was before.
The life of faith, as Job shows us this morning, is like a puzzle. Imagine with me that your faith is like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Most of the pieces are in place, you have a few that haven’t been put into place and several that are in the wrong place. That’s true of us all.
When challenges come into our lives, like a traumatic event, a sudden death, a huge financial downturn, abuse of any kind, a shocking event, a virus that upends life as we knew it; when any of these things come, we experience chaos. That chaos sweeps us off the table and shatters us into a bunch of pieces. The more traumatic the event, the more of us falls off the table.
I suspect that all of us have pieces on the floor right now. All of our lives are significantly disrupted by this virus. It creates fear, it sows chaos, it challenges leadership, it pokes holes in our assumptions and points to our weak places as a people and a country, it kills and destroys and undoes life as we knew it. We will never be the same. The pieces of our lives are on the floor.
It’s chaos. And chaos creates doubt.
And when chaos creates doubt, we should be like Job, willing to question, willing to challenge God, willing to accuse God, willing to live an authentic prayer life. Job spoke rightly, God says, and that right speech was authentic speech. How often do we, in our prayers, tell God what we think God wants to hear? Or what we think is respectful, even if we don’t feel it? How often do we pray prayers thinking that, if we can be respectful enough or pray in the right way, God will give us what we want?
God is clear at the end of Job: there’s no way to manipulate God, no way to please God with our prayers, no way to get God to act as we would want. Where were you, God says to us, when I created the world? So why do you think you can get me to do what you want me to do?
So let’s stop living inauthentic prayer lives, especially during a trauma like we all know now because of this virus. Let’s pray to God exactly how we feel. Tell God what’s on your heart. It’s not like God doesn’t already know what’s there! Be authentic in your prayer; be like Job, for that’s what God expects of us.
Because doubt comes to us all. Too often, we think doubt is a problem, something that shouldn’t be there, a sign that our faith is weak. Not at all. Job’s example to us is that doubt comes to us all and the best way to live into that is to run headlong into the doubt. Ask the hard questions of God, prayerfully. Be willing to embrace that doubt. Talk to me about your doubts, talk with your close friends who will listen without telling you what to do or what to believe. Talk with spiritual mentors. Open your bibles and prayerfully read the scriptures. Seek after God in the ways you do.
Because doubt is the fertile soil in which faith grows.
And we water the soil, we till the earth, when we pray authentically during times of doubt.
If we’re honest this morning, we’re all living in a time of doubt. Where were you, God, when this virus first appeared? Where were you, God, when it started to spread? Where were you, God, when it came to our nation? Where were you, God, as it spread even now, to our front doors? Where were you, God, when we needed your healing power? Where were you, God, when we needed your mighty hand and outstretched arm to save? Where were you, God? We need you right now!
Where were you, God? We know the answer: God is always with us. God remains Immanuel, God’s presence is ever in our midst.
But sometimes it certainly doesn’t feel that way. If that’s you today, that’s doubt talking. Don’t avoid it. Run into it. Pray authentically. One day, there will be restoration. One day, there will be healing. One day, there will be redemption. One day.
But until that day, pray authentically, embrace your doubt, for faith grows best in the fertile soil of doubt.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.