griefThis has been a difficult couple of weeks.

 Anyone watching the cable news is probably aware of the recent disasters that seem to dominate the headlines – reports of ferry disasters, lost aircraft, wildfires all rotate through their respective slots at the top of the hour news.

 But one of the events in particular was more than news of a far away event in a far away place.

 A recent tragic accident at a festival event claimed three lives. The event took place only a few miles north of my current hometown in Richmond, VA. One of the victims of the accident was from my ‘home’ hometown in north Buffalo. The victim’s family hails from my old neighborhood, my previous parishes, my previous schools. It is an unfortunate reality that the stories of human tragedy somehow become more real when we survivors share some part of our lives with the victims. Knowing that we saw the same places, walked the same streets, and perhaps encountered the relatives of those affected by the loss all combined to tug at some unseen heartstring that would have otherwise gone untouched.

These incidents make me think of those who must deal with seeming random events that visit death, disease, and tragedy on people who didn’t deserve to be in that given place at that time.

We are told that all good things come from God and that God answers our prayers. People of strong faith often mention that everything happens for a reason, that life goes according to God’s plan, not our plan.

Reading the stories behind the victims’ lives, the now unkept promises of futures full of love and energy, losses caused by random, meaningless tragedy or fateful disease,  one would be justified to ask, ‘what kind of plan is this?’

What kind of plan takes of all those children in the South Korean ferry as it sank? What plans take the lives of the uncounted hundreds of thousands of people who annually die due to natural disasters or disease that seemed imposed by an unseen hand?  Not a day passes when we don’t read news of life lost by a person whose only crime was to wake up that day. Were they not good enough? Did their families not pray hard enough?

As people of faith, we share the joy when our friends and neighbors testify to God’s goodness through answered prayers that award triumph over serious disease, a repaired marriage, or a new job that helped preserve a stable family.

But for each testimony of an answered prayer, there are those who stand in the shadow of grief as they deal with some tragic reality that marched through their lives, seemingly unencumbered by any divine intervention. For each triumphant witness of miraculous healing and divine favor, there are those shedding tears of loss and apparent abandonment.

The occurrence of random tragedies and the nature of suffering force all of us to ask questions about God’s role in the world around us. How we answer shapes our own personal response during times of suffering, and how we approach those struggling with loss.

We are not the first to ask these questions.

The Book of Job is the quintessential text that expressed the same question about the nature of human suffering — some 4,000 years ago.

A quick review –

Job is a really faithful servant and he has been blessed with prosperity and a wonderful family. God asks Satan if he has noticed how good a servant Job is, to which Satan mentions that it is easy to be faithful when things are going well. God gives Satan permission to impose hardship on Job to see what happens.

Job loses all his fortunes, those he loves are taken, and he is infected with disease.

His friends at first try to console him, then suggest that his woes must be some form of punishment for Job’s wrongdoing. God does no harm to the faithful, they argue. Another passerby takes a different argument, suggesting that Job’s station is not so much a punishment as it is a test.

Job himself struggles to understand his fate. He stands by his past behavior and staunchly defends his fidelity to God. And while he never curses God, he does ask aloud why God does not answer his questions. He wonders if it would have been better had he never been born. He even wishes for death to end his suffering.

God’s response isn’t particularly comforting – He basically says He is God and Job isn’t – God has supreme reign over all of creation, and Man has little ability to understand the nature of God’s ways.

Job says he’s sorry. He repents and his good fortunes are eventually restored.

At a superficial level, the Book of Job helps little in our understanding of how to deal with suffering.  The climax of the narrative – ‘I’m God and you’re not’, may, in our view,  give Him a capricious nature when it comes to doling out random tragedy.

But Scripture is less about words and more about message. Job’s exchange has a deeper meaning that goes beyond a simple spiritual admonition for asking God why bad things happen.

  • The created universe is what it has to be. God’s speech to Job focuses on God’s dominion over a complex and wondrous creation – I wonder if this is God’s way of saying that we are part of a creation of unimaginable complexity. That includes the ongoing process of the constant creation and re-creation of the natural world. The essence of God’s answer is, simply put, a) we don’t fully understand the nature of God’s work and b) we don’t control our world.
  • The true nature of the test is to see if Job gives in to despair. His wife even tells him that his faith in God is misplaced, that he should surrender to despair – give in to death. That is, after all, what Satan wanted to accomplish, to prove that Job was a fair weather servant.
  • There is an important lesson in passages where God rebukes Job’s supposed friends for arguing that Job must have done wrong to deserve such treatment. God’s voice is clear on this – he doesn’t think his friends helped by trying to convince Job of some wrongdoing. God was very unhappy with those who contended that they spoke for God in condemning unseen wrongdoings that supposedly justified punishment.

I struggle with completely understanding why Job had to repent, why he had to be sorry for even asking God why he had to lose everything, including those he loved. But further reflection leads me to believe that Job apologizes not so much for asking God a question, as he does for his flirtation with despair – wondering if he should have even been born — wishing he were dead.  During the dark parts of his dialog with God, Job also argued that he understood God’s intentions, presuming that he was being wrongly punished.

There is an important phrase in Job’s apology, where Job laments the fact that he  ‘misrepresented’ God’s intentions. That makes me wonder if Job’s apology is less about the regret of asking a question, and more about his presumption that God causes unwarranted suffering.

Job’s story provides no clear explanation why suffering exists – and frankly, there appears little in its verses that can provide consolation to those in the here and now who have to deal with the pain of loss.

But there is a message that urges people of faith to not succumb to the temptation that blames God for misfortune. We are tenants in God’s creation, and its nature includes misfortune, disasters, and disease just as it includes the wonders and joy-filled experiences that make life worthwhile. Maybe we need the random fragility of life to understand its value. Would our days be so precious to us if  we thought their continuation to be unconditional and guaranteed?  Maybe the answers to those questions are part of a wisdom that still eludes us.

There is also guidance on how we are to respond to those around us who fall into difficulty.

There is no more need to explain tragedy as a punishment as there is to unconditionally assign the fortunes of this world to upright character. As witnesses to the suffering of those around us, we are called to comfort through presence, compassion, and prayer. No explanation, no contrived reasoning is needed.

We don’t really understand the reason behind human suffering. But the Book of Job warns that there are dark forces that will use suffering to make us believe either that there is no God, or (worse) believe that the nature of His creation is such that He doesn’t deserve our love.

Job persevered. He found himself ‘seeing’ the true nature of a God who is worth his devotion and fidelity. Job’s behavior was reflected some 2,000 years later, when Paul wrote to the Romans that no obstacle or trial can keep us from God’s love:

 “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

I pray for those who have lost loved ones or whose future is at risk. I pray they find comfort in those around them who give support and compassion without judgement.

And I hope that should I find myself tested with misfortune, I will more interested in praying for help than in finding reasons which don’t exist.

 


References:

http://www.buffalonews.com/columns/jerry-sullivan/natalie-lewis-gifts-were-evident-beyond-the-swimming-pool-20140515

James 1:17

Matthew 21:22

http://www.catholic.org/bible/book.php?id=22

 

 

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