A Loving Response
Job 41:1-8; 42:1-17
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Suffering leads to deeper relationships with God. OR, genuine relationship with God should be the goal.
Today we finish up the story of Job, and as you heard, in many ways it is like a fairy tale ending. Everything was wrong and now everything is right again. But there is so much more in this final passage, and in the arc of the story that I want to focus on today.
As you may remember from a month ago, the book of Job begins with the accuser challenging the authenticity of Job’s goodness. He basically says that Job is faithful and good because he believes that will be rewarded. It’s quid pro quo. I’ll do what you want me to do, God, and then, God, your job is to reward me. And the accuser at the very beginning says that this is not a sign of being a good person. This is payment for work done. It is an exchange of goods, a trade. He says Job is not innately good. He is just doing what he believes will bring him what he wants. And both the accuser and God seem to be on the same page with the conclusion that this is, frankly, wrong. This is NOT a good or right reason to be faithful or good.
Why is it not a good reason? This goes back to the mistaken idea that life is fair and just. We discussed that a month ago, but it comes up here again as well since part of today’s passage is God confronting Job’s friends and telling them they were wrong. Again, remember that Job’s friends kept telling Job that he was just reaping what he must have sown. And God here clearly states that they are mistaken. Their ideas about good people being rewarded and bad people being punished are just plain in error. But again, we talked about this a month ago.
So today I want to focus more on the second problem with just being good in order to get what we want. And I want to start again by asking you to think about why you are faithful and why you go to church. Is it, like Job, because you are trying to win a way into heaven? We know that for many, people answer this question with, basically “for heaven insurance”. Many people have faith and go to church because they believe that is what will guarantee them entrance into heaven. They are paying for their afterlife. This is an exchange of goods idea, it is trade thinking. For these people, they don’t come to church because it is meaningful to them now, or because they really feel called to give, and they don’t have a relationship with God because it is valuable, life-giving or important to them on a daily basis. They are faithful and go to church because it is payment now for heaven reward later. But I would say that even for those people who are not looking at an afterlife, for many, they are still using their faith, their actions and their church attendance as payment for good things in this life. We still desperately want life to be fair. And we believe that if we are good, if we do right, that we will be rewarded. More problematically, we tend to believe that if other people are suffering, it must be because they have not tried, they have not worked, they have not “earned” the good things that we have. We assume this in our very cores and tend to act this out in unbelievably cruel ways. We assume that people who’ve been killed did something to deserve it. We blame them for what they have experienced because then it makes life feel “fair”. We believe that poor people are lazy. We blame them for their own poverty. We believe that those who are refugees or are suffering oppression must somehow be innately less-than, must deserve it, must have earned the trauma and disasters that they are experiencing. We attack people who are already down, just like Job’s friends, saying that it is their fault that they are suffering, or enslaved, or imprisoned, or killed or kept down. We become complicit with evil when we try to justify it happening and fail to call it for what it is.
I understand this thinking. It is a way to regain a sense of control in our own lives. If life is fair, then all we have to do is be good, do right, and we will be fine. We can feel that all we have we have earned and we do not owe payments to the larger society or to one another. We can feel a smug self-righteousness about what we have, what we do and who we are.
Job, as we’ve discussed, was not exempt from this thinking. He, too, believed that life was fair, that goodness would be rewarded, that his faithful actions would lead to good things. His friends believed this too: hence their speeches. But today’s passage is a confrontation of that. God says, in no uncertain terms, that this is not the case. Job’s friends, he states, are wrong: absolutely and unequivocally wrong. That’s not how life – now, or after death – works. You cannot “buy” good things, a good life or heaven in this way. And if you are trying to do that, that is not genuine faith. But more importantly, it is not a sign of being a good person. That kind of thinking involves a complete lack of both humility and compassion for the other, and it is not what God wants for us.
I think about the parishioners I’ve heard about, and those who have come to me, who have wanted, begged even, over the years, for an actual experience of the Divine. They usually have some formula for how they will achieve that, how they will find it. And it, too, seems to be based on this “currency” model of relationship with God. If I only do x, then I will receive what I am hoping for. If I only go to church, pray more, do better, then God should reward me with a deep and true experience of the Divine.
And this leads me to the main part of what I want to talk with you about today. The unfortunate truth is that all of those people I know who have had genuine, real experiences of God: those experiences have not come from being good or doing good. Those experiences have come, without exception, from suffering.
I am not saying that God causes suffering. But I believe with everything in me that God is still creating, taking chaos and bringing good out of it. And this is nowhere more clear than when God uses our suffering to bring resurrection and the highest good to our lives. Suffering has many gifts with it. It teaches humility, it helps us to grow, helps us to empathize. More, suffering shows us who we really are. How we respond to that suffering- either with anger or with compassion, shows who we are at our core. Richard Rohr says transformation takes place in only two ways: either through great love or great suffering.
And again, the impact of that suffering on our understanding and experience of God? Job’s suffering and his lament allowed him to see God: Job was completely transformed by his experience of suffering. Before his suffering he did not see beyond himself: his needs, his wants, what he needed to do to earn what he needed and wanted. It was only through his suffering that he was given a larger vision of the world, its beauty, its immense majesty, its awesomeness. And then a vision of God-self.
Perhaps even more profoundly and deeply than the story of Job is the story of Jacob.
Genesis 32:22-32: That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
The very word, the very name “Israel” means “one who struggles with God”. And that is deeply profound. The very roots of our faith tradition stem from a struggle with God. We experience, see, and have full relationship with God only when we are willing to jump fully into the questions, and into the pain of life. When we choose to be fully real and transparent and engaged with God and God’s life, then we experience God.
That brings us back to my first point: why, then, should we really have faith? And why should we go to church? I think about when Jesus asked the disciples (John 6:67) “do you also want to leave?” and Simon Peter’s response, “Lord, where would we go?” Their love for him was so great and so deep that they could not imagine being any place else. It is like when we love our families. The idea of going away from them makes no sense. It is that love, that committed, unconditional love that is the only reason for our faith, for our commitment, for our dedication to God and to our community, to one another.
Job’s reason for his actions change completely. And they change at the point of his lament, at the point of his crying out to God – it is in his suffering that his person changes, it is in his suffering that his reason for his actions changes. He goes from being a person who is doing good in order to buy what he wants into a person who is actively and lovingly seeking a relationship with God. His suffering opened up for him, pushed him to be absolutely real, himself, to wrestle, like Jacob, with God. Until he spoke his pain, his goal of gaining for himself and then his self-obsession with his pain blocked his vision of God, blocked his ability even to see the amazing beauty of creation. But his suffering broke him open so that the light could finally come in. It broke him so that he could then see the beauty of creation and come to love God fully and completely.
I want to make one final point concerning Job. Job never receives a real answer about why people suffer. Instead he is shown a God who cares about that suffering and is there with him in that suffering. In the end, this answer is enough for Job. He has grown through his pain into being the person God called him to be: a person of humility who has seen God, who loves God and is choosing relationship with God. God’s creative powers are not finished with any of us: there is still order that needs to be found, there is still chaos that needs to be subdued. God is still creating until the world is at peace and justice has come. God is still speaking. God continues. And so we end with the disaster that was Job being transformed, renewed and brought back to life: God offers that to us as well: to bring beauty out of our chaos, and new vision out of our suffering.
Our call to faith, our call to relationship with God should be about our love for God. And our actions: coming to church, but also serving and caring for God’s people: these should be responses of gratitude for the relationship, the love, the care that we have for God. We should not be acting “good” in order to manipulate God into gifting us with good things. Instead, we act in faith and love because God first loved us and in gratitude for God’s love, we cannot help but respond with giving back.