SUFFERING – Reflection on the Book of Job –

Does God exist?  If so, what is he doing about it?  Innocent children and women suffer by the hand of evil people everyday:  people are killed by drunken drivers.  Slavery and colonialism killed and starved millions of people throughout human history in order to support dominant economy. 6 million Jews were gassed and incinerated  by the Nazis; tens of thousands of Chinese people were slaughtered and raped by the Japanese military in Nanjing; Stalin and Mao Zedung are responsible for the deaths of millions of opposition, often their own people.  And the list goes on and on.  I have not touched on the victims of natural calamities like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and tsunamis.  Why does not God intervene to stop this terrible suffering of the innocent people?  Lots of people just give up and say, “There is no God.” or “Life has no meaning.”

No matter how happy we think we are, all of us suffer in different ways and in various degrees.  Suffering takes a form in physical, psychological, or social sphere.  The most obvious is physical pain that makes the world look unbearable.  Hunger and poverty are others.  Even if there is no physical suffering, there is psychological pain which is as bad as physical one or worse; such as anxiety, depression, or lack of confidence.  Fear of death is the worst.  We also suffer from interpersonal issues such as abandonment, betrayal, envy, jealousy, loneliness, or separation.  Happy are those who never suffer.  But is there a person who never suffers?

My first teacher in Theology, Dr. H. Kuwata, Principal of Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, told us that four things had troubled humans ever since they became self-conscious.  They are life, love, suffering, and death.  I was 18 when I heard that, too young to understand it. They still remain largely unresolved.   I wonder if eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden thus becoming self-conscious (and tried to cover private parts), might indeed have been a fundamental mistake that human species made.

Humans are condemned to keep asking ‘why’ to the question that has no answer.  We are obsessed to find answers.  Maybe that is our problem.  Should we just accept suffering as a fact of life and resign to it?  It is the approach some people decided to take.  Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, when he was still a prince, went outside of his father’s palace and ran into suffering people: one was gravely sick, another was very old, and the other was dead.   He concluded that suffering was the reality of human condition.  From there, he gave up his kingdom and began the search for Nirvana, a complete understanding of everything.  After many years of search through meditation and self-denial, he concluded that suffering was the nature of life.  He suggests that if you want to overcome suffering we should give up all desires, and accept suffering as the fact of life and try not so much to change it but to understand it.

Such a passive view is  found not only in the Eastern culture.  Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierekegaard said, “As soon as one is born, he begins a journey towards death” as though to say “That’s life.  Suck it up!”   Atheist French philosophers, notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, decided that life had no meaning nor purpose, and trying to find the reasons for suffering is futile.  Life is what you make of it.  In other words, they say, “It’s up to you.”

But we do not take that tack: we believe that we live for a reason: life has a meaning.  Unlike Buddhism and Existentialism, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic spiritual tradition rejects the notion that suffering is natural.  It keeps asking “Why do we suffer?” and “How can we avoid it?”  There is something wrong when one suffers.  Good people should go to heaven – a good place, where they enjoy plenty and happiness, and where there are full of love, joy, and contentment.  The most popular and enduring notion is that if you are good, you should not suffer.  If you are suffering, it’s because you have done something wrong.  God does not allow good people to suffer.

There are many books among the Judeo-Christian-Islamic literature that have made attempts to answer the question of suffering.  The Book of Job is the most serious and profound attempt.  The reality is good people do suffer: that’s the challenge that the Book of Job tackles.

The Book of Job is a drama – a play.  The story goes that there was a good man, Job, blessed with loving family, fortune, and a successful life all around.  But he ran into unspeakable misfortune.  He lost everything by natural calamity and by enemy, lost his children violently, and finally stricken with an ugly sickness with unbearable pain.  (1:1 – 2:13)  And he asked, “What did I do wrong?” He was so miserable and wished he was never born.  But he did not condemn God.  (3:1 – 26)  Even his loyal wife, out of sympathy without malice, said, “ You are going to die anyway, why don’t you curse such a heartless God before you die. God is not merciful.”   (2:9)

Three friends came to give comfort to the grieving friend, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  What those friends found was, however, so horrible that they didn’t know what to say and do.  They just sat there without a word for seven days.  (2:12)  As soon as Job saw friends, he complain bitterly of God.  (3)   Each friend tried very hard to comfort him.  But what came out of their mouths was the age-old traditional notion that God does not punish good people. Job must have done something wrong.  “Fess up!” they said.

They meant well trying to help Job find solution to his agony.  But they sounded like they were scolding him.  Each gave very long speech lasting chapter 4 to 28.   All three basically said the same thing with some nuance, confess your guilt, be good, and God will bless you and restore your health and wealth, and bring back your children.  Job knew it was not that simple. There came another person, Elihu, a young man who was thus far a bystander.  He said that suffering was not necessarily the result of one’s guilt, God may be trying to say something to you: an educational tool.  Something very deep that three friends failed to understand. (32:1 – 37:24)

At the end, God spoke.  He overwhelmed Job by the grandeurs of his existence and the mystery of his acts, pointing out how little Job understood God,.   Job accepts this and totally surrenders.  Consequently Job recovers everything and is restored, even better than before.  I don’t like this ending.  It’s so much like Hollywood, “And lived happily ever after.”  It is so shallow compared to all the complex and profound discourse that preceded it.  The Book of Job offers no conclusion.  We are left with the need of further exploration about the meaning of suffering.  There is a nihilistic suggestion by the Ecclesiastes.  It says that everything is useless, which is more pessimistic than Buddhism.  There is also a suggestion of God who himself suffers for people, (Isaiah chapter 53) Thus, the search continues.

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