The texts for Sunday include a reading from Job. We don’t read Job very often in worship. I doubt most of us read it for fun. It’s too bad. It’s not only brilliant poetry; it’s brilliant theology. When Job gets hold of me, it’s hard to shake it off. The first two daily devotions this week, for Wednesday and Thursday, have been on Job. I could easily keep going.
A dear friend’s son asked me to participate in his wedding next summer. A joyful opportunity to catch up with him and his fiancé over Thanksgiving was put on hold recently as he faced surgery last week. We have been anxiously waiting word on a mass removed. I learned today it was carcinogenic. So my thoughts are still with Job.
I feel for Job’s friends. It is very hard to let go of the notion that good things should happen to good people and bad things to bad people. There is some evidence that such a belief is hardwired into the human genome. Students were set up to play Monopoly, but randomly assigned to play with 2-dice and $200 in passing “Go” or 1 die and $100 when passing “Go.” Those with the economic advantage won, of course, but the interesting thing was that in interviews afterwards they all said they won not because of their advantage, but because of their skill and strategy. They deserved to win.
We have this wondrous frightening ability to believe we merit our prosperity – and others their poverty. Our health or their illness. At least in the abstract. But then it happens to a friend you know and, like Job, you know that it wasn’t deserved.
So some say it’s all God’s plan. Rather than live in the scary world of chance, they want it all to be under God’s immediate control. Cancer must be a good gift of a good God, then. Troubling thought for others of us. Especially those victims of random violence. Was the shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown God’s perfect plan? Never. That’s worth carving with Job into a stone pillar.
The nexus of cause and effect in human affairs is infinitely complex. Yes, we live in a world we have polluted with toxic chemicals, and there are consequences to our actions, but some of those chemicals are present naturally, and why those consequences fall on some and not others… It’s not completely out of our hands, but it’s not completely in our hands either. One drunk driver gets home safely; another doesn’t – but we could choose not to drink and drive. Typhoons and earthquakes batter the earth. Maybe we shouldn’t live in earthquake zones – but it flooded in Longmont Colorado for goodness’ sake!
We want to believe it’s in our hands. And much religion is an attempt to bring the gods into our hands. Keep them happy so they will keep you safe, control them with rites and rituals so they don’t cause harm. But it doesn’t work like that. The central Christian story is about underserved suffering – though you could make a pretty good argument that Jesus brought it on himself. Poke the powerful with a stick like that and you can’t expect much else.
God doesn’t support the notion that you get what you deserve. God lavishes grace and mercy where it is not deserved. Fortunately. What God does promise is that God is working in every crisis. They can lead to goodness or not. They can lead to kindness, compassion, the bonding of family, the deepening of faith, the clarifying of life’s meaning. Or it can lead to bitterness, anger, despair, the fracturing of families and the losing of life’s purpose. We have some choice here: whether to open ourselves to what God can do, or close ourselves; whether to live trusting God’s healing and transforming presence or to live fearing, denying, hating and/or fleeing God.
Job stands and fights with God. He is wondrously defiant of all those who dare to say that he must have done something wrong to suffer as he does. He demands an audience with God. He wants to set up a stone pillar testifying to his innocence. When he dies, his ‘redeemer’ (the Hebrew word refers to the member of his family who would come to his aid or avenge any harm) will take up his complaint against God, but he insists on confronting God while he still lives.
Job doesn’t get the audience he wants. But God does come to speak to him. God confronts him with the mystery of life: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In the end, Job bows down and let’s God be God.
Life is mystery. Those who have pondered the Biblical message, who have heard the witness of the cross and resurrection, believe that in, with and under that mystery is an unfathomable goodness and grace – even when we cannot see it. And we dare to live relying on that goodness. Even in the face of fears and tears.