In response to human suffering, God offers presence and a broader perspective. (Listen.)
God, why was Elephant killed? What about J and K and all our other friends this year? Why is there a plague galloping across the earth, and so many people suffering or dead? How long must we live in fear? When can we see friends and family again? We’re good people, Lord, faithful and committed and true. We try to live ethically; we pray: why is this all happening?
And what about the climate, Lord? We look around and see disaster. The oceans are acidifying; seagrass meadows are dying; the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching; and we’re terrified of another bushfire summer. And whatever the recent greenwash says, our government keeps subsidising fossil fuel industries; factories keep pumping out carbon dioxide; banks keep funding destructive projects; and none of us can avoid using plastic. Our future is burning and it’s gut-wrenching, heart-rending, grief-strickening to see. What did we do to deserve this?
All of us have big questions about human suffering: our own, and that which we see around us. And twenty months into a pandemic, with other griefs and losses mounting, with the prolonged physical distance from family and friends, and with climate catastrophe unfolding all around, these questions feel more urgent, more desperate, than ever.
It’s in response to big questions like these that today’s text comes. Let’s set the scene. As you probably know, Job has experienced suffering beyond comprehension. Despite being a good man – the best man on earth, we’re told – he’s lost his children, his health and his wealth. He’s overwhelmed by his losses, and he demands an explanation from God. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ he asks, ‘Where is justice?’ Because he knows God is just; he knows he’s done nothing wrong: so how could he be experiencing such terrible things?
For thirty-seven chapters, Job wrestles with this question, demanding an explanation and pushing back against his pious friends. For they keep insisting that his suffering is a corrective, a punishment or a learning opportunity: but Job rejects this. ‘I put on righteousness, and it clothed me,’ he says, ‘My justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy and I championed the cause of the stranger.’ Even God describes him as a ‘faithful and upright’ servant: so why, why, why does Job suffer? ‘God, answer me!’ he yells in anguish into the void.
Finally, God speaks: and God’s voice comes out of the whirlwind.
‘Who is this?’ demands God; ‘Pull yourself together, and I will question you …’ Then God proceeds to describe a vast and intricate cosmos far beyond human comprehension, and to pose a series of unanswerable questions. In contemporary terms, it might sound a bit like this: ‘Were you there at the big bang, when matter and anti-matter erupted into the void? Did you cast electrons into their orbits, or swirl galaxies across the universe? Have you ever journeyed through a black hole? Do you dance with the mitochondria, or ride lightning strikes between synapses? Did you weave the ladders of DNA, or flavour quarks charm and strange? Who sends the serpent to lay her eggs? Who calls the Seven Sisters into the sky? Who tells the emu to sit on his nest, or the platypus where to burrow? Who teaches bacteria to feed on plastic? Who grows the parrot’s beak in response to warming? What do you have to say for yourself?’ And on and on it goes.
In the face of Job’s anguish, God’s response seems harsh. It completely sidesteps Job’s questions; and yet in it, I find hope. It’s not a comfortable hope, but it’s hope enough for me. So let’s take a closer look.
The first thing I notice is that God tells Job to pull himself together. It’s shocking; God would flunk any pastoral care class. But it reminds me of Psalm 131, which has this lovely phrase: ‘I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me; but I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.’ This Psalm tackles twin sins: the first, of feeling responsible for and obsessing over things far beyond us, that is, thinking we are God; and the converse, which is rejecting responsibility for ourselves, that is, refusing to grow up.
So when Job is losing his you-know-what, God says, Pull yourself together: that is, calm and quiet your soul. In the face of suffering, in the face of despair, we can easily obsess over things far beyond us. We can read endless news reports and trawl through social media and tune into every press conference. Soon grief, outrage and fatigue overwhelm us: we unravel. But God’s response suggests that we too might be asked to calm and quiet our souls. This God treats us like adults; and there’s something very bracing in this. When life is overwhelming, like Job I need to wail and protest and sit in dust and ashes and rail at my friends and wish I’d never been born. But at some point, I need to shift my attention; at some point, I need get up, brush myself off, and listen to God; and this is exactly what God demands of Job: ‘Pull yourself together, mate, and listen.’
The next thing I notice is that God does turn up. It might not be with tender words: but God honours Job with God’s presence. After all the weeping, sobbing, arguing, pleading, begging, challenging and doubting, God says, ‘I am here.’ For God is involved, and God cares, and out of the whirlwind, God will respond.
But the third thing I notice is that God’s response points us beyond our concerns, and even beyond humanity: for nowhere in God’s litany does God mention people. We heard just a little bit, where God rhetorically asks Job, ‘Were you there when I planned the earth? … Were you there when I stopped the waters, as they issued gushing from the womb? when I wrapped the ocean in clouds and swaddled the sea in shadows?’
This is just a snippet from a grand discourse in which God celebrates the wild and free. Whether it’s the deep oceans or the feral donkeys, the birds of the air or the beasts of the forest, the rippling rivers or the rushing winds: God creates and delights in them all. And God creates and delights in them, not because they are good for humans, but for their own sake. God is in relationship with earth, sea and sky, with river and rock, with all that grows and lives and dies: and this relationship is not all about us.
We are part of creation, certainly, but we are not the centre; and our human-centred view, which paints God as a judge who doles out retribution and reward, is shown to be too small. In this creation, things suffer for no reason; things are born, and live, and die; and there is no merit in any of it. This is not a world of accounts and balance sheets. It’s not a world in which bad people lose and good people are showered with prosperity. It’s not a world in which our earnest efforts count for anything. Instead, this is a world of infinite grace and infinite joy; and this is a God who makes the sun rise for the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).
And this world, so much more vast and wild and harsh than we can possibly imagine, is beautiful and good. Stars sing; sea monsters romp; rivers clap; forests dance; hills erupt with joy. And it is into this world that Job, and we, are invited to live.
But to live fully in this world, the Creator’s world, like Job we must let go of our human-centric view of things. We must relinquish our position at the city gate, our standing in the eyes of others, our false piety, and the way we take suffering personally. We must let go of our longing for things to be fair and our expectations of retribution and reward. Instead, we must simply enter wholeheartedly into the joy and pain of a universe where ‘the morning stars burst out singing and the angels shouted with joy’ (Job 38:7), adding our voices, or our awed silence, to the song.
For we see now a world that is so much bigger than us; and we see that we are not in charge. Birthing the world is God’s business; setting limits on chaos is God’s role; guiding dawn to its place is God’s responsibility. God planned the earth, God calls life out of the void, and we can trust God. So we must not be overwhelmed by things beyond our responsibility; we must not despair: for God is in control.
But this doesn’t mean sitting on our hands. For we are made in God’s image: and even though we aren’t the centre of things, God has given us a god’s-eye view. It’s not the dingo or the echidna who receive the whirlwind tour of the cosmos: it’s Job, and it’s us, who are shown the universe through God’s eyes.
We can, of course, deny what we have seen. We can turn a blind eye to what’s going on; we can stay silent while the planet groans and people suffer and corporations wreak havoc and governments paint over them with greenwash. Or we can seek to live ever more fully into the image of the God we encounter in Job: one who plans, measures, and builds; who midwifes, swaddles, and nurtures; who tends, explores and celebrates creation. As creatures made in God’s image, we are invited to become more like this God: the one who is intimately involved.
But we can do this without being overwhelmed: because ultimately it’s not up to us. Even in our darkest hour, we can pull ourselves together and pay attention; we can participate in God’s creative activity; but we can do so knowing that the world is safely in the hands of the one who midwifed the oceans; the one who gives quarks their particular flavour; the one whose Spirit is infinitely creative, and joyful and wild and free. Thanks be to God. Ω
Reflect: In the face of grief, loss, isolation, illness, COVID-19, ever-changing restrictions, and climate change, how do you pull yourself together, or calm and quiet your soul? What brings you to awe and wonder?
Congregational responses to reflective questions:
How do I calm and quiet my soul?
- daily routines and rituals
- gardening, being outside, noticing and participating in seasonal rhythms, finding natural treasures
- surfing, swimming, being in water, long hot baths
- singing and chanting, especially singing in harmony with others
- praying the Psalms, lectio divina, contemplative prayer, centering prayer, meditation
- engaging in physical activity: skipping double Dutch, running, even jump squats
- the slow rhythm of walking
- hugs! – super tricky in covid times for those of us who live alone
- listening to, creating, composing, even ‘bathing in’ music
- attending to the present moment, including being with young children who draw our attention to small good things
- staring out the window
- making a pot of tea, setting a tray nicely with pot and cup, and sitting and sipping in silence
- putting one foot in front of the other: just plodding
- knitting, both the repetitive act and also the creativity and mathematics
- being with dogs, cats, watching puppies play, considering the raven
- reading, watching movies, engaging with other art e.g. sculpture, paintings
- sorting and decluttering: when everything else is overwhelming, there’s nothing like a neat sock drawer!
- doing small tasks, small achievements
What brings us to awe and wonder?
- Much of the above but also babies, watching someone learn something new, the ocean …
A reflection on Job 38ff by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 17 October 2021 (Year B Proper 24) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.
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