Why This Suffering? (Job 7)
If you were charged with collecting a series of writings aimed to persuade people that God is overflowingly good and ever desirous for the good of His people, would you have included the Book of Job? We look in on the main character, this bent over man just after his world has tragically disintegrated, to catch his shock that only a short time before he stood in the ranks of the content church/(Temple) goers. But here he is, a groaning, agitated and wailing individual who feels himself blowing along in the wind. In reaction, he puts aside any pious niceties and holy words — and lets God have it. “A good God? You could have fooled me!”
And yet – his classic tirade is there in the Bible? Job’s ringing question is how to stand before the God praised in that Sacred Book as All-Good when faced with circumstances the very opposite of good? And especially when trying to make sense of that worst of evils, the suffering of the innocent, how to go on relating to the God named as Mercy itself?
The question. Why retain such a sour narrative in this hallowed collection, so intended to affirm God’s compassion? Among the reasons to do so is the author’s intent to uncover some perspectives on the Job-like experiences that occur in everyone’s life. And so, a few lessons from Job.
The first might be called “manners before the Heavenly Throne.” Is it acceptable to complain to God, not in some half-embarrassed whisper but in a rant and scream about how such things ever could have come to pass inside of what is supposed to be a gracious creation? To some, such yelling feels disrespectful, self-pitying or even dangerous. But throughout the Bible, various believers don’t mince their disappointment, even disillusion at God. There’s Job, “I have been assigned months of misery and agitation, sleepless nights that drag on and on. I shall not see happiness again.” But even more distressingly, the psalmist who repeatedly cries out to the heavens, “Where were you, O God, when I called upon you. Will you forget your people forever?”
In the Scriptures, such acid imprecations came to be recognized as a distinct prayer form, lamentation — someone at the end of her rope crying out “How can you allow this to happen? Where are you anyway?” These laments are not disavowals of God or denials of God’s existence. They are rather shouts from the heart to Yahweh to wake up and listen. Underneath the cry is a tensile and abiding relationship, one which though close to its breaking point never completely snaps. Jesus’ agonized shout on the cross is the perhaps the most heart-rending of the laments, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Is it permissible to get mad, very mad at God? Job and the true believers with him say it is.
Job gives a second lesson. For all his pleading, he never gets a final answer in the sense of a wrapped up and airtight explanation. His faux friends offer him one of the standard solutions, “Your suffering, Job, is fitting repayment for your sins!” Job stands firm as to his innocence, rejects their “solution,” and continues to push for the why. In the book’s final chapter, God responds to Job in words that are not so much an answer as a declaration about how it is between the Almighty and his people. The ways of God run far beyond human reckoning, and suffering, as a part of this fathomless mystery, is immeasurably beyond our comprehension.
This doesn’t preclude questioning tragedy. Partial answers are there, the most resonant one being the Lord Jesus’ suffering for the sake of others’ more abundant life. But a fully tied up, all-objections-overcome answer? — The Bible does not give it. What it does offer is the counsel to trust. Echoing those surrendering words of the dying Jesus, it would say, “I don’t completely understand, God, but I do believe. I am confident that You are on my side and want my very best. And all said and done, I’ll lean back on that.”
Why such a “misplaced” story as Job’s in the Bible? Because he, one believer, faces into a reality no believer can escape. He conveys that it’s permissible to get mad at God. And he comes to terms with suffering as mystery, not mystery in the sense of some eventually solvable puzzle but mystery as a dimension of that uniquely fathomless Mystery (spelled with a capital “M”) who is God’s own overflowing Self.
Job’s wrestling with the scandal of innocent suffering helps all of us in the Vincentian Family who would serve God’s suffering people.