This is a parable. Not a history lesson. A parable. A story told to wrestle with the most primal question we humans have — if there is a God, why is there so much suffering in the world?
Many people who give up their belief in God, do so because they cannot reconcile a good God with all that is wrong in the world….with the evil that persists. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. No — here we have an old, old story asking the same question…a story that originates in oral traditions…a story told in ancient times by indigenous peoples of far off semitic tribes.
Where is God when we are in pain…when everything has gone wrong?
I’m guessing more than a few of you are uncomfortable with how this story starts. I know I am. Because it begins with a conversation among all the heavenly beings who are looking down, with God, upon the earth. And God asks Satan, one of those heavenly beings, what he’s been up to. Now…if you’re picturing satan as a devil, in red, with a pitchfork…you’ve got the wrong end of things. No, in the Jewish Scriptures…”satan” simply meant “the accuser”. So, among the heavenly beings, satan is basically the prosecuting attorney. He’s the one who points out what’s going wrong with us all down here. So, Satan has been doing his job — walking to and fro around the earth, checking up on us all. And God says — “hey…did you notice how good Job’s doing? Look at him…he is so faithful in his prayers — in his care for his family.” And Satan’s not impressed. I mean, of course Job thinks God is great — he’s rich. His family is doing great — they all love each other and get along. They’re healthy and have all sorts of good times together. God’s been good all the time…it’s easy to see it. But what would happen with a dose of someone else’s reality. What would happen if Job woke up in someone else’s life?
And this is where most of us really object…because God says — ok, go for it, satan. Take it all away. Let’s see what happens. Here we have a picture of God basically using us as pawns in some celestial gamble. Not exactly flattering. But, let’s remember…this is a story. A parable. People are asking — where is God when we lose everything? Where is God when I lose my family, my wealth, my health, my home? This is something that happens, after all. Even more so in ancient times, when people were far more vulnerable to storms and floods and neighboring tribes that could erase their whole lives in an instant. After all…in those moments…it feels like we are pawns in a celestial game, doesn’t it?
Human suffering is so prevalent. We have been sent back to school these last couple of weeks — to be reminded of the systemic innocent suffering still caused by racism. Reminded of the evil that has taken people’s lives and homes and families over the past 400 years here in the US– the lives of indigenous people…of black people….while building a hedge around white folks…keeping us “protected” … able to buy homes and get good educations and good jobs and live in nice neighborhoods. We have also seen the widespread suffering of the innocent due to the pandemic…especially in places where healthcare is limited. The numbers are rising in Brazil and Mexico and Yemen at alarming rates. And we also know the suffering that we experience as individuals — whose loved ones die…whose families are broken…who are suffering from chronic pain or mental illness or homelessness or addiction or abuse or trauma. Yes, Job is the story of those who suffer…through no fault of their own…the story of those who feel like God doesn’t really care — God’s just playing games with their lives.
And then we hear Job’s response…‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Job understands…life is simply a gift. None of it is anything I am entitled to. None of it is guaranteed. We have nothing coming into the world…except what we are given. And everything we are is determined by the time and place and environment we are born into…by luck, by chance. Even the people that we are blessed enough to have in our life — our children, our spouses, our friends — they are not guaranteed to us. They are gift. And they are fragile. And they can be lost…through no fault of their own — from disease or accidents or at the hands of another human being….just as Job’s children and servants were killed by wind and Chaldean armies.
But Job doesn’t blame God — even when evil strikes. Because this is the way the world works. Life isn’t right or fair. The thing is…even though we tell our kids, “life’s not fair”…deep down, many of us still think it should be. We think we’re supposed to have a hedge around us…and so, when things are going good for us, we assume we’ve earned it. And when others tell us how bad things are, we can’t help but think they somehow brought it on themselves. But what happens when the hedge goes down? What happens when we are not protected from pain and loss?
Where is God? Is God just playing games with us? Job believes God can be trusted…no matter what. His wife wasn’t so sure. She lost all faith and hope when her children were all killed. She couldn’t figure out why Job even believed anymore. But Job hung in there. He believed in God’s goodness, even when his life was not good. He believed in God’s goodness, even when he knew he didn’t deserve his suffering…even when he knew his children didn’t..
This week, I was profoundly moved by the Pentecost sermon by Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal church. He has experienced the depth of racism throughout his life…he and his family have been on the receiving end of hatred and violence and injustice of all kinds. Yet, his faith remains. In his sermon, he used the refrain of the old spiritual — “There is a balm in Gilead…that makes the wounded whole…there is a balm in Gilead…that heals the sin sick soul. “
In the midst of injustice of massive proportions….his faith remains…faith in Jesus…who also suffered unjustly. Faith in Jesus — who heals the wounded….as well as the sin sickness of those who wound others. Like Job, his faith remains…that God is good…even when we experience so much in this world that is not good. God is faithful. God gives us the gift of life…brings us naked into this world, and receives us naked as we go out. Held, loved, forgiven.
In the midst of daily striving to love neighbors…to make a better world…to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God — we can get discouraged. We can feel like we don’t know how to make a difference. The suffering is overwhelming…the injustice infuriating. But we strive on, not because we trust in our own goodness….but because we trust in Jesus. In God’s goodness…revealed to us in Jesus. We trust in Jesus…and his love for us whatever may happen.
I imagine Jesus felt sometimes like Job…like a pawn in a celestial game. Even he prayed for a way out the night before he was killed. And like Job, he lost everything…and it wasn’t right. He didn’t deserve it. And it’s true, there are people who think that God WAS using Jesus like a pawn in a game with Satan…but Jesus trusted that wasn’t so. Jesus trusted that God was good. That God was love. That God didn’t bring suffering, though we so often feel like that is the case. Instead…God continues to redeem…to meet us in the midst of our pain and all that is wrong…and bring goodness in spite of ourselves…in the midst of situations that confound us…in the midst of all we don’t understand… all our hurt and pain. Jesus trusted that God is love. God is good.
This old, old story of Job…is about faith. Faith…when we don’t have answers…when we struggle to see God’s goodness. This story is for us…because there is a balm in Gilead…to make the wounded whole…to heal our sin sick soul…There is a balm in Gilead…Jesus is our balm…our healer…our hope.. When we lack knowledge…lack understanding…may we turn to Jesus…to be taught. To be redeemed. To be transformed. To be loved. Amen.