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Job–Part 2

November 7, 2016

At first Job seems to accept his suffering and continue to honor God, even as he sits in ashes and scrapes himself with broken pottery. Three friends come to console him. They are so distraught when they see his disfigurement that they weep aloud, tear their robes, throw dirt on their heads, and sit with him without a word for seven days and nights. This is perhaps the most poignant picture of “weeping with those who weep” that we find in the Bible. It is the profound ministry of presence. We bring comfort to those who are suffering, not by our words, not by trying to fix things, but by quietly joining them in their helplessness and grief. The three friends are often vilified for their subsequent failures, but at this point they are providing perfect care.

After seven days of sitting in grief, Job finally speaks. He does not curse God (as the Accuser predicted he would) but he does curse the day of his birth: “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ … Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (3:3, 11). Job accuses God of unfairness, and, in light of his overwhelming and meaningless suffering, wishes he were dead or–better yet–had never existed. This is a powerful indictment of God and reality, and the friends feel compelled to defend the justice and honor of God. For dozens of chapters they argue with Job, convinced that Job’s suffering must have divine justice and purpose behind it. Job must have sinned unknowingly; or perhaps Job’s sin is arrogance–a failure to humbly accept what God does.

Job fires back that none of this makes any sense. If he questions the justice of God, he gets accused of impiety. How is that fair? Who judges the Judge? Who will be his advocate? God can simply pronounce him condemned and Job has no recourse. The religious system is rigged against him! In one of his most powerful indictments Job says: “Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. If I summon him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice. For he crushes me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause; he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness. If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one! If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him? Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.”

The reader of these lines cannot help but conclude that Job is right. We know that he does not deserve his suffering. We know that his suffering is a sort of test–but can the test be justified? Is not the test itself perverse? Is not a good deal of the suffering in the universe an enormous miscarriage of justice? And does that not make God unjust? When C.S. Lewis’s wife died in the agony of cancer, Lewis nearly lost his faith. He who had written so confidently about the necessity of suffering for our own spiritual good, now found his own arguments completely hollow. How could such suffering be in any way justified for our good? In his darker, depressed moments, Lewis thought God was a Cosmic Sadist.

Then, beginning in chapter 38, God responds to Job. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘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.'” Job has been crying out for God to answer him, and now God does. But it is questionable whether this is going to resolve anything in a satisfying way since Job has already predicted that in such a scenario God holds all the cards and will simply overwhelm him with power and declare Job perverse. And indeed, that is how God seems to answer Job. For four chapters God seems to beat Job over the head with his ignorance and with God’s almighty power. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? … Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? … Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? … Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.”

This sounds to me like the argument of a bully. God does not answer any of Job’s questions. God does not explain how any of Job’s sufferings can be justified. God simply bullies Job with superior knowledge and strength. This is a pretty dismal answer. It is exactly what Job feared would happen.

Or is it? Commentators have wondered about God’s speech for centuries. What is its point? Since Job responds in a seemingly satisfied way in 42:1-6 there must be something in this speech which changes Job’s outlook. What is it? Does Job simply acquiesce in the face of mystery and almighty power, or is there something subtler going on here?

Rabbi Kushner, who wrote the popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, suggests that God is admitting to Job that creation contains a strong element of chaos which even God cannot control. Kushner believes that the references to Leviathan and Behemoth–monsters of chaos in chapters 40 and 41–point toward a God who is good but not all-powerful. For Kushner the message of the Book of Job is that God also struggles against injustice and meaninglessness. God wants us to join God in that struggle. The universe is in a process of growing toward greater goodness and justice. (Or at least that’s my memory of Kushner’s thesis. I read the book thirty years ago.)

I am somewhat attracted to Kushner’s interpretation, but I think he is reading too much into God’s speech. I do not see God admitting to a lack of power; rather, I see God inviting Job to reflect on the intrinsic mystery of the universe. What is striking about this speech is that God is totally re-framing Job’s questions. For Job, his suffering must be adequately accounted for in a cosmic court of law. But God ignores the whole law court analogy. The universe is not a law court; the universe is an overwhelming wonder of abundant beauty and mystery and, yes, even chaos monsters. Contemplate the universe. Can you discern behind its eternal mysteries and complexities and rhythms and joys and sufferings a basic goodness?

Scientists today look at the universe and see randomness and meaninglessness. But that’s just on the level of mathematical “laws” of nature. When we get beyond our numbers and rational inquiry, when we allow the universe to speak to us and make us wonder, our experience of the universe is often quite different. We usually arrive at a feeling of gratitude. The universe is a grand, unknowable, unmerited gift. It just is. Will we accept it and enjoy it and make the best of it? I think there may be a bit of this attitude in God’s speech. To come to terms with suffering we’re going to have to get out of the law-court mode of thinking and instead appreciate the mystery of this gift we call the universe.

Months after my mother died I was slowly able to appreciate life again by contemplating a blade of grass.

Jesus also looked at the universe and saw–despite its random tragedies and injustices–grace. God sends rain to water the fields of the just and the unjust, and the sun shines equally on the good and the bad.

So how does Job respond? And then what happens? The surprising answer will be the focus of next week’s blog.

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