Job 1:1; 2:1-10
The bible speaks in many voices. There are points and counterpoints, agreements and disagreements, in the evolving and sometimes devolving theology of scripture. The Book of Job challenges easy understandings of the problem of evil or the causes of suffering. The author of Job is, perhaps, thinking of Deuteronomy 28 as he or she launches a theological and existential challenge to the rewards-punishments, acts-consequences vision of human success and failure.
Job is an important book, indeed, one of the most theologically creative, albeit confusing texts in scripture: though it does not solve the problem of evil, it undermines facile solutions that typically blame the victim and it unearths current prejudices, still evident in public policy, that suggest that the poor are lazy and incompetent and that the wealthy, whether corporations or individuals, are industrious job creators who deserve favorable tax and legal status. We begrudge generosity to “welfare moms” while citing the importance of subsidies and tax breaks – “corporate welfare” – for certain industries.
There was a man named Job. Job is “everyman” or “everywoman.” Out of the blue, when he thinks everything is going well, his life collapses. He loses his fortune and his family. Only his appropriately shocked and angry wife survives. Job is a good and honest man, the most righteous of mortals. In the faith he affirms, such a catastrophe can’t happen: the “book in the sky” tell him that the good are always rewarded and the evil are always punished. As the story goes, Job is initially willing to take the bad with the good, based on his belief that everything comes from the hand of God. God chooses the events of our lives and we simply have to live with God’s decisions. After all, God is the giver of life and without God, we would not exist.
The creative pastor can see the month of October, in which Job is read each Sunday, as an extended theological meditation on suffering and evil. There is enough superficial theological reflection on the problem of suffering and evil that it is imperative for open-spirited evangelicals, moderates, and progressives to step up with alternative theological visions. The mortality rate is 100% and everyone will eventually face circumstances beyond their control and often beyond anything they could have imagined for themselves or others. It’s just a matter of time.
The insightful pastor might begin her or his four week meditation with a survey of popular explanations of the problem of evil:
1) Punishment for sin, “you deserve it” – just a few weeks ago, a pastor invoked divine punishment for the floods that hit New Orleans during Hurricane Isaac - they deserve it because of their immortality and toleration of homosexuality, he suggested. The “they” included a mostly African American community, small children, and elderly adults.
2) “You chose it” – some new age philosophies suggest that “we create our own realities” – everything that happens to us is a result of our thinking either in this life or a previous lifetime. The “decision makers” choose rape, incest, abuse, and cancer by their attitudes!
3) “Karma” and “acts-consequences” – there is an exact, unbending correlation between behaviors and outcomes that shapes our lives, whether as result of previous lifetimes or current actions. We reap what we sow. Those who “reap” are two years with advanced cancer or babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome!
4) “Stuff happens” – evil and suffering are simply realities serving no purpose and having no intentionality…the evils of life are purely random and so are the benefits we experience. “Stuff” comes equally to the righteous and unrighteous.
5) “God’s will” – God determines everything in God’s wisdom, saved and unsaved, blessed and cursed. All things flow from the hand of God. “God wills” an automobile crash that kills a young mother!
6) “Education and testing” – our sufferings strengthen us and show our true character. The “exam takers” are parents who watch helplessly as children die of incurable diseases.
7) “Many factors” – there is no overarching source of evil; but evil occurs as the result of the interplay of creaturely freedom and creativity, environment, randomness, and God’s action in the world. “I’m responsible but not fully responsible. I can make a difference, but there are factors beyond my control. Even God has to deal with limitations.”
While this list isn’t exhaustive or academic, it paints in broad strokes some of the explanations for the sufferings we experience. If the preacher wishes to be interactive, he or she can ask congregants to call out explanations of evil they’ve heard. Still, at the end of the day, the problem of suffering has an existential quality: every solution must be tested by whether or not it does justice to a parent who has just buried a young child or a soldier who has just lost both legs.
Job and God are the main characters in the text. In the Book of Job, Satan is God’s district attorney or inquisitor. God and Satan dialog about the nature of goodness, and Satan suggests that Job is good only for the benefits he receives; if his fortunes change, he will abandon
God and the moral life. God suggests otherwise and allows Satan to torture Job. In the words of Rick Warren, although God does not directly hurt Job, his suffering is “father filtered,” that is, permitted and sanctioned by God. The image of God and Satan could be explored – perhaps best in a “talk back” after church: God objectifies Job – Job, his wife, and children are simply pawns in the game with no subjectivity to be considered. Their deaths and suffering are of no consequence to God. God feels no pain at Job’s suffering. There is no mercy, no regret on God’s part, simply observation of “his” test subjects!
It is important to note that Satan is not evil in the Book of Job: he is the prosecutor, challenging God’s vision and testing humankind to discover Job’s spiritual integrity.
In the course of the next four weeks, the preacher will have plenty of opportunities to explore the nature of God’s relationship to humankind. Is God an external observer or, as Whitehead says and I add, “the fellow sufferer who understands” and the companion who celebrates our successes?
Psalm 26 describes the quest for vindication of a righteous one, who is experiencing what he or she believes to be undeserved suffering. The author protests her or his integrity and asks God to affirm it by changing her or his life circumstances. The author sees his or her current situation as untenable in light of acts-consequences theology. “I have been faithful, yet I may be swept away with sinners. Deliver me and restore the moral order of the universe.” God must act and quickly to preserve the promised safety and reward the righteous expect.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Hebrews connects suffering with cosmology. Christ, from whom all creation in its wonder and beauty flows, experiences the pain of the world and in becoming one of us provides an antidote to life’s suffering. Christ reflects what John Cobb and David Griffin describe as “creative-responsive love,” the creative force of the universe redeems tragedy by taking it on, experiencing it first hand, and redeeming it. The solution to the problem of evil or suffering is not simply a form of substitutionary atonement, but salvation by companionship, intimacy, and creative transformation. There is no hint of divine causation or permission of suffering; God’s purpose is healing the pain we feel in this lifetime or for eternity.
While some may get hung up on Jesus’ ruminations on divorce and adultery, I believe that this aspect of the lectionary should be placed in the background – or even omitted - even though the implication is that any divorcee, male or female, including the pastor, is an adulterer! That’s hard medicine to swallow. In line with my counsel that “if you read it, you need to preach it,” the nature of this passage leads to a question of whether it should be included in the text. If the passage on adultery is included, it can be an object lesson about the nature of biblical authority and the “pick and choose approach” to scripture. Today, many people label GLBT persons and women who have abortions as heinous sinners, worthy of punishment, who themselves are already in violation of “God’s law” by their divorces! Dare any of us cast the first stone or focus on the particular sins of others. I think not!
Marriage is serious business and hard work even in the most favorable circumstances. It is also a wondrous joy and gift of creativity and intimacy. Today, we recognize that divorce can occur for a variety of reasons and that those who separate often have very good reasons to do so. The alienation of divorce, however, is no more “sinful” than other imperfections. We may need to ask for forgiveness, but grace and new beginnings are always available.
If you choose not to read the section on divorce, the gospel reading still contains an inspiring theological nugget. Jesus takes the little children in his arms and blesses them. Would such blessing and intimacy be congruent with the vision of God in Job? I think not! The God of Job is indifferent to our pain and suffering. The God of Jesus seeks abundant life and treasures children. Practically speaking, we may not ever be able to solve the problem of evil as a theological concept, but this passage challenges us to prevention and response. No child should be hungry or harmed by warfare; no child should be abused or neglected. “Jesus loves the little children” and so should we through individual and congregational generosity – mandated by the gospel – and public policy that crosses borders and treats all children – and implicitly their parents – as worthy of support and care.
God affirms our subjectivity – our joy and sorrow matter – and we are embraced in God’s loving heart. Feeling our experience and the experience of the least of these, God seeks to bring wholeness by inspiring us to bless the children by thought, word, deed, and social and political action.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats.