Suffering, Holidays and the Book of Job

- November 24, 2011

For millions of Americans, the holidays will require people to dig deep within themselves in order to truly give thanks. The spiritual teaching on gratitude, celebrated in great style during Thanksgiving, is not an easy one to follow if you are homeless, broke, sick without health insurance or have exhausted hope that things are going to get better anytime soon.

A classic statement on giving thanks is the first verse of Psalm 118, "Thank God for He is good, for His kindness endures forever." The implications of this verse are clear. No matter what, God is always good and is worthy of receiving our thanks.

In a world filled with suffering, this is not an easy verse to wrap our heads around. If you are deeply suffering personally, or if you are feeling the intense suffering that fills the news in this country and around the world, how can you feel God's goodness in the face of tragedy and disaster?

Isaiah 45:7 describes the God who is always good in stark terms, "I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Unnamable do all these things." Here is God taking ownership of the darkness. What is so good about that?

The Book of Job provides insight into this God of light and darkness and why it is proper to give thanks no matter what. Job's story is challenging. He is a man described as tam v'yasher -- that is, wholesome and righteous. Job is successful. He does everything he can to be good and avoid evil. Yet God allows the Accuser, the Satan, to test Job in a way that would break many people.

As difficult as his life gets, as much as he cries out to God for answers as to why his life is in ruins, the one thing he does not do is reject God, the source of life. The excellent Stephen Mitchell translation conveys Job's frustration toward God:

...because God has tricked me,
        and lured me into his trap.
I call, but there is no answer;
        I cry out, and where is justice?
He made my road impassable,
        covered my path with darkness,
Stripped me of my honor,
        knocked the crown from my head.
He broke me, rooted me up,
        left me in little pieces.
His anger set me on fire;
        his hatred burned me to ashes.

Even at the depth of Job's suffering, he engages God. Job rejects the call from his wife to curse God and die. He refuses to become bitter about his circumstances. He does not cut himself off from the ability to give thanks. Job doesn't deny his own pain; he uses it as a gateway to go deeper into his relationship with God.

When God finally responds to Job's anguish, it is in surprising terms:

Where were you when I planned the earth?
        Tell me, if you are so wise.
Do you know who took its dimensions,
        measured its length with a cord?
What were its pillars built on?
        Who laid down its cornerstone,
while morning stars burst out singing
        and the angels shouted for joy!

God takes Job out of his limited understanding of life and gives him insight into the glory of Creation, the unfathomable magnificence of God's design. Job is speechless before this display of unimaginable power and mystery. He sees his own life in a different way and is transformed by the experience. Job can now see God's goodness to a depth that was impossible before his own experience of the darkness.

As Job learned and Isaiah stated, God is an energy that encompasses all of life, the light and the dark. It is beyond human understanding to comprehend the plans of the Creator. Yet, if we are willing to endure our suffering and not give up on God, it is possible to reach a place inside of ourselves where we deeply know God is good and always cares about us.

As the great spiritual traditions teach, in essence God is love. The Book of Job shows us it is not always easy to see that love acting in our lives. But the book also points a way for us to navigate through despair. It is not a painless path, but the ability to see God in a greater light, to touch the Divine in difficult times, holds out the potential for rewards that deeply feed the soul and lead to renewed hope and faith.

Adapted from Levi's Huffington Post Thanksgiving day blog entry.