I’ve always found the story of Job to be one of the most interesting and confusing stories in the Bible. Because the whole story frames perfectly, the problem of evil, the problem of suffering, and it doesn’t answer it. In my experience, this is the question that has caused more hurt and anger from both Christians and Non-Christians than any other issue; a question that is not only intellectually and emotionally challenging, but it has also resulted in huge groups of people abandoning their religion. I have at least 4 different books on my bookshelf right now that are specifically addressing the problem of suffering.
So Job perfectly sums up this problem by presenting a dedicated, holy man as the victim of supernatural suffering. The whole book, they all debate why it is happening, and Job repeatedly asks God how He could do this. At the end, God finally speaks up. This is His chance to, once and for all, clear all of this up and explain why suffering is okay. Yet He doesn’t give His defense? Why?
A few summers ago, I preached a sermon on suffering and God’s silence.
Side note: God begins his huge smackdown on Job with the phrase:
Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Speaking of words without knowledge, God only knows why my pastor let a 21 year old undergrad student try to take on the problem of evil in a sermon. Don’t worry though, I’m 23 now, so make sure and take notes because I’m much older and wiser now. Hopefully we can learn together as we reflect on the story of Job.
Anyway, back to that sermon I gave about suffering. I talked about a few of the ways we try to make sense out of suffering, and at one point I just said that I have no idea. I have no answer to the problem. I think this is quite possibly the most challenging question for humanity, religious or not: the problem of why is there such profound evil in the world?
So the next week, someone came up to me and said that they had brought their nephew to church last week (he hasn’t been to church in years) and my sermon started a really long, and productive conversation about faith. Funny enough though, it wasn't any of my points or anything that spurred the conversation. It was simply that I said that I don’t know. He had never heard that phrase from the pulpit.
That story has always stuck with me because it reveals how the church has failed that man. I mean, we are hear to celebrate communion, which people have been studying for 2 thousand years and nobody really knows what’s happening at that table; praising God who made everything and became human so that He could die for His creation, which nobody truly knows why He had to die or what exactly happened on the cross; and we’re studying a text about a man who suffered more profoundly than I can imagine. Yet, God’s response is to describe how incomprehensible He is. That’s what we’re doing at church, and nobody had ever admitted that they didn’t know something?
Just last week, David talked about Thomas, doubt, and the deep connection that Christianity has with mystery. I was so excited when I heard that’s what he was preaching on because I don’t think Protestants do a very good job with mystery. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and the Jews, all have a long history of mysticism, as they sought to connect with God. But Protestants, partly because of how young we are, have mostly been trying to understand God. So protestants have done incredible work with studying the Bible, and developing theology, but we lost something along the way I think: Mystery.
Unfortunately, we aren’t very good at dealing with mystery. Think about the massive expansion of knowledge and information that has occurred over the past 100 years. We still have this lingering idea much of the time that what we don’t know is a problem to be solved. That’s how I often feel about my questions. I may recognize that I don’t have answers for Hell or other difficult questions like that, but I search really hard for the answers. While that isn’t necessarily bad, it is limited.
In an interview, the Catholic Priest and theologian Richard Rohr reflects on what he calls dualistic thinking. Dualistic thought is like: it has to be this or that. That person is either good or bad. Non-Dualistic thought can switch the this or that to a both/and. That person can have both good and bad within them. Light is both a particle and a wave.Reflecting on that in an interview, Rohr says:
So the normal way to get us through the day — I just drove over here where I’m recording this from my house about 10 minutes away, and to turn right or left, I needed a good dualistic mind to even find the address or whatever it might be. So to get through the day, to be an engineer or a mechanic, a medical professional, you better have a good dualistic mind. But then you hit a ceiling, and it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.
But non-dual is where you move into both/and, where you don’t look for all-or-nothing thinking. And we’re seeing it in our political debates today. It’s almost the only form of conversation left is all-or-nothing thinking. And it’s amazing to me that we could have this many universities in this country and could have this many churches and synagogues and mosques and have so many people still at such a low level of consciousness that they read everything in terms of either/or.
I know this concept is challenging. I’m continuously trying to learn how to recognize that God is so much bigger than out either/ors.
Think back to the story of Job. One purpose of this story is to explore the human tendency to try to comprehend God. Job does everything right, yet the results don’t sync up. He was blessed with a great family, he was rich, and everything was stable. Then, everything went wrong on a dime and he lost everything. He couldn't understand why God did this, so he cried out to God over and over, with no response.
Soon His friends showed up and gave their opinions, quoting their Bibles to tell Job why all of this was happening. They’re doing what I did for years, earnestly trying to use their Bible to make sense of the world around them. I still do this in many ways. Which, again, isn’t completely bad, but is just limited.
But, it never worked. Job’s friends made great arguments, until eventually God speaks up. God speaks in a whirlwind saying:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.”
Then He goes on for 3 chapters straight showing how incomprehensible God is. He goes so far beyond all of our boxes. Though Job’s friends were just doing their best to make sense of the profound suffering of their friend, they started to believe they understand God. That they understand who He is and why He does what He does.
The Bible gives us hints who God is. It gives us a glimpse into God’s grace, love, holiness, His perfection, it’s only that, a glimpse. It’s a spectacular glimpse, that defines our lives. Yet, it isn’t the complete picture.
So, what do we do with that? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out. This morning, I suggest that we can do 2 things: one internally, and one is a practical action.
The first comes from Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. Remember, when I said the Jews were better at grappling with mystery than us? Heschel argues that wonder, radical amazement at everything around and in us, is the root of all religion. He goes onto say
"Wonder goes beyond knowledge. We do not doubt that we doubt, but we are amazed at our ability to doubt, amazed at our ability to wonder… Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge, [wonder is a state in mind] in which nothing is taken for granted"
That’s why we watched that opening video,
where it proposes a way that we can posture ourselves with creation. Inspired by that video, I went walking through the woods yesterday and it’s amazing taking the time to simply be. To just look in amazement at the incredible beauty and complexity of it all. To be filled with wonder because of it all.
While doubt and frustration of what we don’t know can be a profoundly painful experience, which seeks to break down our ideas or beliefs, wonder is at home with the mystery. It doesn’t seek to box everything in that it sees, only to merely take it all in. I believe doubt is an incredibly important part of the life of faith, but wonder connects us with the mystery of all that’s around us. Approaching God with a disposition of awe and curiosity helps us to connect with the divine without boxing Him in and deceiving ourselves that we know more than we do.
So the first response to the mystery of God is to shift away from boxing God in by embracing the mystery with wonder. The second response is a tool shared in nearly every religion: contemplation. Christians have a long history with contemplative prayer, same with Muslims, and Bhuddists with meditation. Contemplative prayer helps us to approach God and the universe without the pressure to make sense of it. Unfortunately, it is difficult to practice contemplative prayer in a group setting, but we’re going to try our best with the little time we have left. Some music will come on to hopefully take away some of the distractions. Please close your eyes once the music starts.
There are all sorts of ways to pray, and a few helpful resources will be listed below. But this morning we are going to try to reflect on a paradox. The paradox that God is both so much bigger than us, and that we are of such little importance, yet, for some reason, we are also of supreme importance and that God is here. That He is radically pursuing us. Let’s take this time to rest in the mystery of both of these truths.
Let’s contemplate that mystery by using the words from Psalm 8. So quietly, say to yourself (I recommend you take time to spend at least 3-5 minutes meditating on both phrases. It may seem a bit unnatural, and you may struggle to not get distracted, but that’s okay. Just gently refocus on the phrase and ponder what it means. For some, soft, instrumental music may be helpful in the background. That's okay, just do what is comfortable for you):
"Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!"
My God is majestic
"What is Humankind that you are mindful of them?"
My God loves me
Other Helpful resources: