Does God Hear Us When We Cry Out?

William Blake, “Job and His Daughters”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Hebrew Bible reading in the Episcopal Church is a particularly terrifying passage from the Book of Job. As you probably know, Job is a good and faithful man who is subjected to great suffering. When God boasts of Job’s faithfulness to Satan, Satan responds that Job is faithful only because his life is going well. To test the depth of Job’s faith, God gives Satan permission to torment him.

Job is an exploration of how we respond when tragedy strikes. Will we lose faith that there is a higher force guiding our lives, that a benevolent presence looks over us? Will we conclude that we are the subjects of meaningless pain?

In the passage below, Job is sure that God would find him upright if only Job could present his case. What makes the passage so dark is that Job can’t find God to talk to amidst all his suffering. He perceives only darkness:

Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

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.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!

The passage reminds me of some of the agonized cries of the poet George Herbert, who surely had Job in mind as he wrote the opening stanzas of “Denial.”

    When my devotions could not pierce
                              Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
         My breast was full of fears
                              And disorder. . .

    “As good go anywhere,” they say,
                               “As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
         Come, come, my God, O come!
                               But no hearing.”

     O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
                              To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
          My heart was in my knee,
                               But no hearing.

Perhaps, like The Book of Job, Herbert’s stanzas are comforting in that they let us know that we are not alone in our suffering. If nothing else, they provide us with language to frame our condition.

I came across a powerful Job poem on the internet that approaches the story from a different angle. Among his other afflictions, Job loses his ten children, about whom we are told nothing. Indeed, their memory seems to be erased when, in a happy ending that was attached later, Job is rewarded for his faithfulness by a second wife, more children, and twice as many cows and sheep. Elizabeth (she doesn’t share her last name on her website) focuses on this loss. Her poem, told from the vantage point of Job’s first wife (who is also barely mentioned), comes from a deep and angry place: as Elizabeth explains in an introductory note, she herself suffered two miscarriages because of toxins in her water supply. The poem focuses on what could have been:

Job’s Wife

He gave it all back twofold,
so the story goes. Money, oxen, sheep.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,”
said he whose name is
righteous in the books of men,
those books that do not tell the names
of the ten children the Lord took
in vain. I escaped
alone to tell you:
Eli, the oldest,
had dark grieving eyes,
as if he saw his future falling
down upon him;
Rachel, my good girl, freckled
and plain, a bustling little mother
to the young ones;
Rona, little bird,
sang in perfect tune and pitch.
Dvora, the queen bee,
had eyes the color of honey
and a wit that could sting.
Baruch was slow and hid
behind my legs when strangers came;
Aaron and Lev,
the rascal twins, spoke conspiracies
with their eyes and smirked.
Micah, wild and fleet,
ran away from home three times. Now
I wish he had run faster.
And Zev – my last I thought;
his hair was red and curled
around his face like wisps of holy fire.
My children

did not curse the Lord. That day they gathered
together and, for the bread they were to eat,
they blessed the very Lord who felled the roof
that killed them.

I dug their graves and planted
my children in the ground
to grow like bitter herbs.
Job sat in the ashes
and called me foolish. Men came, scolded:
“This is the way of his joy and out of the earth
others shall grow.” As if that were enough.
“Great men are not always wise,” I snapped.

Now Job’s lips speak the names
of his rejoicing; Jemima, Keziah, Keren. Three
other daughters burnish him
like golden rings. Seven more sons raise
roofs they think are safe. But in the shadow
of my deaths I live blind
to his faith; an eye
does not replace an eye.
Only ten plus ten, and every single one
alive, would be enough for me. So I keep
my place. I am two verses
and a watchword in the good book
of God’s deeds. Nameless
as the dead, I stay and to his face I curse
the god who took my children. He
bet them like ten worthless coins,

in a game of dare with the devil
just to prove
His mighty
point.

I honor Elizabeth’s cry. Not long after my wife and I lost our son, Julia, finding herself in the National Cathedral, went down into one of the small basement chapels and “had it out” with God. She was angry and told God that He (or She) was going to have to listen to her fury.

I like to think that God gave us poetry for, among other things, crying out. God is big enough to handle whatever we throw at Him.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted October 14, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    This is a beautiful and anguished poem. Thank you for sharing it and pointing out that it’s all right to be angry with God because He can handle whatever we throw at him. Sometimes it’s nice to hear that and to remember that faith can be messy sometimes.

  2. Posted October 14, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Hello Mr. Bates,

    love this post, strength flexes in and through every letter/word… Makes me raise all three eyebrows/ the minds eye… and my heart.
    Be well Mr. Bates, you are appreciated…

    Good Night-

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree that faith is often messy, Gretchen. That may be its saving grace. If it weren’t, we’d be too much in control. And when we’re in control, God doesn’t enter in in the unexpected ways that are the hallmark of grace.

  4. Jason
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing a fabulous poem.
    Lep pozdrav,
    Jason

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