May 14, 2017 – The United Churches
Transformation through Adversity
Job 38: 1-7, 34-42
How many of you have had the pleasure of meeting my husband Tim? If you know much about Tim, you know that he is kind, loyal and patient. These are excellent qualities for any Middle School teacher. To be a Middle School teacher, or really any kind of teacher you must have, as the idiom suggests: the patience of Job.
Where did we get the idiom “patience of Job?” The idiom is applied to those who boldly persevere in the face of overwhelming hardships. The expression has its origin in the book of James 5:10–11: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”
Job persevered. He did. When people read the book of Job, they accuse him of whining a lot. If what happened to him, happened to you, my guess is that you would be weeping and wailing too. The book of Job is an allegory about suffering. It is a story that we can all relate to on one way or another. Everyone here has suffered at least one painful thing in their lives. Something terrible happens and you are suffering, and then the friends come and dispense their advice about what you did wrong or what you could do better and how you should “snap out of it.” Perhaps you cry and complain, and shake your fist at God, and then something shifts and you shift and most of the time, your pain and your experience transforms you.
That is what happened to Job. Here is the short story if you haven’t read the book. Job was a wealthy man living in a land called Uz with his large family and extensive flocks. He is “blameless” and “upright,” always careful to avoid doing evil (1:1). One day, “the Adversary” named Satan here, appears before God in heaven. God boasts to Satan about Job’s goodness, but Satan argues that Job is only good because God has blessed him abundantly. Satan challenges God that, if given permission to punish the man, Job will turn and curse God. God allows Satan to torment Job to test this bold claim, but he forbids Satan to take Job’s life in the process.
In just one day, Job learns that his livestock, servants, and ten children have all died due to marauding invaders or natural catastrophes. Job tears his clothes and shaves his head in grief but he still blesses God in his prayers. Satan appears in heaven again, and God grants him another chance to test Job. This time, Job is afflicted with horrible skin sores. His wife encourages him to curse God and to give up and die, but Job refuses, struggling to accept his circumstances. Can you imagine losing absolutely everything, even your health and just sitting on a pile of ashes in misery?
Enter the friends…three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come to visit him, sitting with Job in silence for seven days out of respect for his grief. On the seventh day, Job speaks, beginning a conversation in which each friend shares his thoughts on Job’s afflictions in long, poetic speeches. Just what we all want when we are suffering!
Job curses the day he was born, and the three friends ignore Job’s pain while intending to encourage him. The three friends and Job have a serious theological conversation about Job’s suffering. The fault of Job and his friends lies in trying to explain the nature of God with only the limited information available to human minds.
You may have had friends stop by in the midst of your great suffering and say something like Job’s friends. “God must have needed her more than you did.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “At least you had each other for a while.” Job becomes very irritated with his friends. Job continues to try to understand his suffering, trying to make sense of it. He grows sarcastic, impatient, and afraid. He laments the injustice that God lets wicked people prosper while he and countless other innocent people suffer. Job wants to confront God and complain, but he cannot physically find God to do it.
Job just wants to understand why these horrible tragic things have happened to him. He has been a very good man, and has always obeyed God and cared for others. He wants to know what we all want to know…why do terrible, painful things happen to good, decent people? He talks, he questions, he whines, he cajoles, he begs, he pours out his grief, he shakes his fist at God. Finally, God speaks.
That is the part of the story that we have read today…only a very small part. God goes on and on for chapters starting with: where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? God’s numerous and extensive rhetorical questions underscore how small Job and Job’s concerns are amid the vast universe. Someone in Bible Study this week told me about a poster of the entire universe that they own with a tiny pinprick labeled “you are here.” Finally, after God reveals the power and the complexity of the universe to Job, Job falls completely silent.
I think in general when reading the book of Job, people find God’s response disturbing and upsetting and become angry at God, or give up on God all together. I want to offer up a couple of other possible ways to look at the end of the story.
The first is this: when we are in the middle of a crisis or a great grief, it is hard to think about anything or anyone other than ourselves. That is totally understandable, because our own problems and situations consume us. When we focus only on ourselves a devastating situation becomes more so. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy that he co-wrote with the Dalai Lama quoting some research about joy says that “we are wired to be caring for the other and generous to one another.” We depend on the other in order to be fully who we are. He goes on to talk about the concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu says when I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you.
When God laid out for Job the created order, God widened the aperture away from Job and his life to the whole universe. God reminded Job that the universe is large and that the overall scheme of things is not always apparent and most of all: that Job was not alone.
The second thing that I want to say about the story is that we can be transformed by adversity, even very painful difficulties. The Dalai Lama quotes this Tibetan saying: “Adversities can turn into good opportunities.” This bears out in our Christian teachings as well, Romans 5: 3-5 says: And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Often, beauty and joy do not come without suffering.
You can probably think of some examples in your own life. There are small examples like seeing the vast beauty from a mountain top requires you to suffer climbing up a very steep path. Since it is Mother’s Day, I want to toss on to the pile that I found that child birth involved a great deal of pain. The outcome is lovely, but parenting also created a path of highs and lows of its own that forced me to grow and transform as a person.
Here are some other positive outcomes of suffering from a Buddhist monk named Shantideva: Because of the shock suffering causes, our arrogance falls away. Suffering also gives rise to compassion for all others who are suffering and because of our experience of suffering, we avoid actions that will bring suffering to others.
I think when we stop fighting our suffering and become still, we allow this realization in to our being what Job finally allowed in to his: that things will go wrong and devastating things will happen, but we can rest in the assurance that God is deeply invested in the outcome. It’s God’s work in which we participate, not our work with a little (dubious, unreliable) help from God.
I want to end with some practices that you can try when you face and manage suffering or adversity. (Book of Joy page 323)
1) Think of where you are experiencing suffering or adversity.
2) Think of others who are experiencing this same situation. Can you feel empathy or compassion for them?
3) How might this situation be useful for you. What might you gain? What might be learned? How might you grow and mature as a person?
4) Think about gratitude in relationship to the opportunity that this suffering and adversity has given you.
5) Pray that you might use your suffering to alleviate the suffering of others.
At the end of Job’s story, all of his fortunes are restored. He ends up with more than he had to begin with. Instead of thinking of this as a literal reward of more riches or more children, I would invite you to think about it as more beauty, more peace and more joy.