Saturday, October 24, 2009

Keeping Track

Does he not see my ways and count my every step? If I have walked in falsehood or my foot has hurried after deceit—let God weigh me in honest scales and he will know that I am blameless. (Job 31.4-6)

Do You Know?

OK, it’s time to play “Camp Movie Classics.” See how many clues it takes to name the film. 1. Released in 1975. 2. Second movie to star a pop diva-turned-actress. 3. Set in Chicago. 4. A rags-to-riches tale—or, better yet, a rags and riches tale. 5. Featured one of the 1970’s most cloying theme songs. Give up? The answer is Mahogany, Diana Ross’s sophomore disaster following her amazing début in Lady Sings the Blues. Its story of a secretary who becomes a supermodel was no more than a thinly veiled excuse for Ms. Ross to play dress-up. That theme song—ugh—is what’s pertinent here. If you recall it, no doubt it’s already dug its talons into your brain. If not, here are the lyrics, with apologies, because “Theme from Mahogany” is one of those tunes that roost in your head for hours.

Do you know where you're going to?

Do you like the things that life is showing you?

Where are you going to?

Do you know?

Since the song ultimately concludes, “How sad the answers to those questions can be,” I for one don’t appreciate having them foisted on me. That wouldn’t be the case if it were “Theme from Job 31,” as this chapter in Job’s riches-to-rags story asks a lot of questions that lead to happy answers. The lyric would need tweaking, though, to reflect Job’s chief query: “Does God know where I’m going?”

A Step-by-Step Inventory

Job asks this hypothetically after friends see the disastrous turn his life has taken and wonder where he went wrong. Sensing they’re headed down the Mahogany path of sad excuses, he doesn’t appreciate it. After protesting his integrity as chapter 31 begins, Job considers a riddle that’s haunted us since the dawn of time: how can a loving God let bad things happen for no reason? Shouldn’t disaster be reserved to punish wickedness? These are legitimate questions no human’s ever adequately answered. (But Jesus did; we’ll get to that tomorrow.) “Isn’t God keeping track of me, counting every step I take?” Job says. “If I’ve failed to please Him, He knows it wasn’t my intention.”

Job’s gone over this repeatedly. But in case he missed something, he takes a step-by-step inventory of his life that testifies to his humility and honesty. Rather than tick off sins and declare his innocence, he frames them as possible missteps that merit correction. Maybe I allowed my eyes to lead me astray, he says. Maybe my hands grabbed after corruption. I may have longed for another’s wife. Perhaps I treated my employees unfairly. Maybe I failed to do all I could for the poor and homeless. It’s possible I placed too much pride in my wealth and success. I may have lost sight of God by glorying in His creation. Maybe I enjoyed seeing my enemy’s misfortunes. Job ends his list with an astounding theory: I may have buried my sin and guilt too far from sight to detect them. If so, he says in verse 35, “let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing.”

Trouble Has Its Reasons

Trouble doesn’t need us to give it reason to show up. Its purpose isn’t limited to punishment or correction. If we confine it to that, we’ll be like Job—constantly wondering where we failed. (Since some problems are self-inflicted, a step-by-step inventory isn’t a bad place to start, though.) Many trials that come our way originate elsewhere. This makes it ever important to recognize trouble has its reasons, because even when it’s not of our making, we’ve been chosen to deal with it for a specific purpose.

Trouble is a teacher. The psalmist wrote, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Psalm 119.71) It teaches us what we don’t yet know and sharpens our understanding. Trouble also proves faith and builds stamina. James 1.2-3 encourages: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Finally, trouble is a cleanser. It inspires us to invite God to inspect our hearts and welcomes His participation in our struggles. Job asks for a written indictment. Similarly, when David finds he’s under attack and uncertain why, he prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139.23-24) When trouble persists and answers don’t come, we find the courage to tell God, “Here, You take a look.” There may be nothing to see. But turning to God for answers turns trouble over to God.

When trouble knocks us around, our first impulse is to ask why, and our second wonders, “Do I know where I’m going? Do I like the things life is showing me?” The real question, however, is “Does God know where I’m going?” followed by “What is God showing me?” Job says God sees our ways and counts every step. We may have no idea why trouble has taken us by surprise or the slightest clue where it might lead. Instead of worrying with what we don’t know, it’s best for us to learn all we can. God is keeping track. He sees what’s happening. He knows why. And He knows how to use trouble to teach us, build us, and clean us up for what’s ahead. Knowing that is all we really need to know.

We question why trouble comes to us and where it will lead. All we really need to know is God sees where we are. He’s keeping track of us step-by-step.

(Tomorrow: How Can a Loving God… ?)


Steven Overman said...

A theological first: Mahogany and Job in the same sermon. WELL DONE YOU as we say in London.

I think about Job a lot, not just because I'm a drama queen, but because it's such a useful story that reminds me of the absurdity of it all, and I find absurdity and the seeming chaos of ups-and-downs to be very comforting.

Every situation is a learning opportunity -the Buddhists remind us that the toughest circumstances are especially useful for developing empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. And it's true.

Anonymous said...

"I may have buried my sin and guilt too far from sight to detect them." This resonated with me today as a theme--there are none so blind as those who will not see... If only those who needed to mediate on those thoughts would do so!

Trouble is hounding me and I keep asking what in the world am I suppose to gain from this? It's enough to test my faith. Your words are food for me today. Thank you.

Tim said...

Great to see you, Steven. And thanks for adding clarity to what felt to me like a muddled post. I think we cheat ourselves greatly with the knee-jerk, what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this attitude toward difficulties. If we can get over ourselves and learn to watch and listen more carefully, there's a lot that trouble can teach us.

Your reference to the Buddhist idea is spot-on. When we've been through tough times through none of our doing, we view others' hardships with far greater empathy and compassion. We don't fall into the blame game--trying to saddle them with the responsibility for their suffering. Once we learn trouble isn't always about us, we figure out it's not always about others who suffer, either. And since we've been through it, we open our hearts to help others find their way out.

There's a lot to think about here, including the comfort we can find in chaos--once we learn it has a something to teach us.

Thanks again for the much-needed help here. Have a terrific weekend!


Tim said...

Hey, Missy! It's a sad fact that there are plenty of people drowning in denial--completely blind to how their attitudes and actions create many of their problems.

And it's ironic that while they remain oblivious to this, there are just as many struggling with guilt and confusion over problems they've done nothing to foster.

Finally, there are others who get dragged into the troubles of those who can't see how they're contributing to them. In some ways, they get the worst of it, because they can see what the problem is but can't persuade the offender he/she can correct it.

As ugly as trouble is, it would be all the uglier if we couldn't gain something positive from it, regardless which of the three groups we're in. That's why when we're in trouble, knowing God's got a close eye us can become a source of strength. We can't see the good He's doing in us now, but we can know it's happening.

Count it all joy, my sister, that your faith's being tested. He's strengthening you for the journey ahead!