Job and Spiritual Formation I
Bill Long 6/3/05
Twenty Points on a Religious Classic
[My Address at a Renovare Conference Celebrating the Publication of the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, released May 10, 2005. Talk (to be) Delivered at the June 20 seminar on the Book of Job]
I am happy to be with you in Denver to celebrate the publication of the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible. The purpose of this seminar is to highlight some issues in the study of the Book of Job that make this book a treasured resource for those interested in spiritual formation. Instead of following the outline that was distributed to you about three months ago, I have decided that I will briefly focus on twenty points that capture some of the important rhythms of this spiritual classic. If it seems like a lot of points, just think of it as "Bill's Double Top Ten List"--but on the Book of Job. Here we go.
1. The Book of Job ought to be a central resource for spiritual formation because it deals with an issue that we all face in life, the issue of loss. Loss sometimes comes to us early in life, shattering the placid calm of youth and scarring us forever. But often we don't realize the extent of our losses until we reach middle age. Then, our bodies weaken, our minds slow, our faculties dim and disasters occur. We see the toll that living takes on us and others. We lose friends. Relationships fall apart. People close to us betray us. Life doesn't work. The Book of Job is written for those who know loss and are not afraid to admit that it plays a major role in defining our understanding of life. The Book of Job is for those who believe that spirituality is forged more in the furnace of adversity than on the mountain tops of the bracing winds of the Spirit and the unlimited vistas of confident living. The Book of Job is for those who believe there is a life deeper even than the life aquatic. I call it the "Life Marianic"---referring to the deepest point on the earth's surface (the Marianas Trench), a narrow slit in the Pacific ocean floor off the Philppines. The book of Job is for those not afraid to examine the issues in the Marianas Trench of the psyche.
But a caution is in order, even if we are still on the first point. The caution is that once you begin deeply to investigate issues surrounding personal loss there is no assurance that you will emerge as the same person before you began your investigation. As a matter of fact you will be a different person. And, you may not emerge as a person of faith. So, there is a certain danger in exploring Job, I think, a danger that loss brings in its wake. Job may strengthen faith; it may be a lifeline for those wondering if faith is still an intelligent choice; and it may confirm for some people that the life of faith is not for them. But still it beckons. Job is about loss. Spiritual formation is about how to deal with loss. First point.
2. The Book of Job is both an ancient and a modern book. This point deals with the former. As an ancient book it needs to be understood within the context of the wisdom tradition of Ancient Israel. The wisdom tradition articulated the most powerful theology of life in Ancient Israel, and the friends in Job are exponents of this tradition. Boiled down to its essentials, the wisdom tradition teaches that there are measurable consequences to the way you choose to live life. The clearest statement of the philosophy of the tradition is in Prov. 3:9-10.
"9 Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine."
Life has its rules. If you honor God by the tithe, by giving the first of your produce to God, God will reciprocate with blessings uncountable. Eliphaz gives the obverse of this doctrine early in the book: "As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same" (4:8). The problem explored by the Book of Job is whether this simple statement is, indeed, true. Job seemingly honored God with his substance. His vats were bursting with wine. But then disaster struck him and his family--disaster of unimaginable proportions.
How is a person from the wisdom tradition to understand and explain such magnitudinous suffering? Two explanations were forthcoming from the tradition. One is that it is a result of your sin. This will be the second explanation tried out by the friends. The first, however, is that this is the Lord's discipline. Listen to Proverbs again, this time 3:11-12:
"11 My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights."
Loss can be an instance of the divine discipline. Eliphaz will take this route in his first speech: "How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty" (5:17). Thus, one level in which we need to read the Book of Job is the level of Israel's wisdom tradition. A strong and pervasive philosophy of life is being subject to scrutiny here.
I can see that I am not making progress very fast here, but that is no matter. Go on to the next essay for additional points.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long