Sunday, 28 October 2012

JOB- Suffering and how to speak to God

Job is a book of wisdom. Job is like a long parable, almost a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a man named Job, and he was the greatest man who lived in the land. Job is blameless. He lived in a big house, on lots of land, with a big family, and many possessions.  Job loves God and turns away from evil. And God, like a proud parent, richly blesses Job with family and property. Job is a good, good, good man.

          God even brags about Job to the Satan, which means “the accuser” or the “adversary”. He's a bit like a legal prosecutor against humanity. Satan looks at Job and tells God, “Ya, he’s good, but what happens if you take away his toys? He’s only good because you bless him at every opportunity- Of course he’s going to be good. But, what happens when the blessing stops? What happens when you take away his reward for being so good and faithful? Do you think he would still be good? I doubt it. In fact I think he would curse you right to your face.”
          There are few things I like more than giving my two boys something they love. I love the way they jump up and down when I’m giving them candy. When Zander was potty training he loved M&Ms, and so we used them to reward good behavior. He cleaned up his toys faster if he knew there was an M&M in store for him. However, if we reward him with an M&M for every good thing he did, what would he do when he knows that there are no more M&M’s? Would he still do what is right without a reward? Would he still follow our directions out of love for us, and not love for the reward?

          This is Satan’s question for Job. "How do you know Job really loves you, or the blessings you give him? Do you really still think he would be faithful and good if there were no reward?"

          God trusts in Job’s faith, and believes that Job will still love him, and that he will still be good without all the rewards. The Father trusts that his child will still be good even if there are no more M&Ms. So God allows Satan to take away Job’s blessings. There is an awful, horrible catastrophe that not only destroys his possessions, but his children as well. Job is heart broken, but he will not turn on God. Satan doesn’t stop there. Next he inflicts Job with painful sores all over his body. Job sits on an ash pile with a piece of broken pottery scratching at his skin trying to get some glimmer of relief from his suffering.

          Job stands as a representative of all humanity and is tested without knowing it- Can a human being love God without being rewarded? Can a human being do what is right when there is no personal benefit?

          Job’s friends sit with him in mourning for seven days without saying anything, ... but then they try to help him understand what is happening. Surely God wouldn’t allow this suffering to happen for no reason, so they start to come up with reasons that God would allow suffering like this.  Maybe Job is being punished for some awful secret sin. We know God is good, so the blame much be with Job. He must have done something to deserve his suffering.

          We know differently. This is not the case with Job. Job hasn't done anything to deserve this suffering. Actually, he is the best human being on the planet. There is no skeleton in his closet that would call for such suffering.  Job knows he has done nothing to deserve this. Job’s friends are trying to help, so they push him to expose the secret sin and ask forgiveness, but they are really only making things worse.

          Job sits with his friends among the ashes, oblivious to the causes of his suffering, but deeply wants to know “why”. And this is the Job that everyone of us relates to at some point in our life. Why is this happening? We endure some kind of tragedy, or illness, or we lose a loved one, and we want to know why? Is this some cruel joke? Could there possibly be any point or reason for it? How could a loving and all-powerful God allow this to happen?   
          The book of Job rests in the tension between two questions. On the one hand, we have Satan’s question, “Can people love God without being showered with blessings?” Satan is saying that people will only love God and be good if there is a reward. Without blessings of property and family, and protection from pain and suffering people will not love God and be good.
          On the other hand, we hear Job’s question- “Is it right for God to let those who love him suffer?” How can God, who is good and all-powerful, watch one of his children who loves Him, suffer and not do something about it?

          The book of Job rests in this tension. And out of this tension arises a third question. In this mystery of undeserved suffering, how do we speak of God? How do we speak to God? Throughout the book, Job expresses his anger to God. He expresses his questions and demands answers, but he never curses God. He never turns his back on God. In fact, he’s the only human in the book who speaks directly to God. The friends philosophize and try to fit God and the situation into some kind of box, but Job brings his pain to God, and Job is angry. Job does not give up. He maintains his gaze on God in his suffering. He holds onto God even when his theology seems to fall apart. The friends continue to accuse Job and say that he is the cause of his suffering. And Job continues to cry out to God asking for an explanation because he knows he hasn’t done anything to deserve the loss of his possessions, family, and his health.    

          In the end, after everyone has had their turn speaking, God shows up in a whirlwind. And God questions Job about the creation. To Job’s questioning of God, God asks Job about the mysteries of creation. God asks Job about two creatures of chaos- Behemoth and Leviathan. These are God’s creatures, but who cause destruction. Job is dumbstruck, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” 

          Job has a mystical encounter with God. Previously he had heard of God, but now he sees God. And in seeing God and hearing his response, Job is transformed, but is also left speechless. His time for crying out in anger at God has ended when he encounters his Creator face to face. He realizes how much he doesn’t understand, and can only respond with silence.             

          God then turns from Job, and expresses his anger towards Job’s friends, “My wrath is kindled against you … ; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” These are Job's friends who were trying to defend God with their theology, but really they put more suffering on Job. God then asks the friends to ask Job to pray for them. Job prays for his friends, and God blesses Job once again with family and doubles the wealth he had before. 

          No answer is given to Job. The reason for his suffering is never given. We will find no easy explanations for our sufferings in this book. What we will find is words to speak to God in our suffering. Job has given us words to speak, and God has said that they are the right words. The friends who attempt to give an explanation for Job’s suffering are in the wrong. Their attempt to reduce Job’s suffering to his own sin, is what angers God. Job’s crying out to God in anger and pain is what God accepts.

          The ending of Job is not about a happily ever after ending, but it is an ending. It is not a naïve return to the beginning of the book where everything is sunshine and kittens. It is about going through the suffering and coming out the other side after wrestling with God. In Job’s life suffering did not have the last word. There was a time when the suffering moved from the forefront of his life. This ending gives hope that there is some goodness that will eventually overwhelm the suffering. Suffering will not have the last word.

          In Job, no explanation for suffering is given. I’m sorry if you are suffering. I’m sorry if you feel like Job right now. I don’t know why these things happen. I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t understand why God allows it to happen. But whatever suffering is about, it seems to be central to what it means to be human.

          Struggling with the loss of his 25 year old son, the Christian philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff confesses in his book Lament for a Son, “I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘[God] did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing [God] could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s footing.” … It’s not that Wolterstorff doesn’t believe he will see his son again, he believes in the resurrection, and he believes his son is with God. He continues, “Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. A friend said, ‘Remember, he’s in good hands.’ I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief. For that grief, what consolation can there be other than having him back?” In the Christian life, “to the ‘why’ of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder [of suffering] is not told us. It eludes us.” … “Suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. But the mystery remains. Why isn’t Love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-Love the meaning? Why does God endure his suffering? Why does he not at once relieve his agony by relieving ours?”

          There are no answers to Wolterstorff’s questions that we can see. And he is not interested in easy answers. We dare not speak as Job’s friends have spoke. We dare not give easy answers to another’s suffering. The book of Job tells us that this angers God. We cannot tell Wolterstorff that the death of his son Eric is “not really so bad.” (These are his words again) “because it is [bad]. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench”. (God, Medicine, and Suffering. Stanley Hauerwas. P 149-151).

          As human beings, at some point in our life, we will sit with Job on the ash heap, and we will have no explanation for our suffering.  We will have well meaning friends say foolish things in the attempt to make us feel better. But there was one who came to join us in our suffering. There was another man who suffered for no sin of his own. Immanuel- God-with-us- The Creator of the universe took on weak, suffering, human flesh and submerged himself in the muddy Jordan River, baptizing himself in all of our pain and sin. The only human being who did not need baptism did not leave anything behind in the river, rather he took on our muck.

          God has not abandoned us in our suffering. He has joined us in our suffering. God does not sit off in the distance watching us suffer. He joins us in all the filth, in the dust and ashes. No explanation is given, but God came to sit with us in our mess. But he will not leave us there. God will not let suffering have the last word in God’s good creation. Jesus will be with us. He will descend into the grave with us, and he will rise with us. Jesus sits with us in our pain and suffering, but he is there to guide us out of our suffering as well. He is there on the other side of our suffering. Life does not end with a cross. God will not let life end with a cross. The cross will lead to resurrection and life that does not end. The cross is horrifying, but the unexpected resurrection overwhelms that suffering and turns the suffering of the cross into a symbol of hope. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”                    

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