By Reggie Connell
In just the past couple of months, there seems to have been an escalation of violence around the world. Millions of Syrian refugees have fled a bloody civil war where thousands have been killed. Violence between Israel and Palestine is reaching catastrophic proportions. And it was reported that there have been more gun deaths in the United States since 1968 than in all U.S. wars combined.
These are all sobering facts.
But it is also true that we are living in the most peaceful and least violent time in human history.
Just like it is true that hunger and hunger-related diseases kill 21,000 people every day and that 1 in 6 don’t have enough to eat worldwide AND it is also true that fewer people are hungry than ever before, that through advocacy and charity, the number of people suffering from hunger around the globe has been cut in half since the 1960s.
From one perspective, the world is on fire with suffering and violence. From another, it is being healed and we are making progress. And it can be hard to hold both truths in your head, much less your soul.
But both are true and each has its own wisdom and gift for our life of faith, and that I think, is the paradox of a book like Job, a book of immeasurable tragedy and suffering and of the most extraordinary and beautiful poetry and writing in all of Scripture.
In a very real sense, Job is putting God on trial, and who can blame him? His children have been killed, his body afflicted with leprosy and boils. Job looks around the world and sees it as a dangerous place, full of hard, sharp edges that cut at both the body and spirit. The world has become a place of hopelessness and all Job can see is its ugliness and suffering. While Job’s friends attempt to silence what they perceive as blasphemy and heresy in the raw honesty of suffering, God doesn’t condemn Job. Rather, God disciplines Job’s friends. Job’s reputation of being righteous and blameless continues not in spite of his doubt and questioning of God, but because of it.
But God does respond to Job’s indictment, He just doesn’t give him an answer. God doesn’t try to explain it. God doesn’t even contradict Job’s accusations.
Instead, God responds with beauty. It may seem to be an authoritative and sarcastic response, but dig deeper. God is describing a beautiful world in all of those harsh rhetorical questions.
Job casts a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.
And here’s the thing… I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think one negates the other. God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering.
Because no answer — even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of our pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world.
There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side.
For most of my life, God’s response to Job has frustrated me, even angered me. It all seemed so insufficient. But now I can’t help but wonder if there is wisdom in responding to suffering with an invitation to see beauty around us, to allow beauty to interrupt despair and grief.
Like suffering, beauty cannot really be explained. Like suffering, beauty can only really be experienced. And like suffering, beauty changes us. For Job, suffering and grief removed the protective barrier of wealth and privilege and opened his eyes to see how deeply suffering, injustice and pain are shot through the human experience. So much so that all he could see was pain and suffering in the world. In a similar way, the more we experience and observe beauty, the more frequently we experience it even in small and unexpected places.
But we need both. We need to cultivate both, an awareness of the suffering of humanity and an awareness of the beauty of the creation.
Because both are true to our human experience.
That’s the change we see in the book of Job. God and Job finally see each other, eye to eye.
At the beginning Job and God are far removed from one another. In the heavenly court, God appears to be a distant observer, considering his servant Job from afar. For Job, God is a distant provider, showering wealth and blessings upon him. God is so far removed from Earth that he seems to view Satan with suspicion because of all the time he spent traveling the earthly lands.
But by the time the book ends, things have changed. An earthly setting has replaced the divine courtroom where Satan challenged God.
This is where Job and God interact.
And the picture we see of God is not a removed being, but a God who is intimately involved in and present in every corner of the earth from the most insignificant creatures to the most massive ones. God has become integrated with creation before Job’s eyes.
God is no longer above humanity in Heaven, but alongside it on Earth, so much so that Job can say, “Before I had only heard about God. Now I have seen God.”
And so that is my challenge to you today, to cultivate an awareness of human suffering and to cultivate an awareness of beauty in the world. Because I think in the place where those two meet is the place where we just might find Jesus — the fullness of God’s glory and beauty experiencing the depth of human suffering — hard at work in the world.
Reggie Connell is the Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice and the Board Chairman at Inspire Church
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