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Sparks and Roses

I’m currently going through the book of Job with a young adults group and tonight we’re going to be looking at the dialogue between Job and his “friends” in Job 4-7. The book of Job is, of course, famous for being “about” the problem of evil and God’s justice (or lack thereof) in the face of unmerited human suffering. We are drawn to the book of Job for a variety of reasons. It is a masterpiece of literature, certainly, but I think the story also probes some of our deepest hopes and fears as limited human beings who rarely see or know as much—about suffering or anything else—as we might like.

The story is familiar enough: Satan accuses Job of loving God for what he can get out of the deal (material blessing, in this case) and God allows Job to suffer immensely (and allows Job’s family to lose their lives!) to “test” this theory. The bulk of the book is a series of dialogues between Job and three friends who rehearse variations of a familiar approach to suffering: suffering is the result/consequence of sin. Much of the book orbits around the idea that there is a one-to-one correspondence between human (mis)deeds and suffering.

As I reread this book, it strikes me that there are rare glimpses that even Job’s friends do not or cannot consistently understand  suffering exclusively in these terms. Today I came across Job 5:6-7:

For misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the earth; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.

On one level, this passage seems to be a contradiction. “Misery doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” it seems to say, yet we are “born to trouble”—it comes to us as naturally as sparks flying upward. Is it possible that even Job’s misguided friend implicitly realizes that the one-to-one explanations of suffering and sin cannot always apply? To be sure, there are many verses that precede and follow this passage that suggest otherwise, but the statement is an interesting one, tucked away amidst a carefully preserved and articulated view of a “vending machine God,” from whom you always and only get what you put in.

I came across the book of Job in another context this week—an essay called “Wild Roses” by Peter Short in Northern Lights. The title and content of Short’s essay comes from W.O. Mitchell’s Roses are Difficult Here. Just as roses are difficult to grow in the harsh northern climate of Canada, so goodness, kindness, grace, and faithfulness are difficult in a fallen world. Short expresses this beautifully and poignantly in his discussion of the experience of the absence of God:

It’s not the presence of problems or the presence of stress that makes roses difficult here. It’s not the presence of anything. It’s an absence. It’s an abandoned and boarded up heaven. It’s the silence of God and the aloneness in facing the world that makes roses so unlikely…

At the same time we know that the absence, for all its dread, is not new. Our people have seen this before. It is recorded in our ancient stories. It’s no use to be condemning the modern world. No use launching into a diatribe against technology or an indictment of consumer culture or a tirade against Sunday shopping. The absence of God is not caused by those things. The absence of God is as old as the hills. Older. The Book of Job knows all about it… his biggest problem, the one he rails and rages and rebels against, is the absence…

We are, most of the time, children of a dreadful absence. We are citizens of a wild kingdom, a kingdom we may belong to but which never belongs to us.

In this wild kingdom, roses are difficult. In this wild kingdom, we are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. But it is in this wild kingdom that God has placed us, and it is in this wild kingdom that we are to work out our faith with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12)—sometimes literally! And it is in this wild kingdom that we hope and we love and we follow and we wait for our experience of the absence of God to be dispelled by his glorious and unambiguous presence:

But mark this. One day God will appear. Like that ragged figure Flannery O’Connor describes, the one that moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind. Or like the glory appearing over a distant hill. Or like a morsel of bread dipped in a cup. Or like a rose blooming amid the cold of winter when half-spent is the night.

Then you will know why you kept the faith—or more truthfully, why the faith kept you. On that day when the wild and holy one appears you can say, “Glory, I’ve been watching for you and waiting. I’ve been hoping you’d come. Roses are difficult here.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Awesome post. Thanks for this.

    October 22, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I have my doubts that the Book of Job is about or in any way resolves the problem of evil. I don’t think Job’s friends were wrong in their connection of sin and suffering. What I mean is: that is the connection made in the Mosaic covenant. In what way did they say something that was not right about God? It is not clear. At the same time, neither the Book of Job, nor the rest of the Hebrew Bible attributes all suffering or evil to sin. The problem of evil is unresolved – but I don’t believe that is point of the Book of Job.

    I had a chance to read the Book of Job with David Noel Freedman and a few other Hebrew students at UCSD before he died. He suggested that the Book of Job is a trial, not of Job exactly, but a trial that concerns who is responsible in the breach between God and Israel or humanity.

    The Book says that Job never cursed God with his lips. It says nothing about whether he cursed God in his heart, but perhaps implies that he did. He worried that his children cursed God in their hearts. Why would he worry such? Why did the narrator include that little detail? Why did the book only say that Job never cursed God with his lips? The book does say that Job cursed the day of his birth. That is, of course, at least a kind of indirect curse of God.

    The reader, but not Job, knows about the unsavory wager with Satan. No god who is good would have agreed to that wager. The reader, but not his friends, knows that Job probably cursed God in his heart. (We might ask ourselves, would he be any different from us?)

    At the end of the trial, Job received compensation, and yet does not appear to have been fully vindicated or compensated. It seems that the book implies that both Job and God were found responsible (by God and Job) for the breach. In the circumstances, considering the enormous difference in power between Job and God, perhaps the judgment can be considered just and kind.

    I think the Book of Job adds nothing to the understanding of suffering or evil. I used to believe it did. I used to believe it was about undeserved suffering. Now I don’t. I used to believe that God is good, that somehow the wager with Satan was not unsavory. Now I don’t.

    We might say that Job means the final judgment in our breach will be fair. The verdict is yet unknown.

    We know our hearts, and we know the frightening ways of God.

    I have always loved the Book of Job. I felt a certain grief when I came to believe that it represents a trial over responsibility for the breach rather than theodicy. But now I love the drama of the trial. It is a beautiful work of ancient art. It never named the cause of evil. It laid out the breach between God and man.

    October 22, 2009
    • I think you’re right, Ken. The Book of Job certainly doesn’t “resolve” anything about the problem of evil. It doesn’t resolve very much about God either—in some ways, he doesn’t come off looking very good in the book.

      I think what the book does is give a powerful description of something like the phenomenology of evil. Job shows us what it feels like to suffer unjustly and he shows us what it feels like to live in a world where the answers we want are not forthcoming. It also shows us an inscrutable God, but we didn’t necessarily need Job for that. But I think Job also shows us that it is possible to live faithfully with a God such as this in a world such as this, even without the answers we want

      October 23, 2009
  3. Jeff #

    Perhaps I have been accused of directing everything to something Eugene H. Peterson has once written; so, let this be no exception! Speaking of the absence of God during the Exodus, Peterson writes, “The story in which God does his saving work arises among a people whose primary experience of God is his absence. We are made to face this at the very outset of Exodus when we realize that these people have been in Egyptian slavery for over 430 years…..this seemingly unending stretch of the experience of the absence of God is reproduced in most of our lives, and most of us don’t know what to make of it. We need this Exodus validation that a sense of the absence of God is part of the story, and that it is neither exceptional nor preventable nor a judgment on the way we are living our lives.”

    It is reassuring that in this wild kingdom, the absence of God (or heaven!) is a part of the script, that I need not be alarmed or shaken, but continue on in the confidence (the proper confidence Newbigin would add) of “that day” that Flannery writes about – some days feeling good about keeping the faith…other days falling in the arms of the One who is able to keep us when we no longer can. Reminds me of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” as the author claims he has a wandering spirit, an unfaithful tendency – “Bind my wandering heart to Thee.”

    Anyway, thanks Ryan for a great post. All the best in your exploration of Job!

    October 23, 2009
    • You never need to apologize for quoting Eugene Peterson here, Jeff! His words (and yours) are a welcome contribution to the discussion.

      (I’ve always appreciated that line in the hymn you quote.)

      October 23, 2009
  4. It is good to point out that though it is difficult to grow roses in a cold climate, we still try (I know I did when I had a garden). What an irony that we, people who are so prone to evil and who brought upon creation this fallen state, are the ones given the task of gardening the earth. In Job, his friends respond to suffering with explanations, while the writer of Job responded by writing an open ended story. Growing roses may not be wholly metaphorical. Cultivating beauty in a harsh climate is an essentially practical thing, something that can take form is service or in actually growing roses, writing stories, or baking bread. To me, it’s an entirely appropriate response to suffering.

    October 23, 2009
    • Well said, Jessica. So often our (my) responses to suffering are mainly theoretical, when, as you say, the best response is cultivating beauty.

      In the essay I quoted above, he identified three things we can do in a place where roses are difficult. The first is to find a community that can remind us of God’s story even when it’s difficult for us to remember it; the second is to stop worrying about being “well-adjusted”—to remember that we’re not meant to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and intolerable; and the third is precisely what you’ve identified:

      You can… plant your young apple trees. This is what Martin Luther said he’d be doing if he knew it was his last day in the world—he’d be out planting life, planting young apple trees. Let God find you alive and at work, nurturing life when God chooses the time of appearing.

      October 23, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    If there is an absence for Job, it seems to be one of understanding, not of relationship. The more confessional to God, Job becomes, the more present God becomes to Job.

    October 24, 2009
    • Ken #

      I agree with Paul.

      I would add that I think we experience the absence of God differently from Job. Our experience of absence is related largely to our disbelief. His was not. In our day absence is virtually a metaphor for disbelief.

      I think Paul testifies for many of us when we says that the more confessional we become, the more present God becomes. And, I think, the less power disbelief has over us.

      October 24, 2009
  6. Jeff #

    I disagree. Not with the assessment of Job, that very well could have been his situation. But that the absence of God is merely a formulaic treaty based on our belief or disbelief, or based on how well we have learned to confess does not seem to be an accurate reflection of the Christian story. It certainly does not explain the many devoted Christians who have spent much of their lives feeling God’s abandonment (I’m not saying God was abandoning them!). Even in the final hours of Jesus’ life, there seemed to be an absence, no sense of divine closeness. I think if it were as easy as mustering up more belief, then I stand corrected in my refusal of people in the past insisting that I need more faith (and yes….more faith would always be welcome!!).

    October 24, 2009
    • Ken #

      I think Jeff and Paul and I may be thinking about different things. I think Brother Lawrence (Practice of the Presence) would be a good example of what Paul meant by confessional, and that is an example of what I was thinking about.

      Perhaps Mother Teresa is an example of one whose experience of abandonment is something like Jeff is referring to – it lasted over much of her life and almost all of the time of her mission. Simone Weil is perhaps another example.

      October 24, 2009
    • Like Jeff, I would be very hesitant in making a direct link between the perceived presence/absence of God and the sincerity of our confession or an appropriately penitential posture towards God (as Ken’s example of Mother Teresa illustrates). Indeed, I think that the experience of God’s absence can be an indication of the existence of a close relationship. If there were no relationship, the experience of God’s absence would not be painful.

      October 25, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Ken, I find your insights so helpful with the interior dialogue. Thank you. I can’t help but believe that until we work it out honestly, just Him and us, one by one, each alone before our God, what can we say of truth? What can we offer of value? How will we ever really love?

    Jeff, how does a people’s faith, unless they are are seriously delusional, survive 4 centuries of exodus unless there experience of God is acutely relational.

    October 24, 2009
    • Jeff #

      Paul, I’m not exactly sure what you are asking here. I hope I didn’t give the impression that the ‘absence of God’ is the same as the absence of relationship. As Ryan recently posted, because it is relational this experience is all the more painful. All I am saying is that God’s movement, presence, activity is not ‘just’ based on our actions – on our activity, and therefore His absence may or may not have direct relation to our current measure of faith.

      Speaking of surviving, one has to wonder exactly what did survive after all those years in the “absence of God.” It is a good reminder to me that as much as I need to work out my faith (salvation…. with fear and trembling) that faith is also a gift, given to me not as an end in itself, but as a ‘way’ to help me become who I was intended to become.

      October 25, 2009
  8. Ken #

    As I look back over this conversation and others at your blog, I think I live in quite a different world than you live in. I sense that your world is made up of people who believe in God but apparently do not pay enough attention to morality, especially, perhaps, social justice.

    My world is made up mostly of people who do not believe there is a god, but who are obsessed with morality, especially green morality and social justice. My world is full of moral guilt, but no god, especially not God.

    I think when you write of the absence of God it means something different from what it means in my world. I have the impression that your world must be like Job’s world. I live in Pilate’s world- the “what is truth?” world.

    October 25, 2009
    • There’s probably some truth in this—although I would say that your world is less foreign to me than mine seems to be to you. There are plenty of people just as you describe in my neck of the woods as well. I am familiar with and resonate with the questions of Pilate and Job and many in between.

      October 25, 2009
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Hi Jeff, sorry, there was a mistake in my phrasing . Where I said ” acutely relational” I should have said “accutely present”. I interpreted your use of the term,” absence”, rightly or wrongly, to mean silence.

    My unintellectual understanding of the Old Testament astounds my modern sensibilities with regard to the frequency and depth of dialogue between God and the Jews. The Jews may not always understand the dialogue or like what they hear but the context itself seems a given. God is always faithful. God is always just. God will always respond.

    Dialogue seems frequent, almost ordinary. And when infrequent the Jews assume responsibility for the silence. If God does not respond, it is because His justice demands silence. His justice first demands repentance. In the end, the Jews are humble, are “confessional” and the absence becomes presence.

    In my own life, I find the same dynamic at work. Through confession I find a closeness to God and self, unlike any other context. Through the Eucharist I am overwhelmed by the never ending depth and demensions of God’s love for us. In confession, through a sincere and honest accounting of and reflection on, sin, my sin, my contributions to God’s processes, however wrong, meagre and incomplete, are made worthy. God comes to me in Spirit and breathes a new peace; a reknewed hope into me. An inspiration that I can do this, I can be a good and holy man. I only have to remain humble and honest before our Lord. His grace will do the rest.

    I think I love my self most and best on the day of a good confession.

    October 26, 2009

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