Where is God in my suffering? - Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41
This Lent I joined a virtual spiritual retreat on the book of Job, led by one of my mentors, Mary.
Mary was an American Baptist pastor in my college town, a mother of three, and a contemplative soul.
She and her pastor husband took an active interest in us students,
And I spent many evenings at her home and among her family, as well as at her church.
Mary’s personal life was not easy.
Mary was diagnosed with cancer at age 41, which 18 years later in a more virulent form.
She fought the disease even as she raised three daughters and co-pastored a church with her husband.
Her husband had a health scare, including a cat bite that turned septic and caused a stroke.
But by far the most challenging of the situations that Mary faced was the health of her eldest daughter, Sarah.
As early as her tween years, Sarah showed signs of anorexia and other disorders.
She struggled for the next twenty years with mental health issues,
Even as she graduated with a PhD from Yale and began a successful teaching career.
She found release when she took her own life at the age of 34.
Throughout these years, one of Mary’s spiritual companions was Job.
(See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQwnH8th_fs for an excellent overview.)
Job is considered part of the wisdom literature of the bible, and it considers the age old question of theodicy:
If God is good, and God loves us, then why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s a story of mythic proportions
Job is a wealthy, God-fearing man, with everything to live for.
In the heavenly realm, God and Satan enter a wager about this righteous man Job.
Satan contends that Job is only faithful and upright because God blesses him.
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan challenges.
“Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?
…But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
God accepts the challenge, and gives Job over to Satan’s power.
That’s when Job’s fortunes change.
In short order, Job loses his family, his wealth, and his home.
Job is struck with a terrible disease that rots his flesh.
The only person who remains to him is his wife, who nags at him for refusing to turn his back on God.
Job sits in dust and ashes, as sign of mourning.
The next 37 chapters are Job and his inward journey of grief, outrage, and prayer.
Considering Mary’s life experience, the question of where God is in human suffering is no arm chair discussion.
Mary shared a bit of her personal experience, but also turned to other contemporary examples of suffering.
She referred to CS Lewis’ book A Grief Observed, which he wrote after the death his wife,
And of his questions about whether God purposely hurts us in the sufferings of life.
She shared the experience of Christian friends in Myanmar, living through the violence of a military coup,
Whose deepest pain was actually not the loss of homes or lives,
But the pain “that we can’t find God when we need him most.”
Job speaks to the dark night of the soul, the question of where is God in our most desperate hour,
That echoes throughout the book of Job, and indeed, throughout the life of any believing person
who has lived long enough to suffer.
Where is God in our suffering?
Is God responsible for it, causing it to make us stronger or to teach us something?
Does God allow suffering to punish us, like a tough love parent?
Or is God unfeeling and unmoved, like the disciples accuse Jesus in our Gospel lesson:
“Do you not care that we are perishing??”
Job’s friends try to set him straight.
It’s not that God doesn’t care.
They tell him that God is loving and just, so it must be that Job did something wrong.
Own your mistakes! they tell him. God must want you to learn from this experience.
God has a plan for everything! They tell him.
But Job does not feel deserving of this pain, and he demands an explanation from God.
Our Old Testament lesson today is the beginning of God’s response to Job.
The LORD speaks out of a whirlwind, a sign of God’s awesome power.
But God does not answer Job’s question of why God lets good people suffer.
Instead God gives Job a glimpse of the Big Picture—
The complexity of creation, in its wild beauty and cosmic scope.
God’s response (you could almost call it a tirade) goes on for four chapters!
And in it, as God describes in great detail the wonders of creation made by God’s hand:
How God commands the weather and designed the earth,
the grazing habits of the mountain goats, birth of deer, feeding patterns of lions and wild donkeys…
It is a job description of what it looks like to run the world with justice—
And it has so much more to it than Job’s singular perspective!.
Job’s underlying assumption in questioning God is that he has enough perspective
to know what justice looks like from a cosmic perspective.
But clearly from God’s speech, Job has little knowledge of these matters that God oversees.
And so while God does not answer Job’s question of Why?, God does address Job’s outcry.
Because what Job really wants is the assurance that God is faithful
That God has not abandoned him in his suffering
That there is a bigger picture in which Job’s situation is considered and cared for.
Now as I said before, Mary has prayed with the book of Job for years;
Job has been a companion for her in wrestling with her own questions, outrage, and pain.
I take Mary’s knowledge of suffering as from one who knows the territory, and is still standing.
Two insights from Mary’s talk stick with me.
The first is this:
Perseverance is the face of hope when hope is in short supply.
Mary’s experience is that it counts simply to remain engage with God even when God is silent.
You don’t need an answer to your question right away.
You don’t need to sanitize your feelings.
Tell God exactly how you feel in prayer.
Bring these feelings to pastoral conversation, to journaling, to a trusted friend who will simply listen.
Pray the psalms, which, along with the book of Job, preserve this honest prayer tradition.
Perseverance is the face of hope when hope is short supply.
And Mary’s experience is that eventually perseverance produces steadfastness and resilience.
Her second point was this:
If you can’t see God where you are looking, look someplace else.
That’s what God does in God’s response to Job—redirect Job’s vision to where God’s hand can be seen.
God points Job to specifically to the natural world.
This resonates with our own experience.
For many of us regularly connect deeply with God when we are in nature.
This is a natural corrective to our very human tendency to place ourselves at the center of the universe,
The natural world reminds us of God’s grand design in which we are just one small part.
Finding our place within the grand scheme of things is healing.
At the conclusion of God’s response, Job is silent for a moment, and then says,
“I uttered what I did not understand; I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees you…
Therefore I recant, and repent of the dust and ashes.”
Mary’s life is a testimony to me:
Faith is not about having all the answers, or even about feeling God’s presence.
It isn’t an insurance policy against pain and suffering.
Faith means we are open to God, continually looking and listening for God.
It means we redirect our vision beyond ourselves to the Big Picture, to see God more clearly.
Faith means honest prayer, with doubts and accusations and cries included.
It is a life of humility, of perseverance, and of hope.
Mary’s witness of faith, and the book of Job, are strength and courage for me.
I pray they are for you, too.