Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Job 38.1-2.
At the beginning of the Book of Job we are left in no doubt that Job is about as good and straight and true as any human being can be: “And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?'” (Job 1.8). And even in all the afflictions that then come upon him, Job still remains upright and true to God: “And [Job] said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1.21-22). Yet in all the long conversations that follow between Job and his “comforters”, Job does something that in this morning’s brief reading, God takes issue with — he “darkens counsel by words without knowledge.” What does that mean?
Simply that, in all the explanations for his suffering that Job has offered to his friends, in all his responses to the things they have said to him, Job, far from bringing illumination and understanding and shedding light on God’s ways, has actually obscured things. The effect of what he has said has been to present a false, or at any rate a distorted, picture of God to Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. In particular, he has identified God as the one who is causing all his pain and anguish and has accused him of cruelty and described him as a tormentor: “God has cast me into the mire,” he says, “and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me” (Job 30.19-21).
What are these words that bring darkness rather than light? They are “words without knowledge.” Job speaks from a position of almost total ignorance. He has not the faintest idea of what is going on in the heavenly places, of the fact that Satan is behind all his suffering (Job 1.12) and that God’s purpose towards him is only ever to bless him (Job 42.12). And that, in the end, is what he confesses to God: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42.3).
All this makes me wonder how often, in my eagerness to vindicate God, I actually muddy the waters by what I say because I am speaking out of ignorance. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he said, so as to “justify the ways of God to Man,” and that is something that, as a Christian, I too try to do. Personal tragedies and global disasters always have people asking, “If there is a God, why does he let that happen?” and I want to be able to give an answer. Unlike Job, I never argue that God sends the suffering or that God is testing people by it; but my explanations may nonetheless be “darkening counsel by words without knowledge.”
In his best-selling novel, “The Shack,” William Paul Young addresses the big question of why God allows a little girl to abducted and brutally murdered. Through the mouth of Mackenzie, the little girl’s father, he puts the question to God and God’s answer is that he, as God, had two choices. “First, by not creating at all these questions would be moot. Or secondly, I could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance. The first was never a consideration and the latter was not an option for purposes that you cannot possibly understand now. At this point all I have to offer you as an answer is my love and goodness, and my relationship with you.”
That, I suppose, is what it always comes down to, and I will be wise not to try to go beyond that when people start questioning the role of God in the suffering of the world. I can hold forth about free will and man’s misuse of it; about the fact that God does not want automata that cannot but do his will; about the involvement of God himself in the suffering of the world as he takes flesh and comes in Jesus to die on the cross; about his redemptive purposes; about the way that bad things can be worked together for good; but at the end of the day, unless I can lead the questioner into a trusting relationship with God, all I may be doing is causing confusion — “darkening counsel by words without knowledge.” There are mysteries that are unfathomable and beyond my understanding; and that is something I always need to recognise and acknowledge. God can vindicate himself; he does not need me in my ignorance to try and do it for him.