Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

JOB 38:1-7, 34-41

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

Why didn’t God come clean and just confess to Job that He had made a bet with Satan, and that the poor chap had performed admirably throughout his ordeal? “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let you in on the secret without ruining the game. You did just fine, and congratulations.” Why not? For the simple reason that the heavenly wager between God and Satan was not intended as an explanation of Job’s suffering, but rather as a device for disqualifying the popular theory that people suffer in this life only because they deserve it.

Because Job is presented as a righteous and blameless man, the author needed another way of launching him on his misadventure. And while the opening wager scene offends our modern moral sensibilities, it was really about the only way the author could set the stage without giving up entirely his core belief in the sovereignty of God.

Instead of either an explanation or a confession, the answering voice from the whirlwind raises Job’s awareness from a personal focus on his own troubles, to the expansive mystery and marvelous complexity of existence on the cosmic scale. God is saying in effect that He’s doing the best He can, and if Job thinks he can do better he should step up and take over. As the Buddha in India discovered at about the same time: Life is suffering.

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HEBREWS 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
    subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

As “pioneer” of our salvation Jesus opened up for all humanity the frontier of our further evolution. Prior to his coming – and that means prior to our personal realization of the essential truth Jesus represents to us – we were confined by a religious orthodoxy that lacked creative depth and saving power, bound fast by our own fear of condemnation. Up to that point, conventional religion had served us well: shaping our beliefs, our values, and our identity as in a great cultural factory.

The time came, however, for a “second birth” – a birth out of the womb of the inherited faith and assumptions of our predecessors, as well as the popular plastic-wrapped platitudes of the wider culture. But the cost was high: something worthy living for must ultimately be worth dying for, and we must be willing to pay the price.

Jesus was “made perfect through suffering,” as the author says, by following the same path as Job. We will recall that Job refused to either dismiss his suffering as insignificant or fixate on it as the only thing that mattered. Instead, he was able to “pass through” his suffering to the higher realization of God’s self-revelation in the midst of and not outside his ordeal.

In a similar way, Jesus demonstrated through his suffering that a full commitment to the Way of Love can help us pass through the curtain that separates us this moment from life in its fullness. To follow him on that path is to die to our former identity with all its threshold guardians, and be reborn into our True Humanity.

PSALM 26

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
    and I walk in faithfulness to you.

I do not sit with the worthless,
    nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
    and will not sit with the wicked.

I wash my hands in innocence,
    and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
    and telling all your wondrous deeds.

Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
    and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
    nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
10 those in whose hands are evil devices,
    and whose right hands are full of bribes.

11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity;
    redeem me, and be gracious to me.
12 My foot stands on level ground;
    in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.

This poem may reflect the somewhat naive morality of youth which believes (and perhaps must believe) that living rightly is the key to happiness and longevity. The psalmist sees himself as standing across from the company of “the hypocrites, the worthless, and the wicked,” having kept himself blameless and clean. As the rabble get swept away in the deluge of life’s troubles – as they must, if this is a just world and everyone gets what they deserve – he counts on God’s pleasure in his integrity and good reputation to save him and to establish him “on level ground.”

We know that David himself, if he is the author of this poem, later learned what we all must discover in our maturity, which is that life doesn’t work this way. To make up for the discrepancy, the classical religions developed notions of a heaven and hell where final retribution will be made, and thus preserved and justified our human need to believe in a just universe.

But still, it is little comfort, and possibly too late in the day to really help us significantly. Despite all the rich color paintings and passionate rhetoric, the doctrines of heaven and hell (somewhat like the Prologue to the Book of Job) are not intended to resolve the fundamental problem, only help us focus on the present ambiguity with sufficient light to find our way through.

JOB 1:1; 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordThe Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Our conclusion in a previous Dispatch may have sounded fatalistic and inherently hopeless, but there is real wisdom in the principle of accepting life as it comes. This doesn’t mean that we must simply resign ourselves to the negative experiences of adversity, hardship, loss, and mortality as they come upon us.

If we should look more closely at our own tendencies and habits when suffering visits us, we might notice how often we fall alternately into denial (“It’s really nothing”) or inflation (“There’s no use going on”), without truly engaging the struggle that is uniquely ours. To accept life as it comes is to take the mixture of good and evil with full responsibility – not for having caused it, perhaps, but responsible for what we will do with it.

Job didn’t do anything to deserve his misfortune (the premise of the story), and yet he refused to either dismiss it as unreal or resist it as unfair. The great climax towards the end of the book, when God addresses Job directly out of the whirlwind of his disorienting experience, is prepared for already here at the beginning, where Job accepts his suffering as his own.

JOB 1:1; 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordThe Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The Book of Job was originally composed as a radical challenge to then-current explanations for why people suffer adversity in life. Most popular and widely held of these explanations was the one that attributed human suffering to previous sins, as retribution or ‘payback’ for disobedience to God. In his attack on this view, the author depicts a perfectly innocent man, Job, who nevertheless experiences profound loss and physical pain.

For the reader’s benefit, the author lets us in on the wager made between God and “the adversary” (Hebrew satan) whose principal task is to test the honesty, integrity, and patience of people throughout the earth by trials of various kinds. Unfortunately, though it is often interpreted as the true explanation of Job’s suffering, the real purpose of the wager scene in heaven is to make the point that Job is, in fact, innocent and undeserving of his ensuing catastrophe. He is being tested in the crucible of personal loss and disease, but he is not paying for past sins: thus the premise of the traditional explanation is disqualified from the start.

One of the enduring virtues of the Book of Job is its courageous embrace of ambiguous life. We may wish for a perfect world where good people prosper and only the bad people experience hardship, but that is not the world in which we live. Here,  innocent children are violently abused, the hardworking poor starve to death, and the elderly are forgotten in nursing homes.

The kindest people suffer horribly from random illnesses, and the generosity of the charitable is frequently exploited by greedy brokers or organized terrorists. Job’s wife urged him to “curse God and die,” or in other words to give up his hope for justice. His response was to say, in effect, that we live in a broken, mixed up, and out-of-balance world.

That’s just the way it is.

JAMES 5:13-20

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Intercessory prayer has become problematic for many modern people, since its practice through the centuries has been dependent upon a worldview and concept of God that many today can no longer hold with intellectual integrity. The idea of God as essentially separate from and existing above the complex field of our human experience in the world is becoming less and less compatible with our growing understanding of the universe.

True, just because God is not as necessary as He once was for explaining the origin and architecture of the natural cosmos, doesn’t automatically mean that we have outgrown and moved beyond our need for Him. We have become more materialistic and less spiritually-minded as a culture, and our problem with prayer may reflect more the implicit atheism at the heart of our contemporary worldview than a genuine individual maturity on our part.

Nevertheless, and the thoughtful atheists among us notwithstanding, the “theory” and practice of intercessory prayer does bring a challenge before the modern (or postmodern) believer. Are we still to think of God as somehow outside and vertically removed from our world, so that we must call Him into a given situation of need, on behalf of someone who is sick or sin-ridden? Is it just you and that suffering other, therefore, until you invoke the presence and (hopefully) healing power of God?

If instead God is not separate from the world or external to our experience, but is rather essential to the world and already deeply present at the heart of reality, then our prayers of intercession could be relevantly understood as a kind of intuitive participation in the sufferings of another, and an urging of the Spirit towards their life, health, and hope. The one who prays and the one who suffers have common ground in the universal life of God.

PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

The authentic mystics of the world have very often exhibited what today might be diagnosed as manic-depressive symptoms and medicated to regulate normal levels in brain chemistry. Saint Teresa of Avila suffered from chronic nausea and long bouts of paralysis. St. John of the Cross experienced what sounds a lot like pathological depression, which he named the “dark night of the soul.”

We could easily lengthen the list, but the point is made: What Paul called his “thorn in the flesh” finds parallels throughout the world community and long history of the mystical traditions. It could be explained – as Paul himself appears to explain it – by interpreting the dark experiences of pain, suffering, and depression as a counterbalance to the mystic’s ecstasies and extraordinary gifts. But there is another way to see it.

It could well be that the apostle Paul and the rest were graced with revelations and spiritual breakthroughs of awareness precisely because of and not in spite of their debilitating physical and mental ailments. Paul himself testifies to a realization of the sufficiency of God’s grace that came to him while in the depths of his misery. True, he interpreted his particular pain or illness as “a messenger of Satan” to keep him from becoming too full of himself.

But it is possible that Paul’s mystical visions were in fact the benefit of learning to engage and enter his suffering by the path of utter release to the grace and strength of God, located through and underneath his own mortal weakness.

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While his contemporary Jeremiah was announcing a New Reality to the Jews left in the devastation of Jerusalem, Ezekiel was rebuilding the hopes of those exiled in Babylon, uprooted from their homeland and heritage. The Babylonian army had swept down in the year 587 BCE, breached the walls of Judah’s capital and leveled its temple, deporting a vast number back to foreign territory. In both locations, amid ruins and in a strange land, the people had similar questions: Why did this happen? What are we to do next? And most importantly, Where is God?

The question of God’s presence is less an inquiry into the whereabouts of a deity than a deep anguished search for grounding in a time of pain, bereavement, and disorientation. By grounding we mean a sense of internal support, a provident uplift of peace, comfort, and healing strength coming up through the very center of our urgent need.

Due to the constraints of language, our effort to speak about and make sense of this grounding mystery inevitably generates the impression that we are talking about something external to us and essentially outside our experience. Soon enough, symbols are mistaken for the mystery they suggest and metaphors are flattened to literal meanings, further elaborating the misunderstanding that God is “out there” and must be called upon to intervene on our experience from outside.

Rather than speaking on God’s behalf and bringing a message from somewhere else, Ezekiel – and this is the peculiar spiritual psychology of the prophets – was himself the very mouthpiece of the grounding mystery and provident uplift of God’s presence, addressing the exiles out of the epicenter of their grief and loss. He lifted the vision of a New Reality and called them to faith in God as a present grace and future hope.