Saturday, October 9, 2010

Lessons from the Book of Job

It is time for what is becoming my quarterly blog post. No politics this time, or at least not directly.

Until this last year I’ve always had a rather cartoonish understanding of the Book of Job. I knew it only superficially as the story of a man who became the object of a “wager” between God and Satan. Satan bet God that if Job were no longer blessed then he would abandon God. Satan caused all manner of terrible things to happen to Job but Job stayed faithful and was blessed. The End.

This version of the story teaches little more than “suck-it up and don’t complain.” And it only encompasses the fist two chapters and the last; it completely ignores the intervening 39 chapters. It also completely misses the point of the book.

Satan’s challenge to God was an effort to prove a common misuse of faith: He wanted to show that there is a simple correlation between blessings and righteousness; that “blessings” (prosperity, wealth, health, freedom from obstacles, and freedom from temptation) either cause righteousness or result from it in a simple way that is easily and readily accessible to the human mind.

The Book of Job is a refutation of this simple correlation. This doctrine is taught elsewhere, of course, such as in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, where Christ teaches “[Your Father in heaven] causes his sun to rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45) But nowhere is it taught more beautifully than in the Book of Job.

Taking Satan’s bait and biting into the idea of simple correlations can play out on every scale of the human experience, from within our own heart to international relations. And while it would be fun to blast the ignoramuses that exploit natural disasters to “prove” their own righteousness and the wickedness of whoever was effected (such as blaming hurricane Katrina on Gay Pride celebrations or the Haitian earthquake on a 200 year old pact with the devil), such obvious distortions are easily dismissed with a little thought and a nudge or two from the scriptures (for example Luke 13:1-5.) It is at the personal and interpersonal level where a correct understanding of the role of suffering and its relationship (or non-relationship) to righteousness can make or break the human spirit. It is here that we see these forces play out in the book of Job.

The first two chapters set up the story, we as readers see that the cause of Job’s suffering is not his wickedness; quite the opposite: it is because God knows of his righteousness that Job is chosen by the Lord to be his champion. This, however, is unknown to Job and the friends who come to comfort him. Job’s friends assume that his suffering is the result of some unconfessed sin, Job does not speculate on the cause of his suffering other than to rebut his friends and to maintain his righteousness.

The depths of the pain that Job is suffering can be felt in his words:

“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? ...Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child?”

“What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh Bronze? Do I have any power to help myself now that success has been driven from me?”

“I loath my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me….Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction.”

Job’s friends come and try to comfort him. But they do not seek to comfort him as the Lord does, by sharing his burden, mourning with him, comforting him, or serving him. Instead they try to preach to him, quote scripture at him, and show him where he went wrong. They see his suffering as evidence of God’s displeasure with him, and his complaints as proof of his unrighteousness. As Job grows more insistent in proclaiming his righteousness and louder in his laments his friends grow increasingly blunt in their accusations. They tell him that all he needs to do is repent and pray harder and his suffering will go away (see, for example, 11:13-20.) They tell him to just walk away from his suffering and quit complaining (18:2-4.) They tell him that God is perfect and perfectly just therefore if Job is suffering it is because he deserves to suffer (34:5-12). But Job refuses to concede, he knows of no wickedness that he has done that would warrant such a punishment. He tells his friends that: “…as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, and my tongue will utter no deceit. I will never admit you are right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.” (27:3-6)

One of Job’s remarkable strengths is the way he maintains his integrity, even in the face of accusations from his friends who present “proof” that his suffering is the result of sin.

One of the more subtle ways that the deceiver attempts to separate us from God is to get us to believe that our life and the path it will take is completely know to us, and can be controlled by us through a simple set of rules and rituals. He would have us believe that salvation is through the law rather than Christ, he would have us believe that if we continue to suffer from the effects of sin or any other of the effects of the fall that it is because we have not prayed hard enough, that we have not purified ourselves enough. Like Job’s friends using Job’s own complaints as proof of his unworthiness, the father of lies tries to get us to believe that the temptations he places before us are proof that we are unworthy of the Love of Christ. He wants us to believe that faith in Christ will take away our struggles, sorrows and temptations, and that, if it doesn’t, either we have failed or Christ has. The truth is much more powerful, but less easily understood: it is that we must to come to Christ with a broken heart and contrite spirit (2 Nephi 2:7), have faith that Christ’s grace is sufficient for us, and understand that, while the Lord can give us strength to helps us with our problems, we live in a post-fall world: sometimes the cup will not pass but must be drunk to the dregs. (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

We cannot even judge our own righteousness by the presence or absence of sin, pain, temptation, suffering, strength, knowledge or capacity, let alone that of any other soul. Those are not standards of righteousness; the only standard is this: Have we come to Christ with real intent, with a broken heart and contrite spirit covenanting to do good and follow his will with all the strength we have, however great or small that strength may be and any given moment? Do we have faith in the strength of Christ?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Response to Comments

So I’ll respond to the comments from my post below (who would have thought that a three word post would generate my most comments ever.)


Ah, the fun of trying to defend off-the-cuff comments. Of course I do not believe that we live in a “pure” market economy (and thus I believe that we, technically, live in a “blended” one.) And though I’m loath to use Wikipedia as a source, I concur that we do have some “semi-socialist” programs. However, even Medicare is not government ownership of production; the government buys the services of private individuals to provide medical care (albeit at a mandated, below-market rate.) A better example of “socialism” by the US government is the Veterans Administration where the government actually owns the hospitals and employs the doctors; other examples include public schools and public libraries (socialism by the state or local governments, rather than the federal government.) However, I would submit that if the United States is not the most free market of any country in the world it is very, very close. A “pure” socialist economy is one in which all means of production are owned by the all the people and controlled by them through the government. The following quote is from the principles of socialism of the Socialist Party USA: “In a socialist system the people own and control the means of production and distribution through democratically controlled public agencies, cooperatives, or other collective groups.” Communism is an example of non-democratic socialism; the Socialist Party purports to be working toward democratic socialism. Saying that the US is not a “pure” market economy is a little like claiming that your tap water is not pure because it contains trace amounts of something other than H2O.

The attempts to redefine socialism to mean government regulation or government services is a political scare tactic used by the right wing and other anti-government forces to whip up fear of the government or political opponents by attempting to link them to the now defunct demon of communism (think the Union of Social Soviet Republic). Government regulation is not government ownership. To attempt equate them is an attempt to confuse the issue and the public. Labeling opponents as communist has been a favorite tactic of the right for at least fifty years (think the attacks on Martin Luther King Jr., Senator McCarthy’s hearings, or the John Birch Society’s claiming that President Eisenhower was a communist puppet.) With the collapse of worldwide communism it can no longer serve as a viable boogieman. But Socialism is still around and is being used in much the same way. Equating regulation with socialism is an attempt to confuse the public into fearing regulation and attack policies based on emotional sound bites rather than facts. That the right wing has been successful in propagating confusion is no excuse to accept it.

I’m sure that we could find exceptions, but my observation is that most uses of the word socialism to describe Obama, the Health Care Bill, Democrats, or Liberals are attacks intended to be derogatory made by the right wing. I highly doubt Obama would consider himself a socialist, or the healthcare bill socialist. The aims of the Democratic Party are not socialist and even most liberals are not socialist (though it may be possible to argue that most socialists are liberals or at least left-wing.)

As I’ve said before on this blog if we are going to have real intelligent discussions about issues we need to abandon attempts to use words or catchphrases that are deliberately calculated to ramp up fear and diminish trust. We need to focus on facts, not fear. Labeling the health care bill as socialist was a deliberate attempt by some (which was then picked up by less knowledgeable others) to increase fear and loathing for the bill and those that support it.

Monday, March 22, 2010