by Glenn Fairman 12/11/16
To every life comes a time of sackcloth and ashes, for who has fully escaped those catastrophes that send their torments into our deepest chambers of being? And when life’s walking-wounded level their white hot accusations against the Living God for His silent dereliction of duty, how often we are cut to the quick because what passes as our theology flees before an accuser’s inconsolable tears. Indeed, for every shattered, grieving soul, there was once a vibrant personality that flowered only to wither in a hellish time of boils, cancers, and duress. Notwithstanding, it is here in our sufferings that the white noise of the planet dissipates under the roar of our own groaning. It is here that the dialogue that contends with that haunting “why” can fully begin.
The Book of Job is about many things, but above all it exists as an open-ended vivisection of why good people suffer. It is as poignant now as when it was composed in a time opaque to the appeals of modernity. Its power is relevant to us because our natures have not changed one iota. In it, Job, the righteous, has been leveled as the helpless pawn in the cruelest of wagers. As he scrapes the crust from his pus-covered arms, his integrity is tried by three “friends” who represent the philosophic sophistry of the “religious.” If we were to distill it all down, their indictment would be this: In this world, the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are trampled underfoot. In this terrestrial way station that sets the steps of humanity towards their respective trajectories of Heaven or Hell, the ways of the just are blessed and a man’s sin will pay him out while he yet breathes. Thus, Job’s mighty fall is proof of some grievous iniquity, and he must come clean if he would stay this mountain of judgment.
Nevertheless, for all their impassioned rhetoric, the three are wrong. It doesn’t take even a cursory intellect long to realize that the sun shines on both the good and the wicked for a time; and for the upright, a life wracked with poverty or sickness can be a veritable byword. Conversely, how often the brazen flaunt their beauty and wealth and spit their contempt at the humbled. Indeed, the same God that permitted Betsie ten Boom, an angel with congenital pernicious anemia, to assume a martyr’s death in Ravensbrück, also allowed the anti-Semitic Jew George Soros a free hand in collaborating with the Nazi SS and laying waste his brethren. To the impassive heart, it would seem that Betsie’s reward for loving her persecutors and Soros’ Midas fortune would call into question the justice of God. For Betsie, who has slept these long 70 years, the earthly book slams shut; while Soros revels in his injustice to this very day. If evil dances into its grave, then virtue would seem to be a fool’s errand.
In short, the Ancient of Days can be whittled down to little more than a Cosmic Butler – if we are spiritual enough to invoke the appropriate incantation. These gnostic variations of Christianity would have us believe that the world is more Carnival cruise liner than a refinery of souls, while the default state of the pilgrim is one of largely unwavering joy, health, and abundance.
Even now, the same rancid theology of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar sickens the church of Jesus Christ. From the bowels of the Prosperity Gospel, we are told that the children of so rich a King were never destined to be earthly paupers. From the pulpits of Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar we are sold the merchandizing of the Cross: where the strong positive confession and the planting of our precious seed corn will reap the hundred-fold bounty in the here and now. Moreover, the disciples of Mary Baker Eddy, and those who propose that all sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone, would lead us down that rabbit-hole that usurps the sovereign rights from our Creator. In short, the Ancient of Days can be whittled down to little more than a Cosmic Butler – if we are spiritual enough to invoke the appropriate incantation. These gnostic variations of Christianity would have us believe that the world is more Carnival cruise liner than a refinery of souls, while the default state of the pilgrim is one of largely unwavering joy, health, and abundance. Should we be surprised that this caricature of the Cross intersects with “nuts and bolts” Christianity at no common point?
If this “merchandizing gospel” were true, one would be a fool not to commit his soul to Jesus – since on the scales of profit and loss, this quality of mercenary devotion makes good business sense. To these well-coiffed moneychangers, all those who suffer in health or privation do so only from a deficit of the proper faithful attitude. Had Peter only known what is taught at the Lakewood Church, or had Paul only filtered his message through the positivity of a Tony Robbins seminar, then perhaps the whole history of Christianity would have turned out quite differently.
Listen: As I write these words, there is a woman lying in the next room exhausted in her bed of pain from a six-year battle with endometrial cancer, and to my eyes she is without guile. She is fighting the good fight and has always extended herself into the needs of others. We, and a host of others too numerous to even name, have offered supplications that would crowd the coffers of Heaven. Was this cancer a judgment brought about by some secret unforgiven sin? Are those reservoirs of mercy encompassing that Great Throne destined only for others, or has she not sweated out the necessary amount of sincerity for The Most High to consider her worthy? Or, are we praying to a leaden sky for a healing that will never arrive? If God cares, then where is He? If He loves us with an intensity that all other loves melt away before, then why must the righteous who abide in Him drown alone in a sea of stop-motion affliction?
You will please forgive me if I meander back and forth in this conversation that occupies my days and nights. Confronted with the voices of men who are not there, I am assailed with this dialogue that visits me in my moments of greatest weakness. Intellectually and theologically, I make a whip of cords and drive away the heretics and their silken accusations. But as amphibious creatures, our emotions are so easily vexed by the duality that Christians must continually wrestle with – even under the canopy of sleep. I can be as tough as leather in one moment, and in the next instant the sight of my beloved’s shaking hands or the gurgle in her speech flings me back into that Slough of Despond.
Job too, if you will remember, undulates in his misery at the protests of his faithless companions. Since he is convinced that he has retained his integrity, he will not back down or “curse God and die” – although he is so overwhelmed by his condition that life has become an object of loathing he would gladly escape. Yet, throughout the span of his defense his core belief periodically returns – as his spirit shakes itself free and rises above the waves of his circumstance. He proclaims:
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me. -Job 19:25-27.
While Job’s words eventually silence the three, in the end he stands dumbstruck before the Voice from the Whirlwind – as will we all. And faced with the full brunt of our wretchedness as the Great Book is opened, how can we stand without an advocate? Indeed, “Surely as sparks fly up, mankind was born for trouble,” and no snippet of wisdom rings so true in describing our terminal diagnosis. In truth, how much Hell has man raised? What havoc has he lifted up from the turmoil of his inner parts? Thou hypocrite! How often we pluck the mote from a brother’s eye while laughing off the beam in our own. Having turned our face from the plight of our suffering neighbor while marinating in our own tepid melodrama like a leper obsessing over his hangnail, how little we see from the stunted vantage point of our own diseased natural perception. We, who have little more to show for this catalogue of insolence than our filthy hands, must all bear some measure of guilt for how this calamity has played out. And if we deny the charge, we are liars. Nevertheless, although we deserve the gallows, it turns out that things are not quite so cut and dried.
Having turned our face from the plight of our suffering neighbor while marinating in our own tepid melodrama like a leper obsessing over his hangnail, how little we see from the stunted vantage point of our own diseased natural perception. We, who have little more to show for this catalogue of insolence than our filthy hands, must all bear some measure of guilt for how this calamity has played out.
In the final accounting, it is Job and mankind, and not God, that must occupy the dock. And if the Potter smiled lovingly as His handiwork of clotted dust assailed His justice for 34 chapters, it was only because, in the fullness of time, He would Himself submit to those gallows of His own volition. God Himself would become an earthen vessel that was destined to be crushed beyond remedy – yet made new in order to light the way back home. It is a tale almost too beautiful to believe. One where: the wooden child becomes real, an old man is restored with a double portion, and my beloved will be healed as she one day basks in the ineffable grace of the Master Potter. Who could have guessed that the same Hand that bound the sweet influences of the Pleiades and loosened the bands of Orion would, in its proper season, stretch that hand tautly over a beam of wood and bear the full consequences of our verdict? Who could have known that the Voice from the Whirlwind and the bloodied man crying out “It is finished” would be one and the same?
Glenn Fairman returns from the wilderness and writes from Highland, Ca.
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