Consider the story of Job (Job 2:1–10) and the problem of suffering and vulnerability. C. S. Lewis wrote about this in his books The Problem of Pain and, after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, addressing the difficulty we all have in understanding this ongoing element of our human condition. As Eugene Peterson points out, human suffering is too common, too all-pervasive, for us to complain a lot about it; we’ve all suffered, perhaps as a result of our poor choices. But it’s undeserved suffering that really disturbs us.
My husband and I are involved, through our local church, in a ministry to street people in our town — the disadvantaged, the jobless, the homeless, the desperately ill, the mentally unstable. Many are addicted to drugs and alcohol. We meet young women with children hiding from abusive relationships, needing to take cover from a boyfriend or ex-husband. Sometimes, when the safe refuges of women’s shelters are full, they end up sleeping in their cars, along with their kids, and cats or dogs. They run out of gas. Survival from day to day preoccupies them, unable as they are to see beyond this week or this month or to even visualize a future. Some of them camp in the woods, summer and winter, getting their meager provisions from the local food bank. Walking, trudging, seeking help all over town a day at a time. We’ve met young people who want to get an education that would qualify them for a job, but they need the tuition fee for the local community college. With pledges from us and other churches in town we can often help them towards that goal.
Once a week they arrive at our church. We sit them down at a table with us, one by one, our guests, longing to be Jesus to them, to assist in the miracles of change by the power of His Spirit. Their poverty is immediate and unmediated. We are eye to eye, hand to hand with them. There is no mistaking the grime on the skin, the stink of the unwashed, the flush of fever, the glazed eyes of the whacked out. This is no abstraction, no theoretical sociological condition. They are marked indelibly by their deprivation. They want a life for themselves and for their children, but where can it be? The sense of the impossible overwhelms them.
In any season of economic downturn and uncertainty, we also meet with hard-working citizens who have been laid off from their well-paying jobs — nurses, office managers, teachers, home-owners — their power turned off, facing eviction from their homes, desperate to keep their families together.
The life of Job is an outstanding biblical example of what we might view as unfair tribulation. He was an influential leader, but he had resisted the corruption of power, his integrity unquestioned. He was a devoted father, interceding daily with God for his seven sons and three daughters. His holdings were more than substantial; and best of all, he worshiped God. This faithfulness got on the nerves of God’s adversary Satan; it irritated him.
Here’s how the dialogue between God and Satan went, at the beginning of the narrative.
The Lord: “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.”
Satan: “Oh, come on! That’s because he values his health and well-being. But stretch out your hand now, O Mighty One, and strike his bone and his flesh, and then watch how he will curse you to your face!”
The Lord: “Very well, because I trust him, I’ll give him into your power, only spare his life.”
So Satan followed up on his threats, inflicting “loathsome sores” on Job’s body, from the sole of his foot to the top of his head. These lesions were obvious markings, noticeable to all who saw him. They were so bad that Job had to take a broken bit of pottery to scrape away the scabs and pus as he sat among the ashes. Still without grumbling at God.
God not only allowed his righteous servant to be marked with a wretched disease but seemed interested in what would happen. We wonder—for what purpose? Why? Job answers his derisive wife who urges him to curse God and get it over with by telling her, “We’ve taken all the good things in our lives from God, why not the bad?” And in the end, of course, Job’s trust in God was rewarded by the return of wealth and the leadership of a large and prosperous family. But he had to do some deep thinking and exhibit ferocious steeliness to stay the course allotted to him by higher-ups, in the face of “friends” who called themselves comforters but failed to comfort and even added to his trial by accusing him falsely. Job was not flawless, but he was faithful even in his despair and doubt.
His story is full of laments such as this: “Oh that I knew where I might find [God] . . . If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him. . . . But He knows the way I take; when he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:8–10).
Gold is only purified by intense heat in which the metal is heated to liquidity so that traces of impurity may be skimmed from the surface. I suspect that many of us, in such hot and dark times of doubt and perplexity, have prayed like Job. He could not have foreseen any happy ending. Would we have shown such stalwart faith in similar circumstances? What if we are marked with unusual suffering that seems unfair, out of proportion to the life we have led? Job is the kind of exemplar we need to be reminded of, when through no fault of our own, the circumstances in our lives seem unbearable.
Luci Shaw is a poet, essayist, and Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver. Author of over thirty books, her writing has appeared in numerous literary and religious journals. In 2013 she received the 10th annual Denise Levertov Award for Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and Image. She is author of a new collection of poetry, Scape (2013), and Adventure of Ascent: Field Notes from a Lifelong Journey (2014). For further information, visit www.lucishaw.com.