Words without knowledge

Photo: Alexandra, Unsplash. Photo: Alexandra, Unsplash.

At the end of the Book of Job, God shows up in a whirlwind and responds to Job: “Who is this who darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2).

This verse is a caution for us when we speak about God’s ways in the world — that, in our speaking, we trip over our words as we stumble toward God’s truths, as if we’re wandering through unfamiliar terrain in the darkness of night without a flashlight. Any guidance into divine revelations we offer each other turn out to be words without knowledge.

Twenty years ago, while on a flight to London, I read a warning in Rick Steves’ travel guide. Tourists should beware when asking locals for directions because, even if someone didn’t know the location, they’d provide a detailed account of how to get there just because they didn’t want to let the person down. They would give directions, wrong ones, instead of facing a visitor’s disappointment. They just wanted to be helpful, so they’d offer directions without knowledge.

That’s the temptation for all of us: To explain God’s ways even though we don’t know what we’re talking about. We go on with our words because we have to say something. We don’t want to let each other down. We want to be helpful, to offer some direction, some clarity, even if the truth is that we ourselves are also lost. So we offer words without knowledge, like the person who gives directions that only get the tourist all the more lost.

Job is like that tourist — disoriented, bewildered because of all he has suffered. His world has crumbled. He wanders through the rubble of a life that has been leveled. The first couple of chapters describe disasters that take away his family, his possessions and finally his health.
The rest of the book is a conversation about what God has to do with the tragedy of Job’s life. Friends talk about God. Job talks to himself about God. And God is silent.

Until the end, when God shows up in a tornado-like phenomenon, a whirlwind like the one that killed Job’s children. From the whirlwind, God confronts Job with how little he knows about the world. God’s questions expose Job’s lack of knowledge:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4).

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (38:19).

“Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?” (38:33).

“Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?” (38:37).

We know so little of this world, so little about God, so little of our lives and the lives of the people we are called to love. We know so little.

This pandemic has been a whirlwind. So much has been taken. So much has collapsed. I feel like I’ve lost a year. I confuse my months as I try to think about what happened when. Time has become a maze for my mind. A lostness has swallowed our lives. We’ve become lost to one another. It has been hard to keep track of our own lives, let alone people we care about.

As we find each other again, as we pick up the pieces and see what kind of life we can make together, I’m sure we’ll speak words without knowledge. We’ll have to get to know one another again, to learn what we’ve missed. We’ll have to be patient and generous, especially as we offer mistaken words. We reach for words about God to pass along. Our words might not be the right ones, even if they come with the best of intentions.

Back to my story about London 20 years ago: We are well-meaning locals and lost tourists at the same time. We’re lost people trying to offer directions to lost people. All we have are words without knowledge, words we use as we try to offer care, even if we’re not quite sure where we are. We offer what we can because we want to be helpful. We want to rebuild a common life, to find ourselves together again in God’s love.

the Good news in the Book of Job is that despite all the words without knowledge and theological misunderstandings, God hears Job and his friends. God shows up.

In the end, God can’t help but be drawn into the conversation, because God wants to be part of Job’s life. God wants to share life with Job, to join the fellowship of words. God longs for communion.

This is a calling we share as members of the church: When I ask you for directions, instead of drawing a map and wishing me luck as I go on my way, you offer to come with me — even if we might get lost together.

The good news is that wherever two or more are gathered, God is there, even if all of this feels like a whirl-wind.

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