January 24, 2011
My plan for today’s post was to do a little experiment called ‘questions for God’. The idea being that I would read Job 21-22 and write down any tough questions it brought up for me. Questions I’d like to ask God, funnily enough. Sometimes I find that I avoid these questions when writing this blog, or refer to them briefly, partly because I can’t answer them and partly because they scare me. I thought this would be a good way to face them head on.
The problem is, Job’s done it for me. Chapter 21 is his tirade of questions directed at his mocking and, in his opinion, deluded friends. But early on he asks “as for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals?”; these are really questions for God (21:4). And they’re good ones too. “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” This pretty much sums up Job’s detailed inventory of the prosperity of the wicked in 21:7-16. Next he moves on to refuting the naive claims of his friends, starting with these questions that ring with irony:
17 ‘How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
How often does calamity come upon them?
How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
18 How often are they like straw before the wind,
and like chaff that the storm carries away?
He is referring back directly to claims his friends have made (eg 15:20, 18:6, 18:12) and you can just hear his tone: ”Really? That’s what you think happens to the wicked is it? Hellooo!’ My favourite part is when he says “You say, “God stores up their iniquity for their children.” Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.” Too right! I’ve always thought the whole generational guilt thing was a bit unfair!
So, Job gets that off his chest, and his friends see his point, right? Of course they don’t. Eliphaz’s reply is sooo frustrating! First of all he lists loads of things that Job has done wrong, which is confusing because he’s supposed to be “blameless and upright” (1:1) so you get the feeling Eliphaz is clutching at straws somewhat. Then he says “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you.” Oh, cheers, Eliphaz, I’m sure the blameless and upright Job hadn’t thought of that one! The point is that he’s still clinging to the idea that Job is suffering because he’s in the wrong, but we know it’s not like that, don’t we?
If we thought along the lines of Eliphaz then we would think that all rich and prosperous people were good and everyone who suffered disasters and loss was in the wrong. This is the kind of logic that led to some of the repugnant thinking about the Haitian earthquake from certain people who I hesitate to call Christian. It’s also the kind of thinking that can lead to a sort of self-satisfied malaise in those who have it good; something that Jesus wasn’t too keen on.
But knowing that life just isn’t that simple just makes everything more confusing, doesn’t it? I find myself reading Job’s words and thinking “yeah! yeah, exactly!” And, like Job, I want answers. The thing is, none will satisfy, even if they were a bit more complex than “bad things happen because you’re bad!”
These are questions for God and, as such, there is no real answer in our vocabulary. Except trust, I suppose, to trust in the bigger picture. But then I think tell that so someone who just lost their home to a flood, or their child to a bomb, or their arm to a diamond mine. This is tough stuff and it’s one of the fundamental questions of faith. What it all boils down to is, why doesn’t God just sort everything out?
You know, I sort believe He does sort everything out or that he is sorting everything out. That doesn’t stop me having a thousand more questions for Him though. Because faith isn’t mindless, it’s just not mind-limited. One big point is that we should never impose our trust on someone who’s suffering. Telling someone who’s just been diagnosed with cancer that it’s all part of the bigger picture is not always the best route to go down. If we can learn anything from Job it is that just being there with a friend and allowing them to feel all their anger and pain is probably the most useful thing we can do. We’re allowed to not know why things happen the way they do, in fact that not knowing might help us to empathise with others. Job’s friends have all the answers, and they’re not so helpful…
To be comfortable with an unanswered question in this age-of-reason culture is pretty radical. And I like being radical.
I ended an old post on this subject with the phrase “may all of your prayers and none of questions be answered”. I think I might make it my catchphrase!
December 16, 2010
Eliphaz and Job do not see eye to eye in chapters 15-16. No change there then. What they do share, however is a need to be right. Both want the other to see their point of view, so neither is heard.
I find the defensiveness of these men’s language so striking. “Are you the firstborn of the human race?” snipes Eliphaz at his friend who he sees as turning away from God through his complaint. “miserable comforters are you all” Job tells his friends. He’s got a point too. Is it ever appropriate to tell your grieving friend that he is choosing “the tongue of the crafty” and give him a lecture on what God does to the wicked? (15:17-35).
If there’s anything this book is teaching me about it’s empathy. Much of what Job says seems incredibly dramatic and even self-indulgent. Some of it is, I must admit, difficult to understand at all. But then there are moments when his words reveal utter desolation, such as 16:6: “If I speak, my pain is not assuaged, and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me? ” He can find no comfort, no catharsis, he can only keep expressing, keep going over the events that have rendered him hopeless and led him to question the God to whom he was so devoted.
But what’s this? Right at the end of chapter 16 Job seems to suggest that he has hope in heaven yet: “Even now, in fact, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high.” Somewhere inside, through all of his ranting about what God has done to him, there is a glimmer of the promise that this same God will be his justifier, his redeemer even? It’s quite a surprise after narrative of abandonment and/or abuse that’s been running for quite a while. A pleasant surprise too.
In order to see these things, both the hopelessness and the flicker of light, I had to give Job my attention. Although I am beginning to feel like I’m reading the same arguments over and over, I had to try to treat this chapter as a new start, where I could find something different. I ask myself what I would be like as a friend, a sister, a wife, a daughter, a worker, if I paid this same sensitive attention to those around me. If I let empathy arise in me but at the same time looked for hope.
I know that in Job there are more than just relationship dynamics going on. This book gives us great philosophical and theological debate. But sometimes we get too much into the head stuff, too much into the abstract and we neglect the practical, the compassionate, the now. So I promise I will speak about other things in my posts about Job (there’s plenty more to come) but I just keep thinking more and more about ways of relating. Perhaps it’s something that needs hammering home in me. I do looove to be right. And I also looove to share my opinions, as you may have noticed. But I hope I love to be a good friend, a good listener more. Does the world need more words? Probably not. Does the world need more empathy and hope? I’m gona say yes!
What if we all listened and watched for hope once today when we would usually jump in with our learned opinion? It would be an interesting experiment at least…
I shall leave you with a quotation that I found on my friend’s facebook page, of all things. Doesn’t say who it’s from, perhaps it her own:
“From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plough”
October 15, 2010
Today I begin my journey into a book of profound poetry that wrestles with that most timeless issue; unjust suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? A first reading of Job’s first chapters might give you a rather disturbing answer; because Satan tells God to do it…huh??
A brief(ish) synopsys: Job is very good man who also happens to be pretty loaded and very fertile – 10 children (7 of them sons; big bonus for the patriarchal Israelites), about a billion cattle. It didn’t go to his head mind you, he’s well holy, even offering sacrifices just in case his children sin at their dinner parties. So, as you may have guessed, God’s well pleased with his man Job and likes to tell the “heavenly beings”, and among them Satan, all about him. Satan is not impressed; “of course he’s good and holy; he’s loaded! Take away his cattle and children, then you’ll see, he’ll curse you.” Rather remarkably, God agrees to this! So in the space of about 5 minutes Job loses everything (except his wife, but that doesn’t seem to be much comfort to him as he calls her a “foolish woman” in chapter 2). Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and worshipping. Nice. Another Heaven scene occurs, God boasts about his devout Job again, but Satan’s not having any of it; “yeah yeah, but if you took his health…then he’ll curse you.” Astonishingly, God agrees again… But again Satan’s plan fails. Job says wisely (to his ‘foolish woman’) “Shall we receive good from God and not receive bad?” Pretty impressive stuff (apart from the sexism, which we’ll put down to post-traumatic stress for now).
What’s not so impressive, rather perplexing, is the exchange between God and Satan. If we read Satan as ‘the devil’ then this is pretty worrying stuff! So who is he? Well he only pops up in three verses than aren’t Job in whole Hebrew Bible (Zech 3:1-2; Chron 2:11) and is not to be confused with Satan in New Testament. In Greek Satan is used interchangably with “the devil”, it’s less clear cut here. Satan is present among “the heavenly beings” and the Hebrew “ha-Satan” (the satan) can be translated as “the accuser”, or commonly “the prosecutor” in the context of Job. “ha” shows that a name is a title bestowed on a being, not the being’s names itself. David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament) actually says ‘satan’ comes from the Hebrew “to roam” so it could just mean a roaming spy, a position in Yahweh’s divine council that informs God of His people’s wrong-doings… though you wouldn’y think God needed spies…
The main thing is that this doesn’t have to be read as God being manipulated by the Devil (phew!) ‘the satan’ seems to be part of the Heavely court in this narrative. Perhaps it is a device to show us a “thought process” of God – if He can be said to have such a human thing – and introduce the very pertinent question “do you worship God because of what you have been given or because He’s God?”
Whatever answers the book of Job ends up giving us (stay tuned to find out!), we can pretty safely say that the authority begins and ends with God. God gives the Satan power; he doesn’t have on his own. And at the end of Job (spoiler alert!) the Satan is not there, it’s just Job, his friends and God, implying that the ultimate authority over suffering rests with God. But then again, that’s pretty hard to swallow too, isn’t it? I suppose that’s why our Holy Scripture has a 42 chapter reflection on the nature and causes of suffering slap bang in its middle.
The Epilogue to this heavenly tale is too moving to be ignored. Job’s friends hear of his suffering and set out to “console and comfort him”. When they arrive they mourn with him; “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word with him, for they saw his suffering was very great.” Later they debate the meaning of suffering, but for now they just sit, they don’t try to do anything for Job, they’re just with him. Wonderful. It seems God had not taken all of his riches after all…