Sunday, August 22, 2010

Job (man or metaphor?) revisited. . .

Once every four years (sometimes more often when we talk about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, see D&C 121, 122, 123), the story of Job is bashed about in Gospel Doctrine class.  For us it happened again today.

I'm not sure why it is, perhaps it's just a Mormon thing, but whenever Job's name comes up the great debate begins again -- was Job a real guy?  Did God and Satan really have a conversation about him?  Or was the book of Job a metaphor?  I'm not certain it matters to anyone, but I believe we'll see Job again in the spirit world someday.  There, I just settled it.

The book is a real problem for a lot of people on many different levels.  Books have been written, symposia have been held, articles have been authored, and each attempts to resolve this "great and holy mystery" without success.  The debate was enjoined and renewed again today.

There are a host of "problems" associated with the book as it stands in today's Bible.  I summarize in the attempt to be brief (a challenge).

The book begins and ends with bookend conversations (Job 1-2; 42:7-17), then there's a story in the middle (Job 3:1-42:6).  In the beginning, God and Satan have a conversation, God brags about how loyal Job is to Him. Satan says that Job is only loyal because he has been rewarded with worldly possessions for his obedience.  Satan asserts God has bought Job's love with a price, and Job is so conditioned by his righteousness he believes blessings are his automatic reward for his faithfulness. Take those all away, Satan contends, and Job would curse God.

It's a little disturbing to most that such a barter would be going on between God and Satan over the soul of a man, but nevertheless God challenges Satan to do whatever he wants to Job.  God says Job will still be loyal.  The worst happens thereafter -- Job's fortune disappears in a New York minute, and his children are all killed in a freak accident.  But Job doesn't cave, he remains true and faithful.

Okay, Satan says, let's inflict a little physcial suffering into the mix, then Job will curse God.  So God gives Satan permission to really hurt Job.  His body is afflicted with painful boils from head to foot.  Still Job blesses God.

So God makes his point with the Devil, restores Job's possessions, his fortunes (twice what he had before) and even gives him a new family.

What are we to learn by this story?  Job was true and faithful, and therefore all righteous people who are loyal to God will prosper.  Job was prosperous as the story began, and after a temporary setback, Job regained the prosperity he deserved -- he was entitled to it because he was true and faithful and God is bound when we do what He says.  (D&C 82:10).

This is a theology based upon a covenant.  The revelation in D&C 82 involves the law of consecration.  The promise is all for all -- you give me all you possess, God says, and you will receive all that I have.  The Old Testmament is filled with the covenant.  The House of Israel is blessed when they are righteous, and they are cursed and punished when they reject righteousness.

The story inside the Job story, however, seems contradictory.  This theology seems to break down.  In his conversations with his friends (all have names, suggesting they are real people), no one shows any awareness of Satan's existence in what is going on.  Rather, the assumption they make is that it is God who is inflicting all this pain upon Job.  Because God is all-knowing, they reason, God must have a pretty darn good reason for doing all these bad things to Job.

Job suffers.  He even curses the day he is born.  There were other prophets, notably Jeremiah, Jonah, Nephi, Paul, Moses, Isaiah who come immediately to mind who did as much.  All were filled with not only self-doubt but worse -- they couldn't imagine themselves up to the challenges God put them up to.  Job complains bitterly because he can't see any good reason why God should torment him.  He's been a good son.  He claims he is innocent.  He wants to know why he is being thus tormented and afflicted.  He complains that the heavens seem sealed above his head.  God is either not there or He is not listening.  Job finds no comfort, nor does he get the help he needs.

Job's righteous friends are apparently very familiar with the theology that in obedience we can claim God's blessings, so their only conclusion based upon that theology leads them to conclude Job must not really be what he appears to be.  He must have done something bad to bring down God's wrath upon himself and his family.  They suggest if he would just repent, then God would restore him to his previous condition.

It's not unlike the people who observed the boy who was blind in Christ's time.  "Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  (John 9:2).  This assumption -- that if something goes awry in our lives that it must be our fault because we are sinners is well-entrenched.  In our present calling at the Employment Resource Center we see it repeated again and again.  Unemployment still seems to carry a stigma that those who lose their employment are somehow at fault.  I know, it's stupid, but try to tell that to some of the people I meet who are still suffering under the stigma of well-meaning ward members whose comments tend to reinforce the false premise.  Even some priesthood leaders, I have been told, have suggested as much to their ward members who tell me of their interviews.

At the end of the story God finally appears to Job in a whirlwind and says, "I created everything.  Job, what can you do compared to that?  What do you know compared to what I know?"  God does not answer any of Job's questions and does not take sides in the debate about His covenant -- what it takes to acquire His blessings.  Instead, He seems almost to insult and taunt Job for being little more than "a creature."  Job responds, Moses-like, that he had not understood.  Having seen God, he now despises himself and repents.

On some level Job can be viewed as an "every man" figure metaphorically.  I know many Jobs in today's world searching for jobs, and for the most part I believe they are righteous, faithful people, whether of our faith or not.  I meet many who are not members of the Mormon Church.  In fact, we see about as many job placements among members as we do among non-members.  I believe most have suffered their fate of unemployment through no fault of their own.  The similarity between losing a job (little "j") and Job (big "J") is not lost on me.  To suggest they have lost their jobs through unworthiness is simply a bridge too far for me.

We see Job discussing his plight with his friends in the story, but that could be nothing more than the self-talk I have witnessed with many of our candidates in the Professional Placement Program.  Almost to a person, the first question on their lips is "Why?"  They are simply trying to make sense of their suffering, when sometimes there is no sense at all to it.  Sometimes, most often in fact, we don't get the answer to the "Why?" question until we are on the other side of the crucible looking back.  Or maybe it will be on the other side of the veil before we know.

I believe the message I see in Job's story is that there is no correlation between what people get and what they deserve.  The moral of Job's life story is sometimes there is no answer.  Sometimes there is no reason behind our suffering.  We can suffer for sins, we can observe consequences for sins, but sometimes there is no answer -- stuff happens. 

A few months ago, we had a wonderful speaker at our Monday morning networking meeting at the LDS Business College, U.S. Olympian Mike Schlappi, a paraplegic who was shot accidently by his best friend and was paralyzed from the chest down.  He wrote a book called Shot Happens.  Here's how he describes the book:

"I got shot. What's your problem?  Does that sound sardonic or terse or dismissive? I don't mean it that way. I did get shot and it is my problem. A .38 caliber bullet fired at point-blank range, slammed into my chest, clipped my lung, narrowly missed my heart, and lodged in my spine; paralyzing me from the chest down and I had to deal with it. I still have to deal with it every day. That is my problem. Now, what is your problem? What do you have to deal with today or every day? Do you have something lodged in you maybe not in your spine, but perhaps in your heart or mind that causes you pain and makes you feel paralyzed one way or another? What position are you taking relative to your problem? In other words, what is your attitude relative to your situation? You see, in my book (and this is my book), attitude is a position not a mood; and it is the position we take toward our circumstances that turns bad days into good days. Are you tired of people in wheelchairs talking about attitude? Well, don't put this book down, because what it says about attitude will rock your world. Okay, maybe it won't rock your world, but it will change your world -- at least it will change the way you look at things. . . and that will rock your world."

Mike's book illustrates beautifully that righteous people do suffer and that there may be no reason behind their suffering.  Shot happens.  That reality provides no ammunition, leaves no excuse for the belief that suffering is evidence that God is punishing someone.  When the Grand Designer set moral agency into the equation as the necessary mainspring to make the plan of salvation possible, to introduce sin and consequences, He had to walk away from micromanagement.  So do parents. 

That notion cannot sustain the belief that God tries individuals to test their faith or to improve them. The book legitimizes the right we all have to ask the toughest of life's questions.  What the book also proves to me is that often there are just no good answers. 

I believe Job was a real man facing real life difficulties, but perhaps the best part of the book of Job for me is that it compels me to think about life's imponderables at least every four years.

Before Job was afflicted, he believed as his friends did:  God really does reward the righteous and punishes the wicked during their mortal lives.  But it seems to me since Job did not really deserve his suffering, he had to revise his assumptions and his faith as it was stretched a bit beyond his comfort zone.  He modified his original belief that God was dispensing His rewards and punishments justly.  Some of what happened to him just did not seem fair.  But no matter how he felt about whether or not he was being treated fairly he never lost faith in the Grand Designer behind it all.  I'm using "Grand Designer," because that was the way President Thomas S. Monson characterized our Father in Heaven in his Easter Sunday message at General Conference last April.  I just taught that lesson in our high priests group this morning, so it's fresh on my mind.

Because he never lost faith in God, Job believed He was still the cause of what happened to him, even when the going was pretty tough and the reasons behind his suffering seemed unknowable, even unthinkable.  Job said, "Who knoweth not. . . that the hand of the Lord has wrought this?" (Job 12:9).  He saw God, not Satan, as the cause behind his suffering.  Job cried to his friends, "Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends, for the hand of God hath touched me!" (Job 19:21).

In The Book of Mormon, God promises the Nephites and by extension the Latter-day Saints today that He blesses His people when they are righteous and punishes them when they are not.  Much is made in Sunday School lessons about the Nephite cycles of prosperity, then pride, then hardship, then repentance, then restoration.  (Perhaps the most famous statement of this expectation of being blessed for our righteousness comes from Mary Fielding Smith as told by her son, Joseph F. Smith. She explained to young Joseph F., "If I did not pay my tithing, I should expect the Lord to withhold His blessings from me.  I pay my tithing not only because it is a law of God, but because I expect a blessing by doing so.  By keeping this and other laws, I expect to prosper and to be able to provide for my family."  "Tithing Blessings," Friend, March 1981, 36.  It's such a familiar story it has become iconic).

So why do faithful saints who pay their tithing not recieve the promised blessings of financial independence?  Why are not all addictions relieved immediately upon a humble pleading?  Why are not the effects of illness erased when faith is present?  Why do infants die, when some old folks suffer for years in a diminished state with little or no quality of life?  Why does unemployment continue to plague us as a country despite trillions of dollars in stimulus legislation?  Why do Republicans reject everything Democrats do and vice versa?

Because shot happens.

We have a plethora of scriptures that teach a harsh doctrine.  For example, Doctrine and Covenants 59:21 says God's wrath is kindled against "those who confess not his hand in all things."  Doctrine and Covenants 87:6-8 teaches God chastens people by famine, plague, earthquakes, and storms.  (Compare D&C 43:25-26).  The Millennial Star's regular column, "Signs of the Times," pointed to various natural disasters in the news — volcanoes, floods, tornados, and famine — as being God's judgments upon humans. (In Manchester Mormons: The Journal of William Clayton, 1840-1842, ed. James B. Allen and Thomas G. Alexander [Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1974], 5-6.  Also see Orson Hyde, in "A Timely Warning to the People of England," attributing England's hardships to "the withering touch of the Almighty").

We have a well-developed theology associated with this cause and effect cycle, don't we?  In more recent years, quoting President Joseph F. Smith, President Boyd K. Packer once told Latter-day Saint scholars that those who are wise and careful "see in every hour and in every moment of the existence of the Church. . . the overruling, almighty hand of Him who sent His Only Begotten Son to the world."

So what do we believe about these questions?  Do the diseased, the unemployed, the woeful sinners, the dying, the divorced, the faithful poor suffer at God's hands, if He is truly in everything?  Does He mete out instant rewards and punishments?  Does every righteous person get a life of ease and comfort?  Does every other person who falls short have to struggle against all odds? 
When we are healthy and prospering, loving God and being loyal to Him is simple.  When our children shine forth as righteous examples and make our buttons burst with "righteous pride" (though there really is no such thing), we think God has blessed us because we deserve it.  Or do we?  How do we explain others who are suffering, who so far as we can discern are every bit as righteous as we are?  Does God put them in that position because for whatever reason we don't know God thinks they deserve their circumstances?  Worse, what if we're righteous and we're still suffering?  I think what I really believe is that what matters is how we answer those questions for ourselves.  

It is natural to wonder, as Job did, "What have I done to deserve this? Why has God done this to me?"  It's the first thought that ran through my head when our infant daughter, Adrienne, died quietly in the night. My first thought was this was not a random event.  It had to be the purposeful design of the Grand Designer for a lesson I was to learn.  But what?  He made me totally uncomfortable with my life.  I had to re-examine, reassess, and it was painful beyond belief.  It shook me to the roots.  I was knocked off kilter for months thereafter.  I couldn't accept that "shot happens" -- I had to find a reason, to attribute my suffering as part of God's plan even though I didn't understand it.  I had to continue exercising my faith without knowing the answer.

I said it was natural and I highlighted my experience, but there are a host of others we could cite.  If God truly gives us the situations we deserve (after all, He put us here on earth as part of the covenant, right?) and then those situations cause us to suffer, then our rational mind tells us we must have done something to deserve it.  What were we thinking?  That we were righteous?  Are you kidding me?  Our self-talk continues, "You're an idiot to think you were righteous.  Your personal disasters are your own fault.  I'm suffering, therefore I am guilty.  God has caused me to be infertile because I was on birth-control pills to put my husband through school.  God didn't heal me because I didn't have enough faith.  I didn't get that job I wanted through nine rounds of interviews because I'm just not humble enough, and I didn't seek the Spirit earnestly enough."  I call that "stinkin' thinkin'" and it's destructive.  In this frame of mind, like Job, we suffer not only the pain of the circumstance, but also the burden of unwelcome and undeserved guilt associated with it.

Taken to its extremities, we may also associate the suffering of our loved ones as somehow being attached to us.  "My daughter is dying of cancer, therefore God is punishing me for something."  Then you must believe, if that's what you really believe, that you are more important somehow in God's eyes than your daughter if you are the one being singled out.  I'm going to punish you, Dave, to teach you a lesson by taking your youngest daughter away from you.  I know, it's obvious how stupid that reasoning is, but I can tell you from personal experience it happens, as irrational as it is.

I'm beating around the bush, so let me just say it straight out.  This kind of thinking is false doctrine.  I loved what President Packer said in a General Conference address about handicaps.  We witness those who are physically handicapped in some way, and those handicaps are easier to spot, but having kicked around the planet for a few years now I can tell you what I have come to believe -- we are ALL handicapped in some way.  We do the best we can to manage handicaps in the job search (you're too old, you're too inexperienced, you're too overqualified), and we learn to focus instead on the things we're really, really good at.

President Packer said we are wrong to believe suffering is necessarily a direct result of sin. "There is little room for feelings of guilt in connection with handicaps. Some handicaps may result from carelessness or abuse, and some through addiction of parents. But most of them do not. Afflictions come to the innocent. . .  The idea that all suffering is somehow the direct result of sin has been taught since ancient times. It is false doctrine." (“The Moving of the Water,” Ensign, May 1991, 7).

Sometimes we eventually are able to put a positive spin on our suffering, thinking God has caused difficulty in our lives for some larger and grander purpose. We or someone else we love dearly will ultimately benefit from our suffering if only we can endure it well.  Oops, I thought it was the Savior who made the infinite vicarious sacrifice, not us.  If we are righteous, "all things shall work together for [our] good." (D&C 90:24).  Here's how this line of reasoning goes:  "God gave our family this sick child to bring us together." Or, "God called my father home to the spirit world so he could to do missionary work on the other side of the veil." Or, "God gave my teenager AIDS so He could teach other teenagers that immoral behaviors can have tragic consequences." Or, "God needs my child back with Him more than I need her here on earth." You may find comfort in some of those explanations, but do we really think God has caused a tragedy, if He hasn't told us He has, or that we presume to know His motives when they remain unrevealed?

I'm sorry, but I don't believe in a God who routinely causes catastrophes, displacements and disruptions for His children's benefit or punishment.  It makes Him unknowable to me.  This natural world is filled with lots of suffering occurring naturally.  Ask yourself as a parent if you would do that to one of your children, to knowingly cause them pain and suffering to serve some higher purpose you will not or cannot explain to them for their own good.  Would you do that?  Neither does God.

Richard Holzapfel, when he taught our Gospel Doctrine class was fond of reminding us, "Discipleship either makes us better or bitter."  It's a choice to decide what we will do with what happens to us. 

How often are we reminded of the old expression that we must have "the patience of Job?"  Well, the story of Job tells something different.  He was anguished, angry and bitter.  "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." (Job 7:11; 10:1).  He shouts at God, "Let me alone, that I may take comfort a little, before I [die]." (Job 10:20-21).  "God hath delivered me to the ungodly, and turned me over into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, but he hath broken me asunder: he hath also taken me by my neck, and shaken me to pieces, and set me up for his mark." (Job 16:11-12).

People who have lost their retirement investment portfolios in this latest economic disaster and are bitter might think, "God could have preserved my investments so I could have retired early and served Him in the mission field, but He didn't choose to.  If He hates me that much, then I hate Him too." Or, "God let my husband walk right out the door and abandon me and my children.  What's the divine purpose in Him doing that to us?"  Or, "God could have healed my boy with cancer, but He didn't.  What good is righteousness, how is that binding Him to answer my prayers, when He just turns His back on us?"  Or, "I've been loyal to God just like Job, but look at what He has done to me."  P.S. He can take it, He's heard it all before.

I've heard all those words come out of the mouths of people I know and love, even out of my own mouth.  The story of Job, fact or metaphor notwithstanding, is as fresh as today.  My God is not responsible for everything that happens.  Why isn't it okay for us to say, "I don't know why it happened?"  My favorite answer to gospel doctrine questions I only thought I knew the answer to when I was younger is increasingly, "I don't know and you can quote me on that."

I don't know why a large semi-truck hit and killed a faithful mother in our stake.  I don't know why on a snowy morning a young faithful father was instantly killed while his daughter in the front seat next to him was spared.  I don't know why a young teenager was thrown from a four-wheeler and drowned in a ditch.  I don't know why people are losing their jobs, and I don't know where or when they will find the replacement income they have lost.  Might as well add, I don't know when the Second Coming is coming. . .

I don't know anything about what the Obama administration has been attempting to do in these last eighteen months, and I certainly can't discern their motives, whether they are pure, evil, or just wrong-headed.  I just don't know.

I do know this:  Natural law is at work and causes accidents and disasters. When drought limits harvests, people starve. When cars crash, people get hurt or die. Some proportion of the population will be infertile, and some proportion will get cancer. Some outliers in the bell curve will have homosexual tendencies and others on the other end with overdeveloped heterosexual tendencies make them abusers and murderers.  Some X and Y chromosomes don't get aligned properly at birth.  Despite the efforts of faithful parents, some children will abuse their moral agency and make horrible and destructive choices.

Rather than making God accountable for everything bad that happens to us, I turn again to President Packer.  It sounds harsh that God has no regard for human feelings, but here it is:  "The very purpose for which the world was created, and man[kind] introduced to live upon it, requires that the laws of nature operate in cold disregard for human feelings. We must work out our salvation without expecting the laws of nature to be exempted for us." (Ibid.).

God does help, He does hear our prayers, He often intervenes in the affairs of men and nations when faith is sufficient, He does reward faithfulness, He does allow the consequences of willful sin to play out.  He does provide inspiration to go this way, not that way, He does offer comfort and assurance.  God can help us be the wisest, most loving parents it is possible to be. God can direct us to new employment, He can give us courage to press on into the darkness ahead, and He can help us respond to our difficulties with a mature and disciple-like faith that Father really does know best, even when the heavens overhead seem as brass and our prayers seem to bounce off without response.  He can fill us with the gifts of His spirit, and we can embrace the best gifts He offers us.  We can trust Him.  He is trustworthy.

Even when "shot happens."

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