A Biblical Theology of Suffering – Part 3

Continuing the text of the talk I presented at Cornell on 11 April 2015, “My God, my God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? A Biblical Response to Loss and Catastrophe.”

There [Lamentations] [mfn]See previous post.[/mfn] we have what would seem to be a clear-cut argument: we sin and we suffer as God punishes us. God it is not God’s plan for us to suffer, he does not willingly afflict us, but we bring it upon ourselves. Then we remember Ecclesiastes and Job…

Mother and ChildEcclesiastes may be best considered a Gedankenexperiment, a thought experiment. “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3) Qohelet, the Teacher, wrestles with this question and offers little comfort or answer. Consider this extended passage from the end of chapter 3.

16   Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.  17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.  18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.  19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.  20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.  21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?  22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

He does not answer his question (“Who knows whether the human spirit…”) with anything more affirming that the assertion that “there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work.” Hardly what we would expect from our preacher or teacher today! Where are the words of encouragement and hope? The Teacher is much more practical and offers us the world-view of an agnostic.

9:1   All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them 2 is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath.

Do we affirm the words of the Teacher? It is canon after all, what do we do with them? Are they designed and present precisely to show us the despair that comes from theology that is purely based upon natural observation rather than revelation? Perhaps. In the end Qohelet concludes,

12:13   The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.  14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Such a direct and unflinching gaze upon our life is necessary. We must recognize that this is the human experience. Any theology of suffering and grace must include the very real experience of hopelessness and meaninglessness that we all, at times experience.

[pullquote]Any theology of suffering and grace must include the very real experience of hopelessness and meaninglessness that we all, at times experience. [/pullquote]The Book of Job is of course a locus classicus for the problem most simply stated as “why do bad things happen to good people.” Job is incredibly faithful to God and he is blessed. He has animals beyond number, numerous sons, and great wealth. And yet death and destruction come upon his entire family and he becomes deathly ill, left only with his wife and a group of friends without whom he might be better off. This looks a lot like what so many of us face in real life. Think of the “comforting” words of Eliphaz at the beginning of his suffering.

Job 4:17   “How happy is the one whom God reproves;

therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.

18        For he wounds, but he binds up;

he strikes, but his hands heal.

19        He will deliver you from six troubles;

in seven no harm shall touch you.

This is the standard response to suffering we might expect from Deuteronomic theology. Eliphaz is convinced that there is no way that Job is innocent.

7  “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?

Or where were the upright cut off?

8 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity

and sow trouble reap the same.

And yet we know, as does Job, that there can be no justification for his suffering; he has done nothing to deserve this. Of course we have the preface, the dialogue between the Accuser and God that explains the whole thing; it is a test of Job’s faithfulness, a competition between God and Satan.

6:24        “Teach me, and I will be silent;

make me understand how I have gone wrong.

25        How forceful are honest words!

But your reproof, what does it reprove?

26        Do you think that you can reprove words,

as if the speech of the desperate were wind?

Job recognizes and knows that he is as innocent as anyone can be (and God affirms that for us in the preface). He pushes back against his friend’s words and even reminds us of Ecclesiastes.

6:28        “But now, be pleased to look at me;

for I will not lie to your face.

29        Turn, I pray, let no wrong be done.

Turn now, my vindication is at stake.

30        Is there any wrong on my tongue?

Cannot my taste discern calamity?

7:1          “Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,

and are not their days like the days of a laborer?

But how is this helpful to us? Are we, Elizabeth and I, so faithful (and don’t forget Izzy) that God and Satan decide to test us, to see if we will remain faithful and Mack is nothing but a pawn in that game? Should we imagine that the celestial court is sitting around considering our fate as we find in the preface to Job? I think not. And it is a reminder of the danger of blithely taking a biblical narrative or passage and attempting to overlay it directly on our own (or another’s) life.

Job consistently and insistently maintains his innocence and demands a reply from God, an explanation of the reason for his grief and suffering. Finally (38) God does answer Job and yet he never answers his questions. God speaks, he shouts!, and yet he does not offer Job satisfaction.

40: 6   Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:

7          “Gird up your loins like a man;

I will question you, and you declare to me.

8          Will you even put me in the wrong?

Will you condemn me that you may be justified?

9          Have you an arm like God,

and can you thunder with a voice like his?

10           “Deck yourself with majesty and dignity;

clothe yourself with glory and splendor.

11        Pour out the overflowings of your anger,

and look on all who are proud, and abase them.

12        Look on all who are proud, and bring them low;

tread down the wicked where they stand.

13        Hide them all in the dust together;

bind their faces in the world below.

14        Then I will also acknowledge to you

that your own right hand can give you victory.

God basically says to Job, repeatedly, are you God? Or even a god? Because if you can raise up and sustain the heavens and the earth, if you can tame leviathan and best behemoth, then I will parley with you. But you are not. And Job seems satisfied.

Why? Why should Job accept such an “answer”? Because God spoke to him.

The message of Job is not one of comfort and consolation. There is no answer, no explanation (from Job’s perspective) of why his children were killed, his wealth and property destroyed, and his own body ruined. There is simply the knowledge that God spoke.

Many is the day, the minute, when all I wish for is to hear God speak to me. I think, I hope, that would be enough.

Next — Conclusions. 

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