Finishing the historical books, the next section is the “how to books” of the Bible or the Wisdom books. These five books will share insights on how to suffer, pray and worship, behave, live, and love.
The book of Job is the one about suffering. It is sometimes thought of one of the proto apocalyptic books, along with Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, with verses that hold affinities to the topic. Because there is not a human exonerated from pain or suffering because of his fallenness, this book is a like a clinic on the subject.
There is much conjecture as to who wrote the book of Job; some say Moses, others Solomon (the latter also wrote other books in this literary category) others think it might have been Elihu, the fourth friend of Job’s who spoke toward the end of the book. Not knowing the writer, makes for an uncertain date of composition. Many think the writing is the time frame of Genesis’ because Job uses the God title “El Shaddai” (the God in heaven) same as Abraham and Jacob. Mosaic Law doesn’t appear to have been written yet because the daughters of Job were equal heirs with his sons. Also, Job, not a priest, offered sacrifices, something forbidden under the Law. The measure of Job’s wealth is accounted for by livestock as was done in Abraham’s era rather than using a gold and silver standard. Job resides in Uz (where Moses and the Midianites were), but no one knows the exact location of Uz, with the best guess it is just outside of Canaan. If these clues are valid it puts the writing of Job as one of the first books written in the Bible.
It is interesting to contemplate if Job is written in the earliest period of the Hebrew Bible. That would make this narrative and its message during the same era around the creation account. There are scriptural references to the early Israelites understanding of the geography of the world that is interesting (Job 9:6-7, 22:14, 26:7, 36:27, 38:4-6 ) some accurate descriptions for us today and other references used are part of how we describe metaphysical wonders to our children.
It begins with a backstory. God reveals he is the most high and that the spirits serve him not the reverse. The writer divulges to the reader a back story between God and Satan (whose name means to oppose). It is centered around the validity of Job’s faith which Stan accuses is only because everything is going so well for the man. The reasoning behind his suffering transcends Job’s comprehension because it’s between God and Satan, and unknown to man ( cf. Is. 55:8-9). The how-to of this book teaches us about the mindset when suffering.
Job ’s tale has a history of spiritual and existential quandaries that have haunted humanity for a while. It would be easy to compare Job to nihilism which is the rejection of all religious and moral principles, replace it with the belief that life is meaningless.
A side note of interest is the thought that the character trait of suffering is one of the most overlooked when examining someone’s qualities. Do they stay or run away? Many run away from the suffering, do not take the time to be with someone in turmoil. God’s intent here is to show us, with our befuddling human comprehension, that we operate within a divine plan that we may or may not have the power to influence. An example of this is the mention of the one (the future Messiah Jesus) who will typify the sufferings of Job and the blessings as the Redeemer (Job 19:25-26) for all of humanity.
Not knowing the writer, date, or location of the book of Job doesn’t help in understanding why God allows pain and suffering. Job is an influential man in good health with a large family, he’s wealthy, and wise, a strong leader in the community. He has everything going for him. Then in rapid secession, all was taken away from him. Most his family was killed, his herds and crops destroyed and his health deteriorated. Main characters in the book include his wife and a few friends stood by his side although not necessarily of much emotional support for him. There is much discussion between them as to why God would allow these tragic events to happen to Job, a man considered righteous.
At the loss of so many things, exactly what does losing something mean? “Lost really has two different meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a feeling of loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, of realization, of discovery. The wind blows your hair back, and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course, to forget the past is to lose the memory of loss that is also the memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” (reflections from Rebecca Solnit, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost)
The overarching question from this book is, do we accept good from God yet not accept the adversity or evil (Job 2:10)? C. S. Lewis says, “God “whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains, it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world?” Is it possible that unless we suffer we never hear more than whispers? If Lewis is right, and I think he is, believers or not, we will suffer in this lifetime. God uses the evil around man (after the fall) for a better good. He did not create evil.
Anne Graham Lotz makes a good point when natural suffering occurs. During a television interview about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, she was asked: “How God could let something like this happen?” Her response was “I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?”
After Job ’s struggle of trying to explain or justify his suffering, he comes up empty-handed and is left to rest in his faith proclaiming God’s goodness. Job and his friends never knew why his tragedy fell on him. The answer is not in the why a scenario happens but rather in the trusting in God for the transformation in that situation. Our faith is stretched and exercised in ways we cannot predict.
I will always remember the childhood scene of a neighbor, relatively unknown to my family, who came to our house to console my mother after the death of my youngest brother. Mother was already a widow of two years and still had four other children at home. There was no family support nearby. My mother and the neighbor were sitting on the tiny front porch of our house that summer day, not saying a word. I sat on the floor, inside the house, under the living room window where they sat on the other side of, outside. I was curious as to what words of comfort this neighbor had to share. After 15 to 30 minutes of silence, I grew impatient and went out the porch door intent on going to a friend’s house. As I turned to tell my mom where I was going, I saw that she and the neighbor were holding hands. What this neighbor taught me was to “show up” in times of struggle and discomfort. It was my first exposure to the ministry of presence. That was the care bestowed, and it was perfect; soothing and consoling enough for just that moment. It was a comfort without words only someone’s presence while my mother grieved over the death of her youngest child.
As a certified Stephen Minister and from chaplaincy training, I learned caution about theodicy (an argument in defense of God’s goodness despite the existence of evil). Stephen Ministry is a group who equips church members to do confidential caregiving of listening one on one through difficult times. Trying to say the right thing in hard situations is difficult, often what is said comes across as minimizing and trite when trying to assist someone in their grief or uncertainty can compound the hurt more. At its worse, the griever has guilt over their sadness.
I became familiar with unhelpful sayings when studying the book Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart by Kenneth Haugk, founder of the Stephen Ministry program. We all have, or will eventually, witness the mystery of innocent suffering in a personal way in life. I wonder what would happen if a comforter showed up and said. “This sucks!” or “I don’t know what to say but I’m going to be here for you” or better yet just shut up and be present. Mere presence under these conditions, not words, is surprisingly consoling. The human soul at times just needs a witness, not advise or solutions.
What Parker Palmer says, in his essay Two Toasts, comes close to describing the unspoken words and how they live among us:
“Praise be that this thin mark, this sound. Can form the word that takes on flesh. To enter where no flesh can go. To fill each other’s emptiness. And in between the sound of words, I hear your silent, sounding soul. Where One abides in the solitude. Who keeps us one when speech shall go.”
In Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he suggests it can be more bearable to deal with the bad things by looking to the future where redemption is possible. Instead of asking why this happening to me is, he encourages the reflection “Now that this has happened, what shall I do about it?”
The human soul doesn’t always want to be advised, for things to be fixed, saved or explained away by another human. I get nervously chatty in awkward quiet situations, so it is hard not to use words for comfort. Instead, what the soul simply wants is a witness to its life, to see, hear and be a companion. (sometimes I [guilty as written] get why people post meals, finished projects, events, trips, etc. on social media). When I can reach out to a suffering person with presence and not words, it can be enough comfort in the healing process to get to the next level. Ultimately that is the kind of soul work I would like to midwife. Years later, when my father-in-law died suddenly, I saw and understood what my mom wrote in her condolence card to his wife: “my hand holds yours.”
I have to admit though there is comfort in the words of Scottish author, poet and Christian minister George MacDonald (1824-1905), a phenomenal fellow who mentored Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain plus was an inspiration for the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Madeline L’Engle. He wrote from his collection of condolence letters that this life is short compared to eternal time when we will be united in perfect harmony with loved ones.
A special verse for me is in the epilogue of this book located at Job 42:8. It reads “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” It’s my go-to prayer of intervention, particularly for those I love who are unbelievers and living out their lives harmoniously with God. The context of the book of Job is that his friends and wife did not hold true to God’s sovereignty in all things but instead they told him to curse God when things did not go right. We have all heard, read and watched many a storyline of people who turned away from God when things didn’t go right, or when there was no excuse or justification to explain the unjust. The heart’s enormous capacity for love matches with equally its capacity for pain, and yet we love anyhow, somehow finding fragments of love in the ruins of loss.
There is no age limit for the person who can console. God has no preference to what generation He will use to be of comfort. One such confession comes from the young person Elihu (Job 32:6-9) who adjusts the light on the problem why for Job and his friends.
“I am young in years,
and you are old;
that is why I was fearful,
not daring to tell you what I know.
I thought, ‘Age should speak;
advanced years should teach wisdom.’
But it is the spirit in a person,
the breath of the Almighty that gives them understanding.
It is not only the old who are wise,
not only the aged who understand what is right.”
Elihu was young, yet he knew he still was of value from God as a gift of knowledge and wisdom. Never underestimate who will be of used or how God will console.
Aeschylus, a Greek dramatist who lived around 400 BC, said, “Even in our sleep, pain cannot forget and falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, and against our will, comes through the awful grace of God.”
There have been nights that I feared my emotional pain (not to forget to mention physical aches and pains) felt would penetrate my dreams, of course just that thought process makes it self-fulfilling. Part of my nightly prayer is “ease my mind, grant me peace in my heart.” I remember once my mother, while under a new prescription of medication for her dementia, told me the meds gave her bad dreams. She didn’t want to take the medicine anymore. I tried to, insensitively, relieve her stress by emphasizing they were only dreams. Later bad dreams would not abate for me while under the weight of depression and stress minus the medicine to blame it on. It reminds me of a story about the last two magicians: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In the story, Mr. Norrell makes a pact with the devil for his wife to live longer by allowing the devil to have half of her life. Dr. Strange thought that was a good deal, maybe he would get 30 more years with her before the devil would have her for her remaining days so he agreed. The devil was thinking more near-term though and took his part of the deal while she was sleeping. His wife slowly went insane during her hours when she was awake knowing she was to be with the devil once she fell asleep at night which was the other half of her life. Dreams can seem real when you are alone and think too much. I never had insomnia because of fear of nightmares or bad dreams. But I have ended missing the feeling of relaxation from sleep once I woke because of feeling distressed or uncomfortable with my dreams.
This fear is silliness and nonsense as Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) says there are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Learning how to suffer may sound like an unusual task until you are in consumed in misery. It’s inevitable in life. Once I read we should also consider when choosing a mate how well can they suffer. Can you lean on them for support or is it vice versa? Would they endure suffering well? Job helps us put suffering into perspective and get to the other end of it.