August 20, 2010
I Need to Cover My Mouth when I Preach
There’s a difference between speaking about God and speaking for him.
I love and hate the book of Job. I love it because it poses challenging pastoral questions—like being tested by God or God’s tolerance for the devil—but I hate it because it challenges my understanding of what it means to have a pastoral spirit.
Most know Job’s story. Satan approaches God for permission to test Job. God says, “Fine, just don’t kill him.” Job loses everything, including his wealth and his children. His wife tells him to curse God and die. And then, as if that weren’t enough, he gets this weird skin disease and tries to scrape it off with broken pieces of a clay jar.
It is in this moment that his friends decide to pay him a visit. They spend a week with him, just being present with him, mourning with him, and providing for his needs—a great example of pastoral care. But after the week has passed, the real reason for their visit becomes apparent. They are there to help Job discover what he did wrong.
The audience knows Job hasn’t done anything wrong. God actually considers Job to be blameless, righteous. But in chapter after chapter, Job goes back and forth with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. He adamantly argues that he did nothing wrong. And while Job’s anger is expressed in truly poetic ways, he never curses God. Job’s commitment to God does not change.
Then in chapter 32 a young, overly zealous Elihu enters the story and takes on the mantel to verbally assault Job into submission. He uses phrases like “I want to vindicate you” and “I will teach you wisdom.” He accuses Job of being more interested in making a profit than pleasing God, among other things. It is only after Elihu stops talking that God finally says something—and what God says breaks my heart.
God pushes back not on Job, but on the four accusers. God berates them with question after question, challenging their notions of who God is : a god that governs over transactions or a god defined by God’s relationship with Israel. As God speaks from the storm, I get the sense that the Book of Job isn’t about Job at all. It is about those who attempt to speak on God’s behalf.
Job’s response is beautiful. He says “I am unworthy. How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.”
But to the four that spoke for God, God says, “I am angry with you... because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has...” And the story ends with Job being restored.
There is a real danger in pastoral work. The temptation to push past humility in our confession of what God is doing pulls at us all, and we need to resist this temptation. Often we are called upon to make sense of what is going on around us, and far too often we can’t. This leaves us scrambling with uncertainty at best; and at worst, it puts us in a position to substitute our own authority for God’s. But God speaks for Godself. It is not our place to judge or to condemn. It is our place to love. Because most of the time we don’t know what’s really going on. And when we attempt to place judgment on someone, or explain why God has allowed something to happen, we end up looking foolish. Who knows the mind of God? Not Job, not his friends, not his wife, and certainly not us.
But shouldn’t we preach the truth above all other things? Shouldn’t we justify our positions and stances on cultural issues that threaten our friends, families, and communities? Of course. But if at any point we presume to think that those we interact with are not created, and therefore loved, by God, then we fall into the danger of treating people as a means to an end, rather than an end unto themselves.
We need to be careful not to hold on to our towers of superiority or criticize people we think are wrong, or are sinning, or are corrupting our society. We cannot continue to ignore God’s warning, “Who are you to obscure my plans with words without knowledge?” And we must listen to Jesus, “Let the person without sin throw the first stone.”
Simply put, we need to be more loving. We need to be more humble. We need to show more self control. Or put differently, I need to more loving, I need to be more humble, I need to show more self control. Because as I heard the voice of Elihu speak, I thought it could be my own—a young man speaking out of turn, passionately compelled by the sound of his own voice, and still in need of more grace than he is willing to admit. Maybe that’s just the voice of my generation, too intoxicated with our achievements or our potential. Either way, I need to take some more time and listen to Job. And hopefully, I’ll cover my mouth before I preach.