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Job and the Mystery of Suffering

A man sits on an ash-heap, scratching at his sores with a broken shard of a clay pot. He looks up at the sky and demands answers. What happens next will amaze you!

A sermon preached on the Book of Job for Preston High Street UCA on Wednesday 20/10/21 for Proper 25 (30) Twenty-Second Week after Pentecost Year B

I love the book of Job. It’s such a wild, crazy, cinematic ride. So completely alien from my world – politically, economically, metaphysically. But so completely true, and such a profound revelation of reality – in the sense of seeing what’s happening but discerning what’s really going on.

It spoke to me powerfully during my horrible half decade when Anne’s and my life was dominated by infertility, car accidents, under-employment with its resulting financial problems, and the occasional natural disaster. It was a time when I was very sick of glib, simplistic answers, and needed some way to make sense of the experience of suffering which dominated so much of my life.

So, let’s get into it. What on earth is going on here? And what does this completely alien story have to say to us here and now about God and suffering?

The first bit of the reading sets the scene: Job is a good man. And he is rich. The greatest person in the East, that fabled land of wealth. Then, as now, wealth and power was a sign of God’s favour[1] – though, of course, the main point of this story is to unpick this close relationship, to subject it to the strongest scrutiny possible. But, just to be clear, Job is not just blindly fortunate. He is a man who is so good that, not only is he good on his own behalf, he offers sacrifices to God just in case someone he loves has sinned.

This is, in short, as good a man as the culture could imagine.

It’s an alien culture to be sure. What, we wonder, did he need all those camels and donkeys for? Why seven sons, but only three daughters? And so on. It’s a tiny window into a very different world. Picture trading caravans of heavily laden camels walking patiently over the desert sands, carrying silk and incense and all the treasures of the east. A world where you sent your flocks out to graze, rather than cultivating fields. A world where your children are described as being part of one’s riches. A world where the division between “servant” and “slave” is unclear. A patriarchal world, in which Job found himself perfectly at ease. Not a world we would like to live in[2], but to get anything out of the story, like any story, we need to suspend our disbelief.

Into this successful, fulfilled life, misfortune comes. It is not due to anything Job has done – in fact, it is exactly because he is such a good man that terrible things are about to happen to him.

The scene shifts. The Lord, the great God, is in council with the lesser gods. We are a long way from our own strict monotheism here. The ancients lived in a world full of divine presences of various sorts. Some benign, some not so much[3]. The Lord takes the opportunity to boast about Job to Satan, who is back from “going to and fro on the earth.”

This is a picture which takes a bit of getting used to. In our picture of the universe, Satan isn’t one of the God’s council – quite the opposite. Satan rules his own terrifying realm of sin and evil and is the ultimate rejection of God.

But this isn’t the picture Job’s writer has. The word  we translate as “satan” here means something like “the accuser” – so perhaps we could see his role in the Lord’s court as being like a public prosecutor – or the head of the secret police, always on the lookout for dangers to the regime.

It’s not an altogether comfortable picture, metaphysically speaking. But it’s a powerful setup for the unfolding drama.

What happens next is even more uncomfortable: The Lord gives the OK to Satan’s plan to put Job to the test. In fact, it happens twice. The first time Satan can do what she likes to Job’s possessions, so long as she agrees to spare Job’s person. But when Chaldeans make off with Job’s camels and kill his servants, and when a great wind destroys the house in which his children are feasting and kills them all – “in all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”

Satan, unsatisfied with the situation, petitions the Lord again. “People will give all they have to save their lives, but stretch out your hand to touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”

God agreed, with the provision that Job’s life be spared, and so Satan afflicted Job with loathsome sores “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”

Job is completely cast down. All his great riches have been destroyed, and he has become an outcast. Even his wife turns against him, I’m sorry to say, and completely loses her temper with him. “Will you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!”

But Job refuses to do any such thing. He will not abandon his trust in God – even though all these awful things have happened to him. He says: “Shall we receive the good at the hands of God and not receive the bad?”

And then his friends come to console him. They have gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years as “Job’s comforters”, but credit where credit is due. They sat with him in complete silence for a full week, “because they saw his suffering was very great.”

That is some high quality relating right there. I find it difficult to sit with a suffering person for an hour – let alone a whole week.

However, even these well motivated, relationally deep, committed friends of Job struggle to make sense of what is going on. Let Then Eliphaz the Temanite speak for them all.

 ‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
   Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
   and sow trouble reap the same.
(Job 4:1, 7-8)

To put it in plainer language more suited to a more plain spoken culture: get real! Who ever heard of a good person having all this happen to them? You have clearly done something to offend God – get down off you high horse and repent!

The next thirty-three chapters continue more or less along the same lines. His friends, and also a random bystander who also decided to weigh in, all said essentially the same thing: you have somehow brought this upon yourself. But Job stood his ground and refuses to concede an inch. He has done absolutely nothing to bring this mysterious and terrible calamity upon himself.

Let’s pause there, briefly. This might seem like an alien world. I don’t have even a single camel, and I find it very hard to imagine God as presiding over a divine court. And no-one I know expresses themselves remotely as eloquently, if long-windedly, as do Job and his friends. And nor am I as completely certain of my own righteousness as Job is.

What does all of this have to do with me? With us?

There is a deep need in human nature for the universe to make moral sense. We strongly believe, in ways that are too deep for us to articulate easily, that the good ought to prosper, and the wicked ought to be punished.

We think that should be true in human society, and we do our best to ensure that it is.

And we think it should be true of the universe in general.

And that is a bit more… problematic.

Whenever something bad happens to someone, we are very strongly tempted to find reasons why they deserved it.

I remember when Anne and I were on our infertility journey people had all sorts of reasons why the whole thing was our fault. Just relax, they’d say. I appreciate that they thought they were trying to help. But their desire to easily solve our suffering – which did not, in the end, have a happy resolution – veiled a deep fear of their own, which is this:

How can I be safe?

Surely if I am a good person, then I will be rewarded? Surely only the wicked are punished?

I think it’s a way of trying to maintain control in our lives, to ward off the horrifying possibility that something bad might happen to me, or to those I love.

But the horrible truth is that bad things happen to good people all the time.

There is a particular Christian version of this.

If only you had faith, people say, then you would be healed!

And if you are not healed – well, it just goes to show that you didn’t have enough faith. You are an inadequate Christian. It’s your fault – which means that I, faith filled and on fire for Jesus as I am, will be safe. Unlike you.

I find this particularly galling, given that we have whole books of the Bible, not to mention the example of Jesus himself, showing that bad things can and do happen to good people.

So, given all that, let’s go back to Job’s story. We left him sitting on his ash-heap, maintaining his innocence against all comers.

As the clickbait writers say: what happens next will amaze you.

God shows up in a whirlwind, perfectly prepared to answer Job.

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?

Job 38:1-7

And so on, for several amazing chapters.

At one level, this is quite an odd response from God. It doesn’t at all answer the “question of suffering” as we want. It can read something like: I am very big and impressive, and you are very small, so shut up.

But there is a lot more going on here than that.

The thing is that I don’t think that the “problem” of suffering can be “solved.” That is, I don’t think that there is any possible answer, any conceivable collection of words which could be said to make the problem of suffering go away.

I know that what is technically known as the problem of theodicy – how to reconcile God and suffering – has a long and honourable history in our culture. And in many ways it is a good question – maybe the central question. And I think there are good answers to the question of how an all-good and all-powerful God could create a world which includes suffering.[4]

But there is a big difference between asking this question from a position of theoretical interest – leaning forward over the table in the pub and earnestly making the killer point which wins the argument – versus looking up from the ash heap and pleading with God.

Even the best answer doesn’t take the problem away. People – and animals – suffer.

For some people, it’s all too hard. They decide to walk away from faith. They can’t make that leap.

But it seems to me that atheism doesn’t help much. Where once we had one problem – the problem of suffering – now we have two. There is still a lot of suffering in the world, and now we are totally alone in it, without any hope or meaning or bigger story to be part of.

So perhaps the active element in the problem of suffering is not so much “why suffering” as “given suffering, now what?”

Rather than responding to an argument, God gives Job – and us – a vision into what it is like to be God. Imagine it as an amazing cinematic blast of stars leaping into existence, the creation of the clouds, the enormous storehouses where the snow is kept, The Lord wrestling leviathan into submission, the multitude of things going on in the natural world every single millisecond of every single day …. All the majestic sweep of creation.

We are caught up into that divine life, just a little bit, just for a moment.

We are, as it were, decentred from ourselves, shown our part in this colossal story of which we are part. 

And that, paradoxically, seems to me to be at least part of how we live in the mystery of suffering. Life is fundamentally paradoxical and mysterious. There is so much going on that we can’t possibly know about, so many questions which simply cannot be answered at our frame of reference. We cannot wait for some explanation which we feel satisfied with before we engage with life – it is already coming at us full tilt, without any apology on its part.

We are already in the surf – our part is to ride the waves or to let them pull us under.

How do we become conscious of the ways in which we are joined onto God’s life? Not primarily by thinking things, but by practices – prayer, worship, fellowship, the sorts of spiritual practices which engage the whole self – emotion and imagination as well as intelligence. By living in a way which leads us into the faith, hope, and love which is the true telos, the true point, meaning, destination of human life.

Of course, the revelation of God to Job is only part of the full Christian response. We Christians believe that the full revelation of God is through Jesus Christ who did not think of the divine form as something to be grasped, but emptied himself and came amongst us.

God, in God’s own self, came amongst us, and becomes part of our shared life of sorrow and suffering and joy.

God reveals godself as completely trustworthy. The primary task of faith is not, therefore, to have a series of good intellectual answers to questions, important though that is. The primary task of faith, it seems to me, is to foster that same sort of complete faith in God which Job had.

Our God does not just sit in the sky and contemplate her own perfection like the god of the philosophers, but comes amongst us, shares our grief and pain, and promises us that she will never leave us or forsake us.

No matter what storm of suffering and grief is beating down on us.

[1] You don’t think so? When was the last time you saw someone poor and powerless asked for their advice about life? But the rich, famous, and powerful are always bloviating. Except for the wonderful Humans of New York of course.       

[2] Ordinarily this comes with the proviso “unless you get to be the person at the top of the heap” – but that’s precisely the point of Job. Wealth and power are no protection.

[3] If you’re interested in this, you should definitely read Charles’ Taylor’s A Secular Age, or one of the shorter summaries. Some translations say “angels”, but that’s not what the original text says.

[4] You should definitely ready C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and Dorothee Sölle’s Suffering if you are moved, troubled, or indeed traumatised, by this whole question. They are both full of good ideas – but good ideas are not enough.

Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

One reply on “Job and the Mystery of Suffering”

True it is a universal court case. The adversary chafed against the restriction placed on those granted free will, as symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, that they have not been granted the capacity to decide for themselves what is good or bad. Such ignorant choice results in suffering and eventual removal [ the Hebrew dying you will die ]
The issue involves the creators name first revealed at Gen.2:4 and explained to Moses at Exodus 3:14 “Many translations here read ‘I am that I am.’ But carful renderings show that God was not merely confirming his own existence. Rather, Jehovah was teaching Moses – and by extension all of us – that He would ‘chouse to become’ whatever was needed in order to fulfill His promises. J. B. Rotherham’s translation pointedly renders this verse: ‘I Will Become whatsoever I please.’ One authority on Biblical Hebrew explains the phrase this way: Whatever the situation or need … God will ‘become’ the solution to that need.’ ”
Like Job and the Christ, despite our suffering will we exercise faith in that?

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