I am almost sixty years old and in the course of my life I have been blessed and I have experienced profound suffering. When the challenges last too long or are too intense I begin to wonder about God and faith and to question what I believe.
No doubt, sometimes suffering happens because of my own foolishness. Sometimes I cause my own problems or I make them worse by my attitude or behavior. But, for example, when I hear someone blaming an individual for their life circumstances without recognizing the large socio-economic issues at play, such as when someone will suggest that people are poor because they are lazy or addicts, I think we need to be careful about judging others and casting blame. Sometimes suffering just happens, undeserved, unwarranted by anything a person has done or not done. Often, all of us in developed countries, because of how we live and what we eat, influence the global economy and contribute to poverty, immigration, and other social concerns. Sometimes there is a corporate accountability that needs to be recognized for the suffering of the world. Likewise blaming God for suffering conveys something false about the character of God. God does not cause suffering. But, that God allows for suffering to exist in the world is one of the great mysteries of life. Why? The book of Job wrestles with these ideas.
The story begins by telling us that Job is an exemplary person of faith, very faithful to God, a man of tremendous success, peaceful, wise, a good man. And then the Satan makes a bet with God, and everything in Job’s life changes - he loses his house, his means of making a living, his children all die, he is rejected by his community, his wife scorns him, and his friends blame him for the catastrophes that have befallen him. In this story the Satan is a member of God’s counsel, an advisor to God. The Satan is a metaphor, highlighting how random suffering is, striking without cause. And God allows it to happen. But in the end the Satan loses the bet. Job remains faith to God, Job does not lose his faith. He does however ask God about justice, God’s justice, in light of the profound suffering.
We can ask the same question, where is God in the suffering of the world, where is justice? Where is God’s justice in school shootings? In the destruction of homes and lives from wildfires or hurricanes or any other natural disaster? Where is God’s justice in war and violence and terrorism? Why does God allow horrible things to happen and people to suffer?
We might ask other questions as well, such as, is our faith based on a “commodity principle” of belief? Do I expect God will bless me and my life will be good because I have faith in God? I use to think that way, the more I “believed” - the more I tried to live the rules of the church - the more “protected” I would be from suffering. I use to think that “believing” would guarantee a life of peace, or maybe grant me some kind of eternal reward. I believed in a consumerism God who doled out blessing like the values we hold in our capitalistic society, work hard and I will live the American dream, I will have everything I need and more. Believe hard and God will protect me from suffering.
Except bad things have happened to me, as they do to all people: an illness strikes, a job is lost, pension is stolen by corporate greed, the stock market fails and retirement savings are lost, a loved one dies, suffering happens. No matter how “good” I am, there is no way to avoid suffering.
Paradoxically, I’ve come to believe that because my life has been filled with tremendous challenges, deep profound, life changing challenges, that I am a better person, more compassionate and self-aware. Through those challenges I have come to recognize that God has journeyed with me and helped me to grow wiser. Eventually, despite all obstacles, and usually in hindsight, I come to see the ways that God was with me all along, through the trials and tribulations. God did not give me challenges to make me believe more, nor to make me stronger, nor to make my faith deeper, nor to punish me, nor to make me wise and more compassionate. God did not give me challenges. Life just happens and life is filled with challenges and suffering. It just is. The real question ought to be, “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I experience suffering and pain? Everyone else does, its life. That said, I assure you, I don’t like it. Not one bit.
How I live through suffering says a lot about my faith and why I believe. When life really sucks all I can do is trust that this too will pass and one day I will feel better and life will be better. And when life feels good, I give thanks and treasure it because I know it won’t last forever. I try to have some detachment to my feelings of despair and view them with some distance in order to not let them control my behavior. I try to not make others miserable just because I am. I continue to put one foot in front of the other. I keep going. I wait for the time to pass. I pray. I come to church. I stay in community and I work to stay in relationships, to have healthy relationships. I work on my self, to become more aware of my emotions and to tend to my physical health. I believe because I trust that God is with me and God will guide me through the crap, that ultimately God wants me, and you, to have a good, healthy, happy, peace-filled life, to whatever degree that is possible.
The Gospel reading this morning takes us down a similar path albeit from a very different direction. The Pharisees continue to question and challenge Jesus, hoping to trip him up and catch him in some remark that they can use against him, to discredit him. Over and over, in response to these questions, Jesus replies with wisdom, seeing through their effort to have him convey a narrow sense of God. Over and over Jesus reveals the expansive wide open love of God. The teaching in Mark is less about the legality of divorce and more about justice, God’s sense of justice for all people, a radical hospitality and equality for the oppressed. Jesus gives examples of those most marginalized in society, women and children.
When we accept God’s grace and have some experience of God’s love in our lives, then we are better able to see and love others as God loves, fully, equally. This expansive sense of God’s grace is intended to affirm our faith and sustain our trust when life is difficult. It is also intended to inform how we respond to the suffering of others - not as Job’s friends do, who blame him for his suffering - but by being compassionate and revealing to others God’s love in and through us. Jesus reminds us that our faith is intended to strengthen our reliance on God, sustain us with an attitude, a deep inner reality, that God is with us, even when there are no obvious signs of God’s presence. We do this by living community, feeling one another’s pain and suffering and, instead of blaming or judging, being wiling to be the face of Christ and the hands and heart of God, by loving one another as God loves us.
Proper 22B: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16