Job 38.1-7, 34-41
We are living in the most peaceful and least violent time in human history. There is conflict in different places, but most of humanity lives in peace. Watch the news, and it doesn’t seem like that. 24,000 people die from hunger and hunger-related diseases every day; one in 8 people around the world don’t have enough to eat. Yet there are also fewer hungry people that ever before - the total number of hungry people worldwide has been reduced by 216 million since 1992.
From one view, the world is full of suffering and violence. From another view, the world is being healed and progress is being made. It is not easy to hold such opposite views in our heads at one time.
We have been working our way through the book of Job in the Old Testament. It is a story of great tragedy and suffering. But it is also contains some of the most beautiful poetry in the bible, as in today’s reading.
Job was a wealthy man who had everything: a wife and 10 children, a huge estate and herds of animals. And he lost everything, his wealth, his children, and finally his health. The world for him had become a dangerous place; all he could see was the ugliness of suffering. He was understandably angry. He wanted to know: where in the world had God gone. He wanted to know why God had left humanity in such a state. Job’s friends told him he was being punished because he was a sinner. Job denied this vigorously. He wanted a hearing with God where he could argue his innocence. He wanted answers to the misery that was all around him.
In the end Job got his audience with God. But God doesn’t directly answer Job’s problem. God doesn’t try to explain the ‘why ‘of pain and suffering. Instead, God responds to Job with beauty. God shows Job the beauty and hope of the same world that Job thought had become a miserable place. God uses words of poetry to describe the beautiful world he has made.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you know.
5 Who measured it? I am sure you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 What was it built on?
Who laid its most important stone?
7 When it happened, the morning stars sang together.
All the angels shouted with joy.
“Can you give orders to the clouds?
Can you make them pour rain down on you?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who gives the ibis wisdom?
Who gives the rooster understanding?
37 Who is wise enough to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens?
God was describing the beauty and wonder of all that he had made.
God was not ignoring Job’s suffering. God was not saying that the beauty of the world cancels out the bad bits. God does not give a direct answer to Job’s suffering. Because no answer, not even from God, is ever going to be good enough when we are in the middle of pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and the world. There is beauty, there is grace, there is peace, and there is hope, all existing at the same time, side by side.
I’ve never previously understood the ending of the book of Job. It has always seemed like such a work-around by God. God doesn’t give a straight answer about the why of pain and suffering. But I have come to realise that there is something of truth in seeing not only pain around us but also beauty. It is a matter of working at how they relate to each other in our lives.
For example, I think of my visits to those who are seriously ill in hospital. I walk past wards with bed after bed of those in great need. And then as I look around, and I see also the medical staff with their amazing dedication and caring, who show such compassion like I feel I could never give. In the midst of tragedy there is often also something of beauty. Or think of the cave rescue of the boy’s football team in Thailand a few months ago, and the many people who came to help, including one who gave his life for the boys. It is almost as if without pain and suffering there would be no one coming to help, no sacrifice made for others.
Job had lived a sheltered life: his wealth and privilege had protected him from seeing the suffering of others. That is what often happens today too. And then when Job actually suffered himself, all he could see was suffering everywhere. So he was out of balance. His outlook had gone rapidly down hill and into the pits. And it took God to bring him back up and out, by showing him that there is more to life than just what is negative.
The more we experience and observe beauty, the more we notice and experience it in small and unexpected places, the more our hearts are trained to love and give thanks. The sunlight coming in through a window. A child playing with a football. The smile on a family member’s face.
We need both an awareness of the suffering of humanity - what is called our empathy - and also an awareness of the beauty of the creation. We need to experience both the terrible remoteness of the apparent absence of God, and also the loving presence of God who is with us in creation. Just as Job is pleading with God to look at the world and have compassion on its suffering and pain, God is pleading with Job to look at the world and see its beauty and glory.
If all we experience is grief like Job, we can spiral down into despair, and be paralysed by it. If all we see is beauty, we can get so far above human pain that we are of no earthly use to anyone and are equally paralysed.
Both the pain and the beauty are incomplete without each other. Humanity needs what is divine and eternal, and the divine and eternal needs the gritty reality of humanity.
Where do these two realities meet? They meet in the place where we find Jesus. He is the fullness of God’s glory, and he experiences the depth of our humanity in suffering. The cross of Jesus, his death on the cross, is the very moment of both the worst of human suffering, and in the same moment the revelation of the wonder of God’s glory and love.
The cross is not a straight-forward answer to the question ‘why.’ The answer is not spelled out in a way that is always immediately satisfying when we are suffering. But as we enter into adoration of that cross, as we turn to worship the one who has been raised to life, we find our lives being transformed, and our spirits are healed.