Updated with new thoughts on Thursday, October 18, 2012
"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me."
I like order and find security in my routines. I like to wake up with the sun and make strong coffee. Then I write in my journal, read a little news, and pray. Around 7:30 I start heating milk for oatmeal, wake up Jeanne and start her tea water to boil, and cut up apples. Jeanne I talk for a while and I shower and I come to church. I’m happy to do this same routine every morning. I find security in my “to do” lists and my calendar and my idea files. I try to put my whole week on one page so I can see what I’m about for the days ahead. My day is filled with little rituals, many of them unconscious. For example, at noon I ponder all the wonderful options of what I might eat, and in the end I walk down to State Street Deli, because I like it there. Its my spot.
My personality is crafted for a Newtonian universe-a world for which every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; where an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon, and an object in motion stays in motion unless something slows it down. I would like a world where cause and effect can be seen like a pool table. Calculate the angle, apply the right amount of force, strike the cue ball to get just the right back spin, and the “7-ball” ball goes in the corner pocket while I line up the next shot. I like a world where people say what they mean, where people do what they say they will do, and their words and their action line up. And I also like a world where there is justice, where people are treated fairly, where laws are written for the common good, and leaders have the best interests of all the people at heart. Obviously, I am doomed to be an unhappy man.
I am a Newtonian personality in an Einstein Universe. In physics class I dutifully learned the “laws” of motion and calculated the formulas and I got an A. And then I went to graduate school and learned the Theory of Relativity, Chaos Theory, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Life is clearly not only unpredictable, but also unfair and unjust. I’m still getting over it. I have buried too many people who died too young, taken in their prime by cancer, a drunk driver smashing into them in the middle of the night, or the randomness of a careless act when sawing off a tree limb. A few days ago I opened the paper and read about the plight of 14-year old Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban militant because when she was 11 years old she had the courage to stand up to them and say that girls can go to school too. They waited two years to retaliate, and while she clings to her life in a UK hospital, they have vowed to attach her again.
You can see why I like my routines, my habits, my “to-do” lists and rituals. Routines are my reassurance that I can make some order in the chaos. They are a mote of small details protecting my fortress where things can be predictable and make sense. I stay busy, exhausting myself in too many tasks and details, because it protects me from the chaos and uncertainty out there. But the book of Job will not let me get away with this way of life. It is the most troubling book in the Bible, and also my one of my favorites. I like Job because it is honest about reality. The narrator refuses to wrap everything into a tidy wisdom saying that fits inside a Hallmark Card. This is not a spirituality that can be reduced to a positive-thinking or a “dress-for-success” Gospel. But it is a wisdom that can help us navigate Einstein’s world of relativity, chaos and uncertainty.
If you have heard of the book of Job, you probably connect it to suffering. This is true. Job lost everything important to him, family, health and wealth, and is left desolate. But the book is about more than how to handle life’s suffering. It is about the existential crisis that goes with suffering when we start asking why. Why me? Why did I lose my job, get cancer, or suffer a great injustice? What did I do to deserve this? And why do good people suffer terribly and some real jerks seem to breeze through life untouched by tragedy? The existential questions about suffering, the anxiety of why, can be nearly as painful as the cause of suffering. Sometimes people recover from the immediate effects of a serious blow, but don’t recover from the assault on their worldview. I thought the world was safe. I believed that God loved me. I supposed that life was fair. Losing our trust that life has meaning, that there is a loving God, and that life is fair makes our suffering worse. These existential losses can last a lifetime.
Job and his friends spend many chapters discussing the reasons behind his suffering. Their debate is rather narrow to the modern ear. The major modern answer to suffering is simply that God does not exist, the world is random chaos, life isn’t fair so get over it and get yours where you can. Materialism is all there is. This didn’t occur to Job and his friends because God was a given. Their discussion centers more on moral questions, specifically what did Job do wrong. While Job’s friends loved him and had great sympathy, in the end they believed that Job had sinned, and they joined him in a great search to find where he went wrong. What did he do to bring down the wrath of God on his life?
How many times have you heard someone say, “What did I do to deserve this?” Job searches his life and comes to the conclusion that nothing he did could warrant this suffering, in fact he is a rare person that can’t think of anything he did wrong. Job’s friends just can’t accept this answer. If Job had said he secretly embezzled money, had multiple affairs or killed a man in bar fight when he was young, his friends would have said, “Oh Job, that’s bad. Now we understand why you are suffering, but we love you.” But they could not accept that Job was blameless. That wasn’t how their worldview worked.
This is the core to understanding the entire book. Much of religion focuses on the need to be moral. Do this, and don’t do that. And if you do the right thing you will be rewarded, and you do the wrong thing and you will be punished. The scriptures say this many times, most eloquently in Psalm 1, “The righteous are like a tree planted by a stream bearing fruit in season…and the wicked are like chaff blown around in the wind.” We know the world does not work out that way, and sometimes the moral answer is that immoral people will get theirs in the end, we just have to be patient and endure because God will sort it out in heaven. The book of Job is a rebellion against the conventional wisdom of the Bible, that proclaims that everyone will get what they deserve in the end.
Today’s reading is when God finally speaks to Job, and the answer may surprise us. It may even seem a bit harsh at first.
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?...Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— 9when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band.
What is the meaning of this long discourse from God that goes on for two chapters of Job? One answer is that God is asserting divine transcendence. God is the one who set this world up, and gave us life, and don’t question things you can’t understand. Just trust that God knows the right thing to do. That is not an answer that flies very well in our individualistic, anti-authority culture. We don’t like hearing that there are things we can’t understand. But there are some philosophical merits to this answer. Perhaps we need to recognize human limits more often, that we are not the source of all wisdom and knowledge. We are not as smart as we think we are. There are ultimate things that must be left to God. At least this answer isn’t telling us life is fair when we know it is not, or that we are sinners and deserve everything that happens to us. When I am suffering, I would rather hear “There are some things you cannot know in this life,” rather than “you are a sinner and this is a punishment to teach you a lesson.”
Part of me can simply take this great leap of faith and simply trust God and say, “You know, O God, and I am just a mortal.” As the Psalmist said, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Sometimes that is enough for me. But let me take things one last step. If we are going to believe in God, and not become non-believers because of the problem of suffering and evil in the world, can we truly trust God? Is God really good when there is so much suffering in the world?
I remember a time in my life when everything was in turmoil. I was going through a divorce, people who I thought were my friends were choosing sides, and I was on my way to the airport to fly to my Grandfather’s funeral. All of my grief and losses were piling up as I drove in the darkness of early morning. As I reached the top of a mountain near West Point, NY, it was suddenly dawn. Rose-colored light crackled across the sky, and I remembered reading Homer’s Iliad, who often described “the rosy-fingered dawn.” It suddenly “dawned” on me that I was seeing the same wondrous first morning light, and my heart was so filled with joy that I wept. I realized that no matter what I was going through, the sun was still going to come up every morning, and I remembered the Psalm, “God’s mercies are new every morning.”
I believe this is why God answered Job with a long discourse of the wonders of the created world. When we struggle for answers and philosophy and theology fail us, take a hike. The sunrise is God’s narthex, the deep woods are God’s sanctuary, Fall leaf colors are the Divine Doxology, and the mountains are God’s pulpit. God’s self-help section is not at Barnes and Noble, or available on Google. Iit is by the waterfall or on the mountain top. When you suffer, go sit by the Connecticut River or watch the tides of the ocean go in and out. This is where we will find a God who is enough to wash away all our sorrows and move us to wonder. We are surrounded and embraced by creative love.