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Suffering & Lament

“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11).

In the midst of his suffering, Job does what anyone would do. He complains. However, the grounds for the complaint are found in the same person as the one to whom the complaint is made. Job's appeal is made to and on the basis of who God is. Consequently Job's complaint to God is marked by a lack of idolatry. This is sacred complaint because God remains God.

If I follow Job's example in my own sufferings I can shout to the heavens, vent my anger, appeal for mercy, wish for my own death, plead for the end of the earth, if and only if, my appeal is made to God and the basis for my appeal is God himself. If I appeal to some kind of form of goodness, I make an idol. If I appeal to fairness, as if I deserve better, I make an idol. If my appeal does not recognize the fact that there is no super-god to whom the one I am complaining to is accountable, then I make an idol.

Job's complaint is made in the full knowledge that there is no higher authority than God, that no part of the earth is not his, that every event is God's, every rupture on Job's dying skin belongs to God since the skin and the whole body belong to God. Job's complaint is marked with submission to God and that makes it holy.

Job's complaint is also not the same as a demand for an answer. Job is well aware that he has no “right” to a reply. This is what makes it a lament. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost his son in a climbing accident, explains that his crying out to God is to voice his suffering, “naming it and owning it... I cry out for deliverance... I cry out for an explanation.” But he does not know if he will receive an answer because, “to lament is to risk living with one's deepest questions unanswered.”1

Stiff upper lip wont do either. "Suck it up" some might suggest, but Job lets his feelings out in words. Walter Brueggemann argues that the stifling of lament results in violence. This is what happens in relationships where one party is unable to voice their hurt. Brueggemann remarks that the powerful agent in a transaction could silence the powerless, but that this would cause the sufferer to swell with anger until he bursts forth into violent actions.2 According to Brueggemann, Job's primary response to his friends is a refusal to be silent. His friends keep talking and as they do they suppress Job's voice. Job listens but bursts out in voice.

As long as Job's friends sit silently with him, Job has no reason to doubt that his friends care, feel compassion and understand what he is going through.4 The narrator says that his friends were intent on showing Job sympathy and on comforting him (Job 2:11). Those intentions could not be in doubt while they sat with Job (Job 2:13). Moreover, we are told that the reason his friends sat in silence with him is that they “saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13). However, when the statutory time of mourning is over, Job breaks the silence. From this time fourth Job's primary aim is to speak out. But it appears that Job's friends want for the opposite. They appear to wish to block Job's speech, to somehow speak for him and to him. It is clear that the reader is led to doubt the intentions of the friends to comfort and console Job. Job considers their help to be like doctors who cannot do their jobs – “worthless physicians” (Job 13:4). It is clear that his friends are a great disappointment to him. Just as they fail in their treatment of Job, they fail to be his friends.

1Nicholas Wolterstorff, “If God is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?” Calvin Theological Journal 36 (2001), 52.
2Walter Brueggemann, “Voice as Counter to Violence,” in Calvin Theological Journal 36 (2001), 22.
3Ibid., 23.
4Warren McWilliams Where is the God of Justice? (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 37.
5Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).