The last few weeks the Old Testament readings have given us a taste of Job’s story. The book of Job is a very unusual one. Job is not part of any narrative history, like Moses or David. In fact Israel is not even mentioned. Job is a stand alone mythic tale written about human suffering.
In the story, God is meeting with his heavenly beings, Satan being one of them. God remarks about this righteous man, Job, and Satan challenges him. Satan says, “Of course he is righteous, you’ve made him prosperous and he is surrounded by a loving family. Why wouldn’t he be righteous?” God is convinced Job will remain righteous, so he allows Satan to interfere with Job’s life. Job’s animals are stolen, his children are killed, and he is given a terrible skin disease that makes him anathema to every one around him.
Job is devastated and just wants to die, but he remains faithful to God. Three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to comfort him. At first they spend a week just silently supporting Job, but then the friends start giving helpful advice. They say things like, “I guess your children died because God needed a few more angels” and “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
Okay, so his friends don’t say those things.
But they are sure they have the answers to Job’s problems. Eliphaz suggests that Job should be happy to be experiencing God’s discipline. Bildad suggests Job should just pray harder. Zophar is convinced that Job must be hiding some secret sin and if Job would just be honest about it, God would restore everything that had been taken away from him.
You can just hear Job groaning as he replies to each of his friends, assuring them that he has been praying, that he has remained righteous, but that all of this suffering is happening anyway. He is utterly miserable and just wants God to send him to Sheol so he does not need to suffer any more. Job pleads his case before God, wanting answers, wanting relief.
Once his friends are done talking, a young man who has been listening to the conversation, decides he just has to jump in and give Job his perspective. He tells Job that Job has been dwelling too much on the negative and if he just focused on how great God is, everything will turn around for him.
Poor Job. Everyone wants to weigh in on his problems, and the only One he wants to hear from is God.
Job’s story is universally understood, because everyone has suffered at some point in his or her life. Everyone has been ill, or lost a loved one, or had serious financial problems. We all know the feeling of being completely overwhelmed, unable to help ourselves. We can also relate to the experience of people around us not really knowing how to help. How many of our mothers just can’t help but give us unasked for advice? How many of our friends give us awkward words of comfort? How many of us have had strangers weigh in on our lives? We get Job. We get his grief, his feelings of isolation and his anger. We, too, want to know why God lets terrible things happen to us. If God loves us, shouldn’t he protect us?
Job desperately wants answers from God and for God to help him.
But when God finally answers Job, and appears in a whirlwind, it becomes clear that God is not interested in giving Job the kind of pastoral care for which he was hoping!
Instead God summons Job:
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.
And then a series of questions:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may goand say to you, `Here we are’?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?
Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?
Phew! Is this the heavenly equivalent of God saying, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!” For the whole story, Job has been the center of the universe. All the action and terrors have been focused on Job. And that’s how it feels when we suffer, right? When we are in pain, all we can see is our own experience.
But here is God, reminding Job that God remains at the center of the universe. He’s not saying this to diminish Job, in fact, he tells Job to “Gird up his loins”. He wants Job to contend with him. But God places himself firmly in the position of the Creator who knows his creation more deeply than any human ever could. God knows the deep order of the universe—and there is a deep order, the sun rising and setting, the tides moving in and out, birth and death—even if our lives feel like chaos. God reminds Job of the beauty of the world.
David Henson, in a beautiful homily titled “What Job and God learn from each other” writes:
Instead, God responds with beauty.
Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.
And here’s the thing. I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think the one negates the other. God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering. Because no answer — even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of our pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world. There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side
God’s answer, God’s presence is enough for Job. Job responds in wonder:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.
God does not provide any easy answers or apologize for the suffering Job has experienced. But being reassured that God has not abandoned him and that the world is filled with order and beauty, even in the midst of Job’s suffering, leaves Job satisfied.
In crisis, sometimes that experience of the presence of God is enough to sustain us. We may not know how to move forward from our crisis, but if we can sense God is with us, that can be enough to keep us going. And remembering there is deep order and beauty to the universe can help us remember our problems are not the end of the story. We have a future.
Job’s story does not end with this holy encounter. Job goes on to have more flocks, more children. He has a new beginning after his tragedy. This new beginning does not replace everything he has lost. New children cannot replace children who have died. His pain and grief still lie underneath this new beginning. But he does not remain paralyzed by his suffering, but is able to move forward, with God’s help.
May God bless you with a deep sense of his presence and a conviction that, no matter what is happening in your life, that even now God is preparing a new beginning for you. Amen.