2013-07-03

The Suffering of Job: From Aww to Awe

The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives. Right where we are. Love opens the door of awe and wonder – and that, too, is always right here.

In the Biblical book that bears his name, Job suffers. “Why do I suffer?” he cries. He is visited by friends who offer trite moral simplifications that leave Job still crying, "Why do I suffer? This isn’t fair. I don’t deserve it."

Finally, God Godself appears to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. Here’s a sampling (which includes readings #424 and #427 in Singing the Living Tradition):
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (38:4)...Or who shut in the sea (38:8),...made the clouds its garment (38:9)....Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place? (38:12)...Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? (38:18)...Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? (38:22)...Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? (38:25-31)...Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? (39:1)...Do you give the horse its might? (39:19)...Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (39:26-27)
How does any of this answer Job’s question? How does any of this explain why there is unearned suffering, why bad things happen to good people, why children die, why baby birds’ lifeless bodies are found on the sidewalk, why life hurts? I’ll tell you: it doesn’t.

Yet confronted with the vast awe of creation, Job is humbled and speechless. He abandons his plea, for he grasps that the mystery of the cosmos is so much deeper than principles of justice. Job doesn’t get an answer to his question about why there is unearned suffering. What Job gets is awe. What Job gets is a filling full of awe at the magnificence and majesty of creation. Job doesn’t get an answer. Instead he gets a sense of the smallness of his question.

Before the grandeur of this life and world, our complaints are puny indeed. Awe means being in touch with the wider context of our lives, the vast beauty of life and the world. Awe is the felt sense, more than words can say, that the tragedy and unfairness and pain exist always within a wider context of beauty and wonder.

Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928)
The experience of awe enables us to act for fairness and social justice, and let go of attachment to results. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez is a deeply committed advocate for social justice. At the same time, Gutierrez notes in his discussion of Job that:
“emphasis on the practice of justice and on solidarity with the poor must never become an obsession and prevent our seeing that this commitment reveals its value and ultimate meaning only within the vast and mysterious horizon of God's gratuitous love.” (96)
We might prefer to say the gratuitous grace of being alive. Only within the vast and mysterious gratuitous grace of being alive is revealed the value and ultimate meaning of working for justice. Gutierrez is talking about awe – for when we experience the wonder of creation deeply and personally, it feels like an awesome gratuitous love.

Let the awe Job experienced hearing the voice of reality from a whirlwind be always with you. Let the love we share be always with us. And so it is. Truly.