Does anyone remember the HBO series, Deadwood? It was about frontier town, which would become famous for the exploits of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. But it was really more about the experience of the town and its first sheriff, my real life name sake, Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood.
I didn’t watch all the seasons, but I was into it for a while. And I will never forget one of the episodes when a hotel owner and a colonel had a wager. The hotel man wagered his hotel and the colonel wagered something of value that I can’t remember. It was no ordinary wager, in fact it was a wager of life and death. Both the hotel owner and colonel had a loyal fighting man. And they agreed that which every fighter triumphed, then that settled the wager. If the hotel owner’s fighter won the battle, he kept his hotel and the colonel never returned. If the colonel’s man triumphed, then he won the hotel and the owner left town. Spoiler alert. I won’t tell you what happens except that it’s a fight to the death and it was just that, to the death.
The Deadwood episode came to mind when I read the Job passage. I hate to be hard on the Lord and I hope he doesn’t punish me by turning me into a high school teacher, but it feels like the Lord and Satan are kind of like the hotel owner and the colonel from the episode of Deadwood. Like the colonel, the Lord is presenting Job, his champion, to the Devil, and saying you can’t touch this guy. He’s beyond reproach. He’s a rock and nothing can shake him. Go ahead Diablo, take your best shot, do everything you can to him except kill him and I’ll show you I’m right.
The Devil accepts the challenge and says, you watch, G, he’ll crumble. He’ll cave. He’ll curse you. Just watch.
In this episode of Job’s travails, we only hear about the boils. There is whole book devoted to the saga and Job does get pretty down about losing everything. But in this preliminary episode, he does hang in there and chastises his wife for encouraging him to give up and cursing God.
Job’s response is the most important line of the morning and I want to explore the implications of what he said.
Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
This is the line I want to explore with you. I want to do this because Job’s articulating a theological understanding about our lives that even thought it was first written down well before TV Dramas, points to an understanding that is current and actually, something I heard plenty when I did church work full-time and what I continue to hear even as a public high-school teacher.
Job seems to say to his wife, “Look God gave us good stuff and we were happy. Now he’s giving us bad stuff, and we have to stay loyal.”
I would like to say, “Job, I don’t think God gives us bad stuff.” I would say “Job, I don’t think God is in the temptation business.” I would say, “Job, that’s why I don’t like the traditional version of the Lord’s prayer that say’s “Lead us not into temptation.”
Job would probably say, “What’s the Lord’s Prayer.” And I’d say you know, the prayer Jesus taught us .
At this point Job might say who is Jesus? And then I’d remember that Job never met Jesus because, you know Old Testament and all.
And the Lord would probably be saying, maybe it was a bad idea to make you a history teacher.
A lot of folks think and say, that when hard times come that God is testing them. You hear it: God never gives me more than I can handle.” When I hear that, I think, well why would God give you anything difficult.
Our whole starts out with Adam and Eve getting to live in a nudist colony where you don’t have to make a living. According to the story, it wasn’t God who tempted the couple to eat of the sacred fruit, it was the crafty serpent. Somehow, by the time difficulty get to Job and to us, we think God is the one delivering the hard stuff.
I don’t believe that. People say that everything happens for a reason. When I hear that I can’t help but think that if you say it happens for a reason, then you think that somebody is causing things to happen to you. I think I understand where that sentiment comes from and in a way it’s a positive statement which when you let it play out, it’s a way of saying, well it happened for a reason and I learned this and now I’m stronger. I understand that and I’m glad people can find positive things in their circumstances, but I maintain that difficult things happen not because God gives them to us for a reason, but because life is hard and disease is real and people do bad things because they do bad things.
I remember working at a supermarket as I exited fundamentalism and began college. One of my coworkers was Christian and only a couple years older than me and he had lost his wife to diabetes. When he told me that she’d died but that he was trying to hang in, I said it was God’s will that she was gone.
I can’t tell you how much I’d like to have that conversation back. Now, some 35 years later, I’d say, I’m sorry for your loss. I hope you have a sense of God’s presence and love for you in this hard time. I absolutely do not believe that God gave that woman diabetes anymore than God gave me colon cancer or asthma.
Bad things don’t happen for a reason. There are reasons that bad things happen. God does not give all circumstances, but no circumstances are outside of God’s grace and power.
One of the problems of being moderns, is that we seek explanations for everything. The Enlightenment, The Age of Reason, the emphasis on empiricism, facts, and data, have given us great advances in medicine and technology and all kinds of ability to control our environments with the ability to track and predict the weather, to plan our economy and adequately train people to participate in it. We have great control over food production and can make a surplus. We have control over transportation. Lots of things are explainable and predictable. We have control over the atom.
But we do not have control over life and death and we never will this side of line. We will always be vulnerable. Always subject to temptation. And we will always face circumstances that question our faith in a loving and gracious God.
For me, when I accept that bad things happen to me or those I love, it offers me an opportunity for humility. I have had some difficulty in my life and the more it happens, the less I think God is behind it. But the more it happens, the more I think God is got my back. Even when my difficulty is from my own doing, God steps in to sustain me and help me get through it.
When you say it happened for a reason, it’s a little like saying you know the mind of God and how God operates and what God is doing. It’s a little like telling God what to do. I don’t think that’s a good idea. And I don’t know that I want to be hanging out with you if there’s a lightening storm. I don’t think God punishes, but I do think God takes notice when we get too big for our britches. There are reasons things happen and we may or may not know what those are, but at some fundamental level, it doesn’t matter why it happened. What matters is what Job knew, God is never far from us, never ready to reject, always ready to love and support in this life and in the next,