Yesterday my boss had to take the day off because he pinched his sciatic nerve. Normally he provides the office music from his iTunes, which can include anything from Johnny Cash to the Beastie Boys.
Although I was only able to listen to snatches of the show, I did catch that Terry Gross was interviewing an author named Bart Ehrman, whose book is called “God’s Problem”. Ehrman is a former minister and fundamentalist, and his driving point was that Christianity, and religion in general, have not found a satisfactory explanation for human suffering. Here is a quote from the book:
Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It’s a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.
Knowing that it would be fodder for his detractors, in the interview he specifically referenced the book of Job. He claimed that Job, rather than providing an explanation for suffering, depicts a man who questions his intense suffering, and is reprimanded for it by God himself. Job says “Why? I don’t deserve this!” and God says “Be quiet. Did you create the universe?”
Ehrman tears down the traditionally positive view held of Job, and rips into his character, saying that Job, rather than accepting his suffering in faith, constantly complained and defended himself. In response, God then (in Ehrman’s view) scolds Job for even asking such questions.
I disagree not only with his view of Job, but with his completely cerebral approach to suffering. Perhaps if I read the book I would feel differently. But I certainly don’t want to be guilty of it myself, and fail to recognize the suffering you may be experiencing in your life, even as you read this. Life hurts, and sometimes it’s torture. No amount of analysis or exegesis or debate can make a dent in that. If you’re suffering right now, the second worst thing I could give you is a rational explanation. But the number one worst thing I could give you is the sense that God doesn’t care, and you’re not allowed to scream in his face for relief. I’ll talk more about that in a minute.
So book knowledge alone just doesn’t cut it… even when that book is the Bible. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many chapters or books one has memorized from the Bible, because Ehrman has far more than his share. Memorization does not guarantee absorption, and certainly not relationship.
Because when I read Job, I do not see a God who sends lightning on those who ask why. I see a God who overwhelms Job with the power and awe of God’s own presence; to the point where Job might even forget about his own pain for a moment.
Solomon says that man cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. God was reminding Job that he is completely incapable of seeing the big picture, and steering him back to faith, not necessarily away from all doubt, but away from despair.
Humanity is absolutely not wrong to question its own suffering. Look at the Psalms, especially 22 and 69. Here is David, the “man after God’s own heart”, pounding on the chest of the Almighty, screaming out for answers. And God calls this sacred scripture–something each one of us should read and internalize. And for one reason more than any other… these passages point directly the sufferings of Jesus.
And that, more than anything I can think of, is the fulfillment of the question of suffering. Notice I don’t say “the answer to the question” because modernity has convinced us to seek hard-and-fast answers where perhaps there can be none. It is my belief that, in those cases, we should instead seek fulfillment. Relationship. Then what is the fulfillment of the question of the suffering of humanity? I believe it’s the suffering of Christ.
He did not promise us answers. He promised us himself. “I will be with you, even to the end of the age.”
If we want anything beyond that, we do not want Jesus at all.