Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Good or Evil? Something's Gotta Give

On most days, I write about the upcoming lessons for Sunday. I think my preaching benefits from spending time each day reflecting on them, putting some of those thoughts into words, sharing them with friends and colleagues, and, most of all, reading what other people have written about the same lessons. In that way, we stretch each other. My sermon preparation is never as much fun as when I am a part of a good back-and-forth among preaching friends who like to ask unanswerable questions and the postulate possible answers.

But today I cannot get away from the Daily Office. Specifically, I’m focused on the Old Testament lesson for today, which the final passage from the Book of Job (42:1-17). For a moment, forget that the Lord has made a deal with Satan to test his servant Job. And forget that, after losing everything, the Lord restores it all back to Job and rewards his faithfulness by doubling what he had before. And forget that the Lord threatens to punish Job’s friends unless they ask Job to offer a sacrifice on their behalf. All of that is worth writing or preaching on, but there is a damning verse right in the middle of the story that has the power to undo everything we’ve built our faith upon:

“Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.” (Job 42:11 ESV)

…for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.

Imagine repeating .gif of preacher doing double-take here!

This is crazy. How can the Lord—the holy one, the source of all that is good, the omnibenevolent creator—be responsible for bringing evil upon anyone? Evil is the devil’s business. It’s the serpent beguiling Eve. It’s the wickedness that God wipes off the face of the earth in the flood. It doesn’t come from God. By definition, it is not of God. The Lord is good. Always. Forever. The end.

So, here’s the thing. We’re theologically squeamish. The culture I live in craves simple answers. We like movies that have good guys and bad guys. We like it when they have labels or costumes that let us know who is who. We might enjoy movies that leave us wondering who the real hero was, but, in those cases, we don’t leave the cinema with a sense of closure. Instead, when everything gets mixed up, what we enjoy is the confusing part. Sometimes we like scratching our heads and wondering what happened. But not when we’re dealing with God.

When it comes to our faith—our very western, very Greek, very rational, very logical faith—we need to know who is good and who is bad. We need God to be on one side of the eternal divide and Satan to be on the other side, and we don’t like it when they talk with each other and share a plan—which is EXACTLY what is depicted in the Book of Job. And that drives us crazy. But that’s the point.

We want God to make sense, and we want life to make sense, but neither happens. Instead, inexplicable tragedies happen. Nonsensical disasters happen. Unfathomable accidents happen. Something must give. There are three forces at play—God’s goodness, God’s power, and human experience. Something must give. Either God is good in ways that don’t always make sense or God is powerful in ways that don’t always make sense or human experience isn’t quite what it seems or maybe it’s a little bit of all three. But you can’t have a God whose always-goodness meets the Disney definition of good and a God whose power over all things is unquestioned and a world that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Will we accept that the “evil” we experience might not be all that evil after all? Or will we live with mystery?

Job is a book that tackles the mysteries of life by offering an explanation—“for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him”—that doesn’t satisfy. And that’s the point. We can shake our fist at God and demand an answer, but where were we when God laid the foundations of the world?

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