It is one of the best-known books in the Bible. But it is also one of the most daring, as it boldly addresses its topic. It is the book of Job. It begins and ends with a kind of prosaic “bookends,” and the whole middle of the book is filled with poetic soliloquies and dialogues of great angst and beauty.
Since we have begun reading it at daily mass, perhaps a few reflections are in order.
The book tackles one of the deepest mysteries that believers encounter, the problem of suffering and evil. How can our God, who is so good and powerful, permit such evils, such sufferings to exist in this world?
The book of Job draws us deep into the mystery of suffering, and while it gives an answer, it is a kind of “non-answer, answer.” At one level it seems unsatisfying, at another level even anger-provoking. Yes, the Book of Job is a bold and daring book, that does not seek merely to hold our hands and pat us on the forehead in terms of suffering, but rather, summons us to humility, and trusting faith.
The book opens, with a series of shocks. We read of Job, a man so highly blessed by the Lord. And God, one day, gathered with his angels, and behold, Satan came among them!
And here’s our first shock. How can Satan find admittance, as to the heavenly places? Our second shock comes as we see that God is not only not surprised that Satan’s presence, but even holds a kind of dialogue with him. Shock only grows as we see Satan, in effect, challenges God to a kind of dare.
Satan argues that Job only praises God on account of the blessings God has given a. He dares God, But now, put forth your hand and touch anything that he has, and surely he will blaspheme you to your face (Job 1:11).
And then comes the most horrible moment of all, the point when our shock reaches its greatest extent. God says to Satan, Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person (Job 1:12)
The game is on, and Job is a pawn on the game board.
Endless questions come to mind as we read a text like this. Why does God speak with Satan? Why is Satan in the heavens at all? Was he not cast forth from heaven by Michael the Archangel? Why does God boast of Job to Satan? Why does God care to impress Satan that all? Why does God accept Satan’s dare? Does Job not matter, is he a mere pawn in a game between Satan and God?
The answers to these questions are not really supplied by this text of Job. Some scholars dismiss the whole prosaic section as a mere anthropomorphism. But inquiring minds, especially those who have been to the grips of great suffering, are not easily satisfied by such as scholarly dismissals.
No, this is a daring and messy book, and instead of giving a simple answers, it tends instead, to confront us with the very question we ask.
The whole middle section of the book, is a long and poetic rendering of Job’s anguished soliloquies, and the less than helpful admonishments of friends. Job has suffered the loss of most all his property, and even more grievously, the loss of all his children. Even his wife turns on him and tells him to curse God and die.
We who read this middle section, cannot avoid great sympathy for Job who laments the very day of his birth, and describes his sleeplessness, his sadness, his perplexity, even his anger. We wonder with him, what he has done to deserve such an awful fate.
His friends who gather with him, seek to get God off the hook and tell Job, that he must have done something wrong, for which he was being punished. But Job will have none of it. If antecedent sin is the cause of suffering, then suffering is the greatest injustice of all. For it is patently obvious to any observer, that many who are wicked suffer little, and many are saintly suffer much.
Job’s protest is at least relative innocence. He continues his plaintive cry to God, “Why!”
Then comes the answer. It is a kind of a “non-answer answer.”
Not only does God did not come to console, but in fact, he rebukes Job. Hardly with a gentle whisper, God speaks from the whirlwind, Who is this dude skewers divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man, and I will question you, and you will tell me the answers! (Job 38:2)
God goes on to describe his magnificent setting forth of all creation, a work that he does as God, with power and authority. God answers Job’s question with a series of pointed questions that remind Job, and us, of how small we are, how little we know or see. In effect, who are we to question God? Do we know whereof we speak? Do we even have enough information to form a proper question?
Not only does God not answer Job, He more than implies that he does not owe an explanation to Job, or to you, or to me. He is God, he is working his purposes out, purposes that we know very little of. Indeed, we might reasonably speculate that, if God were to give us an answer to the problem of suffering, and evil, we would not be able to understand the answer. We would only hear thunder.
To every question we ask in the shocking opening lines of the Book of Job, God gives no answer. He does not feel as though he needs to justify himself, or his actions to Job for to you or to me. It is a summons to great humility. When Job articulates this when he says “behold I am a little account; what can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth.
God’s non-answer answer in effect reminds us, that when it comes to the ways of Almighty God, we have little to go by, in terms of judging the ways of God. While it is true, that God is not irrational, as our Catholic teaching consistently asserts, nevertheless, his ways are often beyond our simple apprehension. Most of his ways lie hidden to us.
It is as if, we were to think of God as a great master painter. At one moment the artist paints on the canvas strokes of great light, and at other moments, strokes of great darkness. And yet the light and darkness interplay, to create a masterpiece. We see only a tiny portion of the painting, and we say, argumentatively, “What is this!?” And we think we can judge a small section of the painting without seeing the whole. We know not whereof we speak. Judgments about what is proper for God to do in a given instance, are beyond us. We see too little, we know too little, to formulate any just judgments.
That is the answer of the book of Job. God answers our questions with more questions. It may not feel satisfying, but it is an answer.
To us moderns, who are often so thin-skinned, and egocentric, and who live in a world that trains us to be this way, the book of Job is especially troubling, even insulting. We prefer to emphasize that we are precious in God’s eyes, that we are each unique and special. And while there is truth in this, it is also a truth that must be balanced with the fact that God sees a bigger picture, that my little world. I am part of a bigger plan. I have a place on a canvas which has both light and darkness that exist in a kind of interplay that, for his own purposes, God permits.
“Enjoy” the book of Job. There is a kind of paradoxical serenity that comes to us from realizing that we see and know very little. In letting God be God, and letting go of our passion to control, and understand everything, there comes a kind of serenity.
The mysterious suffering that exists before us, is a very great mystery indeed. But it is not the only mystery. For if we are to ask why there is suffering, why is there evil? then we must also ask: Why is there love, why is there beauty, why is there justice, and why do we yearn for these?
Somehow, we know that we cannot answer these questions. If we cannot answer why there is beauty and goodness or truth, and why God has put them into our heart, then how should we expect to be answer the question, “Why is there evil, why is there suffering?”
Leave it to God. Now, he is not giving simple answers. Instead, he is reminding us that we know not whereof we speak.