Monthly Archives: February 2011

Suffer Me Not

When it comes to suffering, Job is the poster child.  It is a familiar story for Jews and Christians.  If Job was around in 2011 (if you haven’t heard of him – read his name with a long “o” as in robe), I think his story could go something like the version that follows.  At the time of this writing I’m in Texas, so I’m going to use that as a context.

Job had a ranch in Central Texas with thousands of cattle, show-quality horses for his family’s recreation, and goats and sheep for fun and commerce.  He was happy with his wife and they had seven kids.  His home was bigger than “Southfork” from the show “Dallas,” with a staff of more than 50, who liked working for him.  Everyone wanted to be invited to his parties.  There were pig roasts, champagne receptions, and pool parties with unlimited kegs of beer.

Job was not only successful, he was a devoutly religious person, including philanthropy to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.  It wasn’t easy to find a synagogue in Texas, but he found one and went regularly – not just on the high holidays.  His children all had bar and bat mitzvahs followed by fabulous parties on the ranch.

As the story goes, the Devil challenged God in asserting that Job was only faithful because he had a great life.  Well, Job did have everything, after all.  So God made a bet with the Devil that if Job lost everything he would still be faithful.

One day Job’s brother had a party which his kids were attending.  Before Job could get there, one of the neighbors flew up the long lane to the ranch in his Dodge Ram pick-up and reported there had been an unexpected tornado collapsing the house on everyone at the party.  No survivors.  By this time the storm was moving toward Job’s ranch with heavy lightning which struck one of the barns and resulted in a flash fire.  It was summer in Texas and everything was dry as toast (you know, Texas toast) and the fire spread too fast for fire trucks to even get to the gate of the ranch. Everything burned.  Job had just leveraged his real estate to expand his cattle herd.  Now with everything wiped out from the storm and fire, Job had no children, no business, and the value of the real estate and remaining livestock would just barely eliminate his debt leaving Job with nothing.  His wife survived, but she was not happy to be with a guy who was now broke.

Still Job did not blame God, so the Devil kicked it up a notch.  Job got skin cancer and had painful, ugly sores, to which Job’s wife said, “Where is your God now?”  Don’t think Job wasn’t miserable.  “Why didn’t I die at birth?” he lamented.  There are pages and pages of agonizing poetry that follow.  Job does make his despair and hopelessness clear, but he does not blame God for his situation.  The story has a happy ending, but the eventual return of good fortune to Job never really resolved this story for me.

Job’s tale is troubling at so many levels, not the least of which is the notion of God and the Devil rolling the dice over Job’s life.  I asked a Rabbi for insight on this once and he shrugged and said (in a Yiddish accent), “Eh.  Bad things happen to good people.”  You think?  I have not had Christian clergy explain this story to me with any greater satisfaction.  I have come to find the theology of a personified God and Devil playing craps with a human life an immature and even ridiculous interpretation, but perhaps that’s not the point.

I suggest that Job’s story is not about God and the Devil, it’s about the human condition.  It is easy for humans to wish for an omnipotent, parental God to rescue us when we struggle and want someone to blame in times of pain and loss.  For me it took quite a bit less than tornado, fire, and cancer.  I lost the job of my dreams and my beloved dog within a few months time and became convinced that God doesn’t like me – even though I don’t really believe in a personal God.

There is also the kind of pain and grief that no one else sees; the anguish of unreliable mental health, for example.  And there are those – sometimes you or  me – who have periods of abject loneliness or a paralyzing sense of failure.  Invisible suffering is still painful.

Parabola magazine is published by the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition and addressed suffering from the perspective of many different traditions (http://www.parabola.org/) in the Spring 2011 issue.  Jewish scholar Jonathan Omer-Man said, “Ultimately I think that one of the teachings of the Book of Job is that the quest for meaning can sometimes be futile, and that our task is not to understand the cause of our suffering, why it happened, but rather to transcend the experience by accepting the mystery of our experience,” (“Accepting the Mystery,” p.21-5, citation on page 22-3).

Perhaps it is also important to learn from Job the value of a good rant.  Expressing his despair did not mean he had lost faith.  Sometimes life does suck.  That being understood, suffering can be like alchemy, with the refiner’s fire providing us with new insights.  It is a spiritual consolation but not an emotional analgesic.  When scholars and theologians (or Oprah) wax philosophical about suffering, sometimes they gloss too quickly over the painful part.  But after respecting the pain, there can be more.  I have enough faith in the human spirit and greater forces outside ourselves to believe that we can experience grace.  It might not make it easier, but it might make it more bearable, and it might leave us with one good thing we can hang on to after some of the pain lessens.  I leave it to you to work out your own idea of grace.

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