This semester I’m taking a class called “Job and Human Suffering.” As you can imagine, it’s a pretty uplifting class.
And it’s not just a class on Job, a beautifully complex and layered work of ancient Hebrew poetry. It’s a class on Job in a seminary, taught to a class of people who have all spent at least 400 hours, per graduation requirements, in a hospital setting as chaplain. We have witnessed and experienced an array of human suffering. We have been asked the question over and over: “Why is this happening to me?”
As if we could possibly say.
“Why is this happening to me?” wasn’t even my least favorite thing to hear during CPE. My least favorite thing to hear wasn’t a question. It was a statement: “God is doing this to me.”
“God is doing this to me.” It was usually stated calmly, and was evidently a source of solace to the speaker. The implication was: God is doing this to me. Maybe I’ve done something wrong that I’ve got to pay for, and once I’ve paid, the suffering will stop. God is doing this to me to teach me something. Once I figure out what it is, then all of this will end.
Well, screw that. The implication that God causes suffering “because it’s good for you” is one that personally, I can’t accept. God is not Mary Poppins feeding you suffering like tonic, and faith is not a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
So I like Job because Job gets angry at God. Job doesn’t accept innocent suffering. Job calls God out. If God allows a man like Job to suffer simply because the satan points out that Job’s righteousness might have a chink in it that could be pierced by suffering, well then yeah, Job, I’d wanna put God on trial too.
But it’s not the character of God that fascinates me in the book of Job. Instead, it’s Job himself, and by extension, the rest of us. We so often invest our energy in easing, avoiding, mitigating, or denying the reality of our suffering, and others. How often do we just sit on the ash-heap, scrape our sores clean, lament our pain, and call our suffering what it is?
I couldn’t stop thinking about Job as I listened to last week’s podcast from This American Life. The theme of the show: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The first story was by Tig Notaro, a stand-up comedienne who, two days after being diagnosed with breast cancer, told her story as a stand-up routine. It’s funny. It’s painful. It’s basically an half-hour-long ash-heap session. Listen to the radio excerpt, which is much funnier out loud than it is written down, here. But if you can’t, it starts like this:
Hello! Hello, how are you? I have cancer, how are you? Are you having a good time? …(there’s murmuring and some nervous giggles from the audience.) Guys, relax, everything’s fine. I have cancer.
The audience actually laughs at this point, though there are still a few concerned noises.
Somebody over here just keeps going, ‘ooohhhh. Ooohhh, I think she might really have cancer.’ Who over here is taking this really bad? (She finds the person.) It’s ok! It’s ok. It’s gonna be ok. (A pause.) It might not be ok, but I’m just saying… It’s gonna be ok. YOU’RE going to be ok. I don’t know what’s going on with me.
The audience is laughing with her this whole time. Part of it is her delivery–slow, solid–she has a great voice, and great timing.
Please bear with me–when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, you don’t feel like telling the joke where the bee takes the 405 expressway.
Tig goes on to explain that she had just recently been hospitalized with a bacteria that was eating her gut, she got out of the hospital, and a week later her mother died tragically died after falling and hitting her heard. And then she went through a breakup. Then she found a lump in her breast. Then she got diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
This whole time, the audience is laughing, and part of it is that Tig is just a really gifted comic, but there’s something more. Sometimes it’s nervous laughter, but sometimes, it seems to be an almost relieved kind of laughter. Like, thank God someone is finally calling it like it is. Thank God someone is saying this out loud. Thank God someone is letting me laugh at how suffering becomes, at a certain point, so incomprehensible that it’s ridiculous. It’s actually a little bit funny.
What’s nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you’ve had it, God goes “All right, that’s it.” I just keep picturing God going, “You know what? I think she can take a little more.” And then the angels are standing back going, “God, what are you doing?! You’re out of your mind!” And God’s like, “Oh no no no, I really think she can handle this.” “But why, God?! Like, why? Why?” “Oh, I just, y’know. Just trust me on this.”
The audience is literally roaring at this point, but somehow, Tig hears something else:
I heard another little sad noise. Maybe you just should have stayed home tonight…Y’know, what if I just transitioned right into silly jokes, like right now?
And that audience says “No.” They actually shout it out to her. They want her to keep talking about suffering.
I couldn’t stop thinking of Job the whole time I was listening. How his friends didn’t want to hear about his suffering. How they just wanted him to shut up and get right with God.
I thought about a couple of the patients I had during CPE, too. There was this one guy, a street corner preacher, who was writhing in pain because of clots in his legs. He had the clots because he’d stopped taking anti-coagulants. He’d stop taking his meds because he believed God had healed him. He telling me, in between gasps of pain, “I must have done something. I must have sinned. That’s why God is doing this to me. That’s why God’s not answering my prayers right now.” That’s exactly what Job’s friends were saying to him while he was grinding his teeth and scraping his sores on the ash heap.
I had no idea what to say to this person in the ER. We prayed together a lot, and I hope that helped, but I couldn’t help but think, “What if the whole time I’m praying for healing he’s thinking that God’s not going to answer his prayers because he, this man, has done something wrong?” I felt like I couldn’t even say to him, “This is terrible. I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” because his response would so clearly have been, “Don’t say that. This is God’s will.”
Ira Glass comes on voiceover at this point in Tig’s routine:
As the set is winding down, the audience requests the bee joke she’s been talking about. Hearing her perform the bee joke is like hearing her perform a version of herself that she knows doesn’t even exist anymore.
As she tells the bee joke, the audience roars with laughter. Laughs way out of proportion to her joke. I think they’re laughing because they’re all on their own ash-heap of troubles, and Tig lets them stay there. She names it for them. She makes it ok. They laugh because they know, and she knows, and they know that she knows, that “normal” doesn’t exist for her anymore. Pretending it does is the height of comedy. That’s Tig.
But believing it does is the height of hubris. That’s Job’s friends.
There will always be both people like Job’s friends, and people like Job and Tig. People who believe the ash-heap is a symbol of their failure to be right with God, and people who set up camp there because there’s nowhere else they feel at home. And you know what? At CPE, I saw the first kind of theology work sometimes. Sometimes, the suffering would go away, and people would say, “Thank God” and move on with their lives.
But for the sake of those who continue to suffer, who do so innocently, or who do so beyond the limits of human endurance, I have to side with a theology that acknowledges the suckiness of suffering. I have to say that I’ve never found “It’s God’s will” or “God never gives you more than you can handle” to be at all helpful. Where I’ve found help is in a God who became flesh and suffered too. Where I’ve found strength is in a belief that there is no darkness so dark that Christ cannot pierce it, and no ash-heap so low that Christ cannot find it. Where I’ve found a response to suffering that is not empty or meaningless is in silence, and in tears, and sometimes in saying “I don’t know. But I will sit here and hold your hand for as long as you want.”
I don’t know if that’s the best answer. I don’t even know if it’s a good one. But it’s the only one that makes sense to me.