|Suffering perennially raises the question of God — whether God is, what sort of being God is — and in the Book of job leads to a transformed personal relationship with God.|
Professor Sia is senior lecturer in theology at Newman College, an affiliated college oft he University of Birmingham, England.
JOB is a very good example of someone who asks questions because he finds himself in a situation where he is forced to speak out and hurl accusing questions at God. Because of his unique experience, he is unsatisfied with the usual answers to the suffering of the innocent. He cries out for a more satisfactory solution. In fact, he comes to the point of challenging the Almighty. Job’s questioning illustrates the kind of questioning that results in a transformation.
A question is revealing. It not only asks for information, but often also discloses what is going on in the mind of the questioner. From the questions that are being posed we are given some insight into the questioner’s thoughts. This is even more true if we pay attention to the very way the questions are phrased. A question, furthermore, sometimes shows up the questioner’s prior knowledge of what he or she is asking about. There can really be no “stupid” question, only perhaps an idle one, for a question bears within it an implicit answer, no matter how vague it may be when the question is asked. If the questioner had no knowledge at all of the answer, he or she would not have been able to raise the question in the first place. To ask “Why?” for instance, presupposes a knowledge of an observed fact, that something is, so that the question is really a progression, an explicitation.
A question also points to an inquiring mind. To ask a question means to search for more; it shows that one has perceived behind the apparent and has gone beyond instinct. (Significantly, question and quest are related.) Perhaps this is why human beings are regarded as questioners: they are always searching for answers. Because they ask questions, they have had many insights into life. Because they are endowed with the capacity to wonder, they have reflected. This has caused them to look for deeper meaning, to be unsatisfied with what is transitory, and to seek what lasts.
Raising a question usually leads one to new and deeper knowledge or, at times, to a new awareness of what one had known previously. The latter is best exemplified in the often heard expression, “Oh, of course, I knew that before!” It is a sudden recognition of what one already knew. Sometimes, however, a question is not meant to be answered, perhaps not directly. Sometimes we search even if we can expect no answers, at least no immediate answers. There are also questions to which no answers are at hand, though only for a while, for answers may emerge later if we chance to glance back.
There are times when one is transformed in raising questions. Then the questions, when viewed in the light of one’s transformed state, become irrelevant. Such an experience occurs when one is “plunged into the depths.” Profound questions about the meaning of life are often asked in moments of distress, anxiety, and suffering. But strangely enough, when one is back in “good form,” everything seems clear again and the questions that were so pressing before lose their urgency and even their importance. This is so because one has been transformed rather than because one has simply returned to one’s usual self. One has not gone back but gone on. One’s answer came in the form of a transformation.
In his questioning, job is changed radically. He is brought to a certain experience that reduces his previous questions into insignificance.
The question that is usually made to appear as the question with which job is grappling is the suffering of the innocent: How can one reconcile the idea of a good God, without whose will and knowledge nothing can happen, with the idea of a person who has not committed a sin and yet is made to suffer severely and for a prolonged period? To maintain that this is the theme around which the Book of job revolves is certainly true. The author takes pains to point out that not only job claims that he is innocent but also Yahweh (1 :8; 2:3; cf. 1:1). With this consciousness of his innocence, job cries out for the reason of his affliction, because it appears to him utterly nonsensical that he, an innocent man, should be made to suffer. Job’s question goes much deeper, however, as the very analysis of the question of suffering will indicate. It raises the related question of the nature and character of God and how human beings stand in relation to God. Job’s suffering, then, is more than just the physical agony he is experiencing. He is racked and torn mentally as well. He is in mental agony not just because he is searching for the meaning of his sufferings, but more because he cannot comprehend the nature of this God he is dealing with.
His friends propose some reasons for his sufferings. These are the traditional answers to the question of suffering. One reason given is that suffering or punishment is traceable to a guilty deed. Especially in the case of a monstrous human crime, it was believed that sooner or later disaster would return to the person who had committed it. For this reason job’s friends insist that he examine his conscience to find out what guilty deed he has done (4:7-9; 8:20; 11:6) and to renounce it (11:14). Only then would he find peace again.
The explanation of suffering as corrective is also brought up. Sometimes suffering comes to people for apparently no reason, that is, there seems to be no recognizable sin. Yahweh was believed in this case to be secretly but, in the end, clearly pursuing the task of training men and women. Job is reminded of this (5:17-27; 33:15-30) and urged to return to God, to prayer, and to cultic confession. Presupposed here is that Job’s life was not in order. For suffering, according to this explanation, was being offered in order “that he may turn man aside from his deed and cut off pride from man” (33:17).
Job’s friends also recall the doctrine of the sages, the doctrine of material rewards and punishments. They assert the correlation between the morality of people and their well-being: good people are prosperous and the prosperous are morally good. If the wicked appear to prosper, this is only for a while. Their prosperity cannot endure; hence, to them death is dreadful, for it means leaving behind their possessions. Disaster always lurks for the wicked (20:4-29).
Job’s friends maintain the connection between sin and suffering. In their view every person who suffers has sinned; there was no such thing as a good person whose situation is evil. Job, who claims to be innocent, was a contradiction because, according to the traditional understanding of which his friends are exponents, innocence and suffering together are impossible. The blame must be on job, the friends argue, for it could not be on God. God is righteous, whereas human beings are not (5:6-7; 34:12). Hence, his friends ask him to submit to God’s correction so as to win God’s favor again.
Job insists otherwise. He protests his innocence (9:20-21; 27:5-6; chapters 29 and 31). He is not aware of any crime or misdeed. His friends are accusing him of an imagined, or reasonably deduced, wickedness. He believes he is in the right with regard to his relationship with God because he feels himself unable to admit in his own case the correspondence which is asserted by his friends between guilt and punishment. If indeed his suffering comes from God, then it must have some other reason or purpose, but not his guilt. His claim of standing in a right relationship to God, however, is not based on his own estimate of himself. He wants to find through a confession some reassurance in a relationship with God which has been available to him long since and of which he at least knows enough to be able to claim it for himself. For job is aware that it is the justificatory verdict of God that matters, not his declarations of innocence.
A DEEPER QUESTION
If it is not job who is at fault, then it must be God. Cost what it may, he must force God to speak. He cannot make sense of his afflictions. This distress leads him to an even deeper problem: What kind of God is he involved with? His experience seems to contradict his belief in a just God. For how could God exist when it is obvious that there is no justice in a world where the wicked prosper and the just suffer and suffer intensely? He could not reconcile this God of his experience with the God of tradition who was very much involved in human history and had in fact entered into a relationship with the people of Israel. The God of old was always identified as being on the side of the poor and the sick. God was their savior. To those who had been deprived of justice, God was their defending counsel. Yet this God whom job is experiencing now seems to be capricious, to be toying with him, an innocent person. Is God truly capricious? Job comes to the point of accusing God of appearing as a sinister enemy. Instead of caring for a creature, God is like a capricious tyrant (9:18-19), a savage beast (16:7, 9), a treacherous assailant (16:12-14). In a display of wild imagination, job likens himself to the mythical sea-monster (Tiamat or Rahab), the archenemy of God, over whom God has set a watch (7:11-12).
Job’s question, therefore, assumes larger proportions: How credible is God? What does God mean to him, to Job? This is what has become problematical. Perhaps there is no essential difference between good and evil. God seems to destroy both the blameless and the wicked; the same fate seems to await both (9:22-23). And yet, being a Jew, job cannot accept this. He believes in the supreme moral will of the Lord. But why the apparent ineffectiveness of this moral will in human life? If the will of the Lord is for good, and if the divine power is supreme, then why does not the good that God wills come into being and why does God not remove evil?
Job demands an answer. He cannot understand and with desperation he complains: “I cry to thee and thou dost not answer me” (30:20), and again: “Oh, that I had one to hear me! Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!” (31:35). Yet God seems to turn a deaf ear.
But God does answer. The answer given is not to the question why the innocent job is suffering, but to the more profound point which Job had raised: God’s nature and human being’s relationship to this God. The response is at the same time a rebuke and a challenge to job. Instead of a clear-cut reason for his suffering, job is brought to an existential awareness of how he stands with God. The God who is wise enough and powerful enough to be able to govern the universe in all its complexity must be great enough to direct the course of human events. Human beings cannot comprehend God’s purpose; they cannot penetrate the secrets of God’s providence. Human wisdom consists in serving God, not in being equal to God in the knowledge of divine providence. In the face of this experience, job’s response is one of faith and humility (42:1-6) .
The answer which job receives is not in the form of words but in the form of an experience, that is, a realization of creaturely existence in the presence of the Creator. It is not the time for questions but for faith and humility. Job comes to the stage where his original question of why he is suffering in spite of being innocent becomes irrelevant. He has been transformed and, in the context of his changed state, that question slips into obscurity. He has learned that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” Thus he withdraws his question because he has grasped that he is a creature and his destiny is well protected by this mysterious God who demands complete surrender on job’s part.
“I HAVE HEARD OF THEE BUT NOW I SEE”
The Book of job offers many points worth reflecting on. It is no wonder that it seems to have a lasting significance. Whoever wrote the book — and did it with such style that commentators refer to its literary merits — had remarkably sensitive insights into human problems. The author deals with these as one who really appreciates the complexity of human nature.
In raising the problem of suffering, he touched upon one of the most bothersome human questions. The problem is even more acute for somebody who, like Job, believes in an all-good and all-powerful God, because the reality of evil and suffering is a direct challenge to that belief. Theists, therefore, have turned to the Book of job for an answer to this question. Their reactions have varied depending on how acceptable or unacceptable they have found the response that the author gives to the question of Job’s suffering.
But, as we have noted, the author of job seems to have been concerned with a much more fundamental question out of which the question of suffering emerges — What is one’s relationship with God? The answer to Job’s sufferings depends largely on the answer to that more basic question. Perhaps this is the reason why that writer refers to what job receives, not as an explanation of his miserable plight, but as an experience that enables him to cope with it. The series of questions that job raises leads him to an existential awareness that the God who is able to govern the entire universe with much care and wisdom certainly provides for human beings as well as the rest of creation. This awareness does not really “solve” the problem, although to some extent it “dissolves” it. In the greater insight into the kind of relationship that he has with God, Job’s original question somehow fades into the background. Now he can truly claim that he is in touch with God, not just that he has heard of God. In his suffering Job discovers the nature of his God. He wants to know why he is suffering, but he ends up knowing more about his God. He is dissatisfied with the answers provided by his friends because these are attempts to justify suffering, but what matters more is to find out who this God is.
It would be presumptuous to conclude that the Book of job answers the question of suffering. Being assured of God’s providence will not silence our questioning. The question will continue to bother us again and again because suffering, especially that of the innocent, seems irrational and unjustifiable. It is one of the facts about life that may escape a solution but not an investigation. Hence, one will suspect any allegation that it is a pseudo-problem or the wrong question. It is a real problem. When one experiences excruciating pain or watches helplessly the agony and misery of others, then one realizes how genuine the problem of suffering is. Anybody who tries to make light of someone else’s miseries through well-intentioned interpretations should try exchanging places with the sufferer.
It ought to be pointed out, furthermore, that we have the obligation to remove the causes of suffering whenever possible. Especially where suffering is the consequence of injustice and selfishness, then we must not only alleviate suffering but also actively seek to uproot its causes. Accepting the fruits of people’s wicked deeds will only reinforce their greed and perpetuate their crime. We should feel obliged to make this world a happier place to live for everyone. Humanity’s creative powers are meant to be used to reduce the gravity and extent of suffering brought about by evil people or by natural causes. Although this world may never be perfect, it can be less imperfect, thanks to what women and men, individually and collectively, can do.
A QUESTION WITHOUT ANSWER
But there is another side to this quest for an answer to suffering. It may account for the change of direction in the mind of the author of Job when he dealt with that question. It seems that the question of suffering is one of those questions mentioned at the beginning of this essay to which we can expect no ready answers, yet they can transform us. The change that comes about in us makes us look back only to realize that the questions we have raised now appear so superfluous. When the “chips are down,” when our sufferings make us see only a very hazy future, then we tend to ask whether life has meaning at all. At times like this the meaninglessness-of-it-all makes its painful presence felt. Then we are tempted to call it quits, wondering whether the struggle is worthwhile.
When port and home seem distant and the boat we are in is rocked by angry waves and tossed about by strong gales and rough seas, then we can get sick and feel tempted to jump overboard. Only the stout-hearted will want to hang on and sail on. And yet when everything is calm again, when the stormy weather ‘breaks up to give way to sunny spells, then life again becomes not only bearable but exciting and the light that glows from life seems to dispel the gloom. Everything stands out again so clearly that we begin to wonder why we had questioned whether there was any meaning in life itself. Everything is so buoyant once more, everything is so meaningful again.
Some would call this experience simply the “different moods” or “ups and downs” of life. But I think it is more than that. It is a matter of coming to grips with the reality of life rather than being simply carried by life’s currents, now into still and calm waters, now into churning waters. The author of Job was not giving us his analysis of “moody” human beings. He was debating the very existential question that is still being asked today: How do human beings stand in relation to their God? He chose the context of job’s suffering because, as we have seen, it is a situation that really causes such a question to arise. Job underwent an experience that many of us at one time or another have undergone or are now undergoing. Like him, we are confronted by suffering, ours as well as that of others. But for many of us it stands in the way between God and ourselves and blocks any personal relationship with God. In other words, the question of suffering leads us to call our relationship with God into question, sometimes angrily. This is understandable, given the baffling aspect of suffering. But the message that the author of job has for us even today is that it need not lead to that.
But why not? Because the irrationality of suffering is not everything about it, even if the fact of suffering appears to militate against the belief in a just and powerful God. The writer of the Book of job wants to show us that job wrestled with the same problem, but instead of turning his back on God, he made the question his route to God. It may be that suffering, disappointments, the roughness of life are our opportunity of feeling closer to our Creator, just as they are for Job. They could be merely the shady colors needed to balance the lighter ones so that the intricate pattern of life will come more fully into view and hence be more appreciated. They could be the punctuation marks placed at significant places of life so that God’s message to us can be properly read and understood. Much depends on us. We may not understand why there is suffering (sometimes one is at a complete loss to explain it, never mind justify it), but we can transcend the situation by letting it lead us to a more authentic relationship with God. Job may have been a fictional character, but there have been too many concrete examples of people who have refused to allow suffering to become a barrier between God and themselves for us to ignore this point. Whitehead once talked of our experiencing God as an enemy, then as a void, and finally as a friend. Our sufferings could be the very factor which will enable us to experience God’s compassion, something which one finds only in a true friend. It could be that the rough side of life will be our means to say to God: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee” (41:5) — a loving, protecting, compassionate, and sympathetic God.