You know the age old question that Rabbi Kushner put into words for us in his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Ancient Philosophers called this the great ‘theodicy’ or the ‘problem of evil.’ Either the evil in the world is proof that there is no God, or the God of the universe is a godling or distant god or an evil god who cannot or will not intervene in the affairs of humanity.
Why does God heal the one person and let the other die? Why are there some places in this world that may never know peace. How can God exist in the same universe with Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin Osama Bin Laden, Jefferey Dahlmer, and Osama Bin Laden? Where was God in Aschwitz or Rwanda or Sudan? Where is God even now in the suffering and abuse around the world?
In Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov, Ivan, the intellectual brother, asks Alyosha, the pious believer, one simple question: ‘if there is a God, why do children have to suffer? What about the children?’
If centuries of inquiry have not yielded any answers, I sure can’t, but our Old Testament reading from Job is a fascinating Scripture to look at.
The oldest book in the Bible sets the stage for these questions–the book of Job. Job is a ‘primordial’ book because it takes place kind of outside of history. It is a book that gives us a glimpse of a heavenly wager between God and the Devil.
While there is a mysterious relationship between God and the Devil portrayed by Job, for our purposes we can look at Job and ask those very same questions the philosophers do. Why, despite the psalmist’s words, does it seem like the righteous are forsaken?
Job was a righteous man, this the text is clear about. He was also a blessed man with riches and the love of family. The Devil challenges God about Job, because he feels Job is spoiled. The Devil says, ‘yes he’s blessed, but it is because he has everything. If all he has is taken away, he will curse you to his face.’
The fascinating thing, and perhaps troubling thing, is that God takes the bait. Little by little God allows Satan to take away Job’s world. Sons and daughters, sheep and servants killed by freak accidents. Still Job is faithful.
Job gets a terrible skin disease, his wife says ‘curse God and die.’ Still, Job is faithful, ‘Shall we accept good from God and not adversity?’ he says.
The rest of the book is kind of like a courtroom drama as Job and his friends wrestle with what has happened. Job’s friends are of no help and try to blame Job for all of his sufferings. But there is an interesting thing about the book of Job. I told you it is kind of like a courtroom drama. From chapters 3-19 Job pretty much blames himself for his suffering. It is a great ‘woe is me, pity party’ and I suppose a valid one. But in chapter 19 there is a shift in Job’s tone. He goes from blaming himself to seeking an audience. He wants to plead his case, not to his friends, or to his family or to himself, but to God.
Job says, ‘Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered. I call for help, but there is no justice.’ Job goes from suffering to protest. He becomes a kind of Atticus Finch for himself.
Christians have for centuries taken Job’s cry for a Redeemer as a cry for the coming of Jesus, and it definitely is that, but there is something in Job’s context that is important.
When Job says his ‘Redeemer’ lives, he is referring to an ancient term and concept. The word in Hebrew for Redeemer is ‘goel.’ It is a technical term. A ‘Goel’ or redeemer, was someone who stepped in for a family member to protect their rights when that person could not act on his or her own behalf. The Goel would be a defender, an advocate who would purchase the family member from slavery, buy their property back out of the goel’s own pocket or defend them in court if necessary.
Job was looking for a goel to defend him and to seek justice on his own behalf. But who is Job seeking defense from? Job is seeking a goel to defend him against God! The redeemer, or advocate he seeks he wishes to act on his behalf against the Almighty. Job points to the injustice in the world, the injustice he is experiencing and implicates all who would refuse to see the evil in the world; including his friends, and including God.
After chapters of Job’s friends prattling and Job’s request for justice, God finally shows up. In a mighty way. God does not answer Job’s questions or address the issue ‘why do bad things happen to good people.’ He simply gives Job a lesson in nature. God says, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you made known to me!’ And then the Lord says, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?’ and he goes on to ask Job how the earth the universe were formed and how they work and if the wild animals can be tamed. Job gives his reply, ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I had heard of you only by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’
So what do we take from this?
Rabbi Kushner’s answer to the suffering of humanity is simply to say that the idea of a sovereign and all-powerful God is a myth of religion. He says the answer lies in saying that God is loving, but has no real power in this world. That God is just as surprised and weak in the face of suffering as we are.
But to go this route is to deny Job’s lesson and really the rest of Scripture as well. What Job does do is show us what to do in the face of suffering–lay it at God’s feet. It is always valid to ask the question ‘why?’ Always valid to cry out to God to make things right. Look at the words of David in our psalm, ‘answer me when I call O God, defend my cause.’
We show we truly have a relationship with the Lord if we can ask him what is going on and why he delays justice. What we often find is that often there is something that can be done. It is appropriate to seek God even in our frustration. I did a funeral recently of someone who died under tragic circumstances. While the human fault was obvious, it was still valid to ask the question why God did not intervene. But while that question hangs, another point is obvious.
We, as the Body of Christ, are his hands and his feet in this world. That’s far from saying that God doesn’t intervene–he has given us the message of the gospel. He has given us the responsibility to act on Jesus’ behalf. Jesus can certainly act on his own, but Paul says we are ‘ambassadors of reconciliation’ in this world. When people say, ‘where was God when such and such happens’ they can equally say, ‘where was his body, the church, when such and such happened?’
So how does God answer Job? Again, he really doesn’t. But Job says, ‘I had heard of you only by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you…’ God doesn’t answer Job in the way Job wanted, but what did God do? He showed up.
God answered the call. Job left several unanswered voice messages, but God finally did answer!
Job saw him, and trembled.
I believe that God never forsakes those who seek him with all their hearts. I believe that God does not stay silent forever. I believe that the cries of a billion suffering little ones will be answered. It’s what the book says. He always shows up.
The church has the opportunity to proclaim that God does show up. Collectively, we as a body understand all sorts of suffering. And the refugees in our midst can tell of their experience too. There are those who have recovered from cancer. There are those who have not. There are those with big families and those who never see their family. There are those who have their loved ones around them. There are those who have lost their loved ones. There are those who are on clear vocational paths. There are those who are struggling to find their place in a vocation. There are those who are doing well financially and others who are not. We are a community that knows struggle.
We are also a community that can speak of God showing up. When we bring all of our stories of suffering and put them on the table, we would find that though there is much pain, God has a way of giving us his presence. Marla Albert suffered with cancer just a couple years ago. She has told me that the days of chemo, while sickeningly awful, were times when she felt the presence of God in a most profound way. I have been at the bedsides of many who have died and many times the presence of God has been palpable. He always shows up.
Lastly, do you believe your Redeemer lives? Job’s prayer for a Goel, a redeemer was answered in a most powerful way. Our Bibles capitalize the word ‘redeemer,’ because that redeemer has come, to give God’s final answering to suffering—his Son Jesus Christ. One who can answer the cries of the suffering because he too suffered. One who is God’s answer to whether or not things will be made right.
Does our redeemer know suffering? I read about a Jewish mother who survived Auschwitz, but whose children did not. She said ‘can I believe in a God who knows what it is like for a Jewish mother to see her child buried alive?’
We can ask those questions, too. In Jesus, the suffering of the world is placed on his back. Mary knew what it was like to see her child killed before her. The cross is a sign that our redeemer lives. The resurrection is our sign that our redeemer lives. Do you know your redeemer lives?