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January 28, 2007 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

God's Awful Grace

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 71:1–6
Job 1:1; 2:1–10

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God,
and not receive the bad?”
Job 2:10 (NRSV)

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.



Shortly after I came to Fourth Presbyterian Church in 1976 to serve as a member of the clergy staff and as the founding director of the church’s newly established Counseling Center, I was asked by the Pastor, Elam Davies, if I would on Sunday mornings have in my pocket a sermon I could offer in the event at the last minute he was unable to preach. Of course I agreed. I had to use it once, as I recall. The title of the sermon was “A Faith for When Things Get Desperate.” As you can see, this is not the sermon I am offering this morning.

However, I was reminded of all this the other day when I saw the look of desperation on the face of our Pastor, John Buchanan, as he asked me if I would be on standby in the event the designated preacher for today, Bruce Rigdon, might not be able to be with us because of the possibility that he would have to undergo needed and immediate surgery. For a minute I felt what I imagined Robbie Gould, placekicker for the Chicago Bears, must experience when called upon in the waning seconds of a game to kick a field goal in order for the Bears to win. (Something, of course, we hope will not be necessary next Sunday evening, but if so, that he’ll split the uprights cleanly.)

We are grateful that the surgery went very well and that Bruce looks forward to a recovery both speedy and strong and to his return in our midst in the very near future, when, of course, we will put him to work.

Bruce and his wife, Mary, covet our prayers, and they have been assured that we hold them both in our prayers and in our hearts. Let us pray:

Show us now, O God, your purpose for our lives, and gather up all our doubts
and uncertainties into the meaning that you alone can give to our lives.
With gratitude for your healing mercy and strengthening presence,
we commit to your care Bruce and Mary and all who need your healing touch.
Bless them with your presence, surround them with your love,
and uphold them by your grace. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen

I had seen the documentary on at least three previous occasions. Nevertheless I was still mesmerized as the other night I watched once more the unfolding of the life and political rise of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and his tragic and untimely death by an assassin’s bullet. Once more I was deeply moved by images of this man plunged into the abyss of grief, depression, and despair over the death, a few short years earlier, of his brother, the president of the United States. Once more I watched with fascination as Robert Kennedy emerged from that abyss with increased empathy for those who suffer the pangs of hunger, the deprivations of poverty, and the pain of injustice and violence.

One of the most defining moments of the documentary is the scene on the night of April 4, 1968, when Robert Kennedy stood in a black neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana, before a large crowd of well-wishers who had not yet heard the news and reported that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An audible gasp went up from the crowd as Kennedy, riven with emotion, made what has been described as “a mesmerizing, extemporaneous call for peace, understanding, and national unity.” Then he concluded his remarks by spontaneously quoting the words of the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, which appear on the cover of this morning’s worship bulletin:

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

There is a lot of God-talk going on in the world nowadays. By God-talk I mean talk referring to God in a manner designed to assure hearers that the one talking knows with absolute certainty what he or she is talking about when referring to God, that the God-talker is speaking, as it were, ex cathedra, with a kind of papal infallibility that is not to be questioned, objected to, or in any way disputed. In other words, no dissent is allowed. In today’s political climate, God-talk is often used not to foster theological discourse or to enlighten our understanding of who God is and of what God is up to in the world, but in an effort to give credibility to and to foster the talker’s particular political agenda. We preachers often are God-talkers in this sense as well.

Such talk can be very seductive in that it connects with our need to know some things, maybe all things, beyond the shadow of a doubt. The desire for such knowledge is, in a sense, the antithesis of faith. For faith is the courage to believe and to act in spite of not knowing for sure. Doubt, therefore, is the fertile soil in which faith flourishes. To walk by faith, to live by faith, is to walk and live without knowing for sure. In other words, it is to acknowledge that one is not omniscient, that one is not God.

By contrast with God-talk, talk about or of God implies conversation and dialogue, inquiry and question, and a teachableness that is open to new data, new ideas, new experiences, and new perspectives. It is predicated on the assumption that our ideas about God and God’s relationship to us and ours to God are not to be confused with God or with ultimate truth about God. When it comes to God, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about God lies just beyond our grasp. Intimations and glimpses of that truth, however, are available to us as we study scripture, reflect upon our own experience and that of others, and talk and discuss with one another the things that pertain to God in an effort to know God better and to experience God’s presence more. Talk about God, in contrast to God-talk, is an attempt to know God, not to use God.

It is this distinction between a faith that seeks to know God and a faith that seeks to use God that lies at the heart of the story of Job. Though the story of Job’s undeserved suffering provides the opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of suffering and upon God’s relationship to those who suffer, especially to those who suffer injustice, the fundamental theme of the story has to do with Job’s struggle of the soul to maintain his belief in and to refuse to deny his own integrity and that of God—in other words, to acknowledge and to trust the ultimate sovereignty of God.

Job’s story is a familiar one. A series of catastrophic events results in the loss of property, servants, children, and all that represented him as a righteous and wealthy man, since in those days wealth was often considered to be the reward of righteousness. Only he and his wife survived. But when Job was inflicted with loathsome sores covering his entire body, his wife (not the most friendly or sympathetic of spouses) in anger tells Job to “curse God and die.” Job persists in his integrity and in his willingness to continue to trust God in spite of the devastation that has befallen him and his family. In those days, cursing God was punishable by death. One wonders if Job’s wife wanted him dead, so angry was she not only because of their tragic losses, but at Job’s pigheaded persistence in being true to his faith. Her anger is palpable, but there is a certain integrity about it, a certain legitimacy about her outrage at the injustice of it all. At least she was not in denial about the reality of what had happened. Job had been wiped out, and as far as his wife was concerned, when your relationship with God doesn’t pay off, end it, “curse God and die.”

However Job insists on seeing his misfortune as the hidden hand of God. But why? To what end? If Job had been a bad, an evil, person, one might conclude he deserved his comeuppance. But he was a righteous and godly man. His faith in God’s integrity did not relieve his suffering nor lessen his bewilderment. Indeed, it made them worse. Job believed that God was fair and just, that God cared for people. How then explain this reversal of fortune? How reconcile faith with such a tragic injustice? God has got some explaining to do. But God remains silent. The “Why?” question is left hanging. The only option is either to trust God or to curse God.

Job’s response to his wife’s mocking of his defense of God is even more startling than her recommendation that he tell God off and suffer the consequences. “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Now what’s all that about? Are we to take our lumps in the same way we receive the good stuff, the blessings, in life? Or is his faith and continued commitment to God a “disinterested faith,” a faith based primarily not upon what he could get out of it, but upon the right thing to do irrespective of the outcome? Job’s faith was not a utilitarian faith, not a quid pro quo expectation that if he did his part as a righteous person, God was obliged to and in fact would reward him for his goodness with health, wealth, happiness, and a life free of pain and suffering. Sometimes fervent prayer by decent people does not result in the miracle prayed for, in spite of what some hucksters of religion promise.

Among the temptations that I have had to fight off as I have grown older are those of cynicism, apathy, and a general downright grumpiness about life and the way things are in the world and about religion and faith and, if the truth be known, probably about myself as much as, if not more than, anything. This is especially so when I see and hear religious hucksters of one sort or another peddle a version of salvation that suggests that if people intone the correct religious mantras and go through the requisite hoops of rigid religious legalisms, God will reward them with material possessions, good health, and induction into the economic Hall of Fame known as the Forbes 500 or, at least, something like that. Perhaps that statement indicates that I have not sufficiently resisted my temptation to cynicism and grumpiness. But it gives me pause when I hear salvation being equated in some way with safety. Salvation saves, but it does not necessarily make us safe. Not if the cross of Christ means what I think it does.

Job’s question “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” reflects this disinterested faith that trusts regardless. In the ensuing chapters of the book of Job, Job struggles with his doubts and anger, with his bewilderment, and with his insistent and persistent “Why?” He does so by engaging in an honest and candid conversation with God, while fending off the various attempts of well-meaning friends to counsel him with their theories about why he was hit with such horrible losses. Though he ends up by insisting that even if God were to kill him, he would trust God anyway, it is now a trust that has been the product of a struggle of the soul in which his faith and trust have been questioned and tested in the crucible of conversation with others, with himself, and with God.

Embedded in Job’s question also is the incredible idea that the bad, the evil, the injustice, the suffering and the pain may be evidence of what the Greek dramatist Aeschylus centuries ago called “the awful grace of God”: “in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Recently I heard about a woman who was involved in a several car pileup on the highway. Though her car was heavily damaged, she had only minor injuries. However, upon being x-rayed at a hospital in order to make sure she had not sustained internal injuries, it was discovered that she had a malignant tumor. Fortunately, it was self-contained, had not spread, and was operable. The accident, awful as it was and however awful it could have been, in a sense may have saved her life. Anything that saves lives is a form of grace, however awful the circumstances that may have led to it.

Perhaps this may sound to some as an exercise in spin control. But spinning is usually an attempt to deny a reality and its awfulness. What I am proposing is that God’s awful grace may come in the form of a reality that is awful, but that also opens the door to redemptive possibilities.

It may be that nothing is good and nothing is bad until God gets through with it. With God there is always a sequel. It is in the words of the creed we recite. Jesus was born, suffered, was crucified, was dead, was buried, and descended into hell. End of story. Not quite. “The third day he rose again from the dead.” God’s sequel.

Could it be that the pain we suffer, the tragedies that befall us, the failures that mock us, and the shame that humiliates us don’t tell the whole story and that there’s always the sequel and it’s the sequel that matters most? And could it be that we might have a hand in helping to shape the sequel? I wonder.

Could it be that the awful sight of the suffering and torture of others is the occasion for us to experience outrage against injustice, compassion toward those who hurt, and commitment to action to do whatever we can to alleviate suffering and reduce injustice? If so, may those awful things we witness be part of God’s awful grace? I wonder.

Could it be that the regrets that persistently plague a person over self-described despicable behavior in the past be God’s awful grace, helping drive that person back to a relationship to God long neglected and helping to strengthen that person against the temptation to repeat the despicable behavior when vulnerable? I wonder.

Could it be that those Amish folk in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, got it right when, in the wake of the massacre of five of their children in a one-room schoolhouse by an emotionally disturbed outsider, they spent a period of time in reflection, self-examination, and prayer, emerging from it to offer forgiveness to the murderer, comfort and care to one another, and acceptance and support to the family of the one who had slaughtered their children? I wonder.

No greater example of God’s awful grace is there than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world and for the healing of our brokenness. Years ago a pastor friend of mine preached a sermon that he entitled “Grace Is Not a Blue-Eyed Blonde.” The title, of course, was designed to get one’s attention. But the point of the sermon was that grace is not always pretty and that the grace of Jesus Christ was costly, that it involved brutal violence, humiliation, and agonizing suffering that took the form of a body horribly broken and of blood poured out in profusion. If you saw the crucifixion as depicted in the film The Passion of the Christ, you will know what I mean when I say that grace is not always pretty. But its beauty is that of a love that knows no ending, a love that will not let us go and from which we cannot ultimately be separated.

I have often been the beneficiary of God’s grace throughout my life, during times of danger, heartache and humiliation, anxiety and fear. No more so than in my experience in combat in Europe during World War II. Having emerged unscathed from a number of fierce firefights and artillery barrages, in retrospect, I had little notion of the role of God’s grace in my life.

After all, I had survived. I had dodged the bullet. I was a bit cocky and altogether full of myself. I had pulled it off. I was the exception, and it was all about me.

That is, until I went on furlough to Switzerland, after the war had ended.

I had been told that the trains in Switzerland were compulsively punctual. When the train I was on stopped in Basil, we were told we would have time to shop if we wished before the train departed. I bought a Tissot watch for a few American dollars. Still have it. Still keeps almost perfect time.

When I returned to the train station, I realized that the train was beginning to pull out of the station. I had been seconds late, but the train, as I have said, was compulsively punctual. As the train picked up speed, I ran after it as fast as I could. As I tried to leap upon the step at one of the doors of the train, my foot slipped, and I felt myself beginning to fall and in danger of being drawn under the wheels of the train. Having gone through combat unscathed, although with a number of close calls, I was now in danger of losing my life. Suddenly, I felt a hand reach down and grab me by the field jacket I was wearing and another hand grip my arm, and in a matter of seconds, I was pulled to safety by a stranger on the train who had seen my plight. I realized later that in rescuing me he had endangered himself if, as the train continued to pick up speed, he too were to have lost his footing.

Apart from that stranger laying hold on me, I would not have been saved, for I could not have saved myself.

God’s awful grace often precedes God’s good grace. The grace in God’s awful grace is not the bad things that happen to people but what those bad things can call forth in us that challenge us to resist the temptation to dump God when we get hit, that enable us to check in with ourselves to see whether “there be any wicked way within us,” to use the psalmist’s expression, and that allows us to be open to what we can learn that can contribute to our self-understanding and to our growth as human beings made in the image of God and for whom, by God’s awful grace, Christ died.

As the hymn writer has put it:

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.

God’s awful grace. God’s amazing grace.

God’s amazing awful grace.