October 21, 2018
Job 38:1-7, Mark 10:35-45
One very popular course at Yale University at the moment is ‘The Science of Well Being’ which is designed to help students overcome growing conditions of depression and anxiety, addictions and self harming. It teaches students five primary life skills that promise to bring happiness, healthy aging, wealth, and career success throughout the course of one’s lifetime: (1) emotional stability, (2) determination, (3) control, (4) optimism, and (5) conscientiousness.
While I think we might all agree that these five skills are necessary, it might also be said that they may not be the ultimate key to fulfillment and happiness. I say this because underlying the research that has led to the contents of this course is a dominant secular motif, which is the avoidance of suffering and struggle. But when the emotionally stable, determined, self controlled, optimistic, conscientious individual experiences serious health challenges, broken relationships, financial ruin: what, or whom, is the source of their happiness? This, I would say, is a critical question. Perhaps eternal happiness is not even a realistic vision or goal. My own research suggests that the role of faith is not at all a factor in this course.
So I found myself thinking about this course as I was reflecting on our readings for today. Rather than offering empirical strategies for experiencing happiness, they delve right into the inevitability/messiness of pain and suffering, and offer some clues to discovering the source of our strength, the face and presence of God in the midst of such times.
The Book of Job is the story of a good man – an exceptionally good man, who suffers. We might even see Job as a modern day graduate of the popular course at Yale University, having learned all the necessary skills that lead to happiness. And, in Job’s case, he even has the faith component under his belt. One might think that a man of such profound faith who has learned all the necessary skills that lead to a good and happy life might be exempt from pain and suffering. But one day, and for no apparent reason, Job is plunged into terrible suffering. His children are taken from him, his cattle are seized, and his property is destroyed, and he begins to develop debilitating health issues: painful sores from head to foot.
In the midst of all these catastrophic events, Job finds himself discussing with his friends the problem of human suffering. They ponder and discuss such things as, “Is our suffering a punishment for our sins?” “Does God even know about our suffering?” “Does God even care about our suffering?” Or even worse, “Is God the one who causes our suffering to happen?” This conversation continues, leading to profound exasperation, as they find no answers to the questions they have raised, at which point God finally speaks.
And this is where this morning’s passage begins, with God’s response, which is not likely what Job was expecting or wanting to hear. In a series of rhetorical questions that contrast the power and wisdom of God with the weakness and ignorance of Job, the speech argues that, since Job was not present at the creation and has no notion of how such matters as the sun’s rising occur, he has no right to demand such explanations. God, clearly, does not and will not give Job a straight answer.
So, if we, along with Job are looking for a God to explain why bad things happen to good people and how justice reigns in the cosmos, neither God nor the Book of Job as a whole provides any clear answers. And if we choose to enroll in that course at Yale University, in the hope that we might find eternal happiness by developing a particular set of life skills, we are reminded through Job that no such assurance exists. If the Book of Job poses the question of why the righteous suffer, then the conclusion seems to be that we cannot know the ways of God, and to insist that God act in a certain way is to limit God’s great power and knowledge and potential. To insist that God act in a certain way is to expect that it is possible to confine God to our own limited ideas of what is possible.
There is a story of a little girl sitting at the dinner table with her family, and when she hears her mother, at grace, give thanks for God’s presence everywhere, asks if God really is everywhere? In this house? Yes. This kitchen? Yes. On this table? Yes. This cup? Yes. To which the little girl quickly covered the cup with her hand and said, “I’ve got Him!”
In Job’s attempt to make sense of his suffering, and to insist that God act in a certain way, Job is trying desperately to figure God out by confining God to his own narrow conception of who God is. In other words, Job was trying to get God to respond within the limited confines of Job’s own imagination; Job’s own theological cup.
Job was a righteous man – a good man – and therefore believed that he was to be spared from such suffering; he is challenging God, to which God put him in his place. God reminds Job, and each of us, that despite University courses that promise to teach empirical, reliable skills that ensure eternal happiness, we are too tiny and within the confines of our human condition our understanding of the cosmos is too limited. No strategically developed skills will succeed in the removal of pain and suffering. Suffering happens. Its purpose remains a mystery. God reminds us, “You were not present at the time of creation; there are so many mysteries that you cannot possibly understand. You – therefore – have no right to demand such explanations.”
Indeed, we discover here that to deny the inevitability of suffering, or to insist that God act in a certain way is to expect that it is possible to confine God to our own limited ideas of what is possible.
So, what are we to learn from this seemingly unsatisfactory response to Job’s questions, because when tragedy strikes innocent people – or people who have developed the skills that promise a happy and successful life – our belief that God is good, powerful, and wise is seriously challenged. And although God’s response is not what Job would have expected, or what we might prefer, the Book of Job does explore these probing questions and inadvertently offers us some bearings.
We discover that God entirely desires the well-being of His creation. God takes pleasure in Job’s upright life, and trusts that Job will keep his faith even through intense and prolonged trial. We discover a God who never abandons those who suffer; a God who longs to be acknowledged; a God whose power makes it possible for us to endure; and, at the same time, a God who reminds us that our knowledge of such things is limited – that only God who is the creator of things in heaven and earth can possess such knowledge; a God who – all in the fullness of time – will restore us to life.
This piece of ‘not knowing’ is extremely challenging for us today, as our culture’s predominant world view is one that human knowledge is limitless – that knowledge is power – and therefore, humanity is all powerful. So powerful, as a matter of fact, that university students are taught that if they learn the right skills they can be assured of eternal happiness. But this passage from Job turns that worldview completely upside down. This is what we discover in the Book of Job; this is as far as the Book of Job can take us.
But what we also discover today is that God continues his response to Job’s questions in and through Jesus. In and through Jesus the whole matter of God’s response to human suffering is taken much further; God’s response to human suffering is embodied and fulfilled. Here we see God involved in, participating in, human suffering. Here we discover the story of James and John, who might be seen, by some, as righteous. They are – after all – followers of Jesus, and clearly seem to think that there is some sense of entitlement that comes with this role.
In some ways they’re not unlike Job who – in the midst of his trials – demands that God act in a particular and certain way. They approach Jesus in a similar way that Job approached God, as they say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And, when Jesus asks them to be more specific, they respond, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words, now that we are good and righteous in a whole new way as your followers, we ask (insist) that you allow us to sit next to you and protect us from all harm.
At this point in Mark’s Gospel they have been told three times already that the Son of Man must suffer and die, and rise again… and they have also been told that Jesus’ followers must pick up their cross and follow him. And still, good old James and John, much like most of us, want to be kept comfortable and protected from pain and suffering. At this point I have this image of Jesus shaking his head, and telling them that – once again - they do not know what they are asking.
The road that Jesus is walking is one that leads to a torturous public death on a cross. I think Jesus would have passed that course at Yale University with flying colours! Everything I read suggests that he was emotionally stable, determined, self controlled, I might replace optimistic with hopeful, and he was certainly conscientious. And yet, the road he is about to travel is far from easy, or successful as the world would define success.
Like Job, Jesus has come to enter into the messy experience of human suffering; the kind of suffering known only too well to so many who walk this earth today. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was in a Nazi prison and eventually executed because he was considered a threat to Hitler and the Third Reich, wrote from prison these words: “Only a suffering God can help.” “Only. A. Suffering. God. Can. Help.” The God made manifest in Jesus is all powerful, but not in a Superman/woman. God’s power is the power of compassion, mercy, self sacrifice, and love. God’s power is the power of One who has suffered, on our behalf; who through the cross continues to suffer as humanity suffers; who rises from the ashes of this suffering offering hope for a new tomorrow. To say only a suffering God can help is just another way of saying that we are never alone in our suffering; God is intimately there with us and all who suffer.
Once again, the mission of Jesus is to share in our suffering and redeem us in that suffering, rather than from it. Herein lies the contrast between the teachings of our faith and the teachings found in that course at Yale University: The Science of Well Being. Although suffering must never be romanticized or idealized, it is inevitable, and Christ on the cross reaches into the agony of all who suffer, offering comfort, strength, and the hope of a new tomorrow. As we recognize, embrace, and accept this gift in the midst of our pain and suffering, we are called to be channels through which that gift is made known to others.
Through the suffering of Jesus, the God we worship remains intimately connected to and with all who suffer, and the way that God maintains this connection is through ordinary people like each of us who are willing to live that connection and share it with others. So, when we suffer, we can know that in ways we may not currently comprehend, God through Jesus suffers with us; that our suffering and the suffering of those we love will be redeemed in Jesus; that there is always hope rising from the ashes of our despair. As I reflect on these readings it becomes increasingly clear to me that the God who responds to Job’s questions, continues his response through the Incarnation of Jesus, and by extension through each of us.