I remember a TV interview around the time of some terrible disaster. They had brought out a clergyman from the area and the interviewer, with the smug air of someone with all the answers, asked: Is it that God can’t help (and so is powerless) or won’t help (and so is loveless)?
And so the hapless vicar, on live TV, had to formulate an answer to this in-your-face challenge to the justice and goodness of God. Does He love us? Can He help us?
What would you have said?
This is one of the main themes of the book of Job. I always had difficulty preaching from it. It’s so big and bulky, and written in the strange rhythms of ancient poetry. Indeed, some say it is the oldest book in the Bible. Imagine that. And so, knowing that the Bible is the word of God, living, active and useful, I set myself to study and preached it through an entire year (on Sunday evenings in my church in West London). I came to believe it one of the most profound and important books of the Bible. And this, as I say, is one of its central questions.
So, far from the interviewer saying something witty and original, as he seemed to think he was, he was asking one of the oldest questions known to man.
What do you do when God does nothing?
Or you might better say: “What do you do when God seems to do nothing?”
In Job 35:9-13, Elihu is answering something that Job said, back in Job 24:12: “The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.”
Here’s Elihu’s reply:
“People cry out under a load of oppression;
they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful.
But no one says, “Where is God my Maker,
who gives songs in the night,
who teaches us more than he teaches the beasts of the earth
and makes us wiser than the birds in the sky?”
He does not answer when people cry out
because of the arrogance of the wicked.
Indeed, God does not listen to their empty plea;
the Almighty pays no attention to it.”
Why doesn’t God answer people who seem so oppressed by the circumstances of their lives? People really do cry out under a load of oppression. They really do plead for relief from the arm of the powerful. When you work as a pastor, as I do, sometimes the sheer level of need seems to flow at you and around you, as if you’re standing in a river and the current may just knock you off your feet.
There’s a line by Robert Jordan that comes to mind: “He was swimming in a sea of other people’s expectations. Men had drowned in seas like that.”
But you don’t need to be a pastor to read the papers and watch the news and ask the questions: “How did things get to be so bad? Can’t somebody do something about this terrible situation?
So Elihu attempts to answer the interviewer.
He does so, with a foretaste of what the apostle James would declare, centuries later: You do not have because you do not ask in the right way.
Here’s the context (in James 4):
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
The context is important because it expresses the squabble of internal wrangling that’s going on when we sometimes pray, but the bottom line is pretty simple. It is this: Some of the reason God does not appear to answer or help is down to you.
God is ready to hear and help.
But He also discerns the way you are praying, and He translates the intentionality of your prayer. So there’s a difference, perhaps, between a complaining wail and a heart that is truly sorry. I read this in the prophecy of Hosea (7:14), where there’s a rather unpleasant description of false prayer:
“They do not cry out to me from their hearts
but wail on their beds.
They slash themselves, appealing to their gods
for grain and new wine,
but they turn away from me.”
They were praying out of passion and manipulation to false gods who drove them to self-harm, “but they turn away from me.” So will God really respond to prayers like these? “No one says, ‘Where is God my maker?’” (Job 35:10)
In a famous phrase, C.S.Lewis called pain “A megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But rouse them to what?
The answer is God. God is the father of all meaning, the father of all creation. He doesn’t send pain but allows it to happen to rouse a reaction.
If you really did believe in that megaphone-voice, wouldn’t you at least give pause and listen? Wouldn’t you learn to wait and trust? Not in the way of gritting your teeth, or enjoying it –you are not called to be either a stoic nor a masochist – but just believing in the God of eternity, the God of the big picture, the Father God who does all things well.
The trouble is that whilst pain should drive you into the arms of a loving father, sometimes it does not.
Everyone complains of his troubles but few say “Where is God my maker?” That is to say, few repent of their sins, or seek the face and favour of God, and so they miss out on that comfort which would balance their afflictions at the very time they need it. The sweep of the circumstances has taken them off their feet, and that just becomes another reason for living without God.
But God has allowed this circumstance just so that you will come to Him. He doesn’t want you to live in independent self-sufficiency, but to find your provision in Him.
When we shout out our shopping-lists of needs, it’s sometimes like we’re saying: “Either fix this, or I won’t believe in you.” And we don’t get it, that the need itself has been allowed by God so that we learn to live in relationship with Him.
Maybe we’re more like aggressive teenagers demanding handouts, but refusing to live in the relationship of mutual trust, love and service within the family.
Because when you do begin to ask “Where is God my maker?” the answers come quickly. He is the one who gives “Songs in the night.” Isn’t that an amazing line? Spurgeon used it for a memorable sermon about that famous night in Philippi when the apostles, bruised, battered and imprisoned, began singing a song of praise.
What did they have to sing about? They had the reality of God in their lives. They had discovered that God provides for inward joy despite outward circumstances. God sets the diamond of His presence against the black cloth of their suffering in order to show it off to best effect (like jewellers do). The treasure comes in jars of clay, so don’t worry so much that your outer pot is taking a beating, gathering wrinkles and looking a little cracked (Do you enjoy mixed metaphors?).
So what do you have to sing about? Well, when you focus on the treasure, and not the pot, quite a lot. If you only focus on your afflictions, then you will not hear the “songs in the night.”
And you may even miss the realisation that though God now seems to reject your prayers, He has already provided an answer.
When you look at Jesus on the cross, you see man in the very worst of circumstances, in terrible loneliness and fear, experiencing pain, doubt, grief and loss and even the sense of being God-forsaken.
If ever someone needed but felt the lack of God’s love and power, it was Jesus on the cross. Christ’s sympathy –and empathy- for your situation is total, and personal.
But the cross is empty.
It is empty because Christ took that total experience of being human into the “way of all flesh.” He died and was buried.
But the grave is empty.
It is empty because Jesus rose. He died for our sin, for all our folly and failure –indeed for every one of the circumstances that presently holds us captive, every addiction, every crime, every heartbreak – but He rose in victory over it all. He rose into newness of life, into a new way of living, a new way of being…
So what do you do when God does nothing?
Just one thing. I need to find out for myself that God has done everything in Christ; that “all I have needed, His hand has provided”; and that I am His, and He is mine.
And all will be well.
Lord, I believe it.