We’ve been working our way through this Faces of Our Faith series for several weeks now. Like Jesus, we were convicted by the expansive faith of the Syrophoenician Woman. We dove into Proverbs and wrestled with the complicated instruction of Lady Wisdom. James the letter-writer reminded us about the power of words, how they can be used to build up or break down. Last week, Jesus welcomed little children, who taught us that not everything about faith and about God needs to be explained. This week, however, we are faced with a story that encompasses one of the biggest challenges to Christianity: not everything about faith and about God can be explained, especially when bad things happen to good people.
The book of Job has been lauded as “the greatest thing ever written with pen,” according to Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. “There is nothing,” he said, “in the Bible or outside of it bearing equal merit.” Countless scholars are quick to quote Carlyle, but then add, “and there is nothing in the Bible harder to comprehend.” And yet, it is a book we turn to again and again perhaps because if we cannot understand it intellectually, we understand it all too well on the basis of our experience. Everyone I’ve ever met knows something about suffering. No one is immune to tragedy.
There’s a branch of Christianity that promises a cure for all that. It goes by different names in different places, but is most often known as the “prosperity gospel.” The prosperity gospel proclaims that if you are good enough, if you are faithful enough, if you pray hard enough, God will give you everything your heart desires—money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness. The corollary, of course, is that if you do not get everything your heart desires, you are not good enough or faithful enough or praying hard enough. The world isn’t at fault. God isn’t at fault. You are.
Kate Bowler is a professor of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. She has spent her career studying the prosperity gospel and those who adhere to it. She says she has seen that yet, the prosperity gospel can encourage people, especially its leaders, to buy private jets and multi-million dollar homes as evidence of God’s love and favor. But more than anything, she sees the desire for escape. People longing for an escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that the bottom is falling out.
Some people want trust funds, but more want relief from the wounds of their past and the pain of their present. They want to be saved from bleak medical diagnoses, they want their lost teenagers to come back home again, they want their marriages to find common ground. People who subscribe to the prosperity gospel want some sense of power over the things that can rip life apart at the seams.
And part of what makes it so very compelling is that this school of thought explains away the problem of evil. It answers the questions that can leave our hearts in tatters: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet and others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see great, great grandchildren? The prosperity gospel looks at all of this and says, “Here is the answer. Faith, real faith, will always make a way. Here is the way to make sense of, and take control of, all that heartbreak and all that pain.”
And when there is chaos all around us, when grief is making a mess of our days, when agony is the only language we know how to speak, we will grasp onto any shred of control we can find.
In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Bowler tells one of her favorite prosperity gospel stories, one that comes from early televangelists Gloria and Kenneth Copeland. They have written volumes on claiming God’s blessing. They don’t expect life to be fair—they expect God to show favoritism. One night a tornado threatened to destroy their home. And rather than taking shelter, they sat down on the porch to stare down the storm. They prayed loud and long, they said, that God would protect their property. Their prayers were answered. The tornado turned, heading off in another direction.
But you and I know that sometimes, no matter how hard we pray, the storm comes anyway.
The book of Job is written for people who find themselves standing in the midst of the storm. It is written for people standing in the storm, and it offers a reassurance—it is not a lack of faith that brought you to this place.
The very first thing we learn about Job is that he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and turns away from evil. And everything that follows is a long account of how this blameless, upright, God-fearing man endures grief, agony, and pain beyond measure. His faith does not shield him from a hard life. But the author of this book goes out of their way to ensure we understand how flawless Job is.
I think that’s our first sign that this story is true in the sense that it contains all kinds of capital-T Truth. No human is as perfect as Job is made out to be. And so much like we Presbyterians interpret the Creation story in Genesis to explain the Truth of how the world came into being, we recognize it doesn’t contain the facts of how the world came into being. Some things about God are Truer than any facts could ever confirm or communicate. I think Job is like that. It is a story intended to teach us some capital-T truth about God and suffering.
And the capital-T Truth is that while we humans are too full of limitation and too prone to sin, suffering, the deep kind of suffering Job endures, just is. It is not the result of fault or failing or faithlessness. Job, who did not wrong, suffers. This book insists that suffering is simply part of living.
Now, if you are having a pretty good go of things right now, this might not sound like very good news. Suffering will come and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. But remember—Job isn’t written for the pretty good moments. Job is written for the moments when the very worst is happening, when the storms rage and we are no longer sure which way is up. When the doctor says the word “cancer.” When the fifth birthday you celebrate without a loved one hurts just as much as the first. When the bills can’t be paid on time. When the insurance denies the claim. In those moments, being reassured that your pain is not some sort of divine punishment for misbehavior…well, that doesn’t take the pain away, but at least it doesn’t make things any worse. It keeps salt from being rubbed in the wound. It keeps insult from being added to injury.
Nevertheless, suffering still produces countless hard questions. Just ask Job. I don’t know why Job is so often described as patient. He is many things, but patient is not one of them. For 37 of this book’s 42 chapters, God is silent while Job’s complaints are constant. He says out loud what we are afraid to admit. “I wish I had never been born.”
“Why have you made me your target, God?”
“I have no hope.”
“I hate my life.”
“Why is this happening to me?”
Why? That question is one of the universal human utterances. Our details are different, but our questions are the same. Why am I the one to be made an example of? Why am I the one who was laid off? Of all the girls at the party, why me? Why is my husband, who never smoked a day in his life, the one to get lung cancer? Why is Alzheimer’s allowed to rob so many of their memories? Why this suffering? And since there is all this suffering, God, why should we trust you?
Into the midst of Job’s sorrow, God finally response. But there is no answer to the question why. There is only this:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together? Have you entered into the springs of the sea? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Where is the way to the dwelling of light? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or cut a channel for the torrents of rain? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you send forth lightening?”
In his ongoing complaints, Job demands a courtroom. In response, God offers the cosmos. It is a breathtaking moment in scripture, one of the most beautiful reminders of God’s creative power. But it is not an answer. There’s no getting past that. Job asks why? Why did this happen to me?
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says it is absolutely absurd, the way God chooses to respond to Job’s questions. He says it almost seems as if they aren’t even having the same conversation.
When I was a child, my conversations were riddled with questions, which sometimes turned into little more than a litany of complaints, a grocery list of injustices. I suspect many of you are familiar with this. Why, I would ask my mom. Why do I have to sit in the backseat? Why do I have to eat Brussel sprouts? Why does my brother get to stay up later than me? Why do I have to go to the doctor? Why, I would ask.
And sooner or later, the answer would become: because I’m your mother.
That’s not an answer, either. From a place of logic, it’s completely inadequate. It does not answer the question we want…but it does answer the question we need. It does not answer the question of why…but it does answer the question of who.
There is no explanation given, because in the face of our hardest moments, any and every explanation would be found lacking. God offers no explanation, because God instead offers us a relationship. God, who breathed life into us at the beginning, and continues to breathe life into us every day… God, who does not promise us a life free of pain, but who does promise to stay by our side… that God says, “I was there are the beginning, and I will be there to the end.”
Today is World Communion Sunday, when churches all over the globe celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, a sign of being a church united despite our many differences. I said earlier that, “Why” is one of the universal human utterances, and that suffering is one of the universal human experiences. All of us, in our own way, have stood in Job’s shoes. Which means all of us, in our own way, know just how much we need to stand before this table, in the presence of the One who takes sorrow and turns it into salvation, the One who takes pain and turns it into promise, the One who takes death and turns it into life.
So come what will, may all glory be to God, the One who laid the foundation of the earth.
 This story, and much of this explanation of the prosperity gospel, comes from Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.