What are your Expectations of God? part 3
Job’s story is one I've always skirted because it asks big, scary questions. I did not appreciate this.
It was only after I was forced to face big, scary questions in my own life that I felt compelled to look closer at The Book of Job. This time I was fascinated to see that the ancient Jews wrestled with the same questions we do. Where does suffering come from? From God? From Satan? Why do we suffer? Can we avoid suffering? In other words, what are the rules? We want assurances that if we do THIS good thing, then we are rewarded. If we do THAT bad thing, then we suffer consequences. Most of all, we want to feel some kind of control. We want to know what to expect in this life. We want to know what to expect from God. Job and his friends deal with the same frustrating questions about God that my 16 yo son was asking me.
And Job’s story does not give satisfying answers. We quickly learn that Job was "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil," yet he lost everything -- livestock, servants, his 10 children. In grief, he sat in ashes, cursing the day he was born and scratching sores covering his body with a broken piece of pottery. His story is a Shakespearean tragedy of epic proportions, the kind of story that we don't want to imagine is real life for anyone.
Even more disturbing, Job suffers because he is good. Satan claims that Job’s obedience is merely the result of a blessed and rosy life. Take it all away, he dares God, and Job will curse you. God casually agrees to allow Satan to play with Job. Thus, we see ancient Jews facing the possibilities head on – is God “allowing” Satan to cause suffering the same as God causing it Himself? This little scene brings to mind the gods of Roman mythology and their capricious interactions with humans. I desperately want to believe God is not capable of such actions.
And yet, have I not had suspicions that God was toying with me? When the discovery of my son's brain tumor led to a series of blows, each harder than the last, did I not roll my eyes heavenward, jerk my arms up and demand, "REALLY?!?! Are You done now? Don't You think we’ve had enough?" It is strangely comforting to me that ancient people engaged in this same doubt.
God's actions, or rather His lack of action, in Job is so terrifying, that it is easy to lose sight of the rest of the narrative. But if I step back and take a broader view, I can see Job's tale a bit differently. First, I notice that God only appears in the first two chapters. Then we have 35 chapters of interaction between Job and his friends, with God appearing again in the last five chapters.
It makes one wonder -- perhaps the bulk of Job's story is less about God's actions and more about the response of Job and his friends. So I looked closer at what they said.
Job's prayers are raw and real. "Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you?" he cries to God, suggesting that he blames God for his tragedy. He also wonders why God does not just forgive him and end this suffering (7:21).
Three friends come to "console and comfort" Job (2:11). But we soon discover that their brand of comfort only increases Job's misery. God punishes the wicked, they say, so . . . ahem, Job what have you done to deserve this? They list in detail all the sins they imagine Job committed.
But Job maintains his innocence. “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?" he asks his friends (19:2).
Isn't this what we do today? We don’t have to look far to find Christians who call that hurricane a cleansing or claim that flood is God’s punishment for homosexuality, or that tsunami is God’s judgment on idol-worshipping people. We blame the rape victim, the unarmed black man. We blame the overweight person for an unhealthy diet, the unwed mother, the homeless man on the street, and sometimes the sick (even if only in our minds). Like Job's friends, we create doctrines of comfort to soothe our fears, convince ourselves that those terrible things happening to our neighbor will not happen to us. Because we make better choices, we console ourselves. We follow the rules.
We want to deny any possibility that terrible things happen to people without good reason. "Those at ease have contempt for misfortune," Job says (12:5). If we convince ourselves a sufferer causes his own suffering, then we are liberated from responsibility to help. Clinging to an illusion of rule and control, we are happier claiming an unTruth that hurts others rather than hoping in a Truth that blames no one and that we can only "dimly see" (1 Cor. 13:12). Job's story asks the age-old and uncomfortable question Why do bad things happen to good people?
Though many are quick to offer answers, the hard and real truth: we don't know. We don't know what to expect in this life, day by day, moment by moment. And we are conflicted in our expectations of God.
We see this in The Book of Job. His friends are intently focused on claiming the right answer -- it is Job's fault, they say. God is punishing him because he sinned. That is what they expect from God. When Job rejects their judgments and claims innocence, he rocks their worldview. "...[Y]ou see my calamity and are afraid," he tells them (6:21). We understand their fear, because if Job is right, if he did not sin and misery knocked on his door, then none of us are safe. There are no barriers between us and calamity.
Ultimately, Job's friends are shown to be hurtful, judgmental and plain wrong in their certainties by God Himself, who reenters the story at the end to tell them, “My wrath is kindled against [you]...; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7). Job is vindicated and his fortunes restored. Since the bulk of this story focuses on the wrongful accusations of the "righteous" against a suffering one who claims innocence, it is not a stretch to suggest that the ways humans misinterpret God and blame our neighbors for their own misfortunes is a key theme in this Bible story.
Many generations later, that message is declared again by Jesus. His teachings changed that blame-filter for 12 chosen men, for the many poor and women who followed him, for Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans. His teachings radically altered the filter of a devout, willing-to-kill-for-his-wrong-beliefs Saul. And changing those filters also reshaped their expectations of God.
He changed my filter and my expectations too, when I had ears to hear and eyes to see.
Coming soon What are Your Expectations of God? part 4.