Our church recently spent a month with Job. The book of Job is, of course, famous for its treatment of the problem of evil and God’s justice in the face of unmerited human suffering. We are drawn to the book of Job for a variety of reasons. It is a masterpiece of literature, certainly, but I think the story also probes some of our deepest hopes and fears as limited human beings who rarely see or know as much—about suffering or anything else—as we might like.
The story is familiar enough: Satan accuses Job of loving God for what he can get out of the deal (material blessing, in this case) and God allows Job to suffer immensely to test this theory. The bulk of the book consists of a series of dialogues between Job and three “friends” who rehearse variations of a familiar approach to suffering: suffering is the result/consequence of sin. Much of the book orbits around the idea that there is a one-to-one correspondence between human (mis)deeds and suffering.
As I reread this book, it strikes me that there are rare glimpses that even Job’s friends do not or cannot consistently understand suffering exclusively in these terms. Job 5:6-7, for example, says this:
For misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the earth; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.
On one level, this passage seems to be a contradiction. “Misery doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” it seems to say; yet we are “born to trouble”—it comes to us as naturally as sparks flying upward. Is it possible that even Job’s misguided friend implicitly realizes that the one-to-one explanations of suffering and sin cannot always apply? To be sure, there are many verses before and after this passage that suggest otherwise, but the statement is an interesting one, tucked away amidst a carefully preserved and articulated view of a “vending machine God,” from whom you always and only get what you put in.
Themes from the book of Job also make an appearance in an essay called “Wild Roses” by Peter Short in an anthology of Canadian religious writing called Northern Lights. The title and content of Short’s essay comes from W.O. Mitchell’s Roses are Difficult Here. Just as roses are difficult to grow in the harsh northern climate of Canada, so goodness, kindness, grace, and faithfulness are difficult in a world full of unexplained suffering. Short expresses this beautifully and poignantly in his discussion of the experience of the absence of God:
It’s not the presence of problems or the presence of stress that makes roses difficult here. It’s not the presence of anything. It’s an absence. It’s an abandoned and boarded up heaven. It’s the silence of God and the aloneness in facing the world that makes roses so unlikely…
At the same time we know that the absence, for all its dread, is not new. Our people have seen this before. It is recorded in our ancient stories. It’s no use to be condemning the modern world. Not use launching into a diatribe against technology or an indictment of consumer culture or a tirade against Sunday shopping. The absence of God is not caused by those things. The absence of God is as old as the hills. Older. The Book of Job knows all about it… his biggest problem, the one he rails and rages and rebels against, is the absence…
We are, most of the time, children of a dreadful absence. We are citizens of a wild kingdom, a kingdom we may belong to but which never belongs to us.
In this wild kingdom, roses are difficult. In this wild kingdom, we are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. But it is in this wild kingdom that God has placed us, and it is in this wild kingdom that we are to work out our faith with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12)—sometimes literally! And it is in this wild kingdom that we hope and we love and we follow and we wait for our experience of the absence of God to be dispelled by his glorious and unambiguous presence. Short’s essay beautifully concludes thus:
But mark this. One day God will appear. Like that ragged figure Flannery O’Connor describes, the one that moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind. Or like the glory appearing over a distant hill. Or like a morsel of bread dipped in a cup. Or like a rose blooming amid the cold of winter when half-spent is the night.
Then you will know why you kept the faith—or more truthfully, why the faith kept you. On that day when the wild and holy one appears you can say, “Glory, I’ve been watching for you and waiting. I’ve been hoping you’d come. Roses are difficult here.