Job and Spiritual Formation VI
Bill Long 6/6/05
11. One of the most important issues in spiritual formation, as well as in studying the Book of Job, is to know how to separate your pain from the interpretation of your pain. That, in fact, is one way to look at the entire Book of Job. Here is what I mean. When you suffer great loss, there are two (at least) dimensions to the loss--the physical or psychic pain you feel and the interpretation you put on the pain. It is almost impossible for us just to "feel the pain." We are inveterate meaning-seekers, and we have to put a meaning on it. Sometimes the meanings we put on pain are uncontroversial and commonplace. Why am I suffering? It is just the expected course of nature. As the body ages, it develops pains. The arthritis or back pains are not to be blamed on God's direct action. They are just the result of the process of aging. Well, that is only one explanation for pain. Sometimes, however, the nature of our pain makes us want to blame other people or even God. How could a good God have permitted XXX? (You fill in the X's). Many people bear secret grudges against God because they consciously or unconsciously blame God when the bad stuff happens.
Job, too, had an explanation for his pain. Indeed, we can look at the first three cycles of speeches (3-27) not simply as a conversation that "misconnects" between Job and the friends, but a conversation that "misses" because both Job and the friends have different explanations of Job's pain. For Job it means, quite frankly, that God hates him. Listen to Job 16:
"If I speak, my pain is not assuaged, and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me? ...He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me....I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target" (Job 16: 6,9,12).
Job will never let up. His pain means that God hates him. Simple as that.
The friends take a different tack. They begin by trying to explain Job's suffering as an example of the divine discipline but then they eventually adopt the idea that God is judging Job for his sins. Eliphaz's words in 5:17 capture the friends' first gambit:
"How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal" (5:17-18).
That is, rather than being an expression of God's hatred, Job's pain means that God is disciplining him. And, what does discipline mean? It means that God loves you. "For the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights" (Prov. 3:12). Job will say, 'my pain means that God hates me.' The friends respond, 'no, your pain means that God loves you.' Only when Job becomes hardened in his resolve and attacks the friends in ch. 6 do they retreat into an even more negative assessment. They will later argue that Job is suffering possibly because he deserves it. No further conversation is really possible after that idea has surfaced.
11. Elihu, an often ignored character, is the one who, in my judgment, breaks the logjam between Job and the friends regarding the interpretation of Job's pain. Elihu is often summarily dismissed by scholars as a young blowhard or a wordy self-centered twit, but I think the scholars have been fooled by Elihu's apparent clumsiness. He is the "Columbo" of the Book of Job, the one who seemingly blunders his way along, to be dismissed by the "sophisticated" ones of the world, only to be right in the end. Elihu is able to break the logjam because he shows, by quoting some of Job's words precisely (or nearly so) that he has listened closely to Job. There is nothing more refreshing or psychologically necessary for one suffering great pain than to believe that someone hears you and can deal sympathetically with "your stuff." Elihu does that.
But Elihu does more than that. He will become an explanation-giver himself. Unlike the friends and unlike Job, however, he will not focus on whether Job's pain means that God hates or loves him. Instead, his basic point is that Job's pain is the means by which God is trying to get Job's attention. "He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity" (36:15). God is trying to "open" Job's ear. But what would be the point of opening Job's ear in this seemingly merciless way? "He also allured you (or, is alluring you) out of distress into a broad place where there is no constraint, and what was set on your table was full of fatness" (36:16). God is, in short, trying to lead Job to freedom. God is trying to get Job's attention so that Job might be led to a "broad place" where he has "fatness" on his table.
I find Elihu's attempt to put a third explanation on Job's pain to be one of the most refreshing aspects of the entire book. It rings so true to us in 2005. The major issue we need to deal with when experiencing great distress is how to come to an interpretation of the pain in such a way that our freedom is respected and, indeed, enhanced. So many of us are "stuck" in our past, tied to interpretations that hinder rather than liberate us, that shackle rather than free us. For example, rather than looking at a person's betrayal as an indication that God or the other person hates me, why not see it as the instrument through which God is going to lead me to new freedom? I think what Elihu suggests is potentially the most difficult point psychologically for those dealing with great distress-- to "move on" even while you have had to "bury" people or beliefs that you have long cherished. Some of us become so married not simply to our pain but to our explanation of us that we become psychologically immobilized in life. Elihu challenges Job, and us, to read our distress differently. Can we rise to Elihu's challenge?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long