The Suffering of Job and Gun Violence

October 4, 2015

Bible Text: Job 1:1; 2:1-10 |

When there’s been a tragedy, such as the shooting in Oregon, you come to church seeking peace – to hear something that will restore your faith in God and your hope for the future. Which is exactly as it should be.

But then – THEN – you hear today’s Old Testament reading from Job and think, What on earth is going on here!? Because, of course, in this story it seems like Satan and God are making some shady, back-room deal where God gives Satan permission to inflict Job with loathsome sores over his whole body.

Job is a disturbing book. And yet, it is a book of extraordinary wisdom.

Although it appears late in the Old Testament, many scholars believe Job to be the oldest of the Old Testament stories. It tells the story of a righteous man whose life is blessed with all manner of good things. But then he loses them all – his wealth, his children, his good health, his reputation. He loses everything. At its heart, this story is a response to the age-old question, Why do bad things happen to good people? In modern, theological terms, it is a study of theodicy.

Theodicy is the philosophical conundrum that tries to answer the question, If God is all loving, and God is all powerful, then why does evil exist? And whenever we come face-to-face with evil or suffering of any kind, somewhere in our heart lurks this fundamental question that humans have been asking since the earliest of days: God, why didn’t you stop this? Why didn’t you stop the shooter in Oregon?

The book of Job uses the imagery of a face-to-face encounter between God and Satan. I don’t know how literally we’re meant to take this. I suspect what we’re dealing with is some very sophisticated story-telling. And we all know, a story doesn’t need to be historically true in order to express extraordinary truth. Think of all the best fiction you know: To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, the Brothers Karamazov. It is essential to being human. We have always told stories to express truth. Cynthia calls this “the deep truth.” Whenever I fuss at her for quoting me in a story in a not-so-accurate way, she’ll just poo-poo my little concerns, It’s the deep truth, Eric. It’s what you meant to say; I just said it better.

Well, Job says it better. The story of Job epitomizes our human condition.

He is a righteous man in whom there is no blame. God is justly proud of him, but Satan tells God, He’s not righteous; he’s just playing the game. He acts all holy and pious because it works for him; you bless him with everything. Take all that away and he’ll curse you to your face. And then it happens; it all gets taken away. Now, no one in the story is privy to this dialogue between God and Satan. They experience Job’s suffering like we all do – out of nowhere this evil descends and everyone’s left scrambling in its wake. The fascinating thing about Job is to see how the people around him respond. His friends presume that God is punishing Job for some secret sin, and they lecture him on and on, trying to get him to confess. Job’s wife is more blunt: “Curse God and die,” she tells him.

And isn’t this just the way we respond? So often we assume that our suffering is the hand of God punishing us for our sins. I can’t tell you how frequently I hear that kind of fear when people come to talk to me as their priest. Or we’re like Job’s wife. We simply turn our back on God, and give up on faith.

But Job does neither. He endures his suffering and he remains faithful to God. By the end of the book, we never get a very satisfactory answer to why God let it happen, but what we do get is the picture of faith that remains loyal in all things, and Job’s righteous is revealed as righteous indeed. God remains worthy of our faith, even in the midst of great suffering. Whatever is happening in the spiritual realm, we were made for God, and not for evil.

And so senseless evil has visited us again in our now-too-familiar experience of mass shootings. When I heard about it on Thursday my heart dropped. I didn’t want to read the articles online. I didn’t want to see the faces of the victims, or to hear their names. I didn’t want the cycle to begin again in another little community. I didn’t want to re-write a new sermon in response to a new tragedy.

Why didn’t God stop it?

Well, for starters, we look to Job and affirm that the victims were innocent. God was not punishing anyone for any hidden sins. That is not the way of God. We also look to Job and hear the call to retain faith, even in the midst of more suffering.

But what does that look like for us – especially for us who are witnessing the suffering but are not actually a part of it? What does it look like for us to live righteously in the face of this evil which keeps being repeated in our midst?

Well – quite frankly – I think we’re supposed to help stop the violence. In situations like this we’re apt to sit back and wait for God to intervene and stop it all himself, then blame him when he doesn’t. And perhaps God does intervene millions of times every day. Who knows? But what we do know is that although God might not always intervene as we would want, God’s intention is always that we would be living out the righteousness of God – living in such a deliberate way that the Kingdom of Heaven would flourish on our earth.

This is what it means to be stewards of creation. We humans have indeed been given dominion over the earth – which means – make this world habitable and fruitful, peaceful and safe. That is what God did in the ordering of creation and that is what we are called to do as well.

Help create a world where we don’t kill each other senselessly. It really shouldn’t be so difficult. Foster love in our relationships. Invest in mental health, however we can. And introduce sane and humane legislation regarding guns, for God’s sake.

Whether you are a card-carrying member of the NRA, or a pacifist who wants to ban all guns, or something in-between, we are Christians. We are all being called to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, a kingdom of peace and mercy. We may go about it in different ways, but we must pursue a solution to this problem in our time. We need to work together – not demonizing either side – but seeing our common humanity.

So am I encouraging you to become political? Certainly. Why not?

Political activism is a perfectly appropriate response of faith. Politics create policy. And it is policy that determines so much of our human experience. Participating in the political process is a totally appropriate way to live out our calling as stewards of creation. How we vote; how we protest; how we engage with our politicians – urging them to create policies that will lead to human well-being.

This is not to say that partisan posturing is a faithful act. Vilifying our neighbors is never holy. Identifying one political party as “God’s party” is lunacy. They’re all messed up; we know that. But that shouldn’t prevent us from being engaged with the political process and creating policies that will make a difference.

You can have very strong opinions, and pursue them with urgency. But treat your neighbor with respect. And – when you are engaging in the political process as a Christian – then the driving imperative is never “how do I make this work best for me?” It is always, “How do we make this work to the good of our neighbor?” especially those who are vulnerable. And – as we are all vulnerable to senseless gun violence – then our policies must seek our universal safety.

Sometimes we need to be willing to lay down our own privileges and rights. After all, isn’t the heart of our faith all about laying down our rights?

Jesus laid down his right to heaven, choosing instead to participate in our human, pain-filled life. He laid down his divine right for the sake of love.

We have the right to hold on to our grudges, to sue one another, to nurse our bitterness and indignation. But Christ calls us to lay down that right and instead to forgive, for we are called to love.

We have the right to hold on to our wealth and our possessions, but Christ calls us to lay down that right and choose the path of generosity instead, for we are called to love.

We have the right to hold on to our comfort, but Christ calls us to lay down that right, to lay down our lives for one another, for we are called to love.

Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the very nature God,

did not consider equality with God

something to be grasped,

but made himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and become obedient to death,

even death on a cross! (Philippines 2:5-8)

The solution to human flourishing and to our neighbors’ welfare will usually require some sacrifice on our part. Often this is something we choose in the privacy of our day-to-day life. Sometimes, it requires political action and even the sacrifice of our constitutional rights. But how can we ever conclude that our rights are more important than our neighbors’ right to live?

We are called to live out God’s intention for us as peace-makers in this world, for we are following the Prince of Peace.

I would prefer that God intervened and stopped all evil from happening. But like Job, our call is to trust God in all things, and to follow Christ in the way of righteousness and peace. Where there is no peace, it is our responsibility to create it, even to the laying down of our rights; even to the laying down of our lives.

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