There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Job 1:1
So begins the book of Job. It’s a kind of fairy story really. Job is an archetype of the good man. He has no back-story, no lineage, nothing to distract from his essential qualities of moral goodness and piety. And, of course, he’s rich – blessed with flocks and wealth and children and servants. He has done the right thing by God, and God has done the right thing by him.
He is, in a lot of ways, the person we would all like to be – rich, blessed, lucky. He is the archetypal good person to whom, inevitably, bad things are about to happen.
In the story, he is the subject of, essentially, a bet between God and Satan. Will Job still fear God if all this good stuff with which God has rewarded him is taken away from him? As he stands amidst the ruins of his life, sits literally on the dungheap, scraping his sores with a broken bit of an old pot he found lying around, what will he do?
This is the question that confronts all of us, at various points in our life. Catastrophe strikes us, or someone we love, and we find ourselves standing in the smoking ruins of our life saying: now what? What on earth did I do to deserve this?
It goes deep in us, this belief that, if we do the right thing by God, by our fellow humans, by the universe then the universe will do well by us. That’s why it’s such a shock when we see shady practice succeed. It shouldn’t be like that. People should get what they deserve. Surely the universe makes some sort of moral sense?
And, of course, a lot of the time, it does. We’re lucky enough to live in a well organised sort of community where, by and large, virtue is rewarded, and, as we saw in the Royal Commission in to the financial services industry, vice is often, eventually, punished.
Once we step out of the bit of the universe that humans more or less control, however, things take a very different tone. We are so fragile, just a tiny thing can mark the difference between life and death. And, as much as we exercise, watch our diet, give up smoking, don’t drink to excess, we know, really that we can’t ultimately control things.
Like Job discovered, things can change quickly, and in ways that seem baffling. What on earth did I do to deserve this? Sometimes we can think of things we did, or failed to do. But the answer, is often nothing at all. We did nothing to deserve this.
One temptation, here enacted by Job’s wife, is despair. “Curse God, and die” she suggests, not terribly helpfully. Not terribly helpfully, but with brutal honesty.
It’s honest, because it really does name what it is like to have experienced trauma. To be real trauma, and that’s the sort of archetypal suffering which I’m talking about here, is to experience a crisis in one or more of these three domains.
The first is that the world is a meaningful and coherent whole and not a basket of coincidences. The second is that the world is benevolent toward us and not inclined to do us harm. The third is that I am a person worthy of care and love.
For Job, two of these domains have collapsed.
The world for him is no longer coherent. It’s not a basket of coincidences exactly, but what is happening to him is the result of, essentially, a bet. If you knew you were being selected by God as God’s champion in some sort of competition, then suffering is meaningful. You’re a martyr, and, as we know, that is a deeply meaningful (if not especially pleasant) way to live.
But, in our story, Job doesn’t know that God has selected him. It’s just random, inexplicable. And I guess, for the sake of the story, Job can’t know what is going on – otherwise the dramatic irony on which the whole thing depends doesn’t work.
The second domain is that the world is benevolent to us, and not inclined to do us harm. We didn’t get the detail in the passage, but Job’s experience is that a whole cascade of terrible things happen one after another. He loses his wealth, his flocks, his servants, and his children. Messenger after messenger comes to him and tells him the latest bit of bad news.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced times when every time the phone rings we flinch because we fear that yet another terrible thing is about to be revealed. Life just seems like a rollercoaster of awfulness, and we just can’t make it stop.
And then, sometimes, the dreadful temptation occurs to us. The dragon coiled up in the bottom of our minds, lurking specifically for a moment like this sometimes rears up and says some variant of: curse God and die. It isn’t usually quite as dramatic as that of course – and, generally, it isn’t someone who loves us who says this. But it’s that voice that says: this is all meaningless. Why try so hard? God told the children of Israel that he had set two ways before them – the way of life, and the way of death, and God commanded the Israelites to choose life. If it was an easy choice, it wouldn’t have needed a command. And there are lot of ways to choose death over life – as many as the many situations in which we find ourselves, with our unique collection of virtues and failings.
But Job chooses life.
The third axis is “I am a person worthy of care and love.” This is rather better for Job. His wife’s suggestion wasn’t particularly helpful – though perhaps it was well-meant – but for a long, long, dull, slab of the book, his friends come and sit with him. Admittedly they too are the bearers of pretty poor advice. But they spend the time, they sit there with him in silence, for at least a week, on his dungheap.
When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. Job 2:12-13
Perhaps one of the messages of Job is that sometimes even good community isn’t enough.
The mysterious, impressive, important thing about Job is his choice. He chooses life. He maintains his innocence, he holds God to account. And he refuses to “curse God and die.”
‘O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
And, finally, God reveals himself to him.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Some people find it an unsatisfactory ending. Job isn’t given an answer for his suffering. Specifically, God doesn’t confess that has been allowing Satan to perform a sort of psychological experiment on Job, and that’s why he’s suffering.
But that’s true of life in general I think. There is no “answer” to suffering. I mean, there are philosophically and theologically defensible justifications for a good God who allows suffering, and there are, of course, times and places to trot them out. I think the most convincing one is to do with creating a free and morally significant universe – a universe where things matter.
But there is a huge difference between on the one hand, sitting in the coffee shop after Philosophy 101 arguing it out with your fellow students, and on the other, sitting on the smoking dung heap where your life used to be, scratching yourself with a potsherd while your alleged “friends” attempt to tell you it’s all your own fault.
There really isn’t some linear answer, some sentence that is going to make everything OK. It’s a question of domains, or levels or something of that nature. The experience of traumatic suffering is a completely different type of experience to thinking about it from the outside. The difference between saying “the sea is cold” and jumping into the Great Southern Ocean in the middle of winter.
It isn’t something that can be answered in words – we are in the realm of transformation. Maybe. The research into post-traumatic growth says that more people experience spiritual growth as a result of it than do not. But it depends what you do with it, about it, and in it.
I want to make two points. A psychological and spiritual one, and a theological one.
Richard Rohr, the contemporary Franciscan thinker, writer, and mystic, writes
Suffering is the only thing strong enough to break down your control systems, explanatory mechanisms, logical paradigms, desire to be in charge, and carefully maintained sense of control. Both God and the guided soul know to trust suffering, it seems. God normally has to lead you to the limits of your private resources. Some event, person, or moral situation must force you to admit, I cannot do this in my present state. This is our suffering.
This, I think, is the key. What the book of Job is doing is not “answering” suffering. Even though it sounds a bit like it, it is not saying “God is very big and you are very small, so shut up.” Rather, it is giving a vision of the purpose of the universe as such – that mysterious Scriptural term “glory.” It invites us to see that our life, mysteriously, is not about us as such, but is part of something else, something mysterious and beautiful and profound. And something that somehow does not exclude suffering, but transfigures it.
The theological point is this: Job points to Jesus. Jesus, who really was without sin, Jesus who really did actually exist – unlike Job. Jesus, who’s suffering was unmerited. Jesus who took all of our sin and alienation on himself, was crucified, died and was buried. But who God rose up on the third day.
We’re going to take communion shortly, and one of the many, many layers of meaning in communion is that God is with us in and through suffering. That might sound glib, and it is very hard to talk about, but it seems to me to be what Scripture says, and it can be borne out in one’s experience.
In the Book of Job, it all ends happily for Job. He ends up with riches, children, reputation restored, and dies full of years, seeing the prosperity of his descendants. Our own experiences of suffering are not necessarily going to end so straightforwardly well. But people who do experience post-traumatic growth do value the new person they have become, even as they regret the events that led to it.
This is not to say that suffering is somehow “OK”. And it is certainly not to say that it should be explained away. But it is definitely to say that it is inevitable. And that it can be transformative. And that God, through Jesus Christ, has promised to be with us to the end of the age – no matter what happens to us.
Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church 7/10/2018
If you found this interesting or (I hope) helpful, you might also like to read a post from a few years back – Existential Doubt and Suffering
Also: Jonah and the Whale and how it relates to the experience of suffering. You may find it interesting. Read it here
 Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your transformation (Kindle Locations 2371-2374). SPCK. Kindle Edition.