Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Sitting with Job: Questions, Theological Hamster Wheels, and More Questions

As the mother of a newly minted toddler, I encounter questions from the minute my son gets up until the moment I’m laying him in bed. Right now, those questions tend to be “what” questions. Not that my son is actually saying “what” yet, but those are still his questions. He points at body parts, objects, food, the sky, you name it and gives me these inquisitive eyes that communicate loud and clear, “Mom, what is this?” Honestly, if you were to walk into a meal with us, you would hear a “conversation” that sounds like the rehearsal of vocabulary words—“chicken…cantaloupe…green bean…table…fork…chair…still your chair…and that is also your chair...” Even as I love my son’s curiosity, I keep telling myself that this is only the beginning, because sooner than I know, we are going to be moving from “what” to “why” questions. The thing that concerns me the most about this inevitable transition is that “what” questions have fairly discernible answers. I mean, a chair is a chair, right? (Unless, of course, my son is secretly the youngest Platonic philosopher ever, but I’ll wait for him to develop more words before I start considering that a real possibility.) But “why” questions…those are a lot trickier. “Why” questions interrogate the inner workings of things, the cause and effect that makes things what they are. To ask “why?” is to try to grasp the reason a thing is the way that it is. On the surface, that may seem to be innocent enough, but I wonder how often we consciously or unconsciously ask “why?” so that we can manipulate or avoid an outcome.
As I read and contemplated the first two chapters of Job, the question that rises up in me is “why?” Why, I wonder, does the author of Job give so much attention to the conversations between God and Satan in the heavenly realms? What is the author trying to achieve? My temptation, and it seems the temptation of many theologians throughout Christian history, is to assume that these conversations between God and Satan tell us why Job suffers. They are the origin point for all the weeping, wailing, speculating, and accusing that follow. Yet for all we know about Job in these opening chapters, we actually know very little about God and Satan. 
We presume that God here is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of the Israelites. That alone tells us a lot, though the author does not make this explicit in these opening chapters. Importantly, in Job, Satan is not a figure with horns and a tail carrying around a pitchfork. Satan in this story is literally “ha-satan,” or “the Accuser.” Every time we translate “Satan” as a proper name in Job, the Hebrew says “the satan,” which describes the role or function this being plays, namely to examine and report on human behaviors to the heavenly court. So, when Satan says, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?…But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11, NRSV), the Accuser is functioning within his role of calling Job’s behavior into question before God.
So, there’s our why. Satan accuses, God permits Satan to test people to see if Satan is right. That’s why there’s suffering in the world. Case closed. Some days it would be nice to put such a tidy bow on this. When we look around at the chaos COVID-19 has rained down on our world, we could just say, ”Well, Satan must have questioned the behavior of the whole world. He told God that people would curse God and curse their own existence if we had to deal with the threat of a highly contagious virus that could kill up to 5% of all those who catch it. So, God gave the go ahead for the whole world to get tested by the real and present danger of a virus that keeps them at home and shuts down their economies, engendering constant fear of the future. Oh, and let’s throw in some murder hornets for good measure.” 
Anybody else have a problem with this? Yeah, me too. This doesn’t sound like a God who created the world and all things in it out of love and continues to sustain the existence of all things, including you and me, out that same powerful, eternal, abundantly flowing love. So, my dear, vexing author of Job, why would a loving God permit Satan to cause Job to suffer? 
And there we have it. The immediate “why?” that springs forth in response to these first two chapters. It’s an understandable question, and since it is so difficult to answer—in fact, since it seems basically unanswerable—it’s also a great distraction. It’s a question to which we can never get to the end, a veritable hamster wheel of theological cogitation. But, as useful as this theological reflection can be, what if there’s a different question waiting just beyond it, a question that sets the need to know the origin and cause of suffering aside for something else? 
When I let myself off the theological hamster wheel and sat still with Job 1 and 2 for a while, I started to wonder, what if the conversations between God and Satan are intentionally straightforward and lacking in detail to contrast the complex human-human and human-divine interactions that follow? Maybe the point of this prose is not to recount exactly how things went down, but to get me, the reader, to start questioning my assumptions about why suffering happens before I start sitting with Job in his grief and anguish. What if sitting with Job means learning to let go of needing to understand why suffering happens so that I can come to a richer, more complex understanding and love for myself, my neighbors, and God? 
Our responses to the stresses and anxieties caused by suffering can have a way of flattening the self and others. I might start praying that God would end the pandemic tomorrow and question whether God loves me and hears me if God doesn’t do as I ask. I might start seeing my neighbor not as a person but as an ultra-contagious disease carrier. I might start understanding myself as somehow irresponsible for not being prepared for a pandemic no one could have predicted, and therefore the sole cause of my own suffering. Suffering can so easily trigger any or all of these responses, and many more, but none of these are a true representation of the reality in which we are all living right now. 
For all that suffering can narrow our perspective, perhaps the author of Job is inviting us into an expansive space of sitting and truly being with ourselves and others in suffering. My intuition tells me that if I sit long enough with Job, I might start gaining more questions in the face of all the trials and tribulations that surround me. Instead of getting stuck in “why is this happening?,” I wonder if my time with Job will bear the fruit of new questions: Where is hope? How is God at work? What does love look like when we are all at the end of our ropes? Who is my neighbor underneath that mask? What am I not asking because I get stuck on my hamster wheels?
I guess I will have to wait and see and let my time with Job be what it will be. That said, this first blog has actually only covered chapters 1 and 2, as chapter 3 had much more in it to explore than there is space in this post to cover. So, I will be back on Friday (hopefully) with reflections on Job 3, and at the end of that post I’ll let you know where I’ll go from there. Until then, blessings on all of our sitting, our waiting, our watching, and our hoping in this season.  

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