Sanctity and Civility: A Tale of Two Friends

Sanctity and Civility: A Tale of Two Friends

Primary Text: Job 36:24-32

“Remember to extol his work,
    of which mortals have sung.
25 All people have looked on it;
    everyone watches it from far away.
26 Surely God is great, and we do not know him;
    the number of his years is unsearchable.
27 For he draws up the drops of water;
    he distills[q] his mist in rain,
28 which the skies pour down
    and drop upon mortals abundantly.
29 Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,
    the thunderings of his pavilion?
30 See, he scatters his lightning around him
    and covers the roots of the sea.
31 For by these he governs peoples;
    he gives food in abundance.
32 He covers his hands with the lightning,
    and commands it to strike the mark.
- Job 36:24-32 (NRSV)

(All biblical quotes in this sermon are taken from the NRSV, unless otherwise cited)

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been talking about major biblical principles that compel us to be agents of peace, and to relate to one another in love, not enmity. A natural question that arises is, “What does that look like in practice?” It’s one thing to intellectually assent to these things, or say you believe them, but it’s another to put them into practice. That is where we turn today. The Bible has a number of examples of people who disagree with each other about very important things, and today we are going to start looking at these examples to find practical ways to relate to one another amongst conflict and disagreement.

One such example, which we have looked at before, but which still has a lot to teach us, is the example of two friends: Job and Elihu. The story of Job is one that most of us have heard many times before. Some of us perhaps heard it for the first time in Sunday School: the story of how Satan came before God and bragged about all the evil in the world, how God pointed to Job as an example of a righteous man, and agreed to allow Satan to test Job through suffering, and how, in the end, Job’s fortunes where restored. But the bulk of the book is what happens in between the test and the restoration. The bulk of the book of Job is a dialogue between Job and three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – who come to grieve with him, and then to debate why Job suffered. The friends argue that it must be because Job sinned, while Job defends his own innocence. Later on we meet another friend, Elihu, who has remained silent out of respect for his elders, who steps in to the debate. In the end, God does not give Job or the three friends an answer. The debate is not resolved with them learning the answer to the question that they were debating, but learning how to behave, with them learning humility.

The overwhelming bulk of Job is a dialogue, and other ancient dialogues, where the hero is clearly smarter than the rest, the friends are not stupid, they make good points. This is especially true of Elihu. Elihu begins his first speech by making his case clear: he is going to take up the case that the others have failed to make and will, he believes, do so successfully.

Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; 3 he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong… ‘See, I waited for your words, I listened for your wise sayings, while you searched out what to say. 12 I gave you my attention, but there was in fact no one that confuted Job, no one among you that answered his words.'”

Job 32:2-3, 12

He then ends his final speech, which we read part of earlier, by condemning self-righteousness, extolling the glory and mystery of God. Immediately after that final speech, God shows up, makes the exact same points that Elihu made at the end of Elihu’s final speech, with the conclusion that they all need to humble themselves. There are some very important lessons here about how to have meaningful discussions.

Remember, these three things are all true at the same time:

  • Elihu was wrong about the main topic of discussion, he was wrong about Job’s innocence
  • He was absolutely right about the mystery of God and the need to be humble, and was still right about this despite that
  • He held to a double standard, he held Job to a standard that he did not hold himself to.

All of these thing are simultaneously true:

  • He was wrong about the main topic of discussion.
  • He was operating under a double-standard, and..
  • He was absolutely right about another even more important issue.

There are three big takeaways from this, because there will be times when we will be in Elihu’s position and ought to do what Elihu should have done, and other times when we will be in Job’s position and ought to do what Job did.

1. Like Elihu, sometimes part of what we say will be 100% right, 100% biblical, while another part will be completely off-base. Elihu made points that would shortly thereafter be made straight from the mouth of God, yet he was still wrong about the main topic of debate. This wasn’t because that truth which would later be spoken from the mouth of God was somehow fallible or mistaken, but because he made a human mistake, he did not reason correctly. There will be times when part of what we say will be 100% biblical, 100% correct, and yet other parts are off base. There will be times when we go off about some great biblical truth and at some point in our speech say something completely off base. In fact there will, realistically, be many times when, like Elihu, we talk about some important biblical truth that adds incredible value to the discussion, but we are still mistaken about the main topic of debate. This is not because the biblical truth is in any way fallible or mistaken, but because we are imperfect human beings, and making mistakes is part of what it means to be a fallen and imperfect human being. Therefore, when we are talking to someone that we disagree with, we ought to do what Elihu ought to have done: listen, talk to not at other people, remembering that we make simple human mistakes, and looking for opportunities to grow. Like Elihu, sometimes part of what we say will be 100% right, 100% biblical, while another part will be completely off-base, and thus when talking to people with whom we disagree, we ought to listen, talk to them not at them, remembering that we make simple human mistakes, and looking for opportunities to grow.

2. Double-Standards are not conversation stoppers, but opportunities to grow. Elihu had a double-standard. He didn’t say “Job, we ought to be humble because God is mysterious and glorious”, but something more along the lines of “Job, you ought to be humble and admit that I’m right, because God is mysterious and glorious”. Yet, even though he was hypocritical, and condescending about it, the standard that he held Job to was still the right one. Look at how Job reacted when he realized that.

“Then Job answered the Lord: 2 ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

– Job 42:1-6

Job saw that, whatever else Elihu may have been wrong about, he was right about that part, and Job repented of his arrogance. He did almost the exact thing that Elihu, hypocritically and condescendingly, told him to do, because it was the right thing to do, regardless of who said it. It is very tempting to respond to a person we disagree with holding to a double-standard by treading as a conversation stopper. It’s tempting to say what amounts to “Aha! I win! That’s a double-standard. Checkmate! End of discussion!” We have all likely done something like this at some point; I know I have. But the biblical way to respond is to ask “What is the right standard?” and then, once we’ve found the answer to that question, to hold ourselves to the right standard, to rise to the occasion, even if that means changing our ways. This doesn’t mean that we should hold other people accountable, and point out the double-standard, but that these two steps come first. Double-Standards are not conversation stoppers, but opportunities to grow, and we grow by asking what the right standard is and rising to meet it, whatever it may be. This is easy to forget, but important to remember because…

3. Someone can be wrong about the topic at hand and still have a very good point. Elihu was completely wrong about the main topic, and yet -as hypocritical as he may have been about it – he still made the most important point in the entire discussion, the only point that God Himself repeats. God doesn’t even address the main topic of discussion – God does not say a word about the thing that they had spent 35 chapters debating – but God does spend four chapters hammering home Elihu’s final point about humility and applies it consistently to everyone. It is so easy to get caught up in the heat of a discussion, and advocating for our position, that we don’t listen to what others are actually saying, or that we simply discount everything that they say, because we we disagree with them about the matter at hand. Yet, when we do that, we risk missing or discounting very important points, perhaps even the most important point made in the entire discussion. Someone can be wrong about the topic at hand and still have a very good, very important point, that we, and everyone else involved ought to listen to. So listen closely and carefully consider everything that every person says.

The purpose of a discussion is not to win, or to convince the other person to change their mind. How many times have we heard, or even said “There is no reason to talk about this, because we aren’t gonna change each other’s minds”? That presumes that the purpose of a discussion is to change each other’s minds. The purpose of a discussion is not to convince the other person to change their mind, but to learn from each other, to learn by interacting with other perspectives, with people who see our blind-spots and whose blind-spots we see. A practical way to begin fostering and engaging in discussions which do exactly that, which foster mutual growth is to live out those three biblical principles and practices whenever you have a discussion with someone.

  1. Sometimes part of what we say will be right, while another part will be mistaken, and thus we ought listen, talk to them not at them, remembering that we make simple human mistakes, and looking for opportunities to grow.
  2. Double-Standards are not conversation stoppers, but opportunities to grow, and we grow by asking what the right standard is and rising to meet it, whatever it may be.
  3. Someone can be wrong about the topic at hand and still have a very good, very important point, that we and everyone involved ought to listen to, and thus we ought to listen carefully and seriously consider every point that they make.

There is a lot of talk about peace, there is a lot of talk both within the church and within the wider world about the need to come together. We can talk about it all we want, but the question is whether we will put it into practice, whether we will do the hard work of being peacemakers, of bringing people together. When the rubber meets the road, faced with a major disagreement, or a heated discussion, will we do the hard work of being peacemakers? Listening to people we disagree with, learning and growing through discussion is not easy. It’s hard work, but so are most things worth doing.

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