Sunday Sermon – 22 April 2018

Job’s Comforters

In that long running radio programme, Desert Island Discs, the guest is asked at the end of the programme to choose a book to take on to the desert island, being assured beforehand that they will also have a copy of the Bible and of the works of Shakespeare. The reason Shakespeare and the Bible are provided is because, when the programme was originally devised many decades ago, guests would plump for the bard or the holy book, and the choice of reading matter became predictable, if unconvincing.

Many folk commonly insist that they have always wanted to read the Bible but have not found the time to do so. Castaways, the theory goes, having all the time in the world, would relish the opportunity to fulfil their ambition. Maybe, perhaps, some might, one thinks, with a smidgeon of scepticism at the back of the mind. Certainly the Bible is not so much a book, rather an anthology. Some sections are more readable than others. One of the parts I like is from the Old Testament, the story of Job. The Book of Job was written probably two and a half thousand years ago, but it contains passages that are timeless, it provokes thoughts that resound with life today.

I’m sure you will be familiar with it, but let me give a brief resume of the story. I call it a story, believing it to be an apocryphal tale rather that a biographical account.

The story is about a prosperous, good living man suddenly smitten by illness and financial disaster. His three visitors, Job’s comforters, did nothing to relieve his anxiety and distress when they suggested that Job’s apparently saintly life must be a sham. His afflictions were by way of punishment from God for failings known to God, even if Job had concealed them from everybody else. That was the only explanation, the three advisors said, that made sense. Job rails against his fate, but recovers his faith, which we understand was being tested. As all good stories ought to end, the words “happy ever after” can be added to the conclusion.

The story is based on the problem of reconciling a belief in a loving God with injustice and suffering found within the world. God may be a loving god, but those who erred could expect to be punished. The observation is sometimes made that rain falls upon the just and unjust alike, but the just suffers the more because the unjust has borrowed, and not returned, the just man’s umbrella. But according to the theory of Job’s comforters, this is not the end of the story. The just man will be eventually compensated, whilst the unjust man will get his comeuppance. They implied that Job was a covert sinner.

Job cries out in complaint to God, who starts His response with the words, “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” Words that were echoed centuries later from a man dying by crucifixion, “…. they know not what they do.”

How much trouble in this world stems from counsel given without knowledge, or at best with only partial knowledge? There are numerous examples which spring to mind where misery and suffering, death and disaster, are the consequence of actions following counselling without knowledge. We knew not, and often cared not, what we did. And examples are by no means confined to the past.

The threat to our environment, to the planet on which we live and to the air enveloping it, provide a multitude of examples of accepting the truth of counsel, even though it rested upon a dubious foundation of knowledge.

To cite just a few examples: over-cropping has produced dust-bowls in North America, in Africa and elsewhere, creating deserts where the rose may no longer bloom; equatorial forests have been ravished and continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate; over-fishing has reduced fish-stocks until some species may well not recover; curbs and bans on whaling may be too little and too late to avoid extinction of some species of that great mammal; one might also include big game poaching and its effect on land-based creatures. Greenhouse gases causing climatic changes, nuclear weapons and power stations with waste products dangerous for tens of thousands of years are problems left to future generations to live with or to solve. The list of foolishness and greed is endless, breeding anxiety, threatening disaster. All substantially caused through accepting, blindly and foolishly, counsel without knowledge.

“Mad Cow Disease” was a direct consequence of counsel trusted without knowledge of the consequences. Today many worry, rightly, that growing crops from genetically engineered seed is a venture where advice and recommendation proceeds apace, whilst knowledge lags somewhere to the rear.

The enthusiasm to give counsel even when knowledge supporting it is questionable or unproven is not confined to scientists. In most fields of human activity – social, political, medical, national, religious, educational, and others – counsel is freely given when possible consequences are either not understood, not taken seriously, or recklessly disregarded. Unregulated competitiveness, expressed as the race is to the strong and the devil can harvest the weak, has done much to increase the burden of human suffering, poverty and misery throughout the world.

And what of the patriotism which goes beyond national pride into denigration and oppression, riding with indifference over the rights of others? Or religion which, whilst nominally about qualities which most religions share, but for short-hand convenience I might call Christian values of tolerance, compassion, brother and sisterhood, and mutual respect, encourages its adherents to terrorise those of other faiths. Holy wars (what a contradiction in terms) against the infidel are in our historical past, but counterparts can be found in news reports of today.

Even between members of one religious faith, antagonism flares into violence between Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian sects. Moslem fights Moslem, as well as Hindu, Jew and Christian. Religious rivalry degenerates into hatred and violence, though the religion professed is about peace with God and love of mankind. Knowledge is the basis of understanding. Counsel given without it is a road to disaster. Oppression, even terrorism, is justified by selective quotations from scripture writings.

The laws we enact, the examples we set for others, the messages we send out, the newspapers and magazines we produce, and commercial norms of behaviour displayed do have outcomes beyond the immediately apparent.

Much damage done, whether to the environment, to our social structure, to our relationships with others, is not the result of deliberate decision calculated by evil men or women, but through ignorance. Counsel given and accepted unquestioned, action undertaken without proper consideration, arrogance replacing forethought – these cause a high proportion of misery and suffering throughout the world.

It is true that the total of knowledge available to mankind is greater now than ever in the world’s history. Particularly in the last century knowledge in every field – archaeology, science, philosophy, engineering, medicine, the list is endless – has increased and continues to increase at an accelerating rate. Not only has the store of knowledge grown, but its availability and accessibility has grow also.

We perform in everyday living exercises that, only a few years ago, would have been thought miraculous. Men and women, almost as a matter of routine, travel through space. Oceans depths are plumbed for oil. We may travel to the other side of the world in the time taken for the sun to circle the globe. We watch events as they are happening thousands of miles away. We holiday in exotic climes, places not long ago only visited with great difficulty by explorers accompanied by native porters carrying supplies. In our hospitals, hundreds of operations are carried out each week to repair or replace organs within the human body. Through the Internet the world’s libraries can be accessed from the home.

But though we have so much knowledge and skill, and perhaps because of that, too often we act as if we possess complete knowledge. We are filled with self-congratulation, admiration for our achievements and our cleverness. That there is still so much to learn is forgotten. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we start processes that we cannot ultimately control or stop. Yet to question is to run the risk of being labelled a crank, a loner, an oddball, and an eccentric.

Many references may be found in pages of the Old Testament as to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom rests upon knowledge, which is hedged about with humility, reservation and questioning uncertainty.

In the story of Job, health and fortune began to return to him when he was able to utter these words.

“Who is he that hides counsel without understanding?
Yea, I, Job, uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

My own belief is that suffering, hardship, poverty come not from God by way of punishment, but commonly from man by way of arrogance and indifference. Counsel without knowledge in the words of the Old Testament story.

Job’s relief from his woes followed recognition that his knowledge was limited, that he “…uttered what I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” Recognition of the limits of his knowledge put him on the road to acquiring wisdom.

It is a message of universal application. It is the secret passage leading to a fairer, more equitable and peaceful world.

This is not a plea to abandon a search for knowledge. Knowledge should be pursued and acquired. It is properly a part of human nature to learn, and to try to understand. And knowledge should be applied, but with humility. Doubt and caution, humility and the certainty that what we know is always partial, are signs of wisdom.

The world will be a far better place when all peoples, with a sense of humility, can echo the words of Job

Yea, I uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

Counsel with care, and with thought for possible consequences. Only fools boast of their knowledge; the wise are certain only of how much they still don’t know.

C.J. Rosling 13 April 2007

Hucklow 15 April 2007

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