Proper 7 (12), Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
20 June 2021
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
When Elias died last year we knew that our life would never be the same again. We had an inkling of an on-setting pandemic then but were too preoccupied with our loss to contemplate how a pandemic might change our lives. Only a month later we realized how blessed we were in the midst of our grief to have been able to have a funeral service for our child, to give thanks for Elias and to commend Elias to God’s loving care.
Now, I commend Elias to God’s loving care each day, as I do with others, but the gift was that in our grief you came alongside us, you prayed with us, and loved us by your very presence.
And that is the beauty of a funeral service that in the midst of loss we are not alone.
One of the prayers from the funeral liturgy goes like this,
Help us, in the midst of things we cannot understand,
to believe and trust in the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting.
I have always appreciated the fact that this prayer makes it clear that some things are beyond our comprehension and that therefore the focus of our grief is not in attempting to understand something for which there are no explanations except banal ones, and instead focus on devotion, to God, to the deceased, and to the members of the body of Christ.
Kate Bowler teaches the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. In 2016, shortly after she had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, she wrote a column for the New York Times,1 which, I think, eventually morphed into a book with the title, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.”2
She talks about the irony of having done 10 years of research on the American Prosperity Gospel, the belief that God will grant health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.
Flo comes to mind for me, an acquaintance I bumped into on a run years ago, and who told me of her family’s move to their dream home and ‘how God had so wanted them to have that home.’
The irony was that Bowler didn’t believe the Prosperity Gospel, she didn’t believe that we could instrumentalize God to give us what we want, yet she still felt wronged by God. She had lived a pretty decent life, had only recently given birth to her first child, and now – at age 35 – was diagnosed with stage four cancer.
I have not read her book, but I think the title gives us a pretty good idea that she does not believe that everything happens for a reason.
The story of Job confronts us with precisely this dilemma. Can we make sense of the things that don’t make sense?
The story of Job is a play in five acts. The opening scene gives us the dialogue between God and Satan (the accuser) in which God and Satan make a bet, with Satan stating that Job would apostatize if God took away all material blessings he had bestowed upon Job, while God maintains that Job would remain faithful even if God did take them away. And having entered this bet, God does take them away.
In the second act Job argues with his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar who all try to convince him that he himself must have brought his great misfortune upon himself, while Job asserts his righteousness and demands God to defend Godself and explain these calamities.
In the third act a fourth adversary appears and demands that Job and the other three submit to God’s sovereignty. This is in anticipation of God’s appearance in Act four when God recites the marvels of creation and challenges Job’s demands for justice. Today’s reading is from the beginning of this section.
In the fifth act Job’s fortunes are restored.
On the level of the story it means little that Jobs fortunes are restored. New children cannot replace the ones whose lives were taken, nor can new wealth erase the memory of the profound loss that Job suffered. However, this is only a story and the story asks about whether there is meaning in human suffering.
Job’s friends believed there was meaning in Job’s suffering, that he must have sinned against God, that his suffering must be his own fault. Kate Bowler says that after the New York Times Op-Ed she had people write to her defending the idea that there must be a reason for suffering, and in her case some even suggested that God must have wanted her to get cancer so that she could help people by writing about it.
The Bible makes no such claims, nor does the Book of Job. When in John 9 Jesus is asked about the man born blind whose fault it is that he was born blind, the man’s or his parents’, Jesus answers that the man’s blindness is an opportunity for people to see what God can do. And in Romans 8 Paul writes about all of creation longing for redemption.
The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart reminds us that the French philosopher Voltaire, reflecting on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 – estimated to have reached 9 on the Richter scale and followed by a devastating Tsunami, comes to the conclusion that there is no discernible purpose in human suffering. Not being able to discern a purpose in suffering Voltaire indicts God. “What crime and what sin have been committed by these infants crushed and bleeding on their mothers’ breasts? … Do not, says Voltaire, speak of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in the hand of a God who is Himself enchained by nothing.”3
Hart compares this to the Russian writer Dostoevsky who sees – and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality – that it would be far more terrible if suffering were morally intelligible, if there were some divine reason why people suffer. Because if there were a divine reason for human suffering, then all human suffering could be traced back to a God we could no longer see as merciful and gracious, but only as cruel and loathsome. This, I would argue, is part of the problem with the so called prosperity Gospel. Not only does it use God as a tool to get what we want, but it also blames the victim for their own suffering, for it must have been their lack of faith (in the way Jobs friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar insist that Job must have brought his suffering upon himself).
Now, Job insists on his own righteousness and pleads for his life to be restored. But throughout his ordeal – and this is important – he trusts that God is God, that God hears him, and that God cares. His failed fortunes have not diminished his relationship with God.
The Book of Job never answers the question of why things happened to Job, and we are glad it does not, for we could not believe in a God who acted malevolently and capriciously. The book only confirms the relationship between God and Job, between God and Israel, because the story of Job is likely to be a stand-in for Israel’s exile in Babylon. Why had Israel to suffer defeat and exile?
And while the story of Job offers no causal relationship, the answer to the question of Job and Babylon is Jesus who suffered with us and for us, and who came to make all things new.
And as the Book of Job offers no explanations of suffering, neither should we (except, of course, for the things that we are responsible for, like climate change, Residential Schools, and other calamities). Instead we can live like Job knowing that even when God seems absent, God remains present with us and with all of creation.
David Bentley Hart ends his essay on the Indonesian Tsunami with these words:
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is … a faith that … has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Thanks be to God.
2 see her Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_bowler_everything_happens_for_a_reason_and_other_lies_i_ve_loved?referrer=playlist-wisdom_for_living_with_death_and_loss&language=en
3 David Bentley Hart, Tsunami and Theodicy, December 2004, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2008/05/tsunami-and-theodicy