February 23, 2003

The Sages’ Dilemma: Reflecting on Suffering
Job 1:1, 6-19; 2:7-8; 30:16-23

I recall several occasions when, as a young boy, I built marble rolls in the sandbox at the camp where my parents owned a cabin. I piled all of the sand in the middle of the sandbox, forming a mound that stood perhaps four feet high. After pouring water all over the pile until the sand was wet and formable, I took a small spoon and began to fashion shoots that made their way down the slopes of the mound. I carved tunnels through the sand, and built bridges out of small sticks. Finally, having completed the project, I pulled marbles out of my pocket, placed them at the top of the shoots, and watched them roll down to the bottom. Was I ever proud of myself!

On one such occasion—I think I was 7 or 8 years old—I had just finished building a magnificent marble roll. It was a beauty. The shoots were smooth, the curves pitched just right, the tunnels neatly fashioned, and the stick bridges in place, when all of a sudden, some mean-spirited teenager ran through the sandbox and destroyed everything that I had worked so hard to build. All I could do was stand there and watch. What just moments before was a carefully thought-out and well-constructed marble-roll was now little more than a messy pile of sand.

Life seems to be that way sometimes, doesn’t it? We want our lives, as we should, to be balanced and evenly proportioned. We want at least some degree of predictability. We want things to be in place, and we want to observe a discernable pattern of cause and effect. If we study hard, for example, we want to earn an “A.” If we eat good foods and exercise regularly, we expect to be healthy. If we do a good job at work, we anticipate a raise or even a promotion. And if we seek first the kingdom of God, we expect him to “add all of these other things unto us.” We want, at least most of us do, to live well-fashioned and reasonably ordered lives.

In this regard, we are really no different from other people living throughout all of history. In fact, “Life’s natural tendency,” according to Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, “is to organize…. People are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, and meaning-seeking (p. 3).” In the Old Testament, for example, the Israelites sought for order, balance, and predictability, and much of their advice for living such a life found its way into what we call the Wisdom Literature: the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Of these, Proverbs lays the foundation, providing us with what William Abraham has rightly called “good old-fashioned horse sense.” Proverbs spells out the guidelines and establishes the ground rules for wise living. How do you order your lives as parents? It is right here in Proverbs 22:6. “Train children in the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray.” How do you order your lives as employees? Proverbs 10:26 tells us. “Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers.” How do you order your lives with respect to wealth? “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (23:4-5). And what do you expect to result from your religious commitments? Proverbs 12:21 assures us that “no harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.” Proverbs, once again, lays out the principles—good, sound, principles—for people like you and me to build our lives upon. In accordance with its teachings, we erect our lives as carefully and as thoughtfully as I fashioned those marble rolls in the sand box at camp some 40 years ago.

Two things, however, seem often to bring the beautiful and predictable marble rolls of our lives tumbling back to earth. There are, first of all, the intense struggles of the mind—those nagging philosophical, theological and moral questions that nearly drive us insane at times. What, for example, is the meaning of my life? What good have I accomplished, and will I ever be remembered after I am gone? As the Beatles phrased it, “I get up, get out of bed, and drag a comb across my head.” And for some, life seems to go down hill from there.

I remember hearing about a man who had just purchased a brand new and rather expensive car. On his way home from the dealership, he already heard a rattling sound in the front door on the drivers’ side. When the sound persisted, he returned to the dealership and asked the service supervisor to check what the problem was. When the mechanic removed the panel from inside the door, he found a large bolt with a note attached to it. The note simply read, “Left here by Ralph Avelard.” You can reconstruct the scene, can’t you. Ralph has been working on a conveyer belt in Detroit for years, and one day it dawned on him: “No one will ever miss me when I am gone.” So he thought to himself and said, “Someone will know that I exist!” And he placed the bolt and the note in the door as it passed by on the assembly line.

“Why am I here?” we often wonder. Young people unsure of the future. Middle-aged people growing restless with the same old routine. Senior citizens feeling useless and wondering if their lives made even the slightest difference in the world. We’ve all asked such questions, and many others. Why do evil people seem to prosper when others, including me, barely get by? How can God be involved in a world as evil and as sinful as this, a world that includes mass starvation, an AIDS epidemic, corrupt tyrants, and a decimated World Trade Center? And if God is somehow involved in this broken world, how can he be good? Finally, as a follower of Jesus, how can I begin to make sense of life and faith when, for example, more Christians have lost their lives in the Sudan in recent years than Jews during the entire Holocaust? Nagging questions, haunting questions—what Chaim Potok calls “4:00 in the morning questions”—that threaten to dismantle our neatly ordered lives and run over our well-constructed human marble rolls. Such questions are, as many of you know, tackled with alarming honesty and frightening realism in the book of Ecclesiastes. “Life is not always as simple,” the writer argues, “as a straightforward reading of Proverbs might make it appear. Life can be frustrating and even incomprehensible at times.”

But our neatly constructed lives are not threatened by such abstract questions alone, are they? It would be nice if philosophical and theological dilemmas like these were our only challenge. We could simply stop reading the newspaper, put our books back on the shelf, and insulate ourselves from the world around us. Instead, our neatly ordered lives are at times assaulted by sudden and unexpected experiences that shatter our world and throw us, at least temporarily, into chaos. Think, for a moment, of just how quickly our lives could be turned upside down and our comfort zones torn apart. Imagine, if you can—and some of you probably can imagine such a scene better than others—what the Clifford Horst family must be going through right now. Their story was just in the paper last week. 8 year-old Lawrence Horst was helping on the family dairy farm up in Perry County when a grain cart rolled backward and pinned him against a pole. Young Lawrence died, and in a split second, the entire world changed for this Mennonite family who live just a few miles north of us.

Imagine for a moment that you lost, not just your job, but all that you own. Imagine your house burning down. Imagine a dreadful diagnosis surfacing during an otherwise routine visit to the doctor’s office. Imagine, as the prophet Habakkuk so beautifully phrased it, the fig tree that no longer blossoms, the vines that no longer bear fruit, olive groves refusing to produce, fields that stubbornly lie barren, flocks cut off from the fold, and herds disappearing from the stalls (3:17). What would you do? How would you react? Would you sense what Philip Yancey rather gently calls “Disappointment with God,” or would you flat out lose it and wish to die?

Two episodes remain indelibly etched in my mind from my year at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. On one occasion, a group of students were watching the news on television in the lounge, when suddenly a young girl started screaming uncontrollably. Incredibly, video clips were showing tribal riots in her hometown several hours away, and as she watched, she saw her own father being killed. She hadn’t even heard before that he was dead.

Just a short time later, another young woman who was a student in the graduate level class that I was teaching came to my office to discuss her course work. As we talked, she told me that her three brothers had just been killed a few weeks before in similar riots in her home country of Rwanda. Unbelievably, she continued to tell me that her grief-stricken parents—both of them—died of despair a few days later. And here was this young woman, sitting in my office. Her world had collapsed. Someone had just run through the sandbox and destroyed her neatly constructed marble roll.

So what do people do when such calamity strikes? What do they do when sudden and unexpected experiences threaten to shatter their lives? They scramble to make sense of things. They try to restore at least some degree of order. They explore possible explanations, look for corroboration and loopholes, and examine the various arguments. They journal. They pray. They fast. They cry. They try to reconfigure reality, try to frame the right questions in some potentially helpful way, and, whether they were previously religious or not, they try to discover how in the world God might be involved in all of this. Or they run and hide. They look for hope, or they become bitter. After all, just like that, everything has changed. Their world is now different. Their belief system is at risk, perhaps even in ruins.

In this timeless and universal attempt to bring order out of chaos, to bring rhythm back into our torn and tattered lives, and to make sense of our faith when our very lives are falling apart, the book of Job summons us to its pages. Job is, by virtually every account, a literary masterpiece of the ancient world. Yet, we do not know precisely when to date it, nor do we have any indication of who wrote it. What is clear, however, is that the book reflects a struggle on the part of Israel’s sages—Israel’s teachers—to help people in the faith community process—not necessarily understand!—but process the pain, suffering and confusion that result when their previously ordered world falls apart.

The book of Job can best be described, I think, as a drama or play that invites its listeners and later its readers to enter the world and experiences of its leading characters. Just a few months ago, Deb and I saw the musical Les Miserables in New York, and we cried through much of it. Never before have I seen the tension between grace and law so vividly portrayed, and my soul was stirred as I was increasingly drawn into the struggle between the compassionate Valjean and the legalistic Javert. So, too, with the book of Job. In the opening act of the drama, 1:1-2:13, the writer briefly introduces us to the main character, an otherwise unknown man named Job who lived “once upon a time (1:1).” This man was a rarity, for he combined within his ordered world both piety and prosperity. He served God faithfully, in other words, yet he also struck it rich. Suddenly, following an exchange between God and a mysterious evil adversary, Job’s world collapses. In the time that it takes you or me to snap our fingers, he loses his fortune, family, and health. “How will this admittedly godly man respond?” the stunned audience is left to ask. “Will Job curse God?”

In the second and longest act of the drama, 3:1-42:6, Job is left to wrestle with the tragedies that have just come upon him. In eloquent poetry, Job denounces his birth, argues intensely with his so-called friends, and accuses God of a series of crimes, trying desperately to make sense of the chaos that he now lives in. One by one, common human arguments are erected—this happened because Job sinned; this happened because God is trying to teach Job a lesson; this would all go away if only Job would repent. One by one, such arguments are torn down. Eventually, these human attempts to reorder Job’s world expire like Job’s estate, and we readers wait anxiously for God to speak. God, after all, has been the recipient of Job’s harshest accusations and criticism throughout these dialogues. How will he now respond? Finally, after several interruptions and what seems like an eternity, God speaks with Job as this second act comes to a close. Surprisingly, however, he provides few answers to the specific questions that Job and his friends had just posed, choosing instead to adjust and modify their worldviews.

The book comes to a close with a brief third act, found in 42:7-17. In this grand finale, so to speak, Job’s friends are severely criticized and Job, who had confronted God so forcefully throughout the book, is himself exonerated. Perhaps even more disquieting, Job’s fortunes are lavishly restored, and he and his new family live happily ever after (42:17). You and I, like the listeners and readers of old, are left to ponder the implications. “Will things always turn out this way?” we are left to wonder. “What am I supposed to do and what am I supposed to think if, unlike Job, my scars and pain and wounds remain?”

My marble roll certainly was a beautiful thing to behold until that mean-spirited teenager ran recklessly through the sandbox and made a mess of it. What was I to do next? Bury my feelings in the sandbox of my heart? Run away and cry? Vow never to build another marble roll? Commit myself to gaining revenge? Conclude that God did not care about me? Try to rebuild it, bucket of sand by bucket of sand? What are we to do when our neatly ordered lives fall apart? What are we to think when our carefully constructed boxes are stretched beyond the limit? How do we talk about God in times like that, much less trust our lives into his care? Perhaps Job can help us to reflect on such things in the weeks and months ahead. As an admittedly modest beginning, the mere presence of the book of Job in our Bibles assures us that it is O.K. to ask such questions. It is O.K. to feel pain and disappointment. It is even O.K.—indeed it is encouraged!—to bring our frustrations and aggravations and accusations directly to God. Apparently, he is not only gracious enough to accept our praise, but big enough to welcome even our gut-wrenching complaints.