I re-read Job recently. Job - which deals with the question of God and suffering - is a book I have always struggled with.
Partly because it is not written in prose, and I’m quite bad at reading anything other than complete grammatical sentences. The other reason would I suppose be youth and a dearth of life experience.
In the first two chapters of Job, we read that Job has lost most of his family and his health. His circumstances are tremendously tragic, and his anguish so severe that he wishes that he had not been born. But Job’s experience was not something I could identify and empathise with in the innocence and naivety of my youth.
Several years on, with a lot more age and with that more disappointments in life, I think I’m finally able to grasp Job’s pain and anguish a little better. Reflecting on Job and on life, these are some of my thoughts:
1. The initial response of Job’s friends was remarkably compassionate
In Job 2:13, we are told that when Job’s friends first heard of his tragedy, they visited him and did nothing but sit next to him in silence for seven days and seven nights. This may admittedly not have been literal (ie. they may not have literally sat with him seven days and nights), but the author of Job used this expression to convey the depth of their compassion.
While their subsequent response left much to be desired, and they may well have pre-judged Job even as they sat next to him in silence, the compassion in their initial response was rare and commendable.
In contrast, I think it is more common nowadays for us to quickly heap condemnation on a person that we disagree with, while ignoring his personal circumstances or even listening to what that person might have to say. Sadly, the advent of the Internet and social media, with its cloak of apparent anonymity, has emboldened such behaviour.
Note that I am not saying that we should excuse wrong-doing, or that bad behaviour should be rewarded with a hug and a mug of hot chocolate. I’m just saying that there is usually room for us to extend compassion, to try and understand how someone else is feeling, and/or to hear all sides of a story before we arrive at a particular conclusion. And for all we know our initial opinions may, like Job’s friends, be proved wrong after we have taken into consideration all accounts.
Christians particularly are called to distinguish ourselves by being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to express anger (James 1:19), and to examine our inner lives before we examine the faults of others (Matthew 7 : 3 - 5).
2. The subsequent response of Job’s friends was unremarkably unsympathetic
Though Job’s friends sat with him and appeared to take the time to hear what he had to say, they seemed to have already decided in their minds the reason for his suffering. Hence their subsequent response was unsympathetic. In short, each summarily decided and then told Job that he must have been a really wicked person. Otherwise, suffering would not have been inflicted on him as a punishment.
And I think this was unremarkable or not unexpected, because we are not by nature very sympathetic towards those who are in different circumstances. If it were otherwise, Jesus would not have needed to teach about loving your neighbour using the unlikely illustration of a Good Samaritan, and Singaporeans would be treating their domestic helpers with a lot more consideration.
This prompted Job to lament that "men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping" (Job 12:5) or, to paraphrase, people who are successful (eg. at work, in a relationship, etc.) tend to think that those who are less successful are failures because of their lack of virtue.
This sadly remains true today. Back in Job’s time as it is today, it is too easy for us to condemn a person for his apparent faults when we are not in the same position, or have not been through a similar experience.
The Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jesus’ time were at the apex of society and were typically condescending towards others. In particular they distanced themselves from and condemned people in "sinful" professions such as prostitution and tax collection, and lepers who were presumed to be diseased because of their sin.
However, Jesus Christ distinguished Himself from the religious leaders of His time by identifying with the lost, and reaching out to them in God’s love. Jesus took human form (Philippians 2:7), lived humbly (Matthew 8 : 20), and spent as much of His time of His time (if not more) with the poor and outcasts of society as with the powerful and privileged. Christians are similarly called to stand out in our generation through the exercise of Christ-like compassion.
3. The subsequent response of Job’s friends was unremarkably presumptuous
Often tied in with the absence of sympathy, is presumptuousness. Presumptuousness feeds an attitude of superiority or self-righteousness (as opposed to sympathy), because it makes us think that we are or know better and therefore can sit in judgment of another person. It also amplifies the anguish of the person in pain because we sometimes presume wrongly, and further hurt that person with poor advice or insensitive comments.
In the case of Job, his friends repeatedly insisted that his suffering was the outcome of his wickedness even though this was not true. In the course of this, they even speculatively accused him of all sorts of wrong-doing -
"You demanded security from your brothers for no reason,
you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.
You have no water to the weary
and you withheld food from the hung.
Though you were a powerful man, owning land -
an honoured man, living on it.
And you sent widows away empty-handed
and broke the strength of the fatherless.
That is why snares are all around you,
why sudden peril terrifies you." (Job 22 : 6 - 10)
They also repeatedly claimed that wicked people would always be punished in their lifetimes, a lie which is not borne out by reality then as well as now.
I find such presumptuousness unremarkable, or not unexpected, because it happens so often today. It is sadly not usual for religious leaders - yes, church leaders included - to proclaim that an individual or a community had suffered a certain disaster or tragedy for its sin or depravity. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several church as well as Al Qaeda leaders (the irony!) were quick to presume and proclaim the natural disaster as divine retribution of the sins of New Orleans or of the United States.
I am by and large able to agree with such broad proclaimations of divine judgement only in the most general of terms. That is to say, all men are morally imperfect and guilty of perpetuating wrong, on each other and on the environment. The natural or man-made disasters or personal tragedies that we see are just a consequence of a once perfect world despoiled by our abuse, of our cruelty towards each other, and of our wicked neglect of the environment. That aside, good people die at about the same rate as bad people : 100% of the time. Good people probably contract cancer at about the same rate as bad people. And good people are as much the victims of disasters such as a tsunami as bad people.
I do not mean to say that God does not sometimes offer particular protection to Christians (hopefully, "good people") during a disaster, or healing to Christians who are ill. I believe God does. However, Christians are as much subject to suffering as non-Christians, and it is unhelpful and even distasteful to presume that everyone who suffers is being specifically punished for sin, and that everyone who is successful and/or who does not suffer is a good person.
4. The book of Job is remarkable in that God never explains to Job why he suffered
We know from the first two chapters of Job that God had allowed a terrible tragedy to occur in Job’s life because Satan had challenged God to prove Job’s faithfulness. This is never disclosed to Job, even at the end.
It is disturbing to think that God may sometimes allow suffering in response to a challenge from Satan. It is even more disturbing to contemplate that we may never be told - in this lifetime - of this or any other reason for some of the suffering or disappointments that we go through.
And this is what I find remarkable or unexpected about the book of Job. I would have expected a book which deals with the suffering of a Godly man to have answered the question of suffering. However, there is no attempt to mislead readers by giving a feel-good or esoteric one-size-fits-all reason for suffering. Rather, God is candid in telling readers that there may be instances in which we suffer, and the reason for this is something we will not be told about or understand, within this lifetime.
And this reflects reality. In presumptuousness we sometimes try to draw a connection between personal suffering and personal sin. But the reality is that many good men suffer despite their righteousness, while many bad men prosper despite their wickedness.
So in lieu of an answer which may not be within human comprehension, God offers Himself to Job. God offers a divine "non-answer". He asks Job to examine His sovereignty as seen in the glory of creation, and invites Job to trust Him despite the seeming meaninglessness of his suffering. And to this, Job can only reply -
"Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know." (Job 42:3)
5. Jesus is remarkable in that He suffers with us
I would be lying if I said that the divine "non-answer" at the end of Job is satisfactory. I don’t think it is. In fact, I think it was somewhat unfair of God to play the "God card" and ask Job to trust Him because He’s God. That’s demanding a lot of feeble humans like me with fickle faith.
But God’s response to the question of suffering does not end with the "non-answer" in Job. It ends in Christ.
God’s response to the seeming meaninglessness of some of our experiences is as, if not more, brutal and unjust and meaningless than our suffering. By the death of Jesus on the cross, God suffers with us and for us. There is no attempt to mislead us with a warm-and-fuzzy feel-good, or esoteric, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of suffering.
In the absence of a simple answer (possibly because none within human comprehension exists), God tells us that He loves us, that He identifies with us, and that He feels the pain of our suffering and disappointments in the ultimate means possible, by taking human form and suffering Himself on the cross.
"He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
Surely He took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered Him stricken by God,
smitten by Him and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
and by His wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53 : 3 - 5)