I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
~Job 42:2-3, NIV
The Book of Job is believed to be one of the oldest books in the Bible, if not the oldest. It was likely handed down orally over many years, as there’s a shift in the story’s language mode from beginning to end, the first sounding like folklore, the middle forming a kind of dialectic, and the end being the description of an instance of mystical enlightenment. What’s amazing about this ancient book is the way it overturns our simple assumptions and points us to a higher reality. It’s hard to imagine that the simple but false assumptions it refutes are still in circulation. Here are some of those falsehoods and some suggestions as to why we may still cling to them.
1. Suffering is a punishment for sin.
Job’s friends, supposedly having come to comfort him, repeat this refrain ad nauseum. Who knows where this wacky concept originated? And who knows how it survived for millennia, even unto the scientific age?
Victims of sexual assault were asking for it, the poor just aren’t trying hard enough or they spend too much on booze, you’re sick because you didn’t look after yourself, HIV is a punishment for being gay, and so on. The irony is that the Bible itself doesn’t back this up unless you isolate a few verses from their contexts. Most of those who suffer in the Bible are suffering because of something that’s happened to them. Yup, just like in real life.
So why do we keep falling back on this misconception? Maybe because it’s easier to blame victims than to help them. Blaming them also eases guilt feelings when life is good to us. This is the fib of a closed heart, and will no doubt go on being an excuse for egotism as long as humans grace the planet.
2. If you just say you’re sorry, you can be happy again.
Part of the pressure put on Job by his friends was to get him to admit he’d done wrong, to express regret, and to demand pardon. Trouble was, Job couldn’t think of anything he’d done wrong.
Had he done wrong, would repentance have restored his happiness? Life proves otherwise, as it would have to Job’s friends had they been honest about their own experiences. Believing that one’s wrongs have been forgiven can take a huge load off for people who think that that’s enough, but for the sincerely repentant, those who to wish to make amends and not repeat their wrongs, the road is hard and long.
Thinking that saying you’re sorry will restore your joy shows a faith in cheap grace, the kind of religion that reduces spiritual growth to formulas and magical thinking and avoids making hard demands. Easy solutions are very popular when we’re pushed to excel and be productive all the time, which may explain why we’d want to think that “sorry,” whether or not the word is sincere, makes everything better. A request for forgiveness must be accompanied by regret, an intention not to repeat the offense, and a readiness to make amends for harm done. A walk in the park it’s not.
3. You must never question God.
Job’s story explains that he was favoured by God because of his piety and faithfulness. After being smitten with trials Job questioned God interminably — without losing that favour. So did David, another one close to the heart of the almighty, and a number of prophets. Doubting, complaining, questioning, and demanding are all part of the spectrum of interaction with a higher power. Refusing to question that power means refusing to enter those exchanges that lead to the discovery of new meaning.
It’s hard to tell where this maxim originated, but today it appears to be most strongly held among religious extremists as a means of maintaining control over followers. In these cases the covert message is that one must not question religious authorities — a red flag if ever there was one.
4. Well-being is the privilege of those who are right with God.
Job’s friends really harped on this one, and if life back then was anything like it is today, you wonder how they could have insisted on it with straight faces. As Simone Weil pointed out, you can always reduce the severity of your suffering by consenting to a little evil. Evil pays (not just in business and politics), and honesty brings with it a host of penalties and limitations.
Who knows why we hang on to this one? Is it our envy at seeing the wicked prosper that makes us snarl, “They’ll get what they deserve”? Or is it the fact that the prosperous cling to the myth that their wealth is proof of their superiority? Probably a little of both.
5. There’s nothing to be gained from suffering.
Not one of Job’s friends suggested that he might make some wonderful discovery through his grief and pain, and certainly none foresaw the wonderful transformation of his fortunes. They all saw Job’s grief, loss, poverty, and illness as evils to be avoided, conditions without redemptive power. But, as Job’s story shows, suffering can open our eyes to the reality of things we only thought we understood.
Even today we wrestle our lives heroically away from pain and make moral compromises to keep it at bay. If we’re honest with ourselves we have to acknowledge that some of the greatest blessings in our lives have arrived because of our suffering: What if that devil hadn’t broken my heart so that I could find my angel? What if I hadn’t lost that awful job to find this great one? What if I’d never had that health crisis that taught me how precious life was?
. . .
In a world of light-speed changes it’s strangely comforting to know that some of our misconceptions are older than Job. It’s also comforting to know that even now those who search for meaning will surely find it.