The sea is beautiful to observe from a distance. But have you ever encountered the wildness of the sea?
Amanda and I went to the island of Kauai a few years ago. There was a little spot called “secret beach” we hiked to each day. When we got to the shore, there was a small inlet flanked by a light house to the right. I had never seen natural beauty quite so moving. The waves were especially rough there, but I foolishly will attempt to swim in anything. As I waded out, over and over again the waves would take my 6”5 frame and fling me to the ocean floor like a rag doll. After taking a few beatings, I finally landed back on the shore with my swim trunks on my head. This part of the island has had numerous deaths by drowning over the years. I finally was starting to appreciate not just the beauty but the wildness of the sea.
On the same trip, we traveled to the North Shore of Oahu near where Lost was filmed, and there was another day I swam alone in a rocky area (very smart, I know). The waters themselves were relatively calm. But I had the most odd and wonderful experience when I found myself suddenly surrounded by a bale of sea turtles. I couldn’t believe how enormous they were. And while, of course, they were beautiful, there was something unnerving about the scene too. These turtles often live to be 150 years old. As their heads would bob up out of the water, there was something so prehistoric about them, something that reminded me of how young and small I am in a big sea in a bigger cosmos. These sea turtles could have swum with Abraham Lincoln for all I know. I was struck again by the wildness of the sea, its unfathomable depths and creatures and secrets.
I haven’t been back to Hawaii. But in the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time at sea.
That is not to say I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach. In antiquity, the sea is representative of chaos, of the uncontained, uncontrolled and unknowable. The sea is not a place of comfort but a place of unfathomable darkness beyond our imagination. This is especially true in Jewish literature. It is the reason, for example, that in Daniel’s dreams the monsters come out of the sea. It is the reason that Revelation describes a day that is coming in which “there will be no sea”—which at first seems sad for those of us who appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the sea. The point is not that there will be no waves or sand to enjoy, but that the chaos will finally be domesticated and the unknowable will finally be known.
Between now and then, we live in a world in which there is still very much a wild sea that we are very much subject to. And while Job talks about the boundaries of the sea God has established, there is also a strange way in which God seems to celebrate the wildness of the sea and even the ancient sea monster Leviathan, which the psalm says God created “to sport in it.” There is a certain beauty to the sea, even a tranquility, that can be appreciated from a distance. It is only when we get close enough to be pulled by its tides and overcome by its waves that we understand it is as dangerous as it is beautiful.
The story of Job in particular is of a man who finally has to contend with the sea. A righteous man, Job lives in a tightly ordered world. He seems to embody the wisdom of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes—Job is the one who does the right thing and flourishes as a result. Job is the sort of man who thinks he understands something about how the world works, because the world has always worked for him. That is until the script goes off the rails and he experiences unfathomable loss and suffering. His friends, easy to vilify, genuinely try to help him when they offer what seems to be legitimate communal wisdom—“Job, everybody knows that the wicked suffer calamity but the righteous prosper. The only possible explanation is that there is sin in your life you need to repent of.”
But of course Job didn’t have a “sin problem.” Job was discovering the sea and the sea monster for himself. More directly, he was discovering the God of the sea. When God finally starts talking back to Job in Job 40.9-11, He says, “‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?— 9 when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? And then in Job 40.16-17:16 ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”
In Job 41, God even celebrates the wildness of Leviathan, the sea monster He has also created. From Job 41.1-5: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
2 Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
3 Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you?
4 Will it make a covenant with you
to be taken as your servant for ever?
5 Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on a leash for your girls?” God seems not only comfortable with Leviathan, He is playful with it. Can you imagine this? The sea monster whispers soft words to God and makes a covenant to serve him…what an evocative section!
What is so disturbing about the book of Job is that it blows the lid off the theology of retribution. That is that theology that says, If you do good then good things will happen to you; if you do bad then bad things will happen to you. That is the kind of world we can understand, order, and best of all, control. When Job encounters the sea, He encounters the chaos and disorder within the creation. He is presented with an undomesticated God who is not the originator of the chaos, but who does in fact allow it for a time until the creation will be restored to its intended beauty. There are no tightly ordered systems, there is no guarantee that any created thing will avoid the wildness or even suffering. Job must learn how to confront a world like that where there are no guarantees, and yet learn to live without fear. I think here of Frederick Buechner’s beautiful quote: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
It is understandably disruptive when Job discovers that the world is not as ordered as he thought. It is disruptive to find out that the secure land Job had built his house on had been an illusion—that he, like all the rest of us, had always been living at sea, a place where beautiful and terrible things happen…seemingly indiscriminately.
Yet when Job is being tossed by the waves, facing the terrible truth that even a life of faithfulness will not be without chaos, he is also on the verge of something wonderful—the reality of a God who blesses indiscriminately. A God who is not the summation of a system of demerits and rewards, a God who does not exist as an existential Santa to hand out merit badges. This is the God who will be fully revealed as the Father of Jesus, the One who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust.” The same waves that took Job down to the depths of the suffering also took him, unwittingly or not, to the brink of the greatest revelation in the history of the world—the revelation of grace.
Gustavo Guttierez’s On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent has a section that picked me up higher than the waves in Kauai and flung me to the ground with my swim trunks again on my head. I will never forget what it was like to read it for the first time, and it haunts me still:
Inspired by the experience of his own innocence, Job bitterly criticized the theology of temporal retribution as maintained in his day and expounded by his friends. And he was right to do so. But his challenge stopped halfway and, as a result, except at moments when his deep faith and trust in God broke through, he could not escape the dilemma so cogently presented by his friends: if he was innocent, then God was guilty. God subsequently rebuked Job for remaining prisoner of this either-or mentality (see 40:R).
What he should have done was to leap the fence set up around him by this sclerotic theology that is so dangerously close to idolatry, run free in the fields of God’s love, and breathe an unrestricted air like the animals described in God’s argument — animals that humans cannot domesticate. The world outside the fence is the world of gratuitousness; it is there that God dwells and there that God’s friends find a joyous welcome.
The world of retribution — and not of temporal retribution only — is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the “give to me and I will give to you” mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the book of Job.
This is the God of the sea, the undomesticated One who is not beholden to any of our systems. It does not negate the fact that there are negative consequences for some of our choices within the created order and positive consequences for others. But God Himself does not play by any such rules. It has never been true that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It is rather true that we all live at sea where there are forces beyond our control at work that we cannot fathom, much less understand. What has also been true is that God’s heart toward His creation has always been to show kindness, mercy, tenderness and grace. It is grace available to all people. Any and every good thing we ever experience in this life is a gift; any and every good thing is grace. It has always been grace and grace alone.
When people begin to encounter the undomesticated reality of the sea for themselves, they often get nostalgic for a time in which there was no sea. I find this especially true when tragedy strikes, and people of faith begin to wax poetically about days when there were not swear words on TV and times were simple and life was easy. But of course those days never really existed. The times they get wistful for were also the days of Jim Crow laws and segregation. If they felt like easy times for some, they certainly weren’t easy times for others. There have never been “good old days” when there was no sea—there has always been chaos and violence in the world. And thank God, there has always been grace too.
The theoretical time “before the sea” is a myth. It never existed. The sea has always been here, and we’ve always been living on it. What changed was not the world itself but our understanding of it. Life didn’t get complicated when it got complicated for you; it was just that we hadn’t lived long enough to recognize the wildness that really had been there all along.
So we can either be nostalgic for a time that never existed and attempt to go back to a place where there was no sea, or we can receive the undomesticity of creation for its diverse gifts. There are not many guarantees. But what we can know for certain is that we will feel some hurt and do some hurting. And that even so, there will be grace. None of us deserve it, and yet it is poured out in the world on the just and unjust. The only constant besides the wildness of the sea is the constancy of the One who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
The only constant is the God who loves, the God who blesses. His love is the only thing deeper and more unfathomable than the sea. When we encounter the bottomless mysteries of the sea, the bottomless love of God is more mysterious yet. The deeper the revelation of the sea in all of its wildness, the deeper revelation of the love that is wilder still.
It is the constancy of this love — and this alone — that gives us the confidence to continue to face a world that is comprised primarily of seas, and not be paralyzed by its terror or its incomprehensibility. And here, I think Job would give a hearty amen to Buechner: “Here is the world: beautiful and terrible things will happen, don’t be afraid.”