An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Random Acts of Suffering

A sermon on the book of Job by Nathan Nettleton

Many followers of Jesus express anxiety about talking to other people about their faith because they are afraid of appearing stumped and inadequate in the face of the big questions that might be thrown back at them, and the biggest of those questions is “why is there suffering in the world if God is so loving and powerful?” Now if we are honest about it, the real reason most of us are anxious about this question of unfair suffering has very little to do with evangelism. The real reason is that the question haunts and disturbs us too. It is not so much that we can’t articulate a persuasive answer for other people; it is that we are not sure we have an adequate answer for ourselves. It doesn’t add up. We preach good news of a God who is loving and just to everyone, and yet we look around us and we see good people being struck down by horrible tragedies. We see sick children. We see babies die for no apparent reason – or according to this week’s news, sometimes for reasons of negligence and failure within healthcare systems that we trusted. We see people fleeing places of violence and fear and being unable to find a place of refuge and welcome. We see aeroplanes full of ordinary people shot out of the skies or just fall out of the skies. We see people falling into the grip of crippling illnesses or addictions. We see people living in fear of members of their own families. As Kasey Chambers once sang, “If you’re not pissed off with the world, you’re just not paying attention” (in the hidden track at the end of her Barricades and Brickwalls album). For many many followers of Jesus, this is the biggest area of doubt that plagues us. We keep hoping it will all become clear to us before the nagging uncertainty becomes too much for us and we lose faith completely.

At the root of this question there is a combination of fear and a very real problem of belief. Most of us believe that life either is, or should be, fair. Every time we cry out “what have I done to deserve this?”, we reveal a primal conviction that we should all get what we deserve and only what we deserve. Good people should experience good things in life, and evil people should suffer for what they have done, because that is what they deserve. And God should see that it is so, because that is God’s job.

Of course, we may be looking at this from either of two different stances, but the desire is the same. We may be comparatively safe and healthy and prosperous, in which case we want to believe that we deserved this, and that we are able to control things and secure our privilege by continuing to be good people and behaving in ways that ensure we remain deserving. In a mathematically predictable universe, we can control our destinies by properly managing our behaviour. I do the right thing by others, so life will do the right thing by me.

Or we may be at the other end of the spectrum where life seems to have turned to shit. Death, illness, unemployment, injury, betrayals, failures, anguish. Life seems to be nothing but pain and unanswered prayers for help, and none of it seems in any way fair or deserved. And we either continue to believe that life is predictable and just and are torn apart by guilt over not even being able to recognise the terrible evils we must have committed, or we find our whole faith system with its mathematical certainty crashing down around us in a pile of despair.

Tonight’s readings from the Hebrew Scriptures was the third in a series of four from the book of Job, and the book of Job is a 42 chapter argument about this question of suffering. It is pretty much the sole focus of the book. So rather than just look at tonight’s little extract, I want to speak about the whole book tonight. If you’ve been following the daily readings, you’ll have a better feel for the overall flavour of the book, but let me give you a potted summary and then reflect on our big question again in light of it.

The majority of the book – chapters 3 to 41 – records a long and anguished discussion between Job and four of his friends who are trying to come to terms with Job’s suffering. Both Job and his friends are operating from the assumption that life is, or should be, fair and just. So Job’s friends are trying to persuade Job that he must have sinned terribly to have deserved this suffering, and he should admit his sin and repent and become a good person again, and then God will end his suffering. Job, on the other hand, continues to protest his innocence, and he is angry at God for failing to keep him and his loved ones safe. In the end, God speaks to them, and we heard part of God’s speech tonight. I’ll come back to what God says shortly. The other part of the book – the first two chapters and the last – were probably originally a separate story, because they have a very different style and they sit a little awkwardly with the rest, both in terms of the narrative flow and in terms of the theology. But they are also the best known parts of the book. They describe a scene in heaven where God and the satan are placing bets on Job’s ability to stay faithful if he is subjected to terrible suffering.

There are all sorts of troublesome implications that could be drawn if we take that scene as literal historical truth, but in essence, it is one of the book’s two differing attempts to address the big question. Basically it says that this is not a perfect world where God is in control of everything. There are other free actors in the world, both spiritual and human, and some of them act malevolently and therefore suffering can come randomly and in ways that are totally unfair and undeserved.

The longer middle section would agree with that simplified version of the conclusion, but it works it out in much more subtle and sophisticated ways. The four friends carefully articulate their beliefs that our experiences in this world are a just reflection of what we deserve, and Job maintains that he has always believed that too, but that in his case it is clearly not working. And in the end, God speaks and essentially says that Job is right, and the friends are wrong, and Job’s suffering is undeserved and unfair. Of course, the story of Jesus restates this in no uncertain terms. Even if you are the absolute model of perfection, the world could still turn on you and crucify you. In fact, Jesus suggests that the more closely you follow in his footsteps of perfect love and grace, the more likely it is that you will suffer unjustly. So God tells Job and his friends that Job’s suffering is not fair. But to the dissatisfaction of generations of bible readers since, God doesn’t really give an explanation of why there is suffering in the world. A rough summary of what God says would be that we have a very limited capacity to see or understand the big picture complexities of the world, so we are never likely to be able to make sense of the injustice of life.

So there is good news and bad news here. If you are suffering, the good news is that this does not mean that you are a bad person and that you deserve this. The bad news is that there is no guarantee that life won’t continue to kick you when you are down as it did for both Job and Jesus. And if you are currently happy, healthy and prosperous, the bad news is that there is no guarantee that that will continue, no matter how good or careful you are. Life can be random and utterly unfair, and it could cut you down unfairly just as easily as the next person.

Naturally we will continue to feel confused and angry when that happens. We will, at least some of the time, shake our fists at God like Job did, and demand that God set things right. And another bit of good news is that, although things may not be put right, God does not regard our angry fist waving as a sin or an offence. The God who speaks from the whirlwind to the fist-waving Job says that Job has spoken rightly of God. God is far less complimentary about the friends who like good little evangelists were desperately trying to defend God against the big questions and assure others and themselves that God was still in control and everything was as it should be. It is Job, not them, who is said to have spoken rightly of God.

We continue to rage against the injustice because we so yearn for a world where all of us can be safe and happy and healthy. We long for a way to exercise some control and secure our own destinies. And we long to know that there is someone in charge who is ensuring that it all works out as it should. We often fail to recognise the flip side of that – the ‘be careful what you wish for’ consequences. We easily forget that if God really was an inflexible judge who dealt out perfectly fair mandatory sentences to ensure that everyone was punished exactly as they deserved, that none of us would get off lightly. We can end up wanting God to dispense mercy to us and our loved ones but punishment to everyone else. We very easily slide into wanting our own domesticated god who singles us out for special protection and gives us what we want. Did you hear the first thing that James and John said to Jesus in tonight’s gospel reading? “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:35 ) Don’t we all! It could almost be the summary slogan of much of modern day consumer oriented religion. Sign up as one of us, and pay here, and in our mathematically perfect and predictable universe you’ll have a god who will do for you whatever you ask.

But that’s not the God of Job or the God of Jesus. And according to Jesus, there is no such personal patron god. Jesus does not, and never has promised that if we follow him, everything will go well for us. In fact he promises that evil and malevolence are likely to strike with greater ferocity at those who follow him in offering unbounded love and generous hospitality to those who others are rejecting. But Jesus does promise that your suffering need not lead you to self-condemnation, as though you deserved it. And he does promise that he will be with you in the midst of it, even when you feel utterly forsaken, even to the end of the world. And he does promise, and demonstrate, that tragedy and suffering do not have the last word and cannot defeat the emerging culture of God’s love and mercy. He shows us that the pathway of unjust suffering, the path through the valley of the shadow of death, the way of the cross, will emerge from even the darkest and most horrible places into the wide open spaces of the promised land of God’s love and life. Jesus has walked that path before us, and walks it with us now, and he has shown us that it leads to resurrection.

That won’t make tragedies hurt any less, and it won’t give us any neat answers with which to defeat Job’s friends or knock-’em-dead as evangelists. But it will give us a little fragile light of hope by which to help us keep putting one foot in front of another on the path of life. And it will enable us to find solidarity with other pilgrims and sufferers. And here at this table, we find ourselves united with them as we pause to find nourishment on the way together. Here we find the broken suffering Jesus offering himself to us again, and saying, “Take, eat, drink. Feed on my word, my life, my hope, and together we will make it through all this and beyond, and the new world of life and love will be found.”


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