Easter is a holiday that celebrates renewal, rebirth and the resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, it is a story from the New Testament, and the foundation of the religion. Easter would be an unusual time to focus on the Book of Job – an ancient Old Testament story of suffering written in an unknown language and translated into Hebrew thousands of years ago.
We are, however, living in unusual times.
In just the past few weeks, COVID-19 has spread suffering, sickness, despair, fear and death around the world. At latest count, it has infected over 1.7 million people, killed over 108,000, and put the majority of the global population in quarantine status.
Those are staggering facts.
But also true are the many examples locally of inspiring stories and heroic actions. Here are four headlines just in the last couple of weeks published in Mainstreet Daily News that illustrate this point:
- Gainesville nurses answer the call at New York City hospitals
- Local residents and businesses sew masks, and manufacturing hand sanitizer.
- Non-profit organizations, churches, and businesses sponsor food giveaways.
- School district partners with restaurants to feed students.
Those are inspiring facts.
Just like it is true that hunger and hunger-related diseases kill 21,000 people every day and that one out of six don’t have enough food to eat worldwide, it is also true that fewer people are hungry than ever before, that through advocacy and charity, the number of people suffering from hunger worldwide has been cut in half since the 1960s.
From one perspective, the world is on fire with suffering, a mysterious deadly virus, and starving to death. From another, it is being healed, nourished like never before, and individuals are showing incredible grace under pressure.
It can be hard to hold both truths in your head, much less your soul. But both are true and each has its own wisdom and gift for our life of faith, and that I think, is the paradox of a book like Job, a book of immeasurable tragedy and suffering, yet perhaps the most extraordinary and beautiful poetry and writing in all of Scripture.
In a sense, God is putting Job to the test to prove a point to Satan and the Heavenly court, while Job is putting God on trial.
And who can blame him?
His children have been killed, his body afflicted with leprosy and boils. Job looks around the world and sees it as a dangerous place, full of sharp edges that cut at both the body and spirit. The world has become a place of hopelessness and all Job can see is its ugliness and suffering.
While Job’s friends attempt to silence what they perceive as blasphemy and heresy in the raw honesty of suffering, God doesn’t condemn Job. In fact, his reputation of being righteous and blameless continues not in spite of his doubt and questioning of God, but because of it.
God does respond to Job’s indictment, He just doesn’t give him an answer. God doesn’t try to explain it. God doesn’t even contradict Job’s assertions.
Instead, God responds with beauty.
It may read like an authoritative and sarcastic “I’m God and you’re not” response, but dig deeper. God is describing a beautiful world in all of those harsh rhetorical questions.
Have a read with fresh eyes and a new perspective and perhaps you will see what I see in God’s response to Job that lives in chapter 38, verses 4-38:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
…Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?
What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?
Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?
…Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who gives the ibis wisdom or gives the rooster understanding? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?”
–Job 38:4-38 NIV (paraphrased)
Job casts a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world. And here’s the thing… I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think one negates the other.
God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering.
Because no answer — not even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of pain and grief.
Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it.
But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world. There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side.
For most of my life, God’s response to Job, and the Book of Job as a whole, has frustrated me, even angered me. It all seemed so insufficient. And why was Satan such a major player in the first part of the story? Couldn’t God see beyond his simplistic manipulation?
But now I can’t help but wonder if there is wisdom in responding to suffering with an invitation to see beauty around us, to allow beauty to interrupt despair and grief. Like suffering, beauty cannot fully be explained. Like suffering, beauty can only be experienced.
And like suffering, beauty changes us.
For Job, suffering and grief removed the protective barrier of wealth and privilege and opened his eyes to see how deeply suffering, injustice and pain are part of the human experience. So much so that all he could see was pain and suffering in the world.
In a similar way, the more we experience and observe beauty, the more frequently we experience it even in small and unexpected places.
But we need both.
We need to cultivate both an awareness of the suffering of humanity and an awareness of the beauty of the creation, because both are true to our human experience.
That’s the change we see in the book of Job. God and Job finally see each other – eye to eye.
At the beginning Job and God are far removed from one another. In the Heavenly court, God appears to be a distant observer, considering his servant Job from afar. For Job, God is a distant provider, showering wealth and blessings upon him. God seems so far removed from Earth that he apparently views Satan as a consultant of human nature because of all the time he spent traveling the lands of God’s creation.
But by the time the book ends, things have changed. An earthly setting has replaced the divine courtroom where Satan challenged God. This is where Job and God interact, and Satan is an afterthought to the story.
And the picture we see of God is not a removed being, but a God who is intimately involved in and present in every inch of the earth from the most insignificant creatures to the most massive ones.
God is integrated with His creation before Job’s eyes. God is no longer looking down on humanity in Heaven, but alongside it on Earth, so much so that Job can say, “Before I had only heard about God. Now I have seen God.”
It is a place in this ancient Old Testament text where God looks a lot like Jesus in the New Testament.
And so that is my challenge to you today, on this Easter Sunday, to cultivate an awareness of human suffering during this time of crisis, but to also cultivate an awareness of beauty in the world.
It’s here where those two realities meet, and where we find Jesus — the fullness of God’s glory and beauty experiencing the depth of human suffering — hard at work in the world.