The book of Job is considered by some as possibly the greatest piece of literature ever written. We know from the start that we are dealing with a work of genius. So we realise that we need to approach it with great respect in seeking to understand it. We need to appreciate it as being from it’s time and place, and to read it as such, although it of course raises questions which confront every human being of any time and place.
Firstly, let’s note that biblical scholars lean toward the view that the book of Job was written during one of Israel’s periods of exile. Therefore the people were suffering in misery away from their homeland and, as they understood it, away from the dwelling place of their God. It seems that this was a time when their faith-understanding of God’s loving care for them, like a parent, was challenged by other religious views of “the gods” as remote beings who treated humans as their playthings. Perhaps you, like me, find that helpful in making sense of the scenario with which the book of Job begins, including the conversations between God and the accuser.
The book opens in a way which tells us that this is meant to be the story of human trials and tribulation, and of human seeking after God in the midst of the vagaries of life. It’s possible to translate the opening words as “Long ago, and far away…”, which tells us that this is about something much bigger than the life of an individual and his family and friends. The subject is, in fact, as broad as the experiences of humanity and the nature of divinity itself.
We understand from the very beginning that one of the basic questions the book addresses is “Why do good people suffer?” Job is a man of the greatest integrity, a man who truly lives out his faith not only in words, but with his very life. He has every advantage that could possibly be attained in life. Riches, comfort and a delightful family. He’s got it all. And so we come to the dialogue between God and the accuser. Is Job only faithful because God has given him everything he could possibly desire in life? We are deeply disturbed to find that God puts everything that Job has in the hands of the accuser.
We have immediately been confronted with our first big question. Is God really like that? Would God ever do such a thing to the people he has created in love? Is the writer putting that scenario right “up front” to get us thinking straight away about the very nature of God and the concept of divine justice, not to mention mercy? Surely we need to read this as a brilliant depiction of certain views of God, not intended to be read as if the writer was claiming to be “in on” a particular conversation in heaven.
Then, Job’s misery increases as he suffers greatly with illness. His wife, sympathising with his desolation, offers him “a way out”. Do the unthinkable. Curse God and die. Job won’t have anything to do with her suggestion, and he calls her foolish. He replies “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Again, we’re confronted with one of life’s big questions. Where is God in the face of disaster? Does God have any sort of hand in the terrible things which sometimes happen to people? The purpose of the book of Job is to stir us into thinking about what we really believe about God. Is God distant and aloof? Is God present in the face of suffering? Is life basically a time of testing to see whether our faith can be sustained in the face of the many challenges which life throws up at us? The book of Job will be of great value until human beings are no more, because of the way it confronts us with life’s most important questions.
As Christians, we look to the life of Jesus for clues to the answers to these questions. Is God distant and aloof, then? In faith we believe that Jesus was God’s Son. We affirm that he shared both human nature and divine nature. I can’t improve on something someone once said to me: “Jesus is the best snapshot of God we’ve got.” The grace, mercy and acceptance he lived out were our truest look at the nature of God. Likewise, his truth-telling, his affronts to the organised religion of his day, his refusal to bow to tradition when it went against the desires of God, all show us more of who God truly is. Distant and aloof? Remember the story of the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Remember his totally unqualified acceptance of her and what she did for him. Remember his loving mercy and forgiveness towards her. No, not at all distant or aloof.
It would be unusual for any Christian to go through life without a time when they experienced the distance of God. We may feel very alone, experiencing a painful time of searching, even feeling bereft of meaning in life. These are things that can happen in our lives, through various circumstances. Christians are certainly not exempt from times when life seems the absolute pits. I only know that in my own life, and in the lives of many, many, many others there comes a time when God seems to break through again and life opens up in absolutely wonderful and unexpected ways. My actual experience is that many aspects of life can be made far more beautiful and rewarding when that time of desolation is behind us. None of it is easy. None of it happens overnight. But it proves true that God has plans for a future and a hope for us.
Is God present in the face of suffering? The gospel of Mark tells of Jesus’ words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We are told that even Jesus experienced such feelings, in the terrible depths of his suffering. Our faith tells us that God was at work in the greatest act in salvation history, while Jesus was on the cross. Evil was being routed. Resurrection life, which we don’t really comprehend, but which God has in store for all creation, was being brought into being. New life, eternal life, was being granted to human beings. The most important event ever to be accomplished in bringing in God’s new heaven and new earth was taking place, right there and then.
What about our human experience? Look at the reality of the world around us. Think of the aid workers in war-torn and famine stricken countries in Africa. What about Christians who partner with Palestinians suffering oppression and persecution, as they work for justice and peace? Indeed, what about the continuing work of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, bringing the abandoned and the dying into a place of peace, cleanliness and succour for their final days of life? Think of all the Aid Organizations which work for a better life, for better circumstances for people, in so many countries around the world. Aren’t they demonstrating the love and mercy of God, even if they don’t name themselves as Christian organizations? When we consider all these things, don’t they invite us to say confidently that God is indeed present in the face of human suffering? We give thanks to God for the inspiration found in the book of Job to struggle with these questions. Amen.