Scripture Reading: Job 28: 1-18
Three weeks ago, a long-time member of this congregation, our dear friend Ken Fowler contracted Covid-19 in the care home he had lived in for the last few years. I was fortunate to be able to FaceTime with Ken when that happened. The first thing he wanted to talk about was how our other dear friend James was doing after his heart surgery. Then, with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice he said “Well, look at where us good guys have ended up now.” He joked because although Ken was one of the most generous and kind-hearted people I have ever known, he knew that the rain falls on the rich and the poor, the good and the bad and there seems to be nothing we can do to change that. He knew that life is not always fair. Sometimes we get what we deserve in life (or what we think we deserve) and sometimes we don’t and often there isn’t a whole lot of rhyme or reason why that is the case.
For as long as human beings have been able to express wonder and curiosity, something we have been curious and wondering about is pain and suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? Who or what is it that causes suffering and who or what can make it stop?
And so the longer this pandemic drags on, the more we are inclined to throw up our hands and ask “is there something we are missing here? is there something we’ve done wrong to deserve this time we are in? Is there some lesson we are supposed to be learning? And if there is and we figure it out would that be enough to release us from this time we are in?”
The story of Job from our scripture reading comes this morning, is one of the oldest and most famous stories addressing the question of suffering. It’s so old in fact that it’s thought to have first been written down about 3,000 years ago, but similar stories have been said to exist for over 5,000 years. So we really have been grappling with this question for a very long time.
The primary purpose of Job’s story is really about counteracting the notion that anyone should ever be blamed for innocent suffering. Job is a righteous man with no apparent reason to invoke the wrath of God. The story opens with a conversation between God and Satan in which Satan argues that the only reason Job is faithful is because he’s been prosperous because he and his family have been healthy, because life has been good for him. What if, asks Satan, we gave him a little test, took away all those good things in his life, would Job still love you then, God? And so God not only allows Satan to have a go at poor old Job he actually encourages him to do so to see if Job can withstand the test.
This, of course, leave us with the impression that one of the reasons bad things happen to good people or that suffering gets prolonged is to test our faith. This is also known as the “God doesn’t give us anything more than we can handle” theory.
And yet if we literally believe this portrayal of God – God as the giver of tests – or at least the one who allows tests to happen, then we also have to believe that God is all powerful and all knowing. And if God is all powerful and all knowing, we might wonder what kind of a God would put a child to the test of losing a parent, or suffering abuse, or dying a slow and painful death. Ask any parent who has lost a child how they handled that loss. Some things are too much for us to ever have to handle.
If God doesn’t cause suffering to test us, or to see how much we can handle and if not all suffering occurs because we deserve it, why does God allow it? and does God actually cause it to happen?
One of the most helpful scholars on the topic of suffering that I’ve found over the years is Dr. John Cobb. John Cobb is a process theologian which among other things means that John Cobb doesn’t believe in the omnipotence of God. (he doesn’t believe God is all powerful and all knowing)
Process theologians believe instead that Divine power is persuasive rather than coercive. They would say that God cannot totally control any series of events or any individual, but rather that God or Divine power influences our free will by offering us possibilities. To say it another way, God has a will in everything, but not everything that occurs is God’s will. Part of our work as human beings then, is the work of trying to discern God’s will and yielding to God’s will in the midst of any given circumstance, good or bad, instead of living only or primarily out of our own willfulness.
If that’s the case we might find ourselves asking just how does the Divine persuade us to do God’s will or persuade us to give ourselves over to co-creating with God the world that God envisions. How does God persuade us to trust in Divine presence and activity especially when we are in the midst of suffering?
In today’s scripture reading which comes after Job has pleaded his case before God, arguing that he is a blameless man and therefore should not be suffering all the calamities that have befallen him, God answers Job. Out of the whirlwind God responds to Job’s defenses and arguments.
The way God answers Job is with a series of questions as if to say, you think you’ve got this suffering thing all figured out Job but let me ask you this: Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth? Have you entered the gates of death? Do you know where the deepest darkness dwells or where the source of all light comes for and the path that leads from one to the other and home again? And what about the expanse of the earth? Have you comprehended everything there is to comprehend about the earth? Please tell me if you know all of this and more.
It’s a humbling moment for Job because suddenly Job realizes that he will never know everything there is to know about life and all its’ mysteries. Suddenly he realizes the inordinate amount of suffering he has experienced cannot be explained and certainly not controlled by him. In this moment Job is somehow drawn closer to Sacred Mystery because there’s something about this ambiguity that releases him into the vastness and the goodness of the Divine. In the blink of an eye he no longer needs the answers to all his questions. He is content to dwell in the great and awesome unknowing of the Divine. He yields to Divine will. Perhaps he is even persuaded to live his life with greater compassion and less blame.
Let’s take a moment now to think about those times in our own lives. Has there been a moment in your own life or a moment in this pandemic when you, like Job have been humbled by the Holy, overcome by the vastness, the goodness and the mystery of the Divine? A moment that made you realize you don’t understand everything there is to understand about life and death and suffering and perhaps you don’t really need to? Has there been a moment or perhaps maybe there’s been more than one moment when you have allowed yourself to simply trust in the power of life and love despite much evidence to the contrary.
John Cobb believes that the work of Divine always calls us to reduce suffering and pain. He might say the lure of the holy is always towards a greater compassion and care. Ironically, sometimes what persuades us to trust and even to participate in this sacred project is suffering itself. So it is that when someone loses a loved one to an opiod overdose they become an advocate for a safe drug supply or when someone survives a cancer diagnosis as a child they become an oncologist later on in life or when someone experiences an injustice that impacts their lives in deep in abiding ways they become someone who is able to call it out when it is happening to someone else.
There is no singular way that the Divine mystery takes what has broken us in earth shattering ways and compels us to embrace life and work for its’ purposes once again. For some of us it comes directly through the experience of suffering, for others it comes like it did for Job in those moments when our willfulness to know and understand yields to God’s and we are caught up once again or for the very first time in the awesome mystery at the heart of everything.
I don’t assume to know what it was in Ken Fowler’s life that allowed him when he contracted Covid to throw up his hands and yield to the great mystery of life knowing the rain falls on the rich and the poor, the good and the bad and there is no use blaming ourselves for what is clearly beyond our control because sometimes it’s just the way life is. I’m just glad that in his dying days he was able to do just that, to yield. May it be so for as our pandemic carries on and other tragedies and disasters and suffering befall us, our world and those we love.