With Friends Like These
Last Wednesday I took a photo tour of Rocky Mountain Park with a professional photographer. This congregation gave me a gift certificate for the tour when I was installed as pastor last October. It was a great day, and I was able to ask all sorts of questions about f-stops and depth of field and dynamic range and other important photographic matters. I was very glad for that opportunity!
We all get questions related to our area of professional experience and expertise. What kind of questions do you get if you are a scientist or teacher or therapist or business owner or whatever? I’m sure you’ve gotten good at answering them. There’s a long list of questions that people have for preachers, and at the top of the list is this:” If God exists, why do people suffer?” Sometimes it’s framed as “Why do innocent children get sick and die?” or “Why doesn’t God stop natural disasters from happening?” After three decades of hearing those questions, I’m not sure I’ve gotten much better at answering them, though the questions are very important to ponder. The story of Job is a great starting point.
Job was a good man. And he was probably the kind of person who was hard to buy gifts for, since he already had everything. He was also a man who lost everything. Before that loss, he was exceedingly wealthy with vast numbers of sheep, camels, donkeys, and oxen. He had a large staff of servants in his very big house. And most importantly, he had three daughters and seven sons who he loved dearly. Then one day, with no warning, he lost everything.
Job’s picture should appear in the encyclopedia next to the words “Murphy’s Law.” If something could go wrong for Job, it did! Pillaging foreigners killed his servants. A ball of fire from the sky burned up his sheep. Invaders took his camels. And all of his sons and daughters were killed when a wind storm knocked over Job’s house.
According to the story in the Book of Job, all of this misfortunate happened because of a chance encounter between God and the adversary called “Satan” who claimed that Job only served God because his life was so charmed. So easy. To prove his point, Satan asked to be able to take away everything that Job owned and everyone who Job loved. God agreed and basically said “Go for it.”
Despite Job’s devastating losses, he remained true to God, so Satan struck Job with a horrific skin disease then left him looking like a Halloween horror. That was in fact the proverbial straw. The insult added to injury. And Job began to grapple with the mean of his misfortune.
Did you happen to hear in the text the name of the place where Job lived? It was the “land of Uz”, which is not to be confused with the “land of Oz.” There’s an important different difference between the two. In Oz, a house dropped out of the sky and killed a wicked witch. Dorothy followed the yellow brick road and went back to Kansas. Bad things happened to bad people. Good things happened to good people.
Not so much in the land of Uz. In Uz, an innocent man lost everything and was crippled by a mysterious disease. Bad things happened to a good person.
The world we live in is more like Uz than Oz.
The “problem of evil” has vexed thinkers in every generation. It goes like this: If God is all-powerful, and if God is all-loving, why does God allow tragedy? Why doesn’t God just stop bad things from happening? The story of Job is a record of how Hebrew people grappled with those questions centuries ago. Attempts to explain evil are known as “theodicies,” and other religious or philosophical traditions also have their own forms of theodicy. Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, speak of the consequences of karma: our actions affect our stations in future lives, and therefore, karma acts to serve justice in the long-run, even if suffering seems unfair in the present.
If you ask people why tragedy happens, some people will say, “It’s God’s will.” I’m extremely uncomfortable saying that tragedy is God’s will because that is awfully close to saying “God wants for people to suffer and die.”
Job is the product of an Old Testament line of thought that began with Adam and Eve. It goes like this: Live a good life and obey God’s commands and you will be rewarded. Live a bad life and disobey God’s commands and you will be punished. That’s how people thought back then, and it’s not that different from how people see things now. The whole point of believing in God is to have a better life and to be protected from bad things, right? Or is it?
I’d like to talk a bit about Job’s friends. It’s nice to have visitors when you’re sick, right? In the midst of Job’s horrific losses and suffering, three friends came to visit Job. Friend #1 said “You should be happy, Job, that God is correcting you for your sins. Friend #2 said, “God always does what is right. Your children must have sinned terribly to bring their deaths upon themselves” (in other words, karma.) And then while Job was sitting on the ground in misery, scraping the boils off his skin with broken pieces of potter, Friend #3 said, “Stop whatever wrong you’ve been doing, Job. You better repent of your terrible ways.”
Really helpful, huh? “With friends like these….” Ironically, these three visitors have been referred to historically as “Job’s comforters.” Real comforting!
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his classic book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” told the story of two persons in his congregation. One was a woman who narrowly escaped death when a drunk driver ran a red light and smashed into her car. “Now I know for sure there is a God,” she said. “If I could come out of that alive, God must be looking out for me.” Kushner’s mind returned to a funeral two weeks early for a young husband a father killed in a similar accident caused by a drunk driver. Was that man less loved or less favored by God than the woman who survived?
The book of Job never resolves the problem of evil. Theologians and people in churches and on the streets have been discussing, debating, and disagreeing the issue for thousands of years, so I hope you don’t expect an answer in a thirteen minute sermon.
Lots of theories have been put forward. Some team up with Job’s friends in looking for blame when a tragedy occurs. Some people conclude that God is not all-powerful after all, or that God is not truly loving in relation to God’s creation.
Perhaps the most reasonable explanations for suffering suggest that while God is powerful and perfectly loving, God sometimes or often chooses not to intervene and that God’s inaction is linked to the freedoms we have been given by God. That approach certainly makes some sense when we are discussing a tragedy like the shooting at a community college in Oregon this week. The gunman used his free will not to do great good as intended, but to inflict death and injury on others. The rest of us have to figure out, of course, how to use our own free will to minimize evil, especially in this instance in regard to guns. Two oft-repeated phrases from this week stick out in my mind: A presidential candidate remarked about the shooting, “Stuff happens,” a sentiment that potentially keeps us from acting, and “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Future victims of violence need us to act and not just hope for the best. Whether we believe in a divine power or not, we can use our power to reduce evil in the world.
We may not solve the problem of evil, but there are a few things I believe we can say for certain about suffering.
First of all, the story of Job teaches us not to judge other people. It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that when some people suffer, others will find a way to blame them for their misfortune. I wonder if that is a way to try to create distance from suffering and remain unaffected by it. The book of Job reminds us that we are never in a place to judge those who suffer. All of us have suffered unjustly at some time in our lives.
Another lesson might be this: God desires that we have compassion for all who suffer. Job’s so-called friends were not friends at all. What they cared about was not Job, but instead they cared about being right and righteously correcting Job’s bad attitude about his losses. What good is that? Blaming is pointless. People are instead helped when we enter fully into their lives so that we can share their pain and attempt to share the burden of their suffering.
Today is the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week. Over forty million Americans have suffered from some form of mental illness, such as chronic depression, in the past year, and about ten million experience a severe, ongoing mental illness. Two of my siblings have suffered from such diseases, one with schizophrenia and one with bi-polar disorder. I imagine that you, too, have seen or otherwise known the devastating impact of mental illness. Learning about these diseases so that we can increase our compassion helps us to be better and more effective friends.
Here’s another possible lesson about evil and suffering, and it’s a hard one: in the end, we need to live to learn with the ambiguity of unanswered questions. We will probably not resolve the problem of evil for ourselves. If we are committed to the belief that God is all-powerful and all-loving, then we have to be OK trusting God with the mystery of suffering. And if we need to complain about it, as Job did, then God can handle that.
So back to Oz. Not Uz. Dorothy had three friends, just like Job. Remember who they were? The scarecrow, the tin woodsman, and cowardly lion. They were imperfect themselves. They each lacked important qualities, but they walked along the journey with Dorothy. I would take Dorothy’s friends over Job’s comforters any day, wouldn’t you? What kind of friend will you be this week as you relate to persons in your world who suffer in some way?
Early on in my theological education and pastoral ministry, I was encouraged to give clear and reasonable answers to whatever questions people ask. It’s a good goal, but it’s not always possible. Finding additional questions is sometimes better. Perhaps the best question about evil is, “will we add to the suffering that is present in this world, or will be act to reduce it?”
May we all reach out in love to comfort others, and may the God of love use us to increase goodness and justice throughout our world. Amen.