Clinging to Control (On Suffering, Entitlement, and Job)
Sunday’s readings. Can I be honest? The book of Job makes me nervous. I don’t like the idea that God would allow suffering in order to win an ill-conceived parlor bet with the devil. What’s the over-under on how long Jonathan would last? (Don’t let the Satan get wind of it!) God takes the over with Job. In a more traditional gambling format, I’d like to think I’d be given a significant point spread to cover, making allowances for the effects of parenting-related sleep deprivation. But then again, Job starts off with ten kids! On just those grounds, Vegas should give me better odds than Job. But I know better. I also know that suffering like Job’s hurts like hell. The sores and potsherds of today’s reading are just the beginning of his pain and the loneliness that comes with it.
Of course, the parlor bet need not be literal. It’s hard to imagine God having anything to win back from the devil, anyway. Instead, the exchange that begins the book of Job serves to identify the central question relevant for all that follows. Disappointingly, the book isn’t primarily interested in why people suffer. Instead, as John Walton observes, the book asks from the divine perspective if there’s such a thing as disinterested righteousness, that is, righteousness that isn’t in it for what I might get out of it; you know, righteousness that has its beginning and roots in God; righteous in which we sometimes by the grace of God find ourselves, like the old hymn says, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
My family and I are Calvin and Hobbes junkies, and there’s a favorite strip in which Calvin asks his teacher, Ms. Wormwood (named after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters), what guarantee she can give him that the education he’s receiving will set him up for success in life. “Calvin,” she replies, “What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” To which a visibly deflated Calvin despairs, “Well, in that case forget it.”
This strikes me as exactly how most of us imagine life with God and what it’s like. Like Calvin, sure, we might grumble at the elbow grease required of us, but we console and motivate ourselves (or don’t) with assurances of the payoff. As the life of faith goes, what we get out of it will more or less equate to what we put into it. We think.
It’s good news, bad news, right? Bad news, because we’ve got our work cut out for us, good news because at least we are in control of our fates. But it’s exactly that last part – the assumption that deserving is how God relates to God’s children – to which the book of Job makes its singular and strongest objection.
The book of Job means to shatter the idea that certain inputs will result in particular outputs when it comes to matters of faith or, put more crassly, that God is an object for our manipulation, that if you input faith and piety, God will output favor of a particular shape on you. You know the line. It’s the way of thinking that says that if things look grim for you, it’s because you messed up or haven’t prayed hard enough, your faith isn’t great enough. And, lest we dismiss that line of thinking as ridiculous, a few chapters from now, Job’s friends will suggest exactly that, in order to account for his suffering. It’s amazing the stupid things people will say in the attempt to regain control of terrifying things. If you suffer, you have brought it on yourself. If you prosper, you have likewise brought it on yourself. Neither inherently true. The attractiveness of this logic is that it locates you in the driver’s seat of your life. Everything that happens to you becomes a manifestation of your self-expression and unique identity and, along with these, your faith. One challenge to this logic, aside from the way it simultaneously creates a breeding ground for potential self-loathing and unfounded boasting, is that none of us decided to be in the first place, so the process of expressing one’s unique identity becomes a game of catch-up from the get-go.
If people have sometimes made habits of thinking about the life of faith in this way, give x, get y, the bad news is that the situation is not any better outside of, nor is it limited to, the life of faith. Consider the observation of professor Kate Bowler when she writes that
Fairness is one of the most compelling claims of the American Dream, a vision of success propelled by hard work, determination, and maybe the occasional pair of bootstraps. Wherever I have lived in North America, I have been sold a story about an unlimited horizon and the personal characteristics that are required to waltz toward it. It is the language of entitlements. It is the careful math of deserving, meted out painstakingly as my sister and I used to inventory and trade our Halloween candy. In this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and keep my share. In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away.
In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. As everything begins to slip away, this is Job’s dilemma. It is also Kate Bowler’s dilemma: as a newly appointed professor with a husband she loves and just-born child, Kate was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35. She writes
The treatment at Emory begins at the end of October. I am tired most of the time, but I feel driven to catalog everything and wring every bit of time for all it’s worth. I start to write. In bed, in chemo chairs, in waiting rooms, I try to say something about dying in a world where everything happens for a reason. Whenever there is a clarifying moment of grief, I jot it down. And then, in a flurry, I shoot it off to The New York Times, not thinking too much about whether it’s any good, but sending it because I have been infected by the urgency of death. Then an editor there sees it, and puts it on the front page of the Sunday Review. Millions of people read it. Thousands share it and start writing to me. And most begin with the same words, “I’m afraid.” Me too, me too.
“I’m afraid of the loss of my parents,” writes a young man. “I know I will lose them someday soon, and I can’t bear the thought.” “I’m afraid for my son,” says a father from Arkansas. “He has been diagnosed with a brain tumor at forty-four, which would have been devastating enough if he had not already lost his identical twin brother to the same disease a few years ago.” These letters sing with unspeakable love in the face of the Great Separation. Don’t go, don’t go, you anchor my life.
In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. Evidently, Job’s, Kate’s, and ours is not a world of fair. And yet God is with us. If it sounds like too much, or not enough, we maybe have a better handle on the disciples’ confusion, disappointment, even anger these last few weeks as Jesus repeatedly predicts his own betrayal, death, and resurrection; his disciples insisting that a future so out of control cannot be saving. Or, maybe more honestly, that a future so out of control is just too scary to follow. Of course, the news that we do not in a real sense control either God or our lives does not mean the end of our hope, but it does mean the necessity of trust; in a real way, the surrender of certainty creates the possibility of trust.
Which is maybe why Jesus keeps pointing his disciples to children and the poor, human beings beloved of God who do not need to be told that their lives are many times not their own; that they are left to the whims, and at the mercy, of others. As if to sharpen the point of this pencil further, Jesus will next encounter a rich man in search of salvation and, though their exchange, invite the whole Church to surrender whatever may remain of our sense of entitlement and control – for what can the possession of these mean in the hands of those who follow the crucified Christ? – inviting us to forsake our clinging and, with outstretched arms, discover with our lives generosity, trust, and the capacity to be surprised beyond the modest scripting of our imaginations.
After recounting in painful detail letter after letter from strangers happy to explain exactly why she was facing what she was facing, Kate Bowler writes to name the exceptions:
But many people write to me like family. “As a father, I am truly sorry.” “I’m a mother and I wish I could give you a hug right now.” They want to comfort me, but their experiences tell them that life is never fair. “I want you to know how much I’m praying for you and grateful for your faith. I’m sorry that we must say, like Job, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’” Yes, yes, yes. Yet will I trust in Him. I don’t know what the word “trust” means anymore, except there are moments when I realize that it feels a lot like love.
Yet will I trust in Him. I don’t know what the word “trust” means anymore, except there are moments when I realize that it feels a lot like love.