The Book of Job is just a miserable story to preach from. And, let me be clear, it is a story, a myth, a legend. It was ancient Israel’s attempt to explain why bad things happened to good people. The brief synopsis for those of you who don’t know the story is that Job is an upstanding, righteous, all-around good guy and the satan (adversary, or prosecuting attorney if you want to use legal terms – there was no sense of this person as the Satan we have created since) challenges God to test his faithfulness. God agrees, takes just about everything away from Job and covers his body in boils. Job demands to know why. He is convinced that he has done nothing to deserve this and so complains that God is being unfair. God, in Job’s mind, didn’t hold up God’s end of the bargain. Job was good, so God should only deliver good to Job. Well, God puts Job in his place. “Who are you to question God?” says God. Job repents and God restores Jobs wealth and blesses him with a new family.
Why? Job wanted to know why, people through the ages have wanted to know why, and we still cry out to understand. Why do we need to ask why? It appears to be human nature. We begin when we’re about three, driving our parents crazy with our endless stings of why until, exasperated, they silence us with “Because I said so.” As we get older our whys get more difficult. At the age of 17 my why drove me to church to try to discover why my mom died.
The lesson from the Book of Job seems to enforce the teaching that God can do whatever God wants to do, no questions asked, and we should humble ourselves and accept it. Better yet, put on sack cloth and ashes just in case it really was our fault, go to confession, increase our offering, maybe even sacrifice a bull. The Old Testament God is up there pulling strings and we should recognize that we are small in comparison to the universe and suck it up.
This answer doesn’t really works for me anymore except as a story, told to the best of people’s understanding, about why there is suffering and what to do about it. Of course, my sermons are also to the best of my understanding in this moment, not to be set in stone and open to growth and wisdom.
So, having said that, here are my thoughts of the day on the subject of suffering and why. No one is exempt from suffering… each person has something they struggles with. Therefore, suffering is an inherent part of life; there is no easy button. We can’t seem to help asking the question “why?” but inevitably gets us nowhere. Continuing to ask “why?” simply gets us stuck, like Job, sitting in sack cloth and ashes, bemoaning our fate, whining and complaining. In this state of being it’s truly hard to see any movement of the spirit. And I believe the spirit continues to be with us in the midst of suffering, bringing us hope, showing us open windows if we’ll stop looking at the closed doors; but if we’re stuck we won’t see any of it.
I believe there are two better questions to ask (instead of why?) that better open the door for the spirit to work. The first question is usually the second to be asked because it is easier to see in hindsight: What can I learn from this? If I look into myself, my actions, my reactions, my feelings, my fears… where are the growing edges? This is important stuff; it is how we grow in wisdom.
The second question we need to ask ourselves is how will we respond? This isn’t always easy when we’re hurting and scared. But perhaps we can take a step back, realize that life has thrown us a curve ball, remember that we’ve gotten through previous curve balls, take a deep breath and realize it is what it is. Now we ask ourselves how will we proceed in a way that will be that will be compassionate to ourselves and to others.
Let me give you an example. I think we’d all agree that knowing you are dying of cancer is pretty far up there on the list of awful things to suffer from. But we still choose how we will respond to that, and how we will respond to the people who care about us. Here are two people who chose completely different paths to this situation.
When Mona had a reoccurrence of breast cancer, she could not accept her dying because she was determined to live to see her daughter’s wedding, which was about a month away. So, she lived the remainder of her life in complete denial, refusing to talk about the cancer, dying, her feelings, everything. She shut out the people closest to her, including her significant other. These people who loved her knew how close death was and desperately wanted to have an authentic connection with her about their feelings, their relationship, how she felt about dying, etc. It never happened. She died without that type of peace and closure with the people around her.
And then there was Dan, who was diagnosed with fourth stage lung cancer. If I have ever known anyone to “die well” it would have been him. I’m sure he had his moments of questioning and struggling, but he never let it completely shut him down or cut him off from anyone. In fact, we had conversations about how he had one last lesson to teach and that lesson was how to die. Dan was never hard to approach about how he was feeling or how treatment was going. He was always completely open and honest about all of it. He had no problem announcing the latest news during joys and concerns at church and asking for prayer for himself. Taking time to be with those he loved and cared for was a priority for him. He took his wife on one last dream trip to Hawaii, got his affairs in order and sang one last rock ‘n roll song with the band he was in. Somehow he was always there when others needed him and he continued to care about how others were doing. He laughed and cracked jokes, and he struggled and cried… but I believe he was more fully present, aware and honest about what was going on, how he was feeling, and how others were feeling than anyone I’d ever known. When he finally died, we knew we had been blessed by his love, the authenticity of his journey, and our ability to share deeply of our own feelings.
The choice of how we respond to the suffering in our lives is ours alone.
One last thought and that is that we need to trust in the mysterious movement of the spirit in the midst of all things. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the chaos and pain I went through in my life 2-3 years ago would eventually emerge into beautiful spiritual community. It simply attests to the other thing I know about God. God creates out of chaos. Out of the biggest messes of our lives can come the most beautiful things… it’s just that we usually don’t recognize how it happened until we look back years later.