When Storms Come: How Do We Respond To Suffering?
Here I Am
Good morning, it is my great pleasure to worship with you today. My name is Will, I was a regular volunteer with the youth group a couple years ago, my senior year at St. Olaf College. Since then I’ve only been back on a few occasions, but my affection for Spirit of Life has not diminished. You’ve welcomed me warmly and appreciatively in the name of Christ; I expect that any visitors worshipping with us will have a similar experience. I am very eager to hear the youth group share stories and reflect on their work in Kansas. You should be too!
Job 14:7-15; 19:23-27
For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
8 Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant.
10 But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire, and where are they?
11 As waters fail from a lake,
and a river wastes away and dries up,
12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
until the heavens are no more, they will not awake
or be roused out of their sleep.
13 Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
14 If mortals die, will they live again?
All the days of my service I would wait
until my release should come.
15 You would call, and I would answer you;
you would long for the work of your hands.
Job 19:23 “O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
My thoughts have kind of a fill-in-the-blank format today. Although it is extremely difficult to identify with the immoderate loss that Job suffers, I am hoping you can at least identify with his impulse to run and hide. I recognize the feeling from finals week in college, when I asked in my heart to be sedated, and awake a week later to find that I had unconsciously completed all my assignments to the satisfaction of my professors. I recognize another illustration in the story of Rip van winkle, who was the envy of the other old men because he had slept through the hardship of the revolutionary war.
So I’d like you to consider that thing, whether in your personal life or in the world at large, that tempts you to despair, because no just God would permit to exist in God’s world? What are the dark thoughts that distract from your day to day? Where do you see the brokenness and anguish of the world with the most clarity? You knew the service would be about Job, so I hope you weren’t expecting to have fun. If you were, please forgive me.
Many times in scripture we are offered faith as a solution to suffering, but the story of Job proves that the question of HOW faith helps us in our suffering is not a simple one. Job holds to his faith but his reward is a very long time coming. It is my goal to offer some clarifying questions that will help us know the appropriate response to the pain we see in the world.
- Who is suffering?
I work at a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis that serves refugee and immigrant communities in the twin cities. My role is to work with clients to start their career in the the US through job search and credentialed training programs. It is extraordinary to create a relationship with people and hear their stories, but it can also be frustrating, disappointing work. If I am working with a client who has several barriers to employment, language, transportation, childcare, and usually some bad luck, I feel it. It stresses me out. It’s hard to invest so much time and energy and then the news is bad time and time again. it’s harder when you consider how much an immigrant or refugee person might have suffered and struggled before they arrived in the US. You feel that their reward for surviving a war, fleeing their homes, suffering the loss of family members, and finally settling in a strange country should be something other than MORE hardship, more loss, and more disappointment. But that suffering should never be mine. My feelings of frustration and anger (in my job) are only valid insofar as I am participating in the frustration of my client. Another word for this is solidarity.
Looking more globally the nationwide discourse around refugee resettlement has at times been discouraging. But again, my anger should be in solidarity with the people whose lives are actually at stake, who are fleeing war or persecution. My pride, and my desire to be right, to prove myself smarter than others in the debate, should not be a factor.
So ask yourself who is actually facing the threat. I’m not saying that it’s not you! I don’t know what you’re facing. But for me, the things that frighten about the world, and the things that stir up my righteous anger, I’m insulated from those things. Poverty, violence, discrimination, they’ve hardly touched me. I’m sheltered from those injustices, like Job’s useless friends, who I’ll get to in a moment. But so many others are like Job, praying for escape, praying to be hidden away until their trials have passed.
2. When you are confronted with suffering, are you one of Job’s friends, sharing your advice and your clever, well-reasoned opinions while refusing to share in the suffering? I don’t know if you’ve touched on this in previous weeks, but you do not want to be these guys.
Don’t be Bildad who cruelly suggests that Job or his children must have done something to deserve their deaths.
Don’t be Eliphaz who scolds job for questioning god’s justice, accuses him of blasphemy saying that he is “doing away with the fear of God” and turning his “spirit against God”.
Don’t be Elihu who makes the case that Job’s prayers are empty, faithless supplications, and that is why they have not been answered.
Their logic mostly serves them! The book of Job sets up a dialogue around these traditional doctrines of suffering in a situation where they are ridiculous. Job remarks elsewhere that it would be impossible for somebody to earn so much suffering. If our response to suffering is “they had it coming,” then we might be one of Job’s friends. Or if we offer solutions while distancing ourselves from the problem (I’m guilty of this) we might be one of Job’s friends. Our logic must be accompanied by love.
If Job’s friends show what we shouldn’t do, then what should we do?
3. What would Jesus do?
The life of Jesus, I think, tells us why we must not fault Job for despairing! He expects to die, to lie down and never rise again. He know that mortals will not be roused from their sleep. Instead we praise him because he maintains a foolish hope that he will see God with his own eyes. Remember that the resurrection was not part of the worldview of the author of Job, so this hope is truly absurd. But as the apostle Paul says, the resurrection of Christ, the foundation of our faith, is just as foolish!
In modern times, Elie Wiesel, the 20th century Jewish scholar, who was also a Holocaust survivor, echoed this vision of faith when he said,
“I am pessimistic because I don’t trust history. But at the same time, I am optimistic. Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do? There is no good reason to go on living, but you must go on living. There is no good reason to bring a child into this world but you must have children to give the world a new innocence, a new reason to aspire towards innocence.”
So when we face up to the brokenness, or when we share in the brokenness of others, we expect to lose, because how often have we actually won? History and experience say that the pain will be reproduced, but we hold fast to faith and love anyway!
We cannot hope that if our faith is great enough that we will avoid suffering altogether. Job’s tremendous faith did not protect him from loss, and it is cruel to suggest that the loss of others is a failure of faith; that’s simply not how the world works. After all, Jesus does not save us by snatching us out of danger if we pray hard enough. Jesus saves us by participating in our brokenness, reconciling the world to God which gives us the strength and will to love and reconcile with each other. Jesus submits to death and then mysteriously, miraculously conquers death, bringing new life. This is the absurd faith of Job that simultaneously submits to despair and hopes for eternity.
And even if it is not our suffering that we are afraid of, as we discussed earlier, we have many opportunities to participate in the brokenness that other people experience, by sacrificing our own comfort, safety, or happiness, and by standing in solidarity with the victims of injustice. This is one of the great challenges of our faith. But by participating in the brokenness of the world as Jesus did, we can be part of the new creation. But if we choose to escape, if our fear drives us to insulate ourselves from the pain of the world by guaranteeing our own safety and ignoring the injustice around us, then we may not see the rewards of faith.
I will close with some words from Kierkegaard, a Danish Christian existentialist philosopher, who reflected, actually, on the faith of Abraham:
“When you saw, far off, the heavy fate approaching, did you not say to the mountains, ‘hide me’, to the hills, ‘fall on me’? Or if you were stronger, did your feet nevertheless not drag along the way? Did they not hanker, as it were, to get back into the old tracks? When you were called, did you answer, or did you not? Perhaps softly and in a whisper? Not so Abraham, gladly, boldly, trustingly he answered out loud, ‘here I am’…