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Wrestling with suffering

‘We almost dissolved, yet we remained standing in the face of the whirlwind’

Then Job answered the LORD:
‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear
but now my eye sees you
therefore, I will change my mind
concerning dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:1-6)

Several weeks ago, a pain in my left shoulder that had been quite manageable escalated quite quickly to excruciating agony. I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t stand, and I became very agitated. I was at Macquarie Centre at my favourite café, The Loft, but even the alluring smell of a mug coffee didn’t engage me.

When I arrived home, the only position in which I could find any relief was lying down, flat on my back, and even then I had to remain quite still. The smallest movement immediately ratcheted up the pain to intolerable levels. Why this happened, I did not know. I was not aware that I had injured myself. It was utterly mystifying.

Suffering, especially when unexpected, undermines the way we look at life. It questions and can even topple the certainties that have served us well up to that point.

‘Why?’ we ask; ‘What did I do to deserve this?’

The book of Job pushes this experience of suffering to the limit.

Job is unsettling. It challenges many of what I call the smooth answers that people, often religious people, offer in response to the suffering of others. I have always found smooth answers disturbing, especially when they co-opt God. Smooth answers may reassure those who voice them, but they distance the speaker from the pain of the other. Smooth answers are smug answers and, albeit unwittingly, they suggest that God is smug, too.

Job, however, refused to be seduced by them. He determined not to settle for the traditional view, pushed by his pious, no doubt sincere friends, that it was all a matter of reward and punishment. We should note that view is well defined in Scripture, ‘Love God, obey him; that will mean life for you and length of days.’ (Deut. 30)

I admire Job’s courage, his willingness to go beyond the wisdom of his culture, the teachings of the scripture, and travel into territory that was unexplored, chaotic, a place where words and common usage failed.

In its conclusion, the book of Job resists supplying its readers with a new set of answers to the perennial problem of suffering. No, it’s not reward and punishment. But neither is it some new formula. It is so very compelling to articulate a new understanding that offers a balm those who struggle, but Job will not. At the conclusion, there remains space, space for the infinite, space for humanity, space for further reflection about the irreducible mystery of life.

In refusing answers, Job bears witness to a majestic, inscrutable God who cannot be defined, yet who still allures us; if only we would listen to the whisper, ‘Go beyond your comfortable certainties.’ I wish the church were more enamoured of this God. More about this shortly.

Karl Marx wrote, ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world... The point, however, is to change it.’ Something similar could be said about the world’s religions. They attempt to explain the world, to give it a rationale. Religion, however, should be a spur to, at least, contemplate the possibility of change. Religion should engender hope. Job had to resist his friends’ use of religion as an explanation, as an interpretation of his plight, .in order to hold onto his humanity.

Karl Marx also said, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’ He meant that too often religion dulled people’s pain, like administering an anaesthetic. In so doing, it diminished their ability to deal with the causes of suffering. It rendered them comatose. Explanations often function like that; they provide relief, but they also inhibit those who suffer from rising up and setting out on a journey of transformation.

I admire Job because he maintained the integrity of his complaint against life and against God. In one way, Job prefigured Jesus, who attacked the religious authorities in Jerusalem because they neglected and anaesthetised the cries of the poor to God for justice.

In the constant battle between head and heart that continues to form human life to this day, Job elected to listen to his heart. He resisted the very reasonable voice that kept saying, ‘Oh I guess that view will suffice.’

Let us be clear, this choice of Job took him down a road that did not yet exist. It was more than exacting.

Several times, Job encounters God in a swirling whirlwind, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words that contain no knowledge?’ Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?”

Of course, Job has no answer, ‘I am of small account,’ he says.

While the answers of Job’s religious friends were unsatisfactory, at least they framed in words and concepts that were held in common. They all shared similar reference points.

In confronting this whirlwind, Job was immediately out of his depth. Even if he had been present at the foundation of the world, a logical absurdity, how could he have described it? What point of view could he, a finite being, have adopted?

Job dared to call the Infinite One to account, but this was a form of madness; Job couldn’t begin to comprehend the outline of the infinite. He was bold, or in the words of British TV show, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ ‘it was a very courageous decision.’

I admire Job’s audacity. He left behind what he knew to step into an unequal contest. Doing so usually results in a slap down. The force of this expectation is compelling. It is evident in the translation of Job 42:6 that we are familiar with, ‘Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’

In this reading of the text, Job chastises himself for daring to reach beyond his proper station. He reassumes his rightful and lowly place before the Infinite One. This conclusion reasserts the natural and expected order.

However, there are good linguistic reasons for translating v. 6 differently, ‘Therefore I recant; I will change my mind about dust and ashes.’

Job is not dust and ashes, not small and degraded. He is something more. Exactly what is not defined but he retains dignity. The encounter with the whirlwind transforms him. God is still the Infinite One and inscrutable, but Job survives the encounter without being diminished.
In daring beyond all daring, he is remade. Another translation, a paraphrase, would render Job 42:6 is this way, ‘Even though I nearly dissolved, yet I stood before the Infinite One.’

Marianne Williamson said, in a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela;

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

These words don’t do justice to Job, but they highlight an insight implicit in Job. We, humans, are both godlike and wormlike. We are a strange mixture of the two, and it does little good to live only at the worm-like end of this spectrum.

Thanks be to God for Job who dared to stand before the whirlwind and rise to a fuller stature.

Thanks be to the infinite God who defies explanation, who comes like a whirlwind, turning us upside down, and placing us unexpectedly in the middle of Jesus’ kingdom.

- Rev Michael Barnes, 13.8.’17