Job and the Mystery of Suffering

Job and the Mystery of Suffering

Richard Rohr, Crossroad Publishing

Jottings to ponder …

“You’ve lost your child but he’s up in heaven now” is a sufficient answer only if you haven’t lost a child. If we haven’t been there our reactions will be empty, academic.

There are two types of suffering (Carl Jung): little ego disappointments and annoyances (minor suffering) which prepare us for “great suffering” (symbolised in mythology and scripture either by sword or blood). Job’s journey is through both types …

The poor/oppressed of the world are the majority: we (mostly better-fed) Westerners are the minority, and slow learners. The history of the 20th century— with its billion murder victims — has readied us again to learn from Job’s struggle and the passion of Jesus …

Since our Lord entered history, we mustn’t run from life into principles, theories, too-quick answers. If our God does not suffer, we’ll have a problem similar to Job’s. God gives us, not a strategy, but a promise: “I am with you.”

Harold Kushner’s excellent book When Bad Things Happen to Good People struggles to reconcile a good God with a seemingly evil world.

The Book of Job proclaims that there is no correlation between sin and suffering, between virtue and reward. Job’s advisors want clarity and order; Job wants to meet God.

A “scorekeeper” God is retributive: God gets some kind of cosmic justice out of burning people.

But mature faith has a quality of mystery and paradox about it. Job (probably fictional) is “Everyman” (and he’s not even a Jew) who feared God and shunned evil. Satan is the “adversary”, our accuser. (But the OT assumes God is responsible for evil — hardening Pharaoh’s heart and so on. See Amos 3:6. “But I don’t believe ‘God creates evil’ even though philosophers reckon it’s got to come from somewhere.”)

How do we know “reality”? Holistically, putting things together (right brain)? Either/or analysis (left brain)? We need both a sense of order and of creativity. (But the Bible is more right-brain than left-brain.)

For 37 chapters in Job, God is on the sidelines, saying nothing: our worst nightmare. The self-appointed messengers (the “three stooges”) try to take away mystery, “solve” problems, constantly talk about God (but they’re not in love with God), appeal to tradition and law (merit/demerit systems which ask the wrong question, like “who is at fault here?” producing only “victims” and “shame” and “scapegoats”), and universalise from their own experience.

They are “often right but utterly wrong”: offering conventional religious answers but refusing to struggle with the questions. An emphasis on “theology” rather than “spirituality” won’t help us here. [And I noted that not once does the Augustinian notion of “Original Sin” get a mention in Rohr’s book].

Job’s wife doesn’t understand “paschal mystery” when she urges Job to curse God and die: life is a mixture of joy and sorrow: we must accept both together. And Job is not “Anglo-Saxon” — he’s not afraid to feel his feelings: emotions are neither right nor wrong.

Job is willing to encounter reality in his head and heart and gut. (And when Richard’s not sure of his prayer, he uses other senses: writing it out in his journal or praying it out loud).

Job doesn’t want “answers” but rather empathy. Job talks to God: the advisors only talk about God. When someone walks with us through the pain, it’s amazing how much easier it all is (many non-suffering people think that just talking about it — or, worse, preaching, as Elihu does — solves it).

In chapters 38 and 39 “Yahweh gives Job his answer” but God doesn’t answer any of Job’s complaints. It is all questions. And yet Job — at last — responds positively, as if to say, “It’s okay God. I don’t need the answers anymore. I love you Lord, and I know you love me! You are giving me you and that’s all I want.”

That’s all we need — communion with God who cares, and also suffers with us: who even allows us to struggle with him — and win! (Gen. 32:28).

We hear God say, “I believe in you. We’re in this together.”

With such reassurance we can carry on. Love beats a theology of retribution any time. And there is no true knowledge without faith.

Evil and sin are real and painful (“why is my life like this?”) but they are not decisive. That is what Christ came to teach us. Suffering is sharing in the passion of God. God suffers too, and when we are in pain we’re in solidarity with God.

I know that my redeemer lives/ and he, at last, will take his stand on earth. After my awaking he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I will look on god. He … will take my part: these eyes will gaze on him and find him not aloof” (Job 19:25-27).

Rowland Croucher


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