Losing My Religion: The Sound of Silence
I had just graduated from seminary, newly minted diploma in hand, off the save the world. Then, unexpectedly someone very dear to me died.
The grief and pain of that loss overwhelmed me; I didn’t know how to handle the anger and denial and questions that seemed to be with me all of the time. I certainly didn’t know how I’d ever be able to do the job I’d trained to do. I retreated for awhile, and when I finally managed to drag myself back to church one Sunday, I sat there in the congregation while the pastor, standing up front, yelled, “God is good!,” and all the people around me yelled back, “All the time!”. Over and over they yelled: God is good! All the time!
At first I sat there numb, then tears began to sting my eyes. Finally, I had to get up and leave. Standing out in the hallway trying to pull myself together, a fellow congregation member who knew what had happened passed by and patted my on the arm. “I was so sorry to hear,” she said. “When I heard what happened to you, I thought: there but for the grace of God go I!”. And she walked away.
“Why not you?,” I thought. “And, why me?”.
I could still hear the people inside the sanctuary yelling about how God was good, and there I was, leaning against a wall to hold me up, thinking that I had just graduated from seminary and I didn’t know if God even existed…and if he did I was pretty sure he was not good. I just wanted answers. Why? Why?
In my years working in the pastorate I’ve learned that what felt then like my own private pain, anguished questioning unique to my circumstance, is actually a universal human experience; we all experience pain that causes us to want to raise our fists to the sky and demand an explanation.
And when we do, and all we hear back is yawning silence, one of the first calls we often make is…to the preacher. But as I described my own painful and grief-stricken times, it was the preachers who were the most offensive in their attempts to address the question of suffering. Over 30 years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People; it’s still a best seller, because we religious professionals keep trying to answer questions like these, and all of us humans keep asking, and no one really has a good answer. So I’m treading lightly today as I begin four weeks of a series called Losing My Religion. The text inviting us to explore these painful questions of the presence and power of God in the middle of our suffering is a little book in the Hebrew text, a fable of sorts, that tells the story of a man who confronted the pain of human life and demanded to know what God had to say for himself in the face of profound suffering.
Today we’ll do a sort of collective wondering about who we are in relationship to God, and how on earth we can go on believing when we very often don’t get answers to the hardest questions of all.
We’ve got about 20 minutes.
Over the next four weeks we’ll be reading the story of a man named Job, some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. The book of Job isn’t meant to be a historical recounting of a cultural time frame or even the biography of one guy who lived a dramatic life.
No, what inspired the writing of this book was the fact that one person was troubled by the prevalence of suffering all around him. He had learned from an early age a formulaic approach to understanding God and the pain of human life: if you’re good, good things will happen. If bad things happen to you, they do because of something bad you did.
But having lived this human life long enough, the writer of Job was starting to think that the lesson he learned growing up, the lesson that suffering and abundance are factors in some huge cosmic math problem, just was not cutting it. That did not explain what he saw all around him—righteous people suffering; wicked people prospering—the cosmic equation turned on its head.
By the time we read our passage from chapter 2 this morning, Job has already been through enough soap opera for one life. In chapter one he’s lost his camels, his sheep, quite a bit of property, his servants, and, worst of all, his children. Even one of those would have been enough to make Job soberly take a look at his life, but all of them together is almost too much for even a made-for-TV movie. One thing after another, pain after pain, disbelief after disbelief, loss after loss . . . they all happened to Job. We can read this and say, “Poor Job” and really mean it. He had had a tough run of bad luck or divine punishment, depending, of course, on how you answer the question of the day.
What we read this morning is scene two, and it takes place up in heaven. God opened heaven for an audience with whoever it is that hangs out in heaven waiting for an audience with God. Satan snuck in this time.
It’s interesting to note here that in the whole breadth of literature throughout the Bible, the Hebrew in the book of Job is some of the most nuanced and beautifully crafted; that is, the author took special pains to choose exactly the words he wanted to communicate his message.
I interject that note about language to tell you there’s a reason that the author chose to use the article in the Hebrew before the word for Satan in the first verse of chapter 2—he’s trying to make a theological point. Because of that, we should read the verse: One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, THE Satan came also. THE Satan, like THE Mayor or THE mailman or THE pastor (?). Rather than portraying evil as one person, the writer of Job uses the article to paint the representation of evil as a multi-faceted bureaucratic organization sending its elected representative to weigh in at a heavenly audience.
Note that’s different than the way the text references God: solid and omnipresent, everything, everywhere, every time.
The writer is saying: the question of why we suffer is a question for God, not for evil, because God is the one holding the audience and God is the one who’s in charge. It would be too obvious to blame all our pain on the bad guy of the universe. Our suffering is not a power play to see who is winning the cosmic boxing match. That has already been determined; God is in charge.
So the writer wants our question to move on, to move a little deeper, to begin to touch that sensitive part we’d rather not ask about: why, God, in all your power and might and omnipotence, why, why do children go hungry and wars rage on gunmen kill innocent people and diseases ravage humanity and businesses fail and children go astray and our government executes people in the name of justice and why, why do we suffer?
Remember, if we start with the premise the writer of Job has learned all his life, we would have to say that if you suffer, there must be something you did to deserve it. Even some texts of the Bible seem to suggest that the righteous shall prosper and the wicked shall be punished. Makes sense, you know . . . everything we learned about responsibility and consequences for our behavior. If something bad has happened, there must be some REASON it has happened to us. No reason, you say, your being flatly unable to find a good parking place? Well, this explanation would persist, there MUST be a reason . . . look a little deeper. Did you neglect to give your full 10% tithe? Hmmmmm? Was that you who walked away from the register even though you knew you’d been given too much change? Am I mistaken, or did I hear you raise your voice with the kids in the park last week . . . ?
We have a natural tendency to think in terms of “what goes around comes around”. Job’s writer says no. No! This explanation of evil for evil, good for good just won’t cut it. Job was a righteous man, even God felt compelled to brag on Job—“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him in the earth . . . even after you took away his property and children and servants, he still shuns evil and follows me.”
So, in a literary effort to dispute this way of thinking again, the writer of Job rains down terror and suffering, even more, on Job. This time around he loses everything and is covered with painful sores from the tip of his toes to the crown of his head. He sits in a pile of ashes and scrapes at his sores, and perhaps worst of all, his wife gets mad at him!
Here’s the clincher, the piece in which, perhaps we can find a way to begin talking about God’s part in our suffering. God, here, lets the Satan get away with all this. God lets Satan get away with all this. And that right there is enough to give anyone’s faith a good, hard shaking.
But it is also the place we start, the place we begin to assemble a new way to look at our relationship with God. No, God does not step in and put an invisible super-shield around Job. What God DOES do is place full confidence in the faith of God’s servant Job. God says, “I believe in you, Job. Human life is full of pain, but you are an active participant in a divine relationship, and I believe that that relationship is what ultimately defines your life, not any of the details, not even the most profound suffering.”
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls this a “disinterested faith.” In fact, he says that the only way for us to make sense of our suffering and our relationship with God is to develop and cultivate a disinterested faith. Do we have it?
We’ll start with a question: can we believe in God without looking for rewards or fearing punishments? Even more pointedly, can we, in the middle of unjust suffering, continue to assert our faith in God without expecting something in return? The Satan, and all of us who have a barter-system idea of faith, well, we must deny that a disinterested faith is even a possibility. Not a chance!
But the author of Job, despite the pain and agony of unjust suffering, believes it to be possible and, even more, believes that God believes it to be possible of us—that even in the middle of deep pain, we can have authentic faith when we release the faulty notion that we live under some sort of cosmic equation, holy barter system, or whatever it is you want to call it.
This, friends, is the good news that comes from the suffering in the Book of Job: God believes in us. God gives us the benefit of the doubt. God knows that, even in our pain, we humans are able to embrace the mystery of God’s love. God believes that we’re not in this for the money, or the prestige or the position. God believes that we have a disinterested faith and that, even in the pain of human life, we believe, we believe in God’s goodness.
God believes in us.
We are people who live in relationship with the God of the universe. God, knowing our deepest fears and inadequacies; Christ, coming to earth and sharing the pain of humanity; and us, sharing in the pain of the whole world, as Christ would have us do, to remember those in our world who live with the harshest expressions of human pain.
Today as we eat this bread and drink this cup we remember that, along with our Savior, we bear both the pain of a suffering humanity and the call to help heal that pain. And in the middle of it all, we remember that God believes in us.
A prayer from April, 1946, prayed by Harry Emerson Fosdick in this very nave: “Renew our courage that life’s dangers and disappointments may not intimidate our souls. Amid the tumult of these stormy days, restore our confidence that this earth, like a ship, has a pilot, a compass, a course, and a haven. And if upon our lives such sorrow falls that happiness departs, grant us still a strong serenity, a secure peace, and a quiet trust.”