I just submitted the manuscript of my book to my publishers. And while I am thrilled the manuscript is completed, I can’t help but think how it’s topic and the timing are providential.
The book, tentatively entitled, when grief descends, focuses on The Book of Job and what it can teach us about entering into suffering and how to become consoling companions.
In order to write my book, it necessitated spending considerable time with Job. As I entered into this challenging book of the Bible, I stepped into Job’s narrative of loss and grief. I sat with him on the ash heap outside of the city gates. I provided a quiet witness to his sorrow, as he grieved the sudden loss of his ten children, his vast estate, his job, his health, his reputation, purpose, social connections, and the future as he had envisioned it. I walked alongside him as he lamented and stumbled his way through his overwhelming grief. I eavesdropped in on his conversations with his companions. Listened to the companions’ attempts to comfort him, as they struggled to find answers for why Job had to face such adversity and find God in his suffering.
The body of the narrative focuses on the conversations that occurred between Job and his companions. Discussions that revolved around why Job, a righteous man, had to face such horrific losses, and why their good God would allow a good man to suffer.
They held onto a reward and retribution theology, where they believed God, the just Judge, rewards good people and punishes the bad or wicked people. Yet, their theology did not fit Job’s story of loss. He was clearly a good man, yet he was suffering. This could mean either one of two things. One, Job had actually sinned in some way and God was justly punishing him for it. Or two, despite Job being a good man, he was suffering for some inexplicable, unknown reason. If they considered the latter choice, it meant that they would have to re-examine and refine their theology of suffering and their view of God.
The companions refused to reconsider their theology. As a result, they attempted to squeeze Job’s circumstances into their rigid theological beliefs. They lectured and criticized Job. They insisted he admit and confess his sin so that God would forgive him and restore his prosperity. Their misguided efforts caused them to ignore Job’s story of loss and to minimize his grief. This of course, merely intensified Job’s pain. Instead of being consoling, they became miserable comforters and worthless physicians.
Throughout the conversations, Job lamented and grieved and cried out to God. He knew he was innocent. He knew he did not deserve such punishment. He was confused. He was in agony. He searched for answers. There were moments he accused God of abandoning him or wanting to destroy him. Other moments, he lamented that the pain was so great it might be better if he had not been born, for then he would not have to experience such torment. Yet, at other moments he affirmed he was certain God was trustworthy, there might be a mediator to act on his behalf with God, and there might be healing after his grief, life after death, light after the darkness. Job experienced a broad range and depth of feelings; fluctuations of rage, despair, sorrow, doubt, uncertainty, fear, hope, confusion, uncertainty, wonder. All adding up to one tangled, messy, confusing mass of emotions.
As I sat with Job, and witnessed his turbulent, wild grief reactions, I realized a timeless, cross-cultural truth. That whenever humans face loss, of any magnitude, they will also experience such turbulence. Just like we are today.
In our loss and grief, we too will rage. Cry out. Lament. Wonder. Question. Accept. Resign. Doubt. Assess. Retreat and then barge ahead. Re-assess and process. We will continue to wrestle with what we believe to be true about God and his role in our suffering. Eventually, over time and with intention, we will walk out of our loss and grief into a new orientation and a new theology of suffering.
But while suffering will always be a universal, timeless human experience, it is also true that there is no one set framework or pathway through our grief. Grief is not a complete, linear process. It is complex. It will cycle and loop back and forth and around. We will feel one emotion one moment, and the next moment we may feel something quite different. It can be lonely and isolating. And because grief work is always hard and grinding, at moments we will feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
In the epilogue of Job’s narrative, God finally enters into their conversations. He begins by questioning and challenging Job. God asks Job where he was when God formed the earth, created the heavens, separated the land and the water, and carefully crafted all life forms. He asks Job where he is when he manages all the daily details, of all creation. God does not really expect Job to answer all the questions he poses, but he asks them to get Job, the reader, and those who are willing to sit with Job on the ash heap of suffering, to reflect on the big things. To contemplate. To wonder, to process and to work out what we believe to be true about the nature of God, his role in our loss and grief, and how he expects us to walk through our own grief and to comfort each other in our sorrows.
God’s speeches are exquisitely crafted. They provide a glimpse of our majestic, powerful heavenly Father. A God who is wildly imaginative and who loves everything he creates. At the same time, he does not feel answerable to the mere mortal about why he creates and does things the way he does. Thus, he remains incomprehensible and mysterious.
However, God does allow us to catch sight of how deeply invested he is in his creation, how he lovingly manages every minute detail and how he remains ever-present in every one of our stories.
During this unprecedented, uncertain time I have particularly held Job’s narrative close. And I hold tight to all that Job has taught me. He showed me how to search for God in my suffering. How to lament, cry out, express all of my grief and heartache to God. How to invite God into my story. How to listen for God, and to God. To wait patiently on his timing. To trust in his plans and purposes, in his provision and protection. Remaining confident that he tenderly holds our grief and profoundly feels our sorrow.
Job’s narrative re-affirmed for me how we can best provide comfort to one another as we grieve. To lean into suffering and gently enter in. To be present. To provide witness. To create safe and accepting spaces for grieving freely, each in our own unique way and timing. Making no judgments. Having no agendas. Being willing to sit quietly, together, in the ash heaps of our lives. Inviting, encouraging, supporting each other as our various narratives of loss and grief are unfolding and currently being written.
I personally draw great comfort from knowing that while God never directly answered Job questions about why he had to suffer, he does provide Job, and us, an answer. Job helped me to understand that while much of life will remain a mystery, we can find certainty in our mighty Creator. For he is never caught off guard or surprised by a turn of events. Nothing is a mystery to God. He knows all the answers. He knows how the pages of our life will turn, and how our stories will unfold.
So, today I hold onto Job’s narrative of loss and grief and draw on what it has taught me. I rest in the glimpses of God’s love of and for creation, and I feel comforted. I am okay with the mystery and the not knowing, but only because I know and trust the One who holds it. The Someone who tenderly cradles us in the palms of his compassionate hands, as we navigate our way forward, and through this challenging time.