In so many ways, Job can be a very depressing book of the Bible to read. We hear the story of a man who loses everything, all because the devil wants to make a point to God. “Look at this guy, he’s only faithful because he has everything; take it from him, and he’ll lose faith.” It doesn’t seem quite fair, and we question how God could do this to anyone, let alone one who was so faithful to him. Yet his story very often parallels our own. All of us, at some point in our lives, experience suffering.
Whether we lose our job and livelihood, or a beloved family member, there are times when our lives seem to break down. We are faced with something that is powerless to change, which no amount of tenacity can overcome. We are helpless, and life for a time becomes a burden, which may seem too heavy to carry. For those without faith, despair creeps in. When suffering, why go on? What sort of God would allow this?
It is, precisely, in these times, that our faith is truly tested. It is in these times that it is proven whether we really have hope for eternal life. When we can no longer go it alone, where we turn shows where we have placed our hope.. It seems impossible to face reality and accept what we cannot change. Yet G.K. Chesterton writes: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. … Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.” Hope is exactly meant for those times when we have no reason to hope; it is the
confidence that, in spite of our powerlessness, there is one with the power to give us peace and joy. Those who have faith in God repeat the words of Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the face of suffering, our faith and hope give us confidence that, no matter what happens, God has a plan for us, and we are promised something so much greater in the life to come.
The English writer C.S. Lewis was both a great intellectual and a man of great faith. He set out to give a rational explanation for the Christian vision of life. In 1940 he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in which he brought his intellect and his faith to bear on the problem of suffering. However, twenty one years, in 1961, he wrote a very different book, called, A Grief Observed. In that book he recognizes that his rational, cerebral, faith has taken something of a battering. The book consists of the painful and brutally honest reflections of a man whose wife has died, slowly and in pain, from cancer. The book gives a vivid description of his own reaction, as a man of faith, to his wife’s death. His rational faith fell to pieces when confronted with suffering of a devastatingly personal kind. He writes at one point, ‘Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.’ The name of Lewis’s wife was Joy. He had earlier written a book called Surprised by Joy in which he wrote about the impact meeting her had on his life. His book A Grief Observed has received a wide readership because of his authentic and moving account of the impact of
bereavement. Even though his rational, cerebral faith took something of a battering because of Joy’s death, Lewis did not lose his faith. Through the darkness of this experience he claims to have come to love his wife more truly. He writes that God had helped him to see that because the love he and his wife had for each other had reached its earthly limit, it was ready for its heavenly fulfilment. And sometimes when we lose someone whom we love so preciously, we need to learn that the love we had for that person is the love that carried him or her to the arms of our Heavenly Father. For reasons we will not know until the final days, that person was called home. But for reasons we must believe, it was our love that not only sustained that person’s passage but brought that person home with joy to be loved, in a way that is so profound that we could never fathom it.
Faith has to come to terms with the cross and it is at the foot of the cross that faith can be purified and deepened. Jesus himself entered fully into the darkness of human suffering. In today’s second reading, Paul says of himself, ‘For the weak, I made myself weak.’ That is certainly true of Jesus. He entered fully into the weakness of the human condition. Elsewhere, in one of his letters, Paul says of Christ that ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ On the cross Jesus was at his weakest and poorest; it was on Calvary that, in the words of Lewis, Jesus went to God and found a door slammed in his face, as he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Yet, that cry of desolation is itself an act of faith; it is the language faith uses when confronted with the harrowing darkness of loss. God did not forsake Jesus, but brought Him through death into the fullness of life. The Jesus who was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lordwho was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lord who is with us in our own experiences of suffering and desolation, just as he was with the suffering and the broken in this morning’s gospel. He is with us as one who knows our experience from the inside. Having gone down into the depths and having moved beyond the depths into a fuller life, he can enable us to do the same. He is the good shepherd who, even when we walk through the valley of darkness, is there with his crook and his staff, leading us to springs of living water.
In good times and bad, then, we need to persevere by abandoning ourselves to divine providence. Whatever the Lord gives us, we need to accept patiently and with trust. It’s almost as if we live with a sense of detachment, recognizing that all we have is a gift from God, and that we will merely enjoy it as long as we have it. Remember that disappointment ultimately springs from expectation, a presumption that these things are ours and should not be taken from us. We do not know who or what the Lord will bring into our lives, nor do we know for how long. It is in recognizing every moment as a gift and never taking our blessings for granted, that we nurture a spirit of humble gratitude. That is why our loves and our friendships should deepen each day. That is why we need to encourage each other daily. That is why we need to hold on to each other with hope, and with encouragement, and with gratitude. And let us remember the great hope in what the Lord has prepared for us. Let Job today be our model; in all things may we say trustingly, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”