Thursday, February 21, 2008

Suffering, Forgiveness, Hope, Part 3

I think that it would br worthwhile dwelling on the experience of suffering just a bit more before analyzing our inability to name it. What I would like to do over the next few posts in this series is to assist our proper interpretation of suffering by offering Biblical example of suffering.

Where can we start except with Job? Actually, we could begin in any number of places, and for lack of time and space in this medium, I will refrain from a full Biblical commentary on suffering. But we can with certainty say that suffering is a key component for God's people throughout the Old Testament (and with the Jews has remained so), as well as for the early Church. I plan to do short meditations on Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms (implying David), Jesus, Paul and Mary. But we could well include Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Hosea, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Judas Maccabeus and Daniel. We could easily do a write-up on the Exile as the focus for the people's suffering. But we will save that for another day. Here it will be enough simply to note that following the God of Israel will embroil us in suffering of one kind or other.

Job, of course, wasn't even an Israelite. Nonetheless, He worshipped God with a blamelessness that few of us can say that we have attained. Did this keep him from having to endure suffering? In fact, his outstanding virtue seems to have attracted 'the envy of the Devil' and this is the reason for his suffering.

Few people have the stamina to read the book of Job straight through. It is not easy to follow the arguments in it without considerable fluency in the idiom of the Hebrew scriptures. However, you can get the gist of the book by reading roughly the first ten chapters and chapters 38-42. I will simply focus on three short themes.

Job's friends: are we not tempted by their mistake? When we see someone suffering, are we not powerfully pulled to assume some kind of terrible transgression in the background that resulted in the suffering? We are all probably too polite to speak with the forthrightness of Job's friends (more on this throughout this series!), but if we are not careful, this lingering temptation can lead us to expressions of 'sympathy' that might tend toward the patronizing and wound even more deeply.

Job's tactics: At the end of the story, Job is not only vindicated for not having done anything to deserve his extreme suffering, God goes so far as to say that only Job has spoken rightly about the situation [Jb 42: 7]. God is angry with Job's friends, those who seemed to say all the right things in their moralizing sermons about God's ways! Meanwhile, Job, who has challenged God, needs to intercede for his friends' lack of tact [Jb 42: 8-9]. As Sr. Irene, our retreat mistress this year has put it, we are so often afraid to admit suffering, to appear weak, to 'trouble' God with our little concerns. Job teaches us to cry out to God, as indeed do the Psalms, of which we will speak later. She also made a telling point. In the book, only Job speaks to God, while his friends only speak about God. For somone consecrated for preaching, this is a definite challenge: do I who speak so frequently about God speak enough to Him, who seeks communion with my soul?

God's response: people either find this fascinating or frightening. God pulls rank. He doesn't answer Job's questions at all, but instead rhetorically challenges Job right back, "So you think that I don't know what I am doing, do you?" I find the ending of Job more fulfilling because Job does not go away gloating over his friends, but returns to life humble and yet justified. He is justified by his faith. When God reveals Himself to Job, Job's true smallness is revealed to him, and at the same time, he is awed by the encounter with the Living God and his trust in God is deepened and made gentler and perhaps a bit less self-righteous. True, we can ask about all the other people who died in the story: what is in it for them? But I think to ask this question is to invite God's similar response. I wonder: among all the suffering that we see in the headlines and on the television today, can we bring ourselves to cry out to God beyond comfortable platitudes in our prayer? Do we really believe that God is a God of justice, or do we harbor a sneaking suspicion that God is too busy to care, and that to demand that God do something would be to invite our disappointment in Him? I will take up this last theme when we look tomorrow at suffering in the Psalms.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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