Some Thoughts on Job and the Problem of Pain
Offered by Pastor Rommereim
Over the last few weeks, I have asked for, and received questions about faith from persons who are part of the worship on Sunday. It was a little exercise in an ancient model I call a quodlibet, or to ask ‘as it pleases.’ I received many fabulous questions. After collating the submissions, my work was to take time on a Sunday to deliberate on them. I did this on the first Sunday after Easter the old church used to call Quasi Modo Geniti Sunday (as new born babes). Many shared one special question about suffering and the question of G*d’s role in human suffering. Specifically they asked, “When G*d is so good & loving, why do bad things happen to good people?”
Such a profound question allowed me to return to one of the oldest biblical narratives that deal with a similar predicament. That is the book of Job. In this little essay, I invite you to let the book of Job and my supportive commentaries enliven your imagination on this ancient question.
The poet/storyteller begins the book by saying: “There lived in the land of Uz a man of blameless and upright life named Job, who feared G*d and set his face against wrongdoing” (Job 1.1). In the beginning, Job is living a good life. We are told he is the greatest man in the East (9.24-24). We are familiar with suffering: the boils, the scares, the death of his children, et cetera. One after another, his body, his house and his household is destroyed. Throughout the first 31 chapters we become familiar with Job’s support network of counselors/therapists/friends who offer him advice during his tremendous suffering.
In Chapter 1, we read about an angel who is “an accusing angel”, in the heavenly court. This angel appears different from later biblical understanding of the devil because s/he is part of G*d’s court—not an outcast maker of trouble. In the riposte between G*d and Satan, G*d appears to respond to the prosecutor’s challenge by offering Job as a living testimony of humankind’s goodness and reliability. Satan is clearly skeptical of human goodness. G*d remains confident.
Job raises deep human questions. Along with Job, we ask, “Why does a good person suffer?” and “Why is it that the wrong-doers, the blatantly corrupt, appear not have the same plight as this good man Job?” This is the touchstone of chapters 3-31. It remains with us when we are exposed to our own suffering or the suffering in those we love.
Late in the story of this human drama (38.1-11) G*d re-enters the scene after a long discourse between Job and his advisors. The suffering of Job appears to mount despite the advice offered by his human counselors. Job has no respite from his suffering. As the drama mounts, we open the text at a time when Job has become what William Safire calls the “first dissident” in the Biblical heritage; one called to speak out from his own situation. He calls to G*d with candor, in such a way as to demand an answer. That Job demands an answer is what inspires Mr. Safire to call him a dissident. The wonderful etymologist and journalist for the NY Times, Mr. Safire notices in the speech from Job in chapter 31 a plea in his own defense. Job pleads his own case pointing out the manner in which he conducted his life as a beneficent person who cares for G*d, for the needs of the poor, and who is upright despite his injuries. Nothing appears to shake Job’s own case in pleading his innocence. Yet, because of his faith he asks G*d to speak.
Safire writes: “Bereaved believers looking for comfort in the Bible can find it most forcefully in Job. Not only is suffering not to be construed as evidence of sin, as we have seen (in the first 36 chapters), but apparent punishment is not evidence of isolation from G*d. Nobody needs to walk alone; to paraphrase a line about home (from poet Robert Frost), G*d is the one who, when you pray to him, has to listen.”
When faith is full, writes the philosopher William Bret, “it dares to express its anger for faith is the openness of the whole (person) toward G*d”
When all is said and done, G*d has the final word. After Job disputes with his friends about the nature of G*d, the meaning of human suffering and a host of other issues, and “after Elihu (the last spokesperson of Job’s counsel) has expressed his frustration with all the other advisors (Chapter 32-37) then and only then does Yahweh step forward to address Job.
Few persons in the Bible are recorded to have conversations with G*d. “Moses found himself talking to a burning bush (Ex: 3). Isaiah was engaged by a vision of G*d, temporarily sealing his lips (Isa: 6.1-8). In verses 38:1-40:2, YHWH/G*d answers Job. Up to this point G*d is silent. While Job and his advisors search for answers to the essential questions, “Why does a good person suffer?” G*d speaks. However, the inquiry is not directly answered. Rather, G*d proclaims the impossibility of challenging the Deity. It takes humanity out of the center and places G*d into the middle not as the one who comes to rescue but the G*d who, as in the story of Genesis 1.2 “leaps into the deep veiled darkness” (tohu vabohu).
This is G*d’s first reply to Job. It is a crafted poem of wisdom that concerns not only the power of G*d as a creator, but as wisdom as well. It is a radical reminder of what remains our first concern; “I believe in G*d the father almighty creator of Heaven and Earth.” G*d’s wisdom is celebrated in the poetry of Job 38-40:1. When we compare Job’s own lack of wisdom, and the lack of wisdom of his contemporaries, we are able to return in awe of G*d and let that remain as a testimony to our own reaction to pain rather than palliative manner we often asked to work with our pain and suffering. Perhaps this story of Job provides us a return to a spiritual and faithful imagination that may lead us to act wisely. We, like Job are capable of becoming a dissident, stand up, and ask this powerful question, “Why?” Nevertheless, before we ask we must be able to handle the answer.
G*d speaks to the dissident/poet Job, asking him to “Stand up and answer the questions I will put to you” (Job 38:3). At that moment we remember the original question between G*d and the special prosecutor of the heavenly courts, the skeptical Satan. Job is held accountable for his questions knowing that the only reverent way to approach G*d is to stand and face the voice, despite the whirlwind. At this point G*d appears to challenge Job and the poet’s readers (you and I) that our questions may be a test of character as well as of intelligence. When faced with the situations beyond our control or situations of overwhelming odds we often have to remember the ultimate source of our living.
The basic question G*d sounds off before Job is this: Who possesses the wisdom to create the heavens and the earth?” The answer that G*d sounds off is that it remains YHWH/G*d, and only G*d, who owns the craft, the wisdom, the understanding, and the knowledge, with which to establish the foundations of life. This G*d reminds Job that wisdom governs the same foundations day-by-day. Human wisdom cannot penetrate the wisdom of G*d.
Even though we are urged to speak from our own suffering, or through the compassion of the suffering of others, or the world around us it remains G*d who is. The text of Job appears to direct our inefficient wisdom. This G*d does not directs suffering, nor directly punishes by taking away things of supposed human value. Nor should we, along with Job, ever stop asking, why is there so much suffering? However, it is at this point that this famous book of Job becomes even more remarkable. After G*d speaks we are urged to ask how to find peace with G*d in an answers as remarkable for what it omits as for what it contains. Along with Job, we may not possess the wisdom to contest G*d. It appears Job comes away from these sounds of G*d without definitive linear statement. So, our place may be in the unspoken remark of the text.
What is not said is that we are to trust G*d. At that point we will be at peace. Moreover, perhaps, this trust may align us with the rest of what G*d is part of despite the whirlwinds of our living. Light in the center of darkness.
 The First Dissident The Book of Job in Today’s Politics by William Safire, Cobbett Corporation, 1992.
 Ibid. Page 73
 Ibid. Page 56
 Texts for Preaching, John Knox Press, 1993, pg. 550.
 Wonderfully expressed through the book by Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, a Theology of Becoming, Routledge 2003)