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In the classic story about suffering, one that has its roots in myths dating to before 1000 BCE, a good, righteous and faithful man named Job suddenly finds himself in the midst of almost unimaginable distress. As described in the Biblical Old Testament, Job is very wealthy, he has a large family with many sons – a good thing in his male oriented culture – and he is quite happy. His trust, in what he believes to be a loving God, is strong. Life for Job is as good as it gets.
The story describes how Satan, walking to and fro in the heavens, notices Job’s life and begins to taunt God about the nature of Job’s faith. Is it real or is it a mere byproduct of a very comfortable life? Would Job be so faithful if he were not so blessed? Satan is finally allowed by God to have complete power over Job’s life and thus test him.
Soon, Job’s abundant flocks of cattle, sheep and camels are either killed or stolen. Such flocks were the currency of his day, a living bank account of wealth. As Job is financially ruined, he is also devastated by the deaths of his seven sons and three daughters. Children were beloved family members but in ancient cultures they were also sources for parents of future security. In short order, Job is reduced to wrenching grief and total destitution.
But all is not over for poor Job. Satan knows Job’s suffering is not complete and so he asks God for permission to directly attack Job’s health. Soon, large and painful boils erupted all over Job. Having a visible and nasty appearing skin condition are particularly hideous in traditional Jewish cultures – a sign of uncleanness and God’s disfavor. Along with other unusual commands in the Book of Leviticus, people with boils, rashes or leprosy are to be shunned. At this point, Job could not fall any lower. Even his wife tells Job that he should curse God and die. Give up, she implies. You have no life that is worth living.
In this June message series entitled “Destination Life”, I want to consider a spirituality of life itself. As we looked at last week, who or what controls our lives? How do we respond to the powerful forces that seem to determine our destiny? Are we captains of our souls? And when we figuratively check into the “Heartbreak Hotel” – as we will consider today – how do we conduct ourselves? What is a spiritual response to hardship? Finally, as we will examine next Sunday, when we land on “Easy Street”, what is our response then?
Woody Hayes, the former and infamous Ohio State football coach, once said, “There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.” An apparent confirmation of such wisdom is the Chinese written word for “crisis”. It is comprised of two characters – one represents “danger” and the other represents “opportunity”. This Chinese blending of two meanings into one word can inform our understanding of “hardship”. In any calamity, setback or problem is a seed for potential growth and change. Indeed, we rarely change our ways when we are successful. Prosperity, or coasting along with no problems in life, too often breeds contentment which can encourage complacency.
What we find in the story of Job is that hardships in life have always elicited age the same responses – those of shock, confusion, denial, anger and then, hopefully, acceptance and change. Job is confronted after his fall by a trio of friends who tell him he must repent of grave sin in his life, but they cannot diagnose what that sin might be. Indeed, such advice has been common for thousands of years. Too often we believe, as I discussed last week, that individuals are alone responsible for their good or bad fortune. Such is the myth that “free-will” alone determines fate and that the poor, sick or destitute deserve their hardship because of poor choices, just as the successful deserve their largesse solely because of their right choices.
Job refuses to accept the advice that his hardships must be his fault. Even so, he remains unsure what his response should be. He had been a faithful man, after all. What sin could he have committed that is so grave as to deserve his distress? If he had not sinned, why was God punishing him? Absent any great sin in his life, Job must struggle with the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people. Answers to that question are difficult for most world religions to address – either God is in control and thus allows for evil and suffering, or else he is not in control and is therefore impotent in the face of human pain. The former idea points to an indifferent God who is NOT compassionate and loving. The latter idea, points to a God who is unable to prevent evil. Both ideas run contrary to most religious thinking about the Divine. Job, as I said, does not know what to think.
He eventually confronts God with anger and bitterness. Just as it is said Jesus lamented on the Cross – “Why have you forsaken me God?”, Job also demands answers. “What have I done to deserve this form of living hell?”
Whether or not we believe in a theistic God, we must still wrestle with why evil and misfortune exist in our world. The conclusions we reach about why hardships exist will shape our understanding of how to respond.
If we believe gods or goddesses cause, or allow for, our hardships, then our likely response is to live in fear of these deities. We obey them. We honor them in an effort to please them. We profess belief in them in order to win their favor. Fear, as we have discussed in here before, is not a sound basis for life.
If we believe hardships are the result of natural but uncaring forces in our universe, then we respond either with abject resignation (what can we do in the face of such forces working against us?) or, we work to change them and thus be sources of light and love in a pain filled universe. Fear or love: which do we choose?
In order to survive the suffering in our lives, we must change. We must grow. We must refuse to give up. We must fight and work and rally against human suffering – that which we experience and that which others experience. And this, my friends, this is the “Ah-ha” moment for us about the reason for heartbreak and evil. They exist for our good. They exist for our growth. They exist in order that we change. Of all the forces active in our world, what seems like evil may not be evil after all. Indeed, so-called evil serves a good purpose.
Such an idea is not mere platitude. It is a literal and scientific fact. When a weightlifter or long distance runner exclaims that there is no gain without pain, such is a biological fact – the fibers of our muscles must be microscopically torn in order to gain new strength. Trees grow stronger and more resilient – their roots grow deeper – the more they are stressed by wind or drought. Psychologically, we know that only when we deal with our pain, when we confront our inner demons, when we acknowledge our addictions or depressions and the harm they do to us, do we begin a road to recovery. For many of us, we refuse to change unless pain begins to outweigh pleasure. Pain forces a response – avoid it or confront it. But first, we must reach a point where we cry out into a dark and indifferent universe – “Why me, God? Why me?”
And in that moment of brokenness, we will hopefully find clarity and answers. “Why NOT me? Why am I so special that I should not suffer like everyone else? What can I learn in the midst of this crisis? Where is the opportunity from my pain?”
Charles Stanley, an evangelical Pastor at a large church in Atlanta, compares dealing with adversity to medical surgery. We willingly undergo surgery knowing it is for our good – even if it will be painful and difficult. Surgery is the means to a healthy end. Adversity works in the same manner, he says. It is surgery to our souls.
Muslims offer similar wisdom. Islamic teaching points out that everybody suffers. As the Quran says, all of the great Scriptural prophets suffered. Noah was laughed at. Abraham was denied a son until he was an old man and then he was ordered to personally sacrifice that son. Elijah was physically attacked by his critics. Isaiah was ridiculed and insulted. Jesus was crucified. Muhammad never knew his father, his mother died when he was young, his wife was killed, his son died and he was stoned almost senseless. Of modern day prophets, Gandhi was jailed and murdered; Martin Luther King was also jailed, mocked and martyred. From the ashes of their misery, from the depths of their personal hells, came flowers of insight, strength and greatness.
We too must be humble in our suffering. By crying out “Why me?”, we claim to be special and somehow less deserving of pain than other people. If we accept the fact that pain in our lives is to be expected, that everybody suffers at some point, we might stop feeling so isolated and alone. Indeed, adversity is a fact of life – one from which we cannot escape. Instead of seeing life as a series of misfortunes, we can see it as a series of learning opportunities.
Such is the ironic mystery of hardship. Ultimately, our distress should not even be seen as something bad. Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, frequently wished his friends ill fortune – and he did so with the purest of motivations. He knew adversity would strengthen his friends and cause them to grow into better people. As he said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
And that is precisely the understanding that Job finds. He did not suffer because he was bad. He suffered expressly because he was good and in need of further refinement. In his complacency, in his comfortable cocoon of easy street living, Job was like many of us. A fortress of well-being induces feelings of invulnerability, self-righteousness and egotism. What good are such attitudes in shaping us as better people?
Job needed to be stretched. While it might be said that God was cruel in his testing of Job, we should remember the story was not intended to be literal history. As with all allegories and myths, exaggeration was necessary to teach a point.
Job’s long search for understanding in the depths of his despair is a journey of growth and of finding inner strength. He found that he could endure. He would not give up, curse God and die as his wife suggested. He would even find a way to offer thanks for his suffering and offer his appreciation to God for the tough love. Left alone to a life of ease, Job would have died a shallow and incomplete man. Through his suffering, he gained wisdom, humility and perspective. Ultimately, the Biblical and religious lesson is that humans must trust God no matter what. His or her ways are perfect and not ours to question. What might seem like suffering is really a part of the Divine plan.
For others who do not believe in a theistic God, the lesson from the story is similar. We must trust the little ‘g’ god inside of us – the god who does not give up, the god who struggles against adverse forces, the god who accepts that pain is a soul cleansing agent, as Woody Hayes said. If we truly accept that hardship is good for us, we do not mock it by pursuing it in some masochistic manner. Instead, we accept hardship as fact and as opportunity.
Most experts assert that resiliency and positive thinking, in the face of hardship, are self-fulfilling. Those who are resilient, who bounce back despite adversity, are happier people. And, happier people are more resilient when faced with adversity. Studies show that resilient people are those who actively seek strong relationships in their lives – with friends, family members, clubs and organizations like faith communities. In doing so, they have a built-in network of support when adversity strikes. Resilient people are confident in their abilities and have a positive view of themselves – they believe in their power to overcome. Resilient people have strong common sense and problem solving abilities – they are able to understand and think about situations they face. And, they are able to manage and control the powerful emotions that affect any of us. They can control temptations, anger, depression and loneliness. They have learned hardship coping skills.
In the midst of adversity, there are several suggested ways to cope. First, we should plan ahead for difficulties – the more we think through strategies for coping ahead of time, the less influenced we will be by emotion. Second, it is OK to grieve and mourn any loss or difficulty. Grief is a part of the healing process. Third, it is OK to laugh and experience joy in times of trouble. If we cannot find humor on our own, we should seek it by watching funny movies or TV shows or reading a book that is light and silly. Fourth, we should make goals for ourselves and then take action to accomplish them. Inaction encourages further depression and self-pity. Fourth, we should be aware of our growth and what we have learned. In any hardship, we often discover new friends, a new sense of spiritual awareness, a greater feeling of strength, an improved sense of self-worth or a deeper appreciation for life. It is a cliché to say, but there are always silver linings along the dark shroud of difficulty. Fifth, we should remain hopeful and refuse to give in to the feeling that all is lost. Sixth, we can diffuse feelings of loss by serving and helping others. Finally, we must find opportunities to pamper ourselves just a bit – eating a delicious meal, spending fun time with a friend, taking time off to shop, visit a park, or exercise.
One additional lesson from the Book of Job is that while friends and family are helpful, we should avoid those who choose to lecture. At the conclusion of the story, God condemns the friends of Job for their lack of empathy. They represent an analytical approach to problem solving instead of a deeper, heart-felt and introspective examination of hardship. If we choose to piously tell someone who suffers that it is for their own good, how have we helped? Indeed, I pray my message today is not taken as insensitive to those who are in the midst of a difficult time.
Most people have amazing abilities to cope with crisis. What people need in such times is not advice, but empathy. And empathy is not simplistic sympathy. It is an effort to listen and understand the other. Empathy involves putting oneself in the other’s shoes and feeling their pain. Those who are empathetic to suffering do far, far more listening than they do talking.
Job’s friends were not truly there for him in his suffering. They were too busy showing how self-righteous they could be. Job, on the other hand, was finding his own way through the darkness. What he wanted was help in finding the god within himself – the power to persevere, overcome and be thankful. When we act as a loving and empathetic god to someone who is suffering, we are joining them on the path to healing. We are implicitly telling them that we too understand pain. They are not alone in that journey.
Dearest friends, we all ache at the pain we see others experience. We all wish that hardship did not affect our own lives. Why, oh why, is there hurt in the world? Why must the Heartbreak Hotel be a frequent destination and yet never display a “No Vacancy” sign? It can be a dark and lonely place. Or, it can be a bright and hopeful transition to a new life. Paradoxically, adversity is a necessity in our wondrous world. Without hardship, how would we experience joy? Without evil, how would we understand goodness and love? Without death, how can we truly appreciate life?
I imagine in my mind’s eye individuals before me and listening online who are coming to terms with who they are as a gay or lesbian, who are working to support a family, who are fighting to create justice in an unfair world, who are doing all they can to find healing and power in their bodies and in their minds. Let us inspire one another with our determination in the face of hardship. Let us check in to the Heartbreak Hotel of life and, with loved ones beside us, may we find our stay short but full of promise and change for the better.
Peace, I pray, be with you…