In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar tells us that misery loves company:

“Who alone suffers suffers most i’ the mind,

Leaving free things and happy shows behind:

But then the mind much sufferance doth o’er skip,

When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.” (3.6.102-105)

The story of Job tells us that sometimes, our fellow human beings can be, to use Job’s own rather-gracious-given-the-circumstances words, “miserable comforters.”

Edgar and Job both go through their fair share of suffering. Since Edgar’s half-brother tricks their father, Gloucester, into believing that Edgar is trying to murder him, Edgar flees his home and now lives in the forest disguised as a madman. Job loses his children, his home, and his wealth in the span of a day. Oh, and his skin is covered in boils.

Edgar is moved by King Lear’s company: seeing someone else suffer reminds Edgar that he still has much to be grateful for. He tells us that as long as there are still words, we have not reached the “worst”:

“The worst is not

So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” (4.1.26-27)

And it seems that, initially, Job is comforted by his friends’ visit as well. When Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar first arrive, though they barely recognize Job, they mourn alongside him:

“Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”(2:12-13)

Job and his friends have no words. Sometimes silence is the only thing that makes sense.

But after seven days, Job’s friends decide that the silence ought to be broken, that it is the time for words. Why? Because they must figure out why Job is suffering, and then how to fix it. How very human of them.

Like the disciples who, upon seeing a blind man, asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2), Job’s friends assume that his suffering must be a result of something he did wrong. They accuse Job of evil over and over again, because, unlike the reader, they are unaware of Satan and God’s conversation at the beginning of the book. The reader knows that Job is not being punished, but his sufferings are Satan’s doing.

Satan tells God that Job only worships Him because He has kept Job from harm:

“Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:9)

But God defends of Job’s righteousness, and gives Satan permission to take away everything that Job has. And sure enough, Job’s response is beautifully simple. He does not worship “the hedge” around him, but His God:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,and naked I will depart.The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”(1:19)

Job doesn’t know why he is suffering; he didn’t get to read chapters 1 and 2. Often I forget that I do not get to be “the reader” of my story, or anyone else’s for that matter.

(I also need to remind myself that the book of Job is not a formulaic explanation of all suffering in the world. Job was suffering because God had given Satan permission to test him, but that is not the only reason suffering exists. I often find myself wanting to make stories like this into theological treatises, but I think that is a wrong response. After all, Job is repaid twofold for his sufferings in the end [God gives him back all his land and wealth, and has a new family], and we know that is not always the way things work.)

Most of the time I am left in the position of Job and his friends, only seeing part of the picture. But when I forget this, when I convince myself that I am seeing everything clearly…that is when I get angry.

Sometimes, when I look at suffering, I am like Edgar’s father Gloucester.  After being betrayed by his son and having his eyes gouged out, he says,

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;

They kill us for their sport.” (4.1.36-37)

And sometimes, I react like Job does later on in the book (to my suffering, to my family’s suffering, to the world’s suffering…) He spends so much time defending himself, answering his friends’ accusations of evil, that his initial humility is drowned out by his “I DON’T DESERVE THIS”-ness. And of course, in a sense, Job is right. His suffering is not a direct result of his sin, like his friends think.

But what does the Lord have to say to that? He breaks His long silence with a simple question:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4)

And then,

“Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” (41:11)

AH.

Oh. Oh, right. I forgot. That was never ours to begin with. I am not owed anything.

And with Job, I say,

“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3)

Dust

January 21, 2011

I have been reading the Psalms these past few days for the Great Books program I am in; for our first session we will be discussing 44 of them, categorized thematically. After an entire semester of Medieval Theologians from Pseudo-Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas, the poetry of the Psalms is a much-needed reminder that God appreciates beautiful sentences (though imagine how much more beautiful they are the original Hebrew!).

The last group of Psalms I am reading is “Psalms on Creation” (8, 24, 33, 65, 104, 136). I was expecting, from the categorization, to read about “nature”—trees, sunlight, squirrels. After all, when someone talks about enjoying or caring for “creation,” he usually means the forests, the environment, the earth. But I found that I was also reading a lot about myself. In Psalm 65, God doesn’t just “still the roaring of the sea,” He also stills “the turmoil of the nations”—and in the same sentence.

Now, I know the appropriate reaction to this is supposed to be something like “can you believe that the same God who created the universe also hears our prayers?” And in my better moments, I am overwhelmed by that truth. But yesterday, I found myself resisting this lumping: I’m not sure if I like the direct comparison of the waves of the ocean to the wars of men.

And then I remember Psalm 103 also:

“…for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.”

Beautiful. True. But so difficult. People rarely say these words to a parent who has just lost a child, or to a teenager watching a grandparent die of cancer. But there’s another side to this truth, as there is so often. (I am slowly learning to appreciate, instead of be intimidated by, the complexity of Scripture.)

In J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny hates that Jesus discriminates against birds when he says,

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

My reaction is just the opposite of Franny’s*. The suffering of humans saddens me far more than the suffering of birds, and so it makes sense to me, emotionally especially, that while God cares for birds, he considers man “more valuable.” (So valuable, in fact, that He would die to save him.)

But God doesn’t always make sense to me. Too often I forget I am a created being, that my friend, sick in the hospital, is a created being…that, as Annie Dillard puts it, “our breath is not our own.”

 

* this particular section within Franny and Zooey is saying much more than I can understand… I just read it yesterday and have only picked a very tiny part out to reference, but I want to write again when I have thought about it more. It is a brilliant book.