It’s an odd mixture of moods in the room this morning, and a strange day to be preaching. We began our worship by celebrating the baptism of our newborn baby brother, Evan David Abbo, into the body of Christ. We’ll end by gathering around our dear friends, Heather and Ben Kulp to bless them as they take their leave of us and set off for new adventures in Boston. And in-between these two events, we are midway through our three week study of the book of Job — a book of the Bible that explores the experience of suffering, the search for justice in a world filled with arbitrariness, and our relationship with God in the face of all that is most difficult about being human.
If you were here last week, or if you’re familiar with the book of Job, then you’ll remember that the story begins by introducing Job, a man described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Shortly thereafter, the reader discovers that Job is at the center of a debate between God and a member of God’s court whose task is to find fault with humankind. This accuser has alleged that humanity is only faithful to God for the sake of the blessings God grants, or out of fear of what would happen if God’s wrath were to fall upon them, but that this is no true love. The accuser incites God to test the limits of human faithfulness, saying “but stretch out your hand now, and touch all that [Job] has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:11)
God accepts the challenge, and in one devastating day Job, a wealthy man, loses all that he owns — his servants, his livestock, and all ten of his children. Calling to him as he sits in the ashes of his mourning, Job’s wife issues the accuser’s challenge “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (Job 2:9) But Job remains faithful in the midst of his suffering, replying, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10)
But grief is long, as we all know, and complex. Left alone with our thoughts and feelings, convictions give way to questions, and certitude becomes doubt. For a while, people seem able to tolerate our pain, but in time we begin to feel pressure, to perceive cues, that it’s time to move on with our lives whether we’re ready or not. The same is true for Job, whose friends travel to be with him in his grief. At first they are the model of true friendship. Scripture says,
“They met together to go and console and comfort him. 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 seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)
Once Job is finally ready to speak, he curses the day he was born. He would rather trade in any experience of this life than have to face the suffering of all he has lost. Finally, hoping, perhaps, to comfort Job by offering an explanation for what has happened, one of the friends suggests that Job is responsible for his own fate — that somehow he has sinned and brought this terrible fate on his own house. Job’s friend says,
“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of [God’s] anger they are consumed.” (Job 4:7-9)
At this point, Job’s suffering is complicated by the efforts of his friends to make sense of it for him. Maybe you know something about these sorts of complications.
Among the varieties of genres found in scripture, the book of Job is categorized as wisdom literature. Wisdom literature itself is varied and diverse and not limited to Christian scripture. The Bible contains both Lamentations and Ecclesiastes, both Proverbs and Psalms — all of which seek to offer insight about the nature of reality, the character of God, and the human effort to live virtuously in light of what we have experienced and can know about each.
Proverbs are a form of wisdom literature, not just the ones we read in the Bible, but the ones we hear and use every day. Tig Notaro, the comedian I referenced last week, skewered the modern day proverb we’ve all heard, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” but there are others, each more or less helpful. Working as a chaplain in children’s hospitals you hear a lot of them. At the death of a child I often heard, “God needed another beautiful angel,” and “time heals all wounds,” or “everything happens according to God’s plan.”
The difficulty with wisdom literature is that it isn’t always true, and it certainly isn’t true in all situations or circumstances. Time doesn’t, in fact, heal all wounds. Some wounds defy healing. Other sayings offer to explain away our pain with proposals that, if true, only raise additional problems. What kind of God takes children from their parents to create angels? What kind of God allows suffering for the sake of some master plan?
This is the suffering Job endures as his friends try to explain away his pain. Perhaps their sympathy has run out, or maybe his suffering reminds them of their own and they are simply grasping at the kinds of explanations offered them in their grief, but it’s doing no good. Job complains about the effects of their best efforts:
“My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed, like freshets that pass away, that run dark with ice, turbid with melting snow. In time of heat they disappear; when it is hot, they vanish from their place… They are disappointed because they were confident; they come there and are confounded. Such you have now become to me; you see my calamity, and are afraid… Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone wrong.” (Job 6:14-17, 20-21, 24)
Job hears the wisdom of his friends, but finds no wisdom it it — at least not for him. And it’s at this point that I want to return to the question I left you with last week when I asked you to listen carefully to the prepared answers that come to your mind when you are caught up in suffering, or when you are attempting to comfort those around you in their griefs. What have you been taught to think, to do, to believe in response to your own life’s suffering? How have those actions and beliefs comforted you, shielded you, carried you or failed you as you negotiate life’s complex mixture of joy and pain?
I spent a little bit of time on the phone with my parents this past week trying to sift through what we’d been taught about suffering. Certainly, on my dad’s side, there was an almost stereotypically stoic response to suffering that is typical among those who are farmers, as was my grandfather and his brothers. My dad remembers that complaints were quickly shut down by my grandfather, who would clip short the whining of his six children with “If it were any worse, I’m sure you’d tell us.” Farm life wasn’t fair. Weather was good, or it was bad. The land was dry or it was wet. Farmer spirituality didn’t grow out of an expectation of justice, measured in inches of rain, it proceeded from the observation that “it is what it is” and moved on from there.
The expectation of justice, however, sits at the heart of Job’s dilemma. Although he rejects his friend’s explanation, that this suffering was somehow God’s response to his sin, Job does seem to accept that God is a god of justice — and it is this belief that torments him. If God is just, then why do good people suffer?
The divide between God’s justice and the random distribution of human suffering plants an idea in Job that grabs a hold of him, and won’t let go. There must be a trial. At first, Job seeks a trial in which he would be the defendant. He wants to prove his innocence, but struggles to put his confidence in any court over which this God presides, saying
“Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, [God] would prove me perverse… I become afraid of all my suffering, for I know you will not hold me innocent.” (Job 9:20,28)
Job still believes in justice, but he has lost faith in the cosmic justice system, and in this many of us can relate to Job as well. As a congregation, we hold a strong conviction that the God we worship is the god of justice. In our ministries to one another, in our advocacy on behalf of our neighbors, our nation, and even our environment, we invoke the message of the prophets and of Jesus that the God we serve is the God of liberation, of relief and release. We root our passion for justice in the justice of God…
… but then we go to work and see those who cut corners or shift blame getting ahead. We go to school and see those who keep quiet or flatter moving to the front of the class. We go to the hospital and see good people suffering horribly, and negligent caretakers and guardians inflicting unconscionable harm. We go to the court room and we see one set of rules applied to those with access and means, and another applied to those without access to adequate representation or advocacy. We believe in justice, and we believe in God — but we wonder, does the absence of one suggest the absence of the other?
Here’s where it is helpful for you to have spent some time reflecting on what you’ve been taught about suffering, and how you were trained to make sense of it and endure it. We may not all share Job’s vision of God as cosmic judge and arbiter of justice, but there are other images of God that shape our experience of God’s absence.
Perhaps you relate to God as the great physician, and long less for justice and more for an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your suffering, only to find that no one can tell you what is causing your pain. Perhaps you relate to God through Christ Jesus as the friend who walks beside you, who hears and answers your prayers, and you are tormented by a sense of abandonment as you face new trials alone. Maybe you’re among those who substitute talk of “the Universe” for the name of God, but now find that the universe is vast and ever expanding, and your personal agonies seem too small for the universe to pay much attention to with so many stars collapsing into black holes. Or maybe you don’t think much about God or the universe, and you’ve always felt alone, but some new suffering has you ready to throw in the towel and you worry that there’s no one out there who will notice your passing.
This is the place that defies answers. Every instinct in me as a preacher and as a friend, as a brother and a lover, wants to take this pain away from you. Wants to toss off a proverb or a song lyric or some other bit of wisdom literature and make it all alright. Except that when you’re truly suffering, you know that it’s not all alright. You know that your world is not the way it was supposed to be, and you don’t need to be blamed for it, or explained out of it. You need a person, or a people, or a baptized body to sit with you while you wait for your appetite to return. You need your anger. You need to rail at the injustice of life, or the inadequacy of science, or the failure of family and friends. You need to be exactly as you are.
So, today — despite everything in me that wants to offer you the promise of God’s justice, the assurance of God’s healing, the steadfastness of God’s presence, the reliability of God’s good creation; despite the fact that I honestly, and unromantically, and unapologetically believe in all these things — today we will not end on a positive note, we will not wrap things up neatly, we will not answer the questions left open before us.
Because sometimes we know a thing best when it is missing, and sometimes it is a thing’s absence that finally makes it real.