Sunday, September 27, 2015

With Friends Like These (9/27/15)

With Friends Like These
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

September 27, 2015

As time goes on I dislike two statements that people say more and more.  I think that people say them to make you feel better but in reality I do not think you do feel better.

God’s gifts
God’s will

My example would be that a child is God’s gift (so they say), yet what about all those people who never get one?  How does that make those people feel?  Then when something bad happens, that was God’s will, that is even worse, as why would He pick on that person in that way?

Job 2:11, 8:5-6, 11:6b, 22:4-5
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him.

Zophar:  Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.  

Bildad:  If you will seek God
   and make supplication to the Almighty, 
 if you are pure and upright,
   surely then he will rouse himself for you
   and restore to you your rightful place.

Eliphaz: Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
   and enters into judgement with you? 
 Is not your wickedness great?
   There is no end to your iniquities.   

Harold Kushner, When Bad things Happen to Good People, p. 38. 
Job’s friends…start out truly wanting to comfort Job and make him feel better.  They try to reassure him by quoting all the maxims of faith and confidence on which they and Job alike were raised.  They want to comfort Job by telling him that the world does in fact make sense, that it is not a chaotic, meaningless place.  What they do not realize is that they can only make sense of the world, and of Job’s suffering, by deciding that he deserves what he has gone through.  To say that everything works out in God’s world may be comforting to the casual bystander, but it is an insult to the bereaved and the unfortunate.  “Cheer up, Job, nobody gets anything he doesn’t have coming to him” is not a very cheering message to someone in Job’s circumstances.

But it is hard for the friends to say anything else.  They believe, and want to continue believing, in God’s goodness and power.  But if Job is innocent, then God must be guilty—guilty of making an innocent man suffer.  With that at stake,  they find it easier to stop believing in Job’s goodness than to stop believing in God’s perfection. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner has written over a dozen books.   Most people recognize his name for one book in particular.   When Bad Things Happen to Good People was his analysis of the Book of Job.   If God is all-good and all-powerful why is there human suffering?  

It is an interesting question to ponder.   It is a question asked so often in different ways that it has a fancy word associated with it, theodicy.   Theo-dicy.   The word comes from theos or God and dike or justice.  It is an attempt to explain the justice of God when God appears not to be up to the task of being just or good on one hand and at the same time all-powerful on the other.   

It is a marvelous question for pondering the mysteries.   Many answers have been provided.  Here are a few:
  1.  God has a bigger plan that we can’t know.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
  3. God will use this suffering for a greater good.
  4. When life gives you lemons, God makes lemonade.
  5. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  6. God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.
  7. Sure it sucks, but won’t heaven be nice?
  8. Perhaps God is sending a message.
  9. Is there a part of your life that you haven’t given over to God?
  10. If you seek God’s will, God will bless you. 
  11. Have you considered that God may be trying to get your attention?
  12. If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that apple.
  13. God doesn’t cause it, but God allows it.
  14. Suffering is the consequence of free will.
  15.  God suffers with you.
  16. Have you prayed about it?

 And on and on it goes.  The questions and answers are all fun and abstract…

…until it happens to you.

That is why Harold Kushner wrote his book.  It was his response to the death of his fifteen-year-old son, Aaron.  Aaron had a rare genetic disease called progeria, or rapid aging.   He died at fifteen like an old man.   What a cruel disease.    Hardly the product of intelligent design?   

Rabbi Kushner, a counselor, a theologian, a person who helped explain the mysteries of God to others, was forced to face in a very personal way, the problem of God.   Was this disease a good thing?  Is there anyway to conceive of this as a benevolent gift from a Creator?  Or was it a mistake?  If so, could not an all-powerful God fix it, or not make a mistake in the first place?    Surely an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God could design a universe without progeria.   Can one really blame free-will for a genetic disease?   

Even as these questions are raised, we enter answer mode.  We try to find ways for this to make sense.   We go through that list I made earlier or think of one I didn’t mention, or try a variation on an old theme.   

The answers keep coming because our theology can’t be wrong.   God is all-good and all-powerful.   That is our faith.  God knows every hair on our head.  God’s goodness surpasses all.   There is no way that can be wrong.   Therefore, no matter what the suffering, no matter what your condition, God’s justice is secure.  

The Lord said to Satan:

"Have you considered my servant, Job?"

And thus Job's troubles began.  I am certain Job would have preferred to remain anonymous.  Alas for Job, he was "considered."

We the readers know why Job suffers even though Job does not.   Job suffers because God made a bet with Satan.   Satan is not the personification of evil of later Christian mythology.   Satan here is not a proper name.  He is called “the satan” or the adversary.  He is part of the divine counsel.  The adversary is like a prosecuting attorney or perhaps quality control.  He is part of the system.    He tests it.   He tests humans.  He tested Jesus in the wilderness.  

In this case, he challenges God.  He says that Job will lose his trust in God if Job suffers enough.  So God goes along with the plan and allows the satan to afflict Job with disease, the loss of everything he owns, and the death of his children.   Fun experiment, right?

For the rest of the story, Job and his friends try to figure out what we, the readers, already know.  Job’s suffering is caused by the capriciousness of the divine counsel.   Even when God has the chance to come clean at the end and say, “Sorry Job, old buddy.  It was a test.  But good news, you passed!” God doesn’t do it.  No, God just speaks to Job out of the whirlwind about how great he is and how small Job is.   

“Can you, Job, little man, catch Leviathan with a fishhook?”  

But it is all good, because God rewards Job with more stuff and new daughters, even more beautiful than the last ones.  

In all the sermons I have heard about Job and the commentaries I have read, few have pointed out what seems obvious to me.  God is really like Zeus or one of the other deities that does bad stuff to people for the heck of it.   Because it is God, our God, in our Bible, then God must be right.  And God is all-powerful and all-good.    

In a sense, the story is a spoof.   The huge questions of life regarding suffering and meaning are ultimately contained in a farsical story.   God and his team are just toying with us.  Making bets.  That’s the meaning of life, says Job, if you dare seek it.  

The biblical world couldn’t imagine naturalism or a-theism.   There had to be agents doing something.   Things happened because there was intelligence behind them in some form.   Job is about as close as you can get to saying that ultimately, there is no reason.   Job and Ecclesiastes.   Why do bad things happen?  Why doesn’t our theology work?  Because of the fickleness of the gods.  In other words, there is no explanation.  Even if God spoke to you out of a whirlwind, you wouldn’t get the truth.  You will never get a satisfactory reason.  You can’t explain it.   

In our modern world, we would say that the interaction of natural law and chance is “the reason” for everything that happens including genetic diseases like progeria.   Jesus said as much, “It rains on the just and the unjust.”   

Job’s friends, Zophar, Eliphaz, and Bildad, represent the theology of the community.  They give the standard answers.  God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  

Let's consider Job's friends.  They come to comfort him as he sits on a pile of manure scraping his sores with pieces of broken pottery.  Job's friends have been criticized for their inadequate pastoral care, but they shouldn't be.  They are doing their best.  They are offering the best that theology can offer to poor blameless Job.   It is just that from Job's perspective their theology is wanting.

Job, his suffering, and his reflection on his suffering present a crisis for Job's friends.  Job presents a crisis to the entire community.   Because of his suffering and his refusal to submit to the community's theology, he is a threat.   Job should be a good boy and allow his experience to be subsumed under the theology of the community.   He should just repent or be quiet about it.

But Job will not repent.  He will not be silent.

The story of Job is not about Job or God.  Job's suffering is a threat to the community's meaning.   What happens when someone's suffering causes the foundations for meaning to shake? Suffering people must be explained away.   Whether this explanation is theological, psychological, or sociological, the explanation must serve to make us feel safe in light of the suffering of others. 

Suffering without cause, that is suffering that could happen to me, is unacceptable.  I will invent psychological, sociological, or theological solutions to explain the suffering individual away and therefore retain for myself the illusion that as long as I do x or don't do y, or believe this and not doubt, I won't experience that same fate.  Job's friends try to convince Job that God must have had a reason for Job to suffer. 

In modern terms, the reason for suffering is just as fickle.   People make up all kinds of reasons and suggest all kinds of causes for suffering.   Upon examination, suffering is not the result of sin as some Christians have claimed or because of desire as some Buddhists have claimed.  Suffering is not the result of karma as the New Age practitioners claim.   Suffering is not the result of failing to raise your children correctly or for failing to habituate to the seven habits of highly successful people.

Suffering is the result of time and chance.  That answer is hard to take.  We want to blame someone or something for it.   The reason we need to do that is the vain hope that suffering will not be visited upon us if we pray hard enough or believe hard enough or engage in some other pious activity, at least enough.

Job's friends represent the community confronted with a dilemma, a righteous sufferer.   That impossibility required them to blame the victim for his suffering.   They could not give up the idea of a just and powerful God.   They could not give up the idea of an intelligence, of an agent who will respond to their prayers.   To keep that belief, the sufferer must somehow be blamed.  His prayers must not have been adequate.   He must have done something wrong.  

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

The truth is a bit more mundane.   Life is time and chance.   The best you can do is ride it out and be kind.  

Today’s questioner asked about statements such as God’s gift and God’s will.  

As time goes on I dislike two statements that people say more and more.  I think that people say them to make you feel better but in reality I do not think you do feel better.

God’s gifts
God’s will

My example would be that a child is God’s gift (so they say), yet what about all those people who never get one?  How does that make those people feel?  Then when something bad happens, that was God’s will, that is even worse, as why would He pick on that person in that way?

By just asking the question, we have our answer.    Trying to explain the mysteries of the world as well as my fortunes and misfortunes by saying God is pulling the strings makes more problems than it solves, in my view.   

Rabbi Kushner realized that there is no all-powerful, all-good God.  God had to be one or the other.  So he let go of power.  God is not all-powerful.   God is instead good.  

For Kushner, God doesn’t cause disease or prevent it.  God doesn’t avenge enemies or bless friends.   God doesn’t stop wars or start them.  God is the possibility of goodness.   In the midst of a world that is at times a vale of tears, God is that to which we aspire.    God is whatever it takes to go on living.  

For some, praising God for gifts and explaining suffering as God’s will works for them.   Obviously, it has worked over the centuries as it is the dominant theology, even for the secular.  According to a fairly recent poll:  90% of Americans believe in God.   83% believe God answers prayer.   

People need a reason.  Because of that, the task of explaining away suffering will continue for a long time to come.  When people talk about God’s will and God’s gifts, I realize that is where they are.   You do what you do and you believe what you believe in order to get through life and enjoy what you can.    You are all on your own journey, not mine.   As a minster, I am on your team, whereever you are.   

I am also with you when the answers break down.

Personally, those who have been the best comfort to me have not been those who talk about God’s gift or God’s will for the very reasons the questioner raises.   For me, I go along with Rabbi Kushner, to whom I relate as having lost a son myself.  

I am happy now saying God is not all-powerful.  I state it more clearly:  God doesn’t do anything.  God instead is good.  God is the word I use as an invitation to embrace the world in a certain way, to seek out my highest values.   I think Mister Rogers, the Presbyterian minister, had a pretty good response to tragedy.  He always told children to look for the helpers.  

God, and as a Christian I would say God as imagined through the teachings and life of Jesus, is a way of living life.  

That way is Love.   


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