It sounds strange, but I’ve been looking forward to preaching for a couple of weeks now, knowing that this morning I’m beginning a three-week series on the book of Job. Most of us are vaguely aware that the book of Job deals with the issue of faith and the experience of personal suffering. We may have heard phrases like “the patience of Job” that incline us to believe that his story is one of pious acceptance of whatever befalls him, which seems to be his response in the passage read this morning. When you actually dig into the book of Job, however, what you find is so much more complex, both on the level of narrative and of structure. It is a complex piece of literature that tackles big topics, ranging from the experience of suffering to humanity’s ambivalent relationship to God to the expectation of justice in a world filled with both chaos and order. It is a book filled with the raw messiness of human life, in which characters engage in prolonged theological debate. In other words, it’s a preacher’s dream.
But I’d been looking forward to this first week in the three-week series for another reason. Here, early in the book, we get the set up to all that follows. We learn that Job, who is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” has contracted some kind of disease. Immediately his experience, and the questions it raises, become familiar to us. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow those who lead such exemplary lives to suffer such horrible fates? It is a question that lives in all of our hearts and minds at some point, and for some of you it is a question you are wrestling with on a daily basis.
Job’s suffering goes deeper than just his experience of illness though. In the passage preceding the one we read, Job — a wealthy man, whose household numbered ten children, an array of servants, and vast herds of sheep and camels, oxen and donkeys — has lost everything, all in a day. First his donkeys and oxen were stolen and his servants killed by bandits. Then his herds of sheep were devastated by natural disaster and burned in a fire. Then his camels were taken in a military raid. Finally his children are killed when the house in which they were gathered collapses and they are crushed inside.
The scene is both horrible and comic. It’s too much to believe. Nobody looses this much all at once. Surely this is some kind of joke.
Humor is, of course, one of the ways we deal with tragedy. You know the popular proverb, “if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.” Earlier this week I got a mass email from my favorite comedian, Louis CK, who was promoting a half-hour recording of a live stand-up set from his friend, Tig Notaro. I filed it away in my inbox as something I’d get to on my day off. Then, while I was exercising on the elliptical machine at the gym, I got a text from Ben Kulp saying I needed to tune in to this week’s episode of This American Life. He said it dealt with the experience of cancer in a totally fresh way, knowing that I was particularly attuned to the issue of cancer right now. So I went online and discovered that the segment featured none other than Tig Notaro and her increasingly famous live set, the one Louis CK was promoting. I took it as a sign that I needed to listen without delay to what she had to say.
On July 30 this past summer, Tig was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. Four days later she was scheduled to perform at Largo, a Hollywood nightclub. Scrapping her prepared set, Tig took to the stage, opening her set with, “I have cancer, how are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer, how are you? Ah, it’s a good time. Diagnosed with cancer, feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer.” The crowd’s laughter becomes nervous and periodically you hear someone near the stage moaning in sympathy. But it gets worse. In the four months prior to her cancer diagnosis, Tig had fought off pneumonia and then a deadly bacterial infection called C. diff that put her in the hospital and nearly killed her. Shortly after being discharged from the hospital her mother died suddenly in a freak accident. Then she and her girlfriend broke up. Then she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. All in four months. Her suffering was so incredible you could hear it in her voice, yet there she was, onstage, transforming it into laughter.
At one point, Tig herself quotes the book of Job, saying
“What’s odd though is, having this diagnosis… it’s such a weird time because I have so many amazing things going on in my life. Like it’s at this point where, my life’s always gone pretty okay, and just always on the up, and just movin’ along just fine. And then, and then just everything just turned. You know ‘the good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away’… but sometimes the good Lord taketh and just keep takin’-it-eth.”
That’s what Job says after learning that all he has has been taken away from him, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
But then it gets worse, and Job himself gets ill. He is covered from head to foot in what the Bible describes as “loathsome sores” — which also sounds like it comes from a comedy routine, because what other kind of sores are there? But Job just heads outside and sits down in the ashes, presumably the ones he’d just finished using to mourn the loss of his children and possessions, and very practically handles the matter at hand by scraping the sores off with a broken piece of pottery.
Job’s wife isn’t given much to say in the book of Job, just this one line, but it sets up the dramatic tension inherent in the whole story. In the depths of his suffering, Job’s wife says to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” Her words are confusing and complex. Is she simply angry at all they have lost, and ready to blame God for the pain of life? Or, is she looking for a way out, hoping that — by cursing God — Job will evoke divine retribution that will finally put them all out of their misery? We can hear her question, “do you still persist in your integrity” as a kind of mockery of integrity itself. Which course has more integrity — to honestly claim one’s anger at a God who would allow all this to happen, or to keep faith with the God from whom and to whom all things flow as gifts to be held, not treasures to be kept. Either answer is plausible, and the book of Job doesn’t answer the questions for us.
In all of this, unknown to Job, God and one of the members of God’s heavenly court — here called satan, which means “accuser,” and should probably be understood more as a job title than a proper name — are engaged in a theological debate. The accuser’s basic charge against humanity is that we love the God who blesses us, but that our love of God is a shallow and fear-filled love; shallow because it disappears when suffering arrives, as we hear in Job’s wife’s cry for Job to curse God and die, and fear-filled because we love God out of fear of what might happen if we do not. Like the wealthy father in the story of the prodigal son, God is in the position of knowing that children’s love is sometimes conditioned on the promise of an inheritance. The accuser puts it to God like this,
“Have you not put a fence around [Job] and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to [the accuser], “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (Job 1:10-12)
God and the accuser are carrying out a divine experiment to see just how much Job can take, to find out where the limits of Job’s love and faithfulness lie. It is the biblical acting out of the too-often used expression we’ve all come to dread when it is we ourselves who are suffering, “the Lord never gives you more than you can handle.”
Again, Tig Notaro takes on the book of Job, saying
“But you know what’s nice about all of this, is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you’ve had it, God goes, ‘alright, that’s it.’ I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more.’ And then the angels are standing back going, ‘God, what are you doing?! You are out of your mind!’ And God was like, ‘No, no, no… I really think she can handle this.’
‘But why God, why?!’
‘I don’t know, you just, you know. Just trust me on this. She can handle this.’”
She concludes, “God is insane, if there at all.”
Tig Notaro’s half hour set at the Largo has become a nationwide sensation, practically overnight. You can download it for $5 on Louis CK’s website. She’s been featured on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life. You can hear in the mixture of laughter and groans that her audience is connecting with her because she’s saying out loud the things we all feel inside. “God is insane, if there at all.” And while she may or may not know it, she is doing good public theology. She is asking why there is so much horrible, unexplained suffering in life. She is wondering if there is any relationship between our human notions of justice and our human experience of arbitrariness. She is grappling with the fact that two seemingly opposite things can be true at once — that life can be full and good and horribly painful and empty, sometimes at the same time. She is pointing our attention at the thing we know to be true, and nevertheless resent — that there are no easy answers, only questions that lead us further and further down the hole.
Together, in the remaining two weeks of this series, we’ll follow Job down that hole. We’ll stand alongside Job as he asks what justice there is in our experiences of suffering, and we’ll hear God’s address to Job as well. As we do, I encourage you to listen carefully to the prepared answers that come to your mind as we grapple with the experience of suffering. 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? This is part of the gift of the book of Job, the chance to listen together to the ways each of us works it through, coming to whatever peace we can find with all that we experience in our course on earth.
In closing, I just want to share with you a poem that my professor of Old Testament, Carol Newsom, shared in her commentary on these verses from the book of Job. These are the final lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods”
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.