Today we explore the question, “where is God When Life is Painful?” with the biblical character, Job. The book of Job in the Bible is a fascinating story based on a myth from Egypt.
It explores the nature of God, why there is suffering, the discrepancies of power, and the nature of religion. It is complex, filled with beautiful poetry.
The book begins, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. He had a wife and many children, land filled with cattle and had many employees. He treated everyone around him with fairness and love.
One day there was a heavenly council, with heavenly beings gathered around God including an “accuser, an adversary.” We know this accuser who roams the earth, who challenges thought and conventional wisdom.
Sometimes it is good to question our assumptions and sometimes it is negative chatter. We may call it being the devil’s advocate. Or we may experience it in our own minds as negative self-talk, reminding us or sometimes even hounding us with ways we feel inadequate.
The accuser challenges God, saying “no wonder Job has solid faith and trust in you, his life is filled with blessing, and success, a wonderful family and all he could ever want. But what if he didn’t? Would Job still love you and trust you if instead his life was filled with pain and senseless suffering?”
So the heavenly experiment begins and in rapid succession all that Job has is taken away. His family, his property, his livelihood. All gone. Job reacts by tearing his clothes and shaving his head and falling down on the ground crying and worshiping God. So the accuser says, “Yes Job still worships and trusts you but he still has his health.” So Job’s health is taken away. He is covered with loathsome sores. He takes a piece of broken pottery and sits on a heap of ashes and scrapes himself and mourns.
Three of Job’s friends come. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. For a week they don’t speak a word but just sit with him and cry and mourn, for they see that his suffering is very great. Their initial response is compassionate. One we don’t use often enough. Just to sit with someone who is in pain, just being present. They wait until Job is ready to talk. When Job speaks he laments.
“Let the day perish in which I was born. May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. 5Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. May it not see the eyelids of the morning…”
Then Job’s friends did what we tend to do. Our tendency when we are in pain is to seek a cause for our suffering. We do two things. When we see another human being suffering, we may try to find a link between what happened and why it won’t happen to us. Like, “The child’s parents should have been more attentive.” “That’s a really bad neighborhood.” “They bought a house on a flood plain.” When we observe these links we give ourselves an unwarranted sense of being insulated from the possibility of suffering.
Or we start trying to figure out what we call retributive justice. It happened because of something one did wrong. We expect retribution of God and of one another: We do this much good and expect this much back. We do this much bad and expect that much punishment. We say things like “What did I ever do to deserve this?” Sometimes we blame God.
But suffering isn’t always the result of sin and much of pain and suffering is senseless, not done or allowed by God or by anyone for any reason.
So Job’s friends take turns trying to explain the reason for Job’s pain. They offer theological arguments, explanations that we still hear today. Eliphaz universalizes his own personal religious experience and gives him useless ideological advice, anecdotal theology. Bildad argues that if Job admits he had done something wrong, even something he doesn’t know about, he’ll get back everything that he has lost. And Zophar appeals to conventional wisdom and useless common sense, telling him to pull himself together, get off his high horse, cut out the drama. Get over it. However, the friends never directly address God.
They go back and forth, arguing and Job responding, their initial sorrow turns to persistent ruminations on the possible causes of Job’s pain. It’s actually very beautiful poetry, but when you read it word by word, it becomes an excruciating dilemma.
Finally, Job launches into lamenting. Job aims his prayer at God. Even though he feels abandoned by God. He continues to address God and his lamenting is profound. He yells in all his anger, pain, grief and despair. He keeps demanding that God answer him, help him even though God seems far removed from him, and God seems to him unknowable. He insists to God, in our scripture passage, that if they were in court, God would judge him innocent, that he doesn’t deserve pain.
And through all of his lamenting, a fierce hope is born. Through this hope he trusts that God is God and is big enough to handle his anger, pain, grief, and despair. He begins to trust that God will hear, that God will answer.
Now besides the beginning heavenly court scene, God has been totally silent. Sometimes when we are hurting, we also experience God’s silence. Yet triumphantly, finally, at the end of the book, God speaks. We long with Job for answers to our difficult ‘why’ questions. But that’s not how God answers.
Hear this, O Job; stop and consider the wondrous works of God. Do you know how God lays his command upon them, and causes the lightning of his cloud to shine? Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect, you whose garments are hot when the earth is still because of the south wind? Can you, like him, spread out the skies, unyielding as a cast mirror?
It isn’t what we wanted to hear. The story doesn’t explain why we suffer, but leaves us with provocative questions. Instead of answers God invites Job and us into relationship, assures an unwavering presence even when we can’t feel it. There is never only one answer to life, one must choose each day how to live, how we struggle in learning God’s character. Our answers on one day don’t permanently account for everything or resolve every question.
What we can learn from Job is that the nature of God and the human relation is a lifelong continual conversation. We learn that we need to bring our anger, pain, grief, and despair directly to God even when we feel God’s absence, and our laments birth hope. This brings on hope when we are lacking hope.
Job’s story is our story when we are hurting. When awful things happen to us it isn’t because we’ve been wronged by God. When our world comes crashing down around us and we’re left sitting in the dust it isn’t time to blame God or to blame ourselves.
Most of the time there is no one to blame. But we do have the freedom to feel all the swirling emotions and to speak openly and honestly to God. We have the freedom to ask why or to rail our anger. We have that freedom and it is a faithful response to questions that have no answers.
My prayer for each of us, is that when we are hurting we are able to express the depth of our hearts and spirits to God, moving more deeply into the heart of God. Walk the journey of Job from lamenting, into hope against hope. Because God is not a spectator. God is not merely tolerating human suffering. God is participating with us in it. That’s where God is when life is painful. Not in a strategy or an answer, but in a promise: I am with you, in every tear.
Sources: “Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections” by Richard Rohr, and www.textweek.com
Image: Patricia Karg, Academic sculptress and painter, b. 1961