Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Suffering: No Satisfactory Answer


A few years ago, I led a Bible study through the Book of Job. Even though I knew the story, a part of me still waited for things to turn out right. By right, I don’t mean the so-called happy ending to the book, when Job gets a new life, new children, and new wealth. I mean God showing up and explaining to Job that the unimaginable suffering that he endured was the result of a wager—a Trading Places sort of bet between God and Satan. We finished the book and, of course, never got that answer.

This Sunday, we read some of the opening words of Job, and we encounter the setup to Job’s catastrophe: “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” It does not make sense to think of God as one who brags, but that sounds a little like bragging. It sounds like God is itching for a fight, for a gamble with the devil. Satan hears the implicit challenge in God’s words and pushes back: “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And God gives Satan permission to bring the suffering to his own body.

This is actually the second time God let Satan have his way with Job. In the first exchange in Chapter 1, Satan was allowed to take Job’s children and his property. This time, the attack comes to his person. And the point of it all is expressed in the last verses of Sunday’s reading: “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish [person] would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Job’s wife says what any reasonable, rational person would say. This is too much. You were always a good person, and what has it gotten you? Give up…on God, on life. But Job says no.

Job isn’t only presented to us as a paragon of faith. He is also presented to us as a paragon of suffering. His righteousness was unsurpassed, and his suffering is unparalleled. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and the wager between God and Satan is supposed to be as infuriating to us as inexplicable tragedy. It is empty. It is meaningless. It didn’t happen that way, but it might as well have. We don’t get answers, and any attempt to provide an answer—God has abandoned you or God is making a bet with Satan or you must have done something to deserve this—comes up short. You can’t finish Job and be satisfied, and you can’t go through life’s inexplicable sufferings and look for a satisfactory answer.

This may be the most difficult lesson in life and, accordingly, the most difficult lesson of faith. God is all-powerful and all-good, but we are still subject to terrible and undeserved tragedies. We want to make sense of that. We need to explain it, but those explanations don’t come. They can’t be found. Some understandably take Job’s wife’s advice: curse God and die. I don’t fault them for it, but I doubt the result is any more satisfactory, though perhaps easier to live with. Instead, we are asked to look for God even in the midst of our pain. We are asked to believe that God is with us through our suffering—not that God causes our suffering to test us but that God is lovingly present in the middle of it. When we are at our worst moment, God is still with us even if we cannot see God, even if God does not give us the answers that we seek. That is true faith. Job’s relationship with God is pushed to the breaking point, but his emblematic faithfulness is embodied in his refusal to give up on God even when God seems to have disappeared.

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