I want a better response to suffering: June 23

June 24, 2024

B, Pentecost 5

          The first time I read the Book of Job,
I found it slightly unsatisfying. I was always told that if you want to
understand why bad things happen to good people, this was the book you read. If
you read the Book of Job with that expectation, there is a good chance you will
be disappointed. First of all, the whole premise of the book is a bit
confusing. It begins with God and Satan having a conversation about what a
great guy Job is and how this is proof of the goodness of God’s creation.  Satan argues that Job is only good because
God has given him everything he wants and needs.  God tells Satan that he can test him, he just
can’t take his life.

test him he does.  Poor Job is really put
through the ringer.  He loses all his
crops, his animals and his land—his entire livelihood.  Then his family is killed and he ends up
covered in boils.  To make things worse,
he has three friends who come and visit him and try to convince him that he
must have done something wrong to have such horrible things happen to
him—because after all, God is a just and merciful God.  Job refutes their arguments and continues to
make his case that perhaps God is not a just God because he has done nothing to
deserve this.  Job demands that God show
Godself so that Job can make his case to God personally.  Finally, after 38 chapters, God shows up.     

          In the Old Testament, God likes to
appear in a dramatic fashion and this story is no exception.  God answers Job out of a whirlwind.  When God speaks out of a whirlwind, or a
storm, you know you are about to hear something significant.  While the text says that “God answered Job…”
it’s not actually an answer to any of Job’s questions.  Instead of providing a clear answer, God
comes with more questions (which was something that Jesus also did in the New

I was so sum up what God was asking Job, it would be with this one sentence
“Who do you think you are?”  That’s how I
initially read it.   God basically
summarized creation in all its vastness and its intricacies, and then
repeatedly asked, do you know how to do this…can you explain it? It feels like
this magnificent flex on God’s part, like God boasting about all God can do and
how little humans can do.  It’s almost a
taunt.  “Gird up your loins like a man.”
I always read that as basically saying, “put on your big boy pants.”

          I believe that part of the reason that
we tend to read it that way is because that is how we have been taught to
perceive God.  What’s the most common
visual image of God? An old man in a robe with a long white beard sitting in a
throne and looking down on us. Jesus tried to change that image for us, but
it’s just ingrained in us—this image of a mighty enthroned God looking down
on us.

me just get into the weeds for a second. 
The Hebrew phrase that is translated to “Gird up your loins like a man”
is an example of where the most literal translation might not be the best one,
at least not for us today.  You could
also read it as, “Present yourself in all vigor.”  The next line is, “I will question you and
you shall declare to me.”  The Hebrew
word translated to “declare to me” means, “make me to know.” You could read
this as threat or even a challenge, or you could read it as God wanting to know
Job, to understand him and God wanting Job to understand God.  Because if anything is clear from the past 38
chapters, Job desperately wants to understand God and God’s relationship with
humanity. What I think God is trying to say with this poetic response is— you
can and should try to know me and help me know you, but the more you try to
make sense of this, the farther you get from the truth.

God’s unwillingness to provide a straightforward response and his encouragement
that Job recognize his own limitations of understanding and perspective, God
never tells Job that he was wrong to struggle with the unanswerable questions.  In fact, in the last chapter of the Book of
Job when God was reprimanding Job’s friends for their overly simplistic
theology, he commends Job for thinking rightly (42:7). This doesn’t mean that
everything Job accused God of was right (it wasn’t), it means that God appreciated
the struggle and the conversation that they had. Remember how our chapter
begins…God wants to know Job and wants Job to know him. God wants a
relationship, even if that relationship involves arguing and lamenting, and
even some whining. 

          I started by saying that the first
time I read Job, I found it unsatisfying. But it wasn’t just the first
time.   There have been many times I have
read it and been deeply unsatisfied by God’s response to Job’s suffering.  There is even a prayer in the book I wrote
with my friend that tells God in his response to Job, “You can do better.”  I don’t think the Book of Job is a good
response to human suffering.  It isn’t
pastoral or comforting.  However, I do
think it’s a good way to broaden our perspective and free ourselves from the
burden of the need to understand how and why things happen. 

we can use the story of Job as another opportunity to open ourselves to God, to
open ourselves to the struggle that is innate to our relationship with God and
also to remember never to give up. There are so many times in our lives when it
would be so much easier to just give up on our faith, give up on following
Jesus.  It’s hard.  God knows it’s hard and that is why God is
always willing to engage in the conversation and to wrestle with us. God never
answered Job’s question, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t care that Job was
suffering. God listened to all of Job’s questions and accusations.  God even listened to Job’s friends. God stuck
with Job through it all.

          In the last chapter, after God has
spoken about the wonders of God’s creation and our inability to fathom it all,
Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but
now my eye sees you…” In other words, now Job knows God.  He might never understand God or God’s ways,
but he knows God—he sees God.  In the
end, that was the only answer he needed.  It’s the only answer any of us needs. But it’s
an answer that we have to fight for. 
It’s worth the fight.  It’s worth
the struggle.