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Have you heard this expression? It makes a pretty clear summary of this text, doesn’t it? God and Satan together try to test Job’s patience, to see how much he can tolerate. Lose all 500 of your cattle? No problem. Windstorm blows down your house? Fine. Bubbling sores all over your body? Oh, OK. Easy? No, but Job refuses to curse or even engage God- to his wife he says, ‘how could I expect God to be good all the time? I must be faithful even now.’
I think Job’s answer is crazy no matter how you look at it, but it’s at least a little more passable if we think of it in human terms. No, we don’t tend to give one another bubbling sores. But most deep friendships, marriages, partnerships have their bumps, times when things aren’t easy or when we disappoint one another. In this sense, Job is indeed patient, and inordinately forgiving of what’s happening to him.
But Job isn’t talking to his wife, or his children, or his brother or best friend. He’s talking about a God who has made and will make covenants with other people – with Abraham, and Elijah, and Moses. As a follower of the One God, he’s one of a covenant people, one who has agreed to keep the commandments to show that he is keeping his end of the bargain.
The problem is, Job never got to talk to God about this situation, did he? They never exchanged vows; there was no burning bush, no angels, no widow of Zarapheth, no miracle. God didn’t warn him that things would be tough, or explain why he was going to suffer. Halfway through the story, Job still doesn’t really even know if there is a God on the other end of his prayers, does he?
The Job story was written over three thousand years ago. But I think it seems remarkably modern and surprisingly familiar.
The truth is, we are like Job in many ways. Mostly we have not had a visiting angel or a conversation with the great I AM, but we agree to some faith, some seeking, some covenant about living in this world together. We suffer, perhaps not in the way Job suffers, but with pains as great, losses as large, sorrow as deep.
Like Job, we, too, are often patient. We may try to accept that life is sometimes difficult. That sometimes, bad things just happen.
But like Job, at some point, we grow tired of being patient, and we begin to look for control, for an explanation for our suffering. I don’t know where we got this idea of the ‘patience of Job.’ When I look at this text, Job doesn’t seem at all patient to me.
“I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments!”
“I might come even to his dwelling!”
I’m gonna find that SOB and when I do, he’s gonna hear it. And if I could only sit down with him for a little while, just a little while, I bet he would listen to me.
But we know something which Job does not. We know that there is no reason for Job to suffer. God isn’t making a point to a wayward people; God isn’t testing God’s covenant; in fact, God seems to just be showing off. Job is just in the middle of someone else’s drama; he’s the innocent bystander who gets shot by a stray bullet. He’s the unlucky guest chosen from the audience. In fact, sometimes suffering is just like this, isn’t it? It’s an accident of fate, it’s collateral damage, a side effect of the medicine we take to fix another problem.
We live in a remarkably learned time, and we have explanations for so much more of life than Job did. Hurricanes and earthquakes, economic recession, market forces, depression, anxiety, cancer- we know why they all happen. But knowing the explanation really doesn’t lessen the suffering at all, does it? It’s not any better than it was for poor Job, imagining he must have done something, demanding that God, who must have a good reason, explain what he has done.
I’m not willing to believe in a God who has prescribed every ounce of suffering in our world, any more than I believe in a God who has planned every moment of joy.
But I’m also not patient. Like Job, I don’t like my own suffering, and like Job, I want to find a way to control it. How very human he is! And here, for me, is where we may want to honor impatience and let it go at the same time.
No matter the cause, suffering is often outside of our control. Our house doesn’t sell; we lose our job or we lose our parent. I wonder: how does it change our suffering to imagine that we can’t control it, through God or otherwise?
Suffering also makes us isolated. We are isolated by the inward focus of healing and the challenge of our own emotions. And we also isolate one another because it is so difficult to see others suffer. I think of the homeless woman who I pass every day at Union, and how it feels to see her wearing the same clothes, asking the same question. I think of how hard it can be to watch another person cry. Or I think of the awkward responses of folks to we who are teachers, or chaplains, or social workers. “Ooh. Autistic children? Whoa. Middle schoolers? I hated middle school. Dying people? Wow. Good for you.” Job has his friends to argue over the nature of his suffering, true. But the very course of their argument reinforces the point: it’s Job, and Job alone, who sits in ashes, scraping his sores.
But Job, and we like Job, are part of a larger covenant, a community of people. We have friends, and partners, parents and wives, husbands and children. We enter into covenant, from birth, with a sense of moral life – a divine agreement, a commitment to a larger humanity. Into this imagined agreement we live our lives, knowing even so that we will suffer. And like Job, we bear suffering within this larger body.
Our suffering is joined to the life of a human community, one which shares a covenant with the divine in one another. Our God is in this shared space, one which does not expect us to be fully in control of our lives. We are not called to control over our broken world, nor are we called only to patient acceptance. I urge us to be im-patient, just like Job. Demand more of the God who lives in our relationships and society. Demand more of ourselves.
But in our im-patience, let us find a space to relinquish the control we wish to have- over our suffering and the pain of others. I don’t think we can control suffering, and I don’t think we can always even explain it. What we can do is share it. Be present. Let our pain be known. Let ourselves be affected by the suffering of others. Our hope lies in this sharing, in human connection which is in our control. May we be blessed with the impatience of Job, and may wrap one another in the divine love of our human connection.
What can I do?