Monday, November 30, 2015

A Reflection on Job

Recently I posted to Facebook that I felt a little too much like Job at the moment.  It is true, my life
over the last year has been filled with a great deal of pain and loss. It has reminded me of the story of Job, which of course is considered one of the premier texts on suffering and asking the question of why people suffer, particularly on why good people suffer.  I have been feeling however that the story has needed some contemporary updates, because we humans have found all sorts of ways to not actually sit with people in pain but to let them know that in some way they are responsible for all of their own pain and that if they just took these simple steps life would be grand. The assumption of course is that we can avoid pain, loss and suffering and yet that is the biggest lie of all.  Our culture lives in a deep state of denial about loss and death.  Somehow we live in a state of believing that death is optional, that loss is optional, that somehow we can protect ourselves and our loved ones, particularly our children, from bad things happening.  Now not to be a kill joy but that simply is not true.  We will all suffer loss - loss of those we love, loss of dreams, we will fail, we will have bad things happen to us and in my mind we do no service to those suffering or those we try to protect by heaping on a bunch of useless platitudes and spreading the lie that life can be lived without pain or sorrow. In fact, I think we make the pain worse, the suffering more acute when we let people believe that loss and sorrow are optional, that we can avoid them and that if they do happen than they are solely our fault and we are left alone to figure out a way through.

So let us get back to Job.  In a brief re-cap of the Biblical story which is its own book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Job is a righteous man, even making sacrifices on behalf of his wayward children. He has been blessed with a wife, many children, lots of cattle, sheep and good crops.  He is obedient to God, following the law.  In the story Satan, "the accuser," has been wandering the earth and in a gathering of the heavenly beings with God, God holds up Job as a bright shining example of faithfulness. Satan challenges God and says that Job is only so faithful because he has had such a good and easy life. God agrees to let Satan take away all his children and wealth but does not allow him to touch his person. So Job loses everything - children, crops, livestock.  Job however does not renounce or blame God. He remains faithful despite his great loss.  The heavenly gathering gets together again, God once again holds up Job as an example of faithfulness even in the midst of loss, yet Satan again challenges (this is where our term "Devil's Advocate" comes from) and says well yes but he still has health.  God agrees to let Satan test Job again but orders him to spare his life.  So Job becomes covered to head to toe in boils.  Job still does not renounce God instead crying out in suffering and pain, pleading to be allowed to die, wishing he had never been born. His wife, whose suffering is not really dealt with in the story, tells him to renounce God already and die.  Job is then visited by three friends all of whom are convinced that Job must have done something to displease God because otherwise why would all these bad things happen to him, they tell him to be patient, to repent, to examine his life and discover where he went wrong.  Job finds little comfort from his friends' words. Our story ends with God giving little explanation for God's actions and yet Job finds his health, family and wealth restored.

Now let's give a modern twist to the Job story because the questions the story of Job raises are eternal ones - are wealth and health signs of divine favor or making good choices or a result solely of our own achievement?  Why do good people suffer? Are bad things some sort of test of our faithfulness?

Let us reconsider the Job story in this way.  Job is a good guy, he has a great job, house and every material thing he could want.  He has a good wife and family even if sometimes his children act out and don't seem very grateful, Job takes steps to keep his children out of trouble and to smooth their way.  Job's life is good and he is a good man - faithful, loving and grateful!  Suddenly though Job loses his good job and cannot find a new one.  He loses his wealth, he can no longer protect his children so they end up in all sorts of trouble.  Yet even in the midst of this Job remains faithful and a good man, not allowing misfortune to make him bitter and angry.  Then on top of everything else, Job develops a chronic illness.  Now Job is living in daily pain, there seems to be no end to his pain and his suffering.  In the midst of this, Job's wife just cannot take it any more and wonders why he continues to be so faithful, so lacking in bitterness and anger - in anger she strikes out at him.  Job's friends come to see him and they barely recognize him.  They cry out in pain for their friend and for a long while they just sit with him in silence.  Job cries out wondering what has happened to him, wondering why, crying out for relief to his suffering. His first friend venturing speaks, warns him against negative thoughts.  Job's friend reminds him that if he just keeps a positive attitude, not allowing negativity in, that soon all will be well.  Job looks at his friend with a look that says "are you out of your mind?"  What do you mean have no negative thoughts? I have been a faithful and good person, I played by all the rules, I did what was expected and have accepted my fate without bitterness and yet sometimes it is just all too much.  Job's second friend offers that Job's predicament must be a result of something Job did - maybe his illness is because of his diet, an allergy to gluten and if he just tries this great new cleanse and juice diet, Job will soon be feeling better than his old self.  It worked wonders for me, this friend says and I know people have been cured of all sorts of things just by changing their diet.  Again Job looks at the friend with wonder.  A diet that can cure all that ails him? The third friend offers that Job just needs to put himself back out there, job search - there is something out there, the pain can't be that bad, just pull up your bootstraps and get out there.  He just can't sit here and feel sorry for himself.  He just needs to network, brand himself, and in terms of his health, well it is just a matter of mind over matter.  Job insists to his friends that his suffering is not due to his diet or negativity and he can't just put himself out there.  Job cries out for mercy and relief and not to feel so alone in his suffering.  So what happens to Job?  In this version, we don't know. It may be that Job's friends are actually able to help him find a new job, his doctor finally figures out what is wrong with him and is able to offer relief and remission, his children finally find their way back and his family is restored.  It may also be that Job wastes away, his friends leave him and he dies alone.

Probably the most powerful thing Job's friends do for him, before they speak, they sit with him in silence.  In the original story, we are told that they sit in silence for seven days.  For many people suffering, there is nothing that can be done, nothing to be "fixed" and all we can do is sit with our friends as they ride the waves of grief.  It is not comfortable to sit there like that, we want to be able to do, to fix, to act.  Grief however does not have a fix.  As this powerful article attests, some things just have to be carried.

Sometimes though there is practical help that can be offered - networking for a job, passing along a resume or an introduction. There is a reason we bring food when there is illness or death, the thought of cooking or taking care of routine daily tasks is just too much - so bringing a meal or offering to go to the store, paying a bill if the problem is financial are practical, things that friends can do to help.

Most importantly Job's friends were least helpful when they kept insisting that Job's suffering were a result of his own actions or lack of actions. Sometimes that is true, we make mistakes and we suffer the consequences. Yet in the midst of those consequences, is it really helpful to say "well if you just had not....then you wouldn't be in this mess" or "I told you this would happen if you did this and so." Unless you have some magical way to change the past, pointing out a person's failures or mistakes is not usually helpful in moving them forward. Sometimes though things happen - jobs are lost, people get sick, people die, relationships end, dreams end.  When that happens we don't need more positive platitudes about how it will all get better, that somehow God won't give us more than we can bear. In fact to take the story of Job on its face, God doesn't come out looking very good.  Job's suffering is a test of his faithfulness, that maybe we don't have free will and we are just pawns in the great chess game of the universe.  Clearly God gave Job more than anyone could bear that fact that he didn't break may be more about his friends sitting with him in silence for seven days rather than God's care or the friends' advice.

Loss, grief, pain are a part of life along with love, joy, gratitude and happiness.  More often than not, they exist side by side in a paradoxical fashion.  In the midst of great suffering we can smile and laugh, we have better days, an unexpected gift or blessing comes our way at just the right time.  None of us does it alone.  Each of us can help one another even if it is just to look at another and say "I see you and I know you are suffering and you are not alone."

So let's stop with the platitudes and meaning making and be willing to get real, to be messy and to accept that we are not in control. The biggest lesson of Job's story may be the lesson that we are not in charge, we can't control all the events of our lives and we cannot shield ourselves from life.  Also people are fragile, they can break, so please handle with care.

So what does Job's story have to say to you?  What are your thoughts?  How would you make a modern version of Job's story? What have been the most helpful things friends have done for you? What have you done for others?