The missionary theologian, E. Stanley Jones, told of once seeing a sign in a used bookstore that read “Secondhand Theology for Sale”. Jones said that upon seeing the sign he determined never to possess a secondhand theology of God. Jones said that he longed to become a “firsthander,” and to know God for himself. No longer would Jones settle for what he had read in books about God or what others had told him about God. That marked for Jones a critical moment in his long and fruitful spiritual journey.
Today’s Scripture also marks a critical juncture in the life of the sainted Job as he speaks of becoming a firsthand knower of God. Job says in this verse that his previous knowledge of God was like hearing of God by distant rumor. It was like what others had told him about God. But it was through fiery trials that Job came to be a firsthander and to know God for himself.
Job is the man who wrote the book on why bad things happen to good people long before it was ever a bestseller. In one fell swoop Job lost all his children, all of his possessions, his health, and the support and understanding of his wife. His whole world collapsed around him, and through it all Job never knew why he suffered. He was left to wrestle with one of life’s cruelest questions: why is suffering so often meaningless? The moral calculus of the world just didn’t add up for Job!
Then three of Job’s friends came to him in the guise of comforters, but hurled accusations against him. Surely Job must be a great sinner, they charged, to be suffering so greatly. Although the “patience of Job” has passed into the vernacular, Job impatiently protests his innocence to his friends and to God. Job complains, doubts, despairs, and rails against God for his brand of justice. But strangely God never explains himself to Job, not does God give him a direct answer as to why bad things happen to good people.
Rather than reveal answers, God reveals His presence. What Job needed most in his agony he found in God’s presence. And it was in God’s presence that Job learned he could trust God in spite of appearances. It was in God’s presence that he learned he could trust God with no explanations needed for suffering. Job understood that there were things he could not understand because he was not God. But he came to see that God was with him.
Then the Holy Spirit brings us to the climax of the book, when in the final chapter we overhear Job saying to God: “I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Job is not talking about having seen God with his literal eye, but having seen God in a way that is literally real: Job came to know God’s presence with him in suffering. And that was enough for Job.
In the poetic imagery of hearing with his ear and seeing with his eye, Job was talking about the difference between knowing from afar, and knowing up close. He was talking about the difference between knowing about God, and knowing God as a friend knows a friend. He was talking about going the distance from his head to his heart.
It was as if before his sufferings Job had known God from afar, but through his sufferings he became a firsthand knower of God. No more secondhand theology for Job! His experience of God was fresh and alive! Job had entered into a new awareness of God’s nearness and a new relationship with Him. “I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
There was a time in my life when I knew God from afar, but then came great pain when good information about God would no longer suffice. I had to be a firsthander, and to know God for myself. I had to know His presence with me.
Since then I have seen that when people come to that critical juncture when knowing about God is no longer enough, that God is always ready to meet us in transformative ways. I am sure that is why for the last several years I have been drawn to the chaplaincy, in prison, hospital and hospice. There I see people in the extremities of life for whom just knowing about God from afar is not an option. They must know Him and His presence!
Have you ever noticed in the beautiful Shepherd Psalm of Psalm 23, that half way through the Psalm, David switches from third person to second person? Half way through the Psalm David goes from talking about the Shepherd and begins talking to the Shepherd.
David begins the Psalm in the third person talking about the Shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside the still waters. But it is when David comes to the valley of the shadow of death that it is no longer enough for David to talk about the Shepherd, he must talk to the Shepherd: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.”
Time and again I have seen that when we come to the valley of darkness, the presence of the Shepherd can become so real for us that we fear no evil. The presence of the Shepherd becomes so real that suddenly we are no longer talking about Him, but we are talking to Him. The One whom we had heard of with our ears, we can now see with our eyes.
I pray for myself, and for all who read these words, that just knowing about God will no longer be enough for us. That knowing good doctrine and going to church will no longer be enough. May we long and yearn to see Him and know His presence that always goes with us.
Grace and peace–Tim Smith
Photo by William Blake, c. 1785. Tate Gallery.