This is the first time I’ve written anything for a class since 1980. Where does the time go? The class is called The Problem of Evil in World Religions, and the assigned topic was “Why did Job suffer?” The professor is a Roman Catholic Priest, a physician specializing in medical ethics at the V.A., and an out lesbian. I thought we Episcopalians had the market on openly lesbian priests pretty well cornered, but I’ve learned a thing or two in this class that were not in the syllabus.
Why did Job suffer?
James Quinn, 9/9/09
Within the literal confines of the story, a radically anthropomorphized character of “God” chose to accept the challenge of “Satan,” to find out whether Job’s faith was purely a response to the extraordinary blessings he had received, or if he loved God for his own sake. Throughout the Psalms and the Wisdom Literature there is an assumption that being good and upright will bring rewards, but The Book of Job turns the tables by depicting a person who was afflicted in a sense because of his blessings.
I know there are people who take the literal existence of God and Satan in the story seriously, in varying degrees. I must assume however that the writer was depicting processes that might occur in a God-free world as well as a Godly one. Were a person like me to go through the trials of Job today, they might be apt to understand it from a purely fatalistic point of view in which the good stuff, the bad stuff, and the subsequent good are totally the result of blind happenstance, or at best, personal courage. In the story, however, as much as his suffering, (by putting him on Satan’s radar), results from his innate goodness and the great good fortune it brought him, his redemption results from his ability to endure his suffering with integrity; the chain of causality can’t be dismissed as easily as the literality of the supernatural beings in the story, so it can’t be chalked up purely to “Bad Luck.”
Someone with my world view would have to ask if such a process is sufficiently universal and fundamental to the human experience to warrant its having become an icon as deeply rooted in our culture as it has. Even from a purely secular viewpoint, I think it is. It is not uncommon to experience far-reaching, catastrophic hardship after a life of relative ease. And I can imagine scenarios in which “good people” might experience catastrophes resulting from the very things generally looked upon as “blessings.” Many people persevere and emerge from these with a deeper appreciation for what they have. Others go down to ruin. The key difference from Job’s point of view is whether or not they meet the difficult times with a deep strength of character, hold on to their values, and continue to do what they believe is right, regardless of circumstances.
To a person sympathetic to Buddhist ideas, as someone with my limited exposure might understand them, this kind of steadfastness could be a manifestation of “detachment,” and the rewards it brings, emblematic of a spiritual transcendence over suffering that it is possible through discipline to achieve. It is commonly assumed by people of many faiths and viewpoints that suffering, one way or another, can produce benefits in the way of inner strength. No pain, no gain.
So how does Job answer the Problem of Evil? Unfortunately, the only answer I see on its face is that God “Is Who He Is,” and the human proclivity to question the rightness of whatever He dishes out in the way of suffering is misplaced. Religious believers I have known—e.g., nuns I studied with in college, hospital chaplains who have tended to relatives with cancer—often end up taking out the big rubber stamp that says “Mystery” whenever religious axioms as fundamental as the infinite love and goodness of God come up against stark reality, and I fear that this is all the author of Job intends to do. In skimming some of my old materials on Job in preparation for this exercise, I spotted multiple references to the problem of God’s involvement in suffering being “beyond the scope of human understanding” (or any such formulation). Regardless of the side benefits to one’s character of going through something as extreme as cancer, I take that as a cop out. It is not sufficient to say that God surely must have a greater plan, which he keeps hidden from us. It can be resolved, but one’s ideas of the nature of God—the very existence of any God in a form we might recognize—must be modified to do so.