Between God and Oblivion

By James Cornwell

Reading from Job, 19:1-7, 14-27

1 Then Job answered:
2 “How long will you torment me,
   and break me in pieces with words?
3 These ten times you have cast reproach upon me;
   are you not ashamed to wrong me?
4 And even if it is true that I have erred,
   my error remains with me.
5 If indeed you magnify yourselves against me,
   and make my humiliation an argument against me,
6 know then that God has put me in the wrong,
   and closed his net around me.
7 Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered;
   I call aloud, but there is no justice.
14 My relatives and my close friends have failed me;
15   the guests in my house have forgotten me;
my serving-girls count me as a stranger;
   I have become an alien in their eyes.
16 I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer;
   I must myself plead with him.
17 My breath is repulsive to my wife;
   I am loathsome to my own family.
18 Even young children despise me;
   when I rise, they talk against me.
19 All my intimate friends abhor me,
   and those whom I loved have turned against me.
20 My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh,
   and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.
21 Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,
   for the hand of God has touched me!
22 Why do you, like God, pursue me,
   never satisfied with my flesh?

23 “O that my words were written down!
   O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead
   they were engraved on a rock for ever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
   and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
   then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see on my side,
   and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
   My heart faints within me!”


The story of Job opens with a dialogue between God and Satan. Satan claims that Job’s faithfulness is fully contingent on what he has — riches, family, friends, social status — and that when all this is stripped away, Job will curse the Lord’s name.

But we see the opposite happening. In reply to his friends, Job recounts, not only a litany of the loss of material things, but a tale of radical social alienation. He is stripped of his status, ignored by his friends and kinsfolk and servants. His wife finds him repulsive; his children turn away from him. He retains no past connections; his present is desolate; he has nothing and no one to secure his future. And yet he concludes, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth… then in my flesh I shall see God.”

When all the worldly contingencies that once gave one’s life meaning are stripped away, the choice is between God — the author of meaning — and oblivion. Job chooses God.

Satan has since learned that alienation from God is best accomplished not by poverty, but by riches; not by social exclusion, but by status and influence. But the Church has equipped us with three weapons against this: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All of these bring us closer to that decision point between God and oblivion, and sharpen our minds to acknowledge gratefully that all gifts depend on the divine giver. And even when all gifts are cleared away either by tragedy or charity, the giver shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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