Bitter Complaints

October 10th, 2021 homily on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Hebrews 4:12-16 by Pastor Galen

Mothers Teresa’s “Crisis of Faith”

In December 1979, Mother Teresa went to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in founding the “Missionaries of Charity” and her 30 years of service (at that point) among the poorest of the poor who were dying of terminal illness and diseas in Calcutta. Along with her service to the poor, Mother Teresa generally displayed cheerfulness and a deep commitment to God in her daily work. She was known for her life of prayer, and as someone who seemed to have a deep and intimate relationship with God.

And yet, in 2007, ten years after Mother Teresa passed away, the world was shocked to discover that for the last 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa had struggled with doubts, and feeling as though God were distant from her. In 1979, for example, less than 3 months prior to receiving her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa had written to a spiritual confidant, saying “for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see–Listen and do not hear–the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.”

Job’s Bitter Complaints

As shocking as these words may be to us, coming from the lips of someone how was known for her great faith and trust in God, we may be similarly shocked to hear the biblical character Job’s bitter complaints to the Lord in Job chapter 23. Job is usually remembered for his patience and endurance and faithfulness to God even in the midst of great suffering. And yet in Job 23, Job said to his friends, “Oh, that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:3-4). 

Like Mother Teresa, Job felt as though God were absent, saying “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9).

The psalmist David, too, who throughout the Bible is called “a man after God’s own heart” (see 1 Sam. 13:14 and Acts 13:22) in Psalm 22 expressed similar sentiments, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Psalm 22:1-2).

What happened to these spiritual heroes of the faith? How could Job and King David and Mother Teresa who were known for their faith in God express such severe doubts? How could they not sense God’s presence with them? Why did they think that God was distant from them?

I want to suggest this morning that for Job, and Mother Teresa and King David, it was actually their strong faith in God that caused them to express their doubts and even to question God when they came face to face with the most severe forms of human suffering. In other words, their expressions of doubt and uncertainty were not a contradiction to their faith, but were in many ways an outgrowth and a natural response and fitting response to the human suffering that they encountered in the world. The difference is that their doubts and questions led them deeper into the heart of God. In the midst of suffering and doubt they ran towards, rather than away from God. They committed their cause to the Lord, and they waited for God to deliver.

God, Where Are You?

How did they get this point? What was it that brought them there?

Well Job, as we saw last week, had lost everything. In one day his children, livestock, and servants, and all of his wealth and possessions were suddenly taken from him. Even his health was affected, as he developed boils all over his body. Last week we saw him sitting in a pile of ashes, miserable and in despair, and even his wife encouraged him to curse God and die.

Job’s initial response was to say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), and “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10). In other words, I came into this world with nothing, and I’m going to leave with nothing, so God has the right to do or to take whatever God wants from me. 

But then, in the following chapters, 3 of Job’s friends come and try to comfort him. At first they sit with him in silence for 7 days, but then finally Job opens up and begins to share in confidence with them how he is really feeling. He says that his suffering is so bad, he wishes he had never been born. 

At this point. Job’s friends step in and start talking, but they essentially make Job feel even worse. They blame Job, saying that surely he must have done something wrong, and that God is punishing him. One says that if Job would just stop sinning then surely God would forgive him and take his troubles away. The other says, no, actually Job probably deserves even more of God’s wrath and judgment than what he received so he should just be happy it’s not worse. 

But all throughout, Job maintains that he is innocent. He has nothing wrong to deserve what he is experiencing. Job believed that God is sovereign, meaning that God is the rightful ruler, the judge and arbiter of the world, who has the authority to intervene in matters of the world, and who will one day bring an end to all suffering and violence and injustice. God is the creator of the universe, the one who made the world and everything in it. And so this leads Job to question, if God created the earth and the sun and moon, and set the stars in their place, then surely God could intervene to prevent human suffering. Surely God could have prevented Job’s family and possessions from being taken from him. 

This this leads him to ask, where is God? And why were all these bad things happening to him? Job believes God is just, but he can’t reconcile God’s justice with what is going on in his life. He’s left with unanswered questions and wishes that he could simply talk to Godface to face and plead his case before the Lord. But God seems distant.

This strong faith in God’s sovereignty and justice and compassion is what led King David and Mother Teresa to ask similar questions. Why didn’t God prevent the deaths of those suffering from HIV, and tuberculosis, and leprosy that Mother Teresa saw on a daily basis? Why didn’t God prevent all of the pain and heartache that King David experienced throughout his life? If God could have prevented all of this from happening, where was God in the midst of this? Why didn’t God intervene? This led David to ask “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

These words of King David are of course the same words that Jesus cried out while hanging on the cross, when he faced his hour of deepest suffering and need. Even Jesus felt the pain of separation from his Father God. Even Jesus wondered where God was, and why God didn’t intervene. Even Jesus felt that God was far from him in the midst of pain and suffering. 

We are in good company, then, if and when we feel this way. When we experience pain and suffering and feel that God is distant, we can be encouraged to know that even Jesus knows what it’s like to feel distant from God. 

In some ways, it would be more worrisome if one were to stare into the face of death or sickness or disease and not feel anger, or sadness, or despair. If those around us were experiencing suffering and we only felt joy, or if we saw someone in need and felt no compassion, that would indeed be a cause for concern. Experiencing doubt, or anger, or frustration towards God in the midst of intense suffering and pain is normal and natural. It is a sign that we are human, a sign that we are in fact, like David, people after God’s own heart, since God too is moved with compassion in the face of pain and suffering and loss. 

The difference, of course, between someone of faith and someone who lacks faith is that the person of faith brings their anger and doubts and questions to God. Job brought his bitter complaints to God when all that he had was taken from him. David cried out to God when people were seeking to take his life. Mother Teresa expressed her doubts to the Lord and to her spiritual confidant. Jesus, hanging on the cross, cried out to God even with his last breaths. 

The faith-filled person is not someone who never doubts. The faith-filled person is someone who brings their doubts and confusion and even their complaints before the Lord.

Faith and Doubt

During my sophomore year in college I experienced a season of intense questions and doubts. I was leading a small group Bible study at the time, and several of the members of my group opened up to me about intense struggles they were going through, and I began to take on their anger, and grief, and confusion. Outwardly it probably seemed to everyone as if I was fine. Our Bible study group loved hanging out together, and we would frequently get together to play games, or to go out for people’s birthdays. As the leader of the group I tried to encourage others in their faith, and I tried to be a listening ear for people who were processing painful and traumatic experiences in their own lives. But inwardly I was filled with questions and doubts.

During that time I began to make it a regular habit to wake up early in the morning and to pray and write in my journal every morning before I had to go to class. I filled pages and pages in my journal with questions to God, wondering what was real and what was true, and why God had allowed the painful and traumatic events to happen in my friends’ lives. I wondered where God was in the midst of all of that, and why God didn’t intervene. Every morning I woke up at 6:30 to pray and read Scripture, but I often felt like God was far away.

I wish I could say that I always felt an assurance of God’s presence, that I always came away from those times of prayer with peace and comfort. I wish I could say that I always felt the joy of the Lord during those times. But the truth is that sometimes I struggled to even know what to say. Sometimes I felt like I was just writing the same words over and over again, like I was stuck in a constant loop. But the most important lesson I learned through all of that time was that I could be honest before the Lord. That I could bring my doubts and uncertainties, my fears and insecurities and worries, my confusion, my suspicions, no matter what it was, I could bring it before God.  Because God knows, and God understands.

Boldly Approach the Throne of Grace

As it says in Hebrews 4:12-16 “before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Heb. 4:13).

In other words, there’s no need to try to hide anything from God, because God already knows what we are thinking and feeling and experiencing anyway. And not in an abstract, hypothetical way. God knows what we are going through because in coming down to this earth to live and die among us, Jesus experienced the same struggles that we experience on a daily basis.

Hebrews 4 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrew 4:15-16).

“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.” Because Jesus has experienced human suffering, because Jesus even experienced what it was like to feel disconnected from God while he was hanging on the cross, in Jesus we have a great high priest who can empathize with us. We can approach the throne of grace with boldness, and find grace to help us in our time of need. 

So this morning as you look at the world around you, if you see that not all is right with the world, and if your heart is breaking for the brokenness in the world, then you are experiencing the heart of God. And if that brokenness leads you to have doubts, or questions, or worries, or fears, or uncertainties, then you are in good company with the saints who have gone before. You’re in good company with Job, who brought his bitter complaints before the Lord. You’re in good company with King David, who wondered where God was in the midst of his suffering. You’re in good company with Mother Teresa, who struggled to see God in the midst of the human suffering that she witnessed every day. And you’re in good company with Jesus, who cried out My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

And so I encourage us to bring your doubts and uncertainties, your questions and your misgivings, your anger, your bitterness, and lay them before the Lord. Jesus knows what you’re experiencing. He knows and he sees, and he understands. 

And so let us approach the throne of grace with boldness and with courage. Let us bring our questions to the Lord. And let us receive the mercy and grace that Christ offers so freely to all. 


Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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