Talking the Book of Job with Friends in Ukraine

Posted: January 17, 2023 in Uncategorized
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One of my privileges is to volunteer with an organization whose mission is to train Ukrainian mental health workers. That work is doubly hard in a time of war. In addition to everything else that a counselor must routinely address, there are war-related trauma, stress, grief and fear. But that is in no way limited to clients.

The counselors themselves are not insulated from the devastation of war. Like military chaplains, they share the same context as those whom they serve. To do this, they must find ways to keep heart and soul together. Unless they do, how else can they be of help to others?

One of my Ukrainian friends told the story of sharing in a Ukrainian celebration of the New Year, full of merriment, only to have it followed by the bombing of the apartment complex that killed scores of men, women and children. That shock, that sense of destruction, hovers over everything they do.

After a long Zoom call, interpreted from Ukrainian to English, my Ukrainian friend said, “Думаю, я ще раз прочитаю Книгу Йова.” (I think I will read the Book of Job again.)

Indeed. What better? This parabolic Biblical classic wrestles with universal questions of suffering, supposed causes, and the role, if discernable, of the Source of all that is. And that’s what we talked about.

The first, most native reading probably speaks most directly: People suffer. They suffer a lot. At the worst, everything that matters can be taken from them. Most surely, this.

And then come questions of causation. In the story, well-meaning friends show up to bring counsel and consolation. Their observations are predictable: You must have done something to deserve this. Fess up, Job, and repent. But as the story lays out from the beginning, Job was a righteous person, a good person who suffered greatly. Job knows this and informs his friends of the same. What the Book of Job is doing through this dialogue between Job and his friends is to make an argument. Actually an argument with other parts of the Bible that state or imply that all suffering is the result of punishment for sin. Not so, says Job. Not by a long shot. In fact, the story itself is a refutation of that understanding. Good people suffer. Our suffering is not correlated to our moral lives, except as consequences flow from intentions and behavior. We are not punished for our sins, though perhaps by them.

After addressing that little misconception of suffering, the story shifts to Job’s anguish before God. In the same way that his friends accused Job of moral failings, now Job begins to accuse God. After all, if God is all-powerful and this has happened, isn’t God culpable? Job puts God on the witness stand. Job the prosecutor shakes his indignant fist. Why? An accounting, please!

Anyone who has shared in suffering to any degree knows this bitter taste in the mouth. Someone deserves my bile. How about appealing my case to a higher court? But wait, do I have a God who is a master puppeteer, arranging this event and that, the cause of all things good and bad? To what degree is God actually involved in historical life? Other than being the creative source of all things? What do we mean when we say God “acts” in the world?

Before those little theological questions are resolved, the story shifts again. This time the silent Presence roars out of the spinning whirlwind, throwing Job into the witness stand. Now Job shall give an accounting. And the Prosecutor asks one question in many iterations: “Where were you when I created the foundations of the world?”

Well, nowhere. That’s where I was. I was nowhere, a no-thing.

Job shuts up.

And that’s where the story ends, even though later generations tried to repair it by adding a happy ending. It ends with muted Job standing before a mystery he cannot begin to understand or explain. And the many dimensions of suffering are left spinning in that whirlwind.

My Ukrainian friends know suffering. It comes not as a punishment for sins committed. However much we may analyze causes and solutions from a geopolitical perspective, there are no ultimate, eternal explanations available. None except a ponderous silence before suffering and the awareness that we are too tiny and short-lived to venture answers in the midst of infinite time and space.

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