Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Everybody’s Favourite Victim

“God was unjust to Job. His faithfulness and piety deserved better treatment,” proclaimed the professor of a course I was taking in literary depictions of justice. I was shocked and totally disagreed but at seventeen I had no words to help me express my dissent only the absolute conviction that God is never unjust and that the professor was missing something of vital importance. Of course most people would agree with my professor. Job suffered terribly. God gives Satan permission to harm Job and even admits that Satan "moved [God] against him, to destroy him without cause." So it should all be very simple. On this occasion, God must be unjust.

I first read the book of Job when I was five and was chiefly struck by the image of a dirty old man, clothed in rags, smelly, probably drunk (I’d already read about Noah), perched atop a pile of ashes scraping giant boils. A gruesome image. Over the next ten or twelve years, I read Job again, two or three times, and while the gruesome image remained, by nine, I realized his ‘friends’ were blaming him and wondered fearfully if they were right. By fourteen I was impressed but puzzled by God’s response – he never answers Job’s demands and accusations. Then there was the course when I was a sophomore in college which signaled the start of another eight years of pondering Job, of trying to understand God’s justice. On perhaps the twelfth reading I noticed for the first time a phrase I’d missed in the past. Sitting on his ashes after a seven day silent watch, Job curses his very existence in frustration and rage ending, “…the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.” But what had Job feared? He had had everything. I went back to the beginning and paid very close attention. As I walked alongside Job in my imagination, I saw him making continual sacrifices just in case. His was the behaviour of a frightened man, of appeasement – Job seeks to avoid God. In his speeches, Job expresses his feelings about God in language that is at first reminiscent of Psalm 8 but quickly moves to a place of terror and darkness: “What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment? How long wilt thou not look away from me …thou watcher of men?”

For Job, God is cruel and exacting, lying in wait for him to err, lying in wait to punish him with His terrible glance. This had not been discussed in that course on justice. In fact, no one – not my foster-father (a Southern-Baptist minister), not the priests and nuns who had catechized me, not even my old Testament professor – ever mentioned how Job feels about God. They focused on Job’s sufferings but failed to look at his actual relationship with God, a relationship in which he seeks to remain safely in one corner and to keep God safely in another. They did not see that Job’s sufferings begin long before Satan “move[s] [God] …to destroy him without cause." To worship God in an attempt to keep him far away is to suffer horribly.

And it’s not that Job has done anything wrong. “There is none like him on the earth.” He is “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” In the midst of his fear, Job has done something very right. We would reward him. God does. He takes Job from an existence of anxious watching and waiting and sets his path through true suffering.

Before Satan is allowed to touch him, Job’s sufferings are of his own devising, they are the product of his convictions about God. But true suffering, increasing suffering, and in particular, suffering through his friends’ ‘consoling’ speeches, causes a gradual change in Job who at first speaks in platitudes about God, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." Eventually though, he begins to speak to God: demanding that God look away, insisting he is right even though God prove him wrong, proclaiming his conviction that he has an Redeemer, an advocate, someone who will take his part and that no matter what, he himself will see God face to face. And finally, the man who intensely desired God to stop looking at him recalls the time before he lost everything: “Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me” and demands: “let the Almighty answer me!” Suffering has stripped Job down to his intense need for God to respond, to hear God’s voice.

And God speaks saying, This is what I have done, Job, where were you? Without answering any of the demands and accusations on Job’s list, God answers everything. His presence, his voice, his attention, his self revelation – God himself is Job’s answer. I imagine the anxious man filled with awe and wonder, laughing at himself and capering for joy as he says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” He must have flung the dust and ashes on which he had sat in the air for joy: how could he have known that God was really like this, that God would really answer him?

We are often like Job. We look on suffering as if it is the worse thing that can happen to us but fail to see that sometimes there is nothing else that will break down the stony walls we erect around our hearts, the adamant convictions that separate us from God. He made us to fit into and participate in the love that has always flowed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we are such terribly wounded people that we run from him as though he really is a hateful, cruel enemy. Yet we always run with hunger in our hearts, wanting him to see us, starving to know that he is watching. We will always be young children longing to call out, “Watch me! Watch me!” as we pedal our tricycles around the yard for the twentieth time in half an hour. God knows the hunger in our hearts whether or not we declare it. He sees us, not from high up in heaven, not from a far corner, not even through the kitchen window as he finishes the washing up, but right here, right now – we always have God’s undivided attention.

And sometimes that hurts – horribly. But the alternative is to have our way. And our way is filled with precise tallies of what we have lost and what we are owed, with minute detail of exactly how God is supposed to be. How tragic it would be if He gave in to us. Thank goodness God is not as we want him to be. Even when it means excruciating suffering, he knows how to give us the ability to relinquish our ash heaps and give up the bittersweet agony of being victims of his wrath; God always has far more for us than we can include on our lists. He has freedom and victory for each one of us – which is another thing that is so often missed, the end of the story, the victory.

Something radical happens to Job. He is given restoration and then some. His family and friends return: his community is restored. When Job prays for the three friends who came to “console” him he becomes the instrument of their restorations; sacrificing just in case another sinned becomes prayer for the real transgressions of his friends, prayer that acomplishes the mission God has given him. Job even becomes frivolous: at a time when daughters inherited only if there were no sons, Job shares his wealth among his sons and his beautiful daughters. Where once he was frightened and constrained, he is free to act outside the social boundaries, free to delight in the gifts God has given him.

Ultimately, we don’t understand God’s justice. It's not at all like ours. It doesn’t give us what we deserve. His justice gives extravagance, an abundance. And to call God unjust because he leads us through suffering is always to miss something vital. Often it is to miss that God has chosen to be not only a “watcher of men” but a participant in our lives so that real suffering will lead us to real joy.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful observations and post Drusilla! Brava!

SteveG said...

Simply wonderful. Thank you for sharing that!

Mahsheed said...

Wow this is a great new blog and wonderful post!

May I link to your post?


Drusilla said...

Thanks CL, SteveG and Masheed. And Masheed, certainly you may link to my blog. Thanks for asking.

Mahsheed said...

Thanks, Drusilla, I just did!

Lily said...

Well, I thought I had Job nailed pretty good but it never occured to me to ask what his relationship with God had been before his trial. A fresh way to look at an old story-- is there anything more enjoyable and profitable than that?? Thanks!

Ron said...

I was "referred" from Mark Shea's wonderful blog so I clicked on yours... but :(

Two things:

1) I can't read your words as they are opposite to virtually every other way I read; i.e. light on dark rather than dark on light. It's physically painful for me to do. I'm sorry. I'm sure your words are very good.

2) I don't think that word verification is necessary for most blogs. I just won't do it anymore unless there is a reason for it. Sorry.


MC5 said...

After nine paragraphs explaining god’s justice we are told that:

we don't understand God's justice

What was the point of the proceeding prose then? Since we can’t understand, how do we know he is just?

Often it is to miss that God has chosen to be not only a "watcher of men" but a participant in our lives so that real suffering will lead us to real joy.

Firstly, what happened to our free will? Surely god is playing favourites by making some people suffer and therefore leading them to ‘real joy’, while letting others continue along with little suffering. God is clearly favouring cancer victims and starving Africans.

Secondly, how did the ‘real suffering’ of the 186,983 dead and 42,883 missing 2005 boxing day tsunami victims and the real and on going suffering of their families and (now even more) poverty stricken communities lead ANYONE to ‘real joy.’ If that’s ‘real joy’, my guess would be that the Asian and African populations affected could do without it.

Drusilla said...

Ron - I'll change to dark on light but keep word verification so as to avoid the advertisments and other junk I've seen in blog comments.

Thanks for letting me know about the contrast issue.

Drusilla said...

mc5 -

Thank you so much for your post - really. I want discussion and dissent and to delve into what Catholics really believe. The more we understand the better we will know God (which is the goal) and the better Catholics will be at expressing our beliefs to others. So worry not, there's more coming re suffering. It never occurred to me that suffering or any topic concerning God and the Catholic faith could be covered in one post. But one must begin somewhere and this was my starting point. And you've helped me decide where to go next. So thank you again.

Bubbles the Terrible said...

I don’t think I can agree with a Job who was attempting to appease God. Indeed much of his testimony speaks of how he trusted and loved the God who was generous and kind…but now the other shoe has dropped.

In my understanding, Job asking for God to look away is a way of saying he wishes he could stop thinking about God; that what he is experiencing is so contradictory to his previous understanding that he wishes he could stop considering God at all. He would rather hold onto the past with God as great friend than confront the present reality of God as merciless butcher. And before anyone registers any self-righteously indignant objections, please note that when Job describes God as a capricious thug, it is God Himself who agrees.

I can’t help but see Job’s testimony as a kind of confession, perhaps unintended. He carries on about how great life was for him, but now complains. His testimony recounts the truths that some rise and some fall; children starve and horrors happen and God is the silent witness. It seems that in Job’s understanding, suffering only matters when it is personally experienced, not when it happens to others. Job was perfectly happy to worship and believe in the kind and benevolent God, as long as He was being kind and benevolent to Job. In one aspect, Satan is right: Job’s faith is largely based on the pleasant circumstances of his life. Satan bets that Job’s faith will die when the circumstances of his life change, and God bets it won’t.

But it does change. Job’s faith is freed from being bound to the circumstances of his life. “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.” Job is able to believe in God, to have faith in Him, even though there’s no damned evidence to support that belief.

“Something radical happens to Job. He is given restoration and then some. His family and friends return…”

No offense to you personally, but this is one of the worst parts of any discussion about Job: the ending always gets lied about. Is there anything, anything at all, to suggest that his children rose from the dead? Oh, yes, we always want to forget about those damnably inconvenient corpses (so much for vaunted human dignity) when they get in the way of the ‘happy ending’ we want.

Job’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it has a good ending. The tragedies and horrors aren’t taken away or even relieved. (I would imagine he and his wife mourned their dead children ‘til the day they also died.) But the tragedy is made an acceptable part of life. And it is made so by a faith which is independent of both the blessings and the horrors of that life.

Drusilla said...

Bubbles –
I’ve encountered that exegesis of Job and there is much I agree with and much that I think misses the mark. My background is in literature and I've learned that it’s terribly important to read the story as it is written. One can only do so much in a two page exegesis but you might note that I do speak of God saying that he has allowed Satan to destroy Job without cause. So though God’s not calling himself a “capricious thug,” he is agreeing that Job has done nothing to deserve suffering.

And yes, Satan is right that Job’s faith is based in blessings that God has bestowed upon him. Job’s appeasing actions are strong indications that Satan is right: Job’s continual sacrifices and sanctifying his children just in case, his language in his first speech, which I’ve abridged, in which Job reveals fears that predate his losses. And his language contains nothing that suggests he wishes he could stop thinking of God but much that longs for God to stop looking at him: “How long wilt thou not look away from me, nor let me alone till I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? Why hast thou made me thy mark? Why have I become a burden to thee?”

Job’s children do not rise from the dead but it is understood that his wife returns and his wife is also his family. In fact, his new family comes into existence because of the return of his wife who encouraged Job to “Curse God, and die." And in chapter 42, I think we can trust that “[t]hen came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before” refers to the return of Job’s family members and friends. But please don’t think I am trying to forget about “those corpses.” I’m not and, as I said to mc5, there is more to come.

Job’s story certainly does not end happily. It does end victoriously. He no longer engages in appeasing behaviour but becomes a partner in relationship with God, in communion with him and that is the goal of life. But Job is not “freed from being bound to the circumstances of his life” until God answers him and God does not answer until Job demands that he do so.

Perhaps an important question is, what effect does encountering the living God have on our experience of loss, even loss of such magnitude? And too, how does faith become independent of “both the blessings and the horrors of [] life”?

Jim Jordan said...

This was an excellent overview of the book of Job, Drusilla. It was great that this was posted over at Raving Atheist because suffering is at the heart of why atheists can't believe in the biblical God.

Suffering is unacceptable because it flies in the face of their materialistic worldview. A loving God wouldn't let Job's children die! Ok, fine , but what if He hadn't let them die, what would they be doing now? Working at Walmart? Of course not, they'd be dead because people die, and they'd be dead long before Walmart or America or even the birth of Jesus. What point does the atheist have left? Their problem is ultimately with reality.

If there is some sort of life after death, then the pouting over Job's children is doubly moot.

Job's story always brings the materialists [atheists] out of hiding, and brings those who seek God closer to knowing Him. Your narrative is to be commended. Well done!

Bubbles the Terrible said...

So though God’s not calling himself a “capricious thug,” he is agreeing that Job has done nothing to deserve suffering.

Perhaps true, but beside my point: "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

Where were they wrong? Was anything they said about God incorrect? And what speech of Job’s regarding God was God saying was right? The good parts, the bad parts, or all? In Job’s testimony, he includes the perceived injustice, cruelty and unhappy endings along with all that is good in life. Unlike pop-christianity, Job does not edit reality so that it may conform to his preconceptions or wishful thinking of who God is. Job’s friends insist that one loves God because He is good and any injustice is only perceived as unjust; it’s really deserved, “you had it coming.” Job, on the other hand, ultimately insists that injustice happens and being unjust, it is therefore undeserved, but God is God and one loves Him even when there is no experienced reason to do so. Job’s friends would make good Calvinists in that they believe if a minor rain happens to pass by it is because God is crying over SOMETHING YOU DID!

And yes, Satan is right that Job’s faith is based in blessings that God has bestowed upon him. Job’s appeasing actions are strong indications that Satan is right: Job’s continual sacrifices and sanctifying his children just in case, his language in his first speech, which I’ve abridged, in which Job reveals fears that predate his losses.

Of course it does. Anyone who has ever had a child has experienced this. There is no fear like that fear – it’s a vulnerability that one either learns to live with or one goes insane. But I don’t see it as Job regarding God as the fearful taskmaster just waiting for Job or his kids to screw up. Job believes the sacrifices do what they are supposed to do: purify his children and atone for any sins they have committed. Perhaps I’m not understanding your point.

“And his language contains nothing that suggests he wishes he could stop thinking of God…”

No, that’s really my imposition. I assert that it may be true, but it’s entirely external.

Job’s children do not rise from the dead but it is understood that his wife returns and his wife is also his family. In fact, his new family comes into existence because of the return of his wife who encouraged Job to “Curse God, and die."

I have a lot of sympathy for that woman. First of all, is there a woman who has been more disregarded or alternately, maligned and slandered by idiot clergy throughout history? I think not. The Magdalene’s had a cake-walk compared to her. And what if Grace came through the door Job’s wife opened, when she faced her own whirlwind and became herself entirely that desire, “God damn God?”

Perhaps an important question is, what effect does encountering the living God have on our experience of loss, even loss of such magnitude? And too, how does faith become independent of “both the blessings and the horrors of [] life”?

Without reducing God to nothing more than a means to a desired end, the Encounter provides us with a context, (an environment of being really), larger than the suffering, in which to realize that the suffering is not all there is. Furthermore, the suffering can come to be seen as an acceptable part of that environment – an acceptable part of God. It isn’t “relieved” or “transformed” or any other silliness that so many go on about in their wishful-thinking; it becomes integral to the whole in such a way that, without it, the whole would be far, far less than what it is.

I believe we are called to love the God who IS, not the God we wish for. Job’s children were not resurrected; they continued to be dead throughout the remainder of his life. Any who regard that as a trivial matter to be pushed aside with rather unclever syllogisms and sophistries are fools. The continued absence of Job’s children is an integral part of Job’s testimony. Their absence is as crucial to the story as boils and whirlwinds.

Drusilla said...

Bubbles -

What Job's friends did wrong has nothing to do with this particular exegesis but certainly their insistence that it is all Job's fault contradicts what God himself has said.

Perhaps it is for you to write an exegesis that focuses on the loss of Job's children. That is not my job. It is my job to write about how encountering God makes the "whole" the focus of life. Pain and loss are not trivialized. (In fact they become God's instruments.) But they are simply no longer big enough to capture the attention as once they did. To love God as he is is to accept that next to him even our greatest losses are only a very small participation in the Cross. Not trivial but who would look at loss when there is the opportunity to look at him. (See Those Damnably Inconvenient Corpses - Part I. And soon, Part II.)

Abbot Joseph said...

Thank you for this reflection. It is something my heart needed to hear. I think others may need to hear it too. So I hope it's OK that I put a link in my blog to yours. I look forward to more of your writing, which evidently comes from a life lived in God.

Drusilla said...

Dear Abbot Joseph -

If you think it will be useful, please do put in a link. Starting this blog isn't easy. But for some time I've moaned at God and told him that what he has done for me isn't just for my benefit but belongs to everyone. If this is his way of answering me, I'm very fortunate. Thank you and God bless you.

Trevor Blake said...

"How tragic it would be if He [God] gave in to us." Joshua 10:14 talks about God hearkening to the words of a man (as compared to a man hearkening to the words of God). What does it say? Was it tragic?

"Ultimately, we don’t understand God’s justice." "Real suffering will lead us to real joy." You get one or the other, not both.

- Trevor

Anonymous said...

So God killed Job's children and left him sitting on an ash-heap in physical pain and mental anguish in order to teach him not to fear God?

And if it was victory and freedom that Job learned to submit himself totally to the one that assaulted and broke him, to go beyond perfect obedience to love of the one who killed his children, is the end of 1984 victory and freedom? Winston Smith learned that he must submit himself to the one who controlled his life. He had also been using outward obedience in the hope of staving off the presence of the supreme authority in his life. That authority used suffering to break down the walls around his heart, and in the end he truly loved Big Brother. How is this different? Is it just that God's allowed to brutalize us however he wills?

Drusilla said...

Anonymous - 1st, Job is a story with a point. The core material is ancient and was rewritten for a Hebrew audience.

2nd - God does not kill Job's children. Satan does.

3rd - God does not brutalize us. He does use suffering, just as he uses everything else, to teach us.

4th - Reread Job. His children are mentioned only once again, when Job is musing about how good things were in the past, just before he demands that God answer him. And though Job falls on the floor in grief when he learns of his children's death, he doesn't express his rage and anger until he becomes ill and his friends blame him for his misfortune. The author of Job never returns to the issue of his dead children. We are upset about his children but he isn't. They are not the point of the story though they are worth our attention (the two posts after this one, and probably my next, adresess the issue of Job's children).

Finally, God is not and never will be the state. That is an error we so often fall into and it simply won't work. If God were merely the state or some other human construction, Job (and the author) could never have forgotten his children. In fact, it is because God is not the state that meaning (including meaning that is not found here) can be found in the story.

Honora said...

Amen. Beautifully said.

Oz said...

Come, now! Satan may have been the agent directly responsible for the children's deaths, but he was acting completely within God's mandate. Just as "I was just following orders" is no defense, neither is "I was just giving orders." If you want to argue that God was morally correct to authorize those murders, do so, but don't try to pass the blame off on poor old Satan.

Anonymous said...

This a very interesting blog. Yes I believe God use sufferings to bring us closer to Him. I Peter 1:6-8 speaks about what happens when we go through trials. I'm greatly encouraged about his post and to see that there is a hope someday for us when we continue to love Him. Thank you very much.