If you’ve never wondered why bad things happen to good people or why the wicked prosper . . .
If you’ve never struggled to make sense of suffering—your own or someone else’s or that of untold multitudes around of the world . . .
If you’ve never gotten angry about the indifference of the privileged to injustice or asked how a God who is good can just “stand by” while so many precious people are rejected, repressed, and oppressed in God’s name . . .
Well, then, this message is not for you.
And, spoiler alert: If you’re expecting clear-cut answers to any of these questions, you will surely be disappointed.
But for the rest of us, which I imagine is almost all of us, we have the story of Job, a timeless parable based on the ancient fable of the righteous sufferer. The writer of the book of Job was struggling with some of the same questions we do.
God’s chosen people had been run out of the Promised Land and were living as exiles in Babylon. They were trying to square their beliefs and their self-image with their experience. They professed a retributive-justice theology, which told them that the righteous prosper and the evil are punished. They believed that the life of faith functioned as a sort of “get-out-of-suffering” card, that if they did the right things and didn’t do the wrong things, God would bless them with good things and protect them from bad things.
So pervasive and subtle is this ancient cause-and-effect theology, this view of God as divine judge and disciplinarian, that even modern-day atheists are influenced by it. Even we who don’t believe it are shaped by it.
By the time we meet Job in this morning’s reading, he has suffered unbearable loss—all 10 of his children have been killed and the vast fortune he owned is gone, as is his health. As if that’s not enough tragedy, he has also lost his wife’s support and his friends’ respect, and he can no longer make sense of the world. And as if all that’s not enough, he has lost the God he thought he knew, the image of God he had created and put in a very safe box. It’s the end of the world as Job had known it.
Just as much as the next person, just as much as us, Job wants to feel that he has some control over his life—that he can win blessings or success or, at the very least, divine protection from suffering by being good. This is his worldview and that of his friends. So when Job, a good and faithful man, suffers major and repeated catastrophes, it’s clear that something is not right. The easiest answer—and the one that Job’s so-called friends insist upon—is that Job is not good, that he is being punished for some secret sin.
And at this point, I must digress—because this kind of thinking is so pervasive as to be unconscious, and this kind of thinking can cause us and others great and lasting harm.
I will never forget the screams of a father whose first child had just been delivered with no heartbeat or breath and was slowly turning blue in her mother’s arms. “What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?” he kept saying, even as I tried to tell him that nothing he had done or not done had caused his baby’s death.
Yes, our actions have consequences, but the tragedies that befall us—disease, death, divorce and natural disasters, among many others—are not God’s way of punishing us. They can have many causes, but God’s wrath is not one of them.
So give yourself credit when you continue to want to know why and how and what it all means, when you keep asking questions and refuse to accept pat answers.
And we don’t have to be in great pain or going through some sort of existential crisis to ask the big questions. Questions about the meaning of life, questions about who and where and what God is, as well as laments and complaints, are always holy. So many questions are blessings in and of themselves: questions about who we are and who we want to become, questions about what is most important to us, questions about what makes us come alive and what makes our heart sing, questions about growing up, questions about who we want to spend our lives with, and questions about aging and dying. Questions about what we believe, who we trust, and what difference it makes.
The clarity we seek may not always come, at least not when we want it to, but the very process of engaging the questions will bring insight, growth, blessing, and sometimes even the joy of discovery.
As Rilke told the young poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. … The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
As for Job, he deserves both our admiration and our thanks—because he gives us a master class in spiritual struggle, grief, and questioning. Job refuses to deny the depth of his pain, his sense of betrayal by God and his friends, and the inadequacy of his belief system. He refuses to stop complaining, to stop pestering, or to stop questioning God until God answers him.
Because God does hear Job’s cries. The Holy One gives Job a hearing. The Creator does not remain aloof or disengaged but enters into conversation with the one who is hurting, confused, and angry.
In today’s lesson we have the beginning of God’s response to Job—and instead of answers Job gets an entirely new set of questions to consider, as well as poetry, glory, awe, wonder, a reminder of who God is, a sense of humanity’s place and purpose, and the assurance that God is not only with him but also in Job’s pain and suffering. After hearing four full chapters of God’s perspective and caring, Job realizes that he had misunderstood God’s ways. After engaging God directly, Job begins to get some sense of the grandness of creation and his limited place in it.
In the end, Job discovers that there are no easy answers, that sometimes we just have to accept the way things are and know that we are not alone, and that finding God is much more satisfying and life-changing than getting answers or gaining wisdom. He also discovers that God values our wrestling with the questions far more than the smugness of those who think they have the answers.
And it can be so for us as well.
So let us go forth in the integrity of all we are feeling, being true to what is in our heart, resolved to live the questions now. May we know that God promises us something even better than answers, which is the freedom that comes from knowing our limitations, the presence of Spirit, partnership with our Creator, the gifts of the way of Jesus, the strength of community, healing and transformation over time, and the peace that passes understanding.