Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?
Do you ever have days when you feel like what Job expresses in this verse above? If you ever do, know that what you read in Job, and what the Bible acknowledges consistently throughout scripture: sometimes, life is just plain hard. There is no way around it. Suffering happens. Questions arise. Troubles come. COVID-19 leaps across vast geographical spaces. Interventions prove inadequate and guidance, incoherent.
One of Job’s friends offers a response to his inordinate, inexplicable suffering in the eighth chapter that sounds spiritual enough:
If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place (Job 8:5-6).
This advice is later shown in the book to not only be unhelpful, but highly incorrect.
There are other times, of course, when our own actions or inactions are to blame for whatever situation we find ourselves in. One of the first key insights into our human condition that the Bible shares comes from Genesis, chapter 3. The man and woman have tasted of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their eyes are opened, and they suddenly realize that they are naked—that is, they are vulnerable to all kinds of bad possibilities and exposed to things they cannot control.
In 1755, just as the Enlightenment had swelled eighteenth century egos with the pride of new learning. It was a time when great thinkers were certain that life’s purpose and meaning were entwined in the perfection of God’s well-planned universe. At the peak of that learning, art, and expansive culture, a devastating earthquake struck the picturesque city Lisbon, Portugal. The violent shaking, along with the fires and floods that followed, virtually destroyed that ancient, beautiful city. Thousands were injured, crushed, killed in the most horrible natural disaster that the newly modern world had ever experienced.
All the growing knowledge and great insights could not explain the awful tragedy. Some, like the friends of Job responding in the eighth chapter to his lament in third, attempted to explain it in theological terms: God willed this destruction because of sin or the need to teach people a lesson. The great French philosopher, Voltaire, would have none of it:
Will you say, “It is the effect of everlasting laws
Which necessitates this choice by a free and good God?”
Will you say, seeing this heap of victims:
“God is avenged, their death is the payment of their crimes?”
What crimes, what bad things have been committed by these children,
Lying on the breasts of their mothers, flattened and bloody?
Lisbon, which is a city no longer, had it more vices
Than London, than Paris, given to doubtful delights?
This sounds very much like Job’s response to his own unjust suffering. Like him, Voltaire was fully justified in shaking a philosophical fist at the conventional wisdom of that day. Then, as now, questions remain, suffering exists, and in the midst of these difficulties, we are called to support one another and remain faithful.
COVID-19 offers a glimpse of the fear and potential panic inexplicable episodes convey. Our sophistication pales a bit when confronted with puzzles we cannot readily solve. We sense only in part what our ancestors must have felt fully when confronted with epidemics, or times of drought or famine or plague. It is natural to wonder: who is in control? What are we to do, left to our own inadequate devices?
Today, consider Job’s struggle. And remember his ultimate discovery: Mysteries abound; some questions will never be answered; the universe is filled with wonder. In spite of our questions and discouragements, God is in control. God created all that is and was and is yet to be. So even in times (like now!) when so few things seem to make sense, know that in the words of Julian of Norwich: All is well; and all manner of things shall be well.
What We Can Do: Finally, while we are asking questions about the big things of life and meaning, we can also ask a smaller one: is there anything I can do to help alleviate suffering somewhere? Here are some thoughts offered from a number in our congregation already hard at work:
- Make masks to supplement the most needed hospital masks (go to the CDC website for instructions);
- Contribute to our Assistance Ministryor a reputable hunger fund and food coop like Jeremy Lewis’ Urban Recipe, or DEAM, or
- Raise awareness of critical issues among your social circles and solicit their help.
- Offer assistance to an older neighbor who might need groceries or other necessities.
- Write letters or notes or make calls to homebound Senior Adults who are becoming very lonely these days.
- Pray for guidance, wisdom and others.
- Consider doing whatever else you can whenever you can.
By doing any or a combination of the above, you might just discover that the questions you were struggling with no longer seem quite so significant.
With hope and gratitude,
“If this yawning emptiness was the enlargement of my inner capacity for God, then I would welcome these desert experiences.”