As my wife and I (DM) were having coffee this morning I read the following introduction to the book of Job from The Message to her. It echoes something I said to her this past weekend-
“When I am going through a hard time, I am NOT interested in listening to the pat answers of some fool talking theory- I want to hear from someone who has actually gone through it and come out the other side.”
Job suffered. His name is synonymous with suffering. He asked,”Why?” He asked, “Why me?” And he put his questions to God. He asked his questions persistently, passionately, and eloquently. He refused to take silence for an answer. He refused to take cliches for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook.
Job did not take his suffering quietly or piously….It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us. It is because he suffered in the same ways that we suffer- in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job is also important to us because he searchingly questioned and boldly protested his suffering. Indeed, he went “to the top” with his questions.
It is not suffering as such that troubles us. It is undeserved suffering.
Almost all of us in our years growing up have the experience of disobeying our parents and getting punished for it. When that discipline was connected with wrongdoing, it had a certain sense of justice to it: When we do wrong, we get punished.
One of the surprises as we get older, however, is that we come to see that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. An even larger surprise is that very often there is something quite the opposite: We do right and get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit from the blind side and sent reeling.
This is the suffering that first bewilders and then outrages us. This is the kind of suffering that bewildered and outraged Job, for Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. And it is this kind of suffering to which Job gives voice when he protests to God.
Job gives voice to his sufferings so well, so accurately and honestly, that anyone who has ever suffered- which includes every last one of us- can recognize his or her personal pain in the voice of Job. Job says boldly what some of us are too timid to say. He makes poetry out of what in many of us is only a tangle of confused whimpers. He shouts out to God what a lot of us mutter behind our sleeves. He refuses to accept the role of a defeated victim.
It is also important to note what Job does not do, lest we expect something from him that he does not intend. Job does not curse God as his wife suggests he should do….but neither does Job explainsuffering. He does not instruct us how to live so that we can avoid suffering. Suffering is a mystery, and Job comes to respect the mystery.
But there is more to the book of Job than Job. There are Job’s friends. The moment we find ourselves in trouble of any kind- sick in the hospital, bereaved by a friend’s death, dismissed from a job or relationship, depressed or bewildered- people start showing up to tell us exactly what is wrong with us and what we must do to get better. Sufferers attract fixers the way road kills attract vultures. At first we are impressed that they bother with us and amazed at their facility with answers. They know so much! How did they get to be such experts in living?
More often than not, these people use the Word of God frequently and loosely. They are full of spiritual diagnosis and prescription. It all sounds so hopeful. But then we begin to wonder, “Why is it that for all their apparent compassion we feel worse instead of better after they’ve said their piece?”
The book of Job is not only a witness to the dignity of suffering and God’s presence in our suffering but is also our primary biblical protest against religion that has been reduced to explanations or “answers.” Many of the answers that Job’s so-called friends give him are technically true. But it is the “technical” part that ruins them. They are answers without personal relationship, intellect without intimacy. The answers are slapped onto Job’s ravaged life like labels on a specimen bottle….
In every generation there are men and women who pretend to be able to instruct us in a way of life that guarantees that we will be “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” According to the propaganda of these people, anyone who lives intelligently and morally is exempt from suffering. From their point of view, it is lucky for us that they are now at hand to provide the intelligent and moral answers we need.
On behalf of all of us who have been misled by the platitudes of the nice people who show up to tell us everything is going to be just all right if we simply think such-and-such and do such- and – such, Job issues an anguished rejoinder. He rejects the kind of advice and teaching that has God all figured out, that provides glib explanations for every circumstance. Job’s honest defiance continues to be the best defense against the cliches of positive thinkers and the prattle of religious small talk…..
In our compassion, we don’t like to see people suffer. And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse. But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job’s friends, not to do our “helping” with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them or make them “better.” We may look at our suffering friends and imagine how they could have better marriages, better- behaved children, better mental and emotional health. But when we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep in mind several things.
First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don’t really understand the full nature of our friends’ problems. Second, our friends may not want our advice. Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more. When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.
So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering- which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway- perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able…. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and – if they will let us- join them in protest and prayer. Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life- changing…..
I (DM) have a friend who puts me in mind of Job. 16 years ago he became disabled , he was a guard in a maximum security prison in upstate New York, got caught in a prison riot. 4 years ago his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, two mastectomies, and several complications later, she is still in treatment. He battles chronic depression. When we are together, he does a lot of talking- I mostly just listen, but will occasionally, rant with him- I have never given him to the best of my knowledge a “pat” answer. I have been known to tease him- quite regularly actually. He tells me I am a good friend and encouragement. If you’ve read this far- I’m impressed. The end.