Toorak Uniting Church

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What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

Job Chapter 1 and 2
Pentecost 19
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
7 October 2012

 ‘Job in Despair’ by Marc Chagall
"Job in Despair" by Marc Chagall

"To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Those words were penned by the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and have become a kind of mantra in the 21st Century. While there is a truth deep within this saying, it is not always the case. Sadly, adversity can crush a person. Regrets, sorrows and disappointments can rob us of a full and purposeful life and lead to despair.

But it is also true that when we take seriously the difficult and tough experiences that tumble often uninvited into our lives, life can become richer, deeper and more fulfilling. While it is a truism to say that it’s not so much what happens to you, but rather how you respond to it that matters, nevertheless, a spirit of courage and resilience will more likely triumph over adversity than a spirit of weak resignation. None of us really seeks suffering, but when it does come into our lives, there comes with it a sort of invitation to see life in a new and perhaps expanded way; to be opened to going deeper into the very heart of life.

For much of my life I believed the way to God was the way I valued everything, and that is everything is up!! I suppose it comes with our culture. Get to the top of the class. Be the best apprentice. Make the most money…. And so on. And in one sense there is nothing wrong with that. However, it just doesn’t give the whole truth about life. I lived by the "every day in every way I am getting better and better" principle, even in my Christian faith. If I want to really encounter God, then be the best person I can be and strive to know more and more about the religious life. It took a great fall in my life to help me see that more often than not, the way to God is downward, and sometimes you end up with your face in the mud just so you can see the face of God.

The character Santiago in Paul Coelho’s book The Alchemist says, "Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears. That's where I am, and that's where your treasure is." The theologian Paul Tillich insisted that God is the "ground of our being." So maybe we need to be grounded to discover our true selves and know the rock from which we are hewn. Perhaps the tears and the sorrows and the hurts can actually lead us to discover what "we will do with our one wild and precious life," to quote the poet Mary Oliver.

The Suffering of Job
The parable of Job is a kind of morality tale with a sting in the tail. It is a reframing of the answer to the question what is a good moral and worthwhile life. This ancient parable puts flesh on the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche on the front of the Order of Service, "To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." Some may say that Fred Nietzsche was no friend of the Christian faith. This 19th-century philosopher invented the term "God is dead!" But I disagree. I think he was more like the small boy who proclaimed that the Emperor had no clothes on. The continental philosophers of the 19th Century saw that church, Christian faith, was losing its way and becoming mired in the quest for morality without reality.

I think this old man Job was facing similar issues to those the 19th-century thinkers faced: commentators have suggested that Nietzsche was proclaiming what we in the 21st Century often say, that the old man in the sky God is not God and we are inadequate to even begin to imagine what we mean when we use the word G-O-D. The God I have experienced and encountered doesn’t ask us to conform to an arbitrary set of rules that limits our experience of human life and the wonder of this universe. But rather the God I listen to and respond to calls me to embrace reality, the truth of life with all its beauty and terror.

The Quaker scholar Parker Palmer in his book Let your Life Speak suggests that "God asks us to honour our created nature, which means our limits as well as our potentials. When we fail to do so, reality happens – God happens – and a way closes behind us."

It was the English writer John Middleton Murry who said, "For a good person to realise that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path, compared to which his or her previous rectitude was flowery licence."

I don’t think God is a schoolmaster, anxious that I will pass some moral test and be recognised by all as an upstanding member of polite society. The God I know and I have encountered draws me through the often painful vicissitudes of daily living on a life-given quest to become who I was intended to be at that original vision. It takes a long time to become yourself. That’s the journey Job was on. He didn’t have to be good - he was; rather he needed to become whole.

Mary Oliver penned a poem in 2004 that captures the essence of this drawing toward wholeness:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

That’s Job’s story. Any reader of this parable observes what seems to be the diminishment of this man - everything of value is taken from him. Every triumph, every success and advantage he had gained through hard work, talent and good luck was torn from his life. Down, down, down he went. His fortune collapsed; his children were murdered, his health deteriorated and he fell to his knees and to the earth. He was grounded by his great suffering. Remember this is a parable. Job is in fact every man or woman who has suffered and lost what they loved. And it is actually more an exploration into the nature of God than it is a treatise of human suffering. True it is focused on his terrible misery, and I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it all works out in the end.

The Question of Suffering
Some scholars have suggested that this piece of literature is the oldest writing in the Bible and it represents one of those axial shifts in human consciousness, because it struggles with and gives some clarity to the age-old question of where is God when human beings suffer. Of course anyone who has read this remarkable parable of human misery and the attempt to give an answer to the question of suffering will probably come to one of three conclusions.

  1. There is no answer. That’s just the way it is to live on planet earth. Just accept it. You are born; you live; you die!! The problem with that response is that it just doesn’t ring true. All the great wisdom, religious and humanitarian traditions that have brought us to this place seek and struggle to at least gain an insight into this dilemma.

  2. The second is often the religious response and that is, just believe that everything is the way God intended it to be and if you are suffering it may be your problem. Have you done a moral inventory lately? Maybe you have sinned and God needs to punish you. Friends, the day we leave that notion behind is the day we become adults. "Who has sinned, this man or his parents?" There must be someone to blame. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on… As we read on in the book of Job we see that his friends are convinced that he is to blame for his own misfortune. Of course there is a relationship between cause and effect. Live wild and die young!! But human suffering is bigger than that. It is the injustice visited on the innocent who suffer that raises the questions in our minds. And the simple religious response is inadequate.

  3. Which leaves only one more option - well it leaves many options, but I’m preaching the sermon, so I am limiting the options. Suffering is woven into the very fabric of life, all life, and the human response to suffering is compassion, kindness, empathy, courage, resilience, patience... The list of human actions and responses is endless.

Many writers have said it is so. Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic Australian poem is one example:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

And for me one of the great stories that struggles with this dilemma comes from the Hasidic tradition and suggests the direction in which we need to live our lives when it comes to suffering:

Once upon a time there was an angel in heaven who became quite distressed at seeing all the pain and suffering that God was allowing to happen on earth below. So he asked the Lord to let him run the earth for a year, and was granted his wish. The angel eliminated all pain and suffering and showered the people with a rich harvest that fall. There was no room to store all their crops.

The angel basked in self-satisfied glory. But late in the year, the angel heard a great clamour of angry voices coming heavenward and went down to investigate. He discovered this strange problem: the people had threshed the grain and ground it into flour. But after baking the bread, when they took it out of the oven it fell apart into hard, inedible pieces. It had a disgusting taste, like clay. The people were cursing God for deceiving them with his false blessings.

The angel returned to heaven, fell at God’s feet and cried out, "Lord, help me to understand where my power and judgment were lacking." God said: "Behold a truth which is known to me from the beginning of time, a truth too deep and dreadful for your delicate, generous hands, my sweet apprentice: it is this, that the earth must be nourished with decay and covered with shadows, that its seeds may bring forth life; and it is this, that souls must be made fertile with flood and sorrow, that through them the Great Work may be born."

I don’t think we should too easily collapse our thinking into mystery. That can be a cheap way out. But it seems to me, when I am sitting beside a person who is in the last moments of life and there is pain and suffering and sorrow, that I am speechless before something I know so little about. There is a not knowing in the great struggles of life. It was William Sloane Coffin, the preacher at Riverside Church in New York, who said:

The worst thing we can do with a dilemma is to resolve it prematurely because we haven’t the courage to live with uncertainty.

There is an uncertainty here. Let us have the courage to live into it.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.