Daily Reflection
October 1st, 2004
Robert P. Heaney
University Chair
Click here for a photo of and information on this writer.

Job has experienced a world of troubles – loss of family, worldly goods, even health. For 30-plus chapters he and his companions have been speculating about why these misfortunes should have happened. Job was a good man, faithful to Yahweh. What had gone wrong? Whose fault was this? 

Similar misfortunes happen all the time – perhaps not to us, but certainly to people we know. Perhaps, too, we know someone who asks “What kind of God would permit this?” I suspect we also know people who have abandoned religion entirely because they, like Job, have been grievously deprived – of family, wealth, health – saying they want nothing to do with a God who is so unfair.

Today we read God’s response to Job and his friends. It is a scolding, not soothing words of consolation for someone in trouble. Every now and then, perhaps, our arrogance needs to be brought up short; a scolding may be just what we need. 

God starts off with what sounds like the final exam in Natural History 101. Basically it says “Do you, who think you’re so wise, understand how the physical world around you operates? Do you know where the wind comes from, or where the snow is stored, or the gestation period of a mountain goat? No, of course not. So what leads you to think that you can understand the immensely more complicated plan that God has for the world?”

Yes, we have today peeled back one layer of our ignorance. Science now knows how wind is generated and how wild animals breed. But beneath that layer lie even deeper mysteries. God’s rebuke is still on target even for us with our advanced technological knowledge. We don’t really understand our physical and social world. Most of us readily admit to that ignorance. Even Einstein’s general theory of relativity is recognized as inadequate, and most of us will never begin to comprehend even that! 

So maybe Job’s response to God’s rebuke is right for us as well: “My words have been foolish; what can I reply? I had better lay my finger on my lips.”

The book of Job focuses on the age-old problem of evil – why bad things happen to good people. It is not, itself, concerned with our response to others’ misfortunes. Nevertheless, even if in the last analysis we cannot understand why undeserved bad things happen, there is still a two-sided transaction that does need to concern us. Others’ misfortune is a call to us to respond with true compassion – to console, to heal, to make up for – and to do so without pride or relief that we, at least, have been spared. And it is a call to the victims to accept our help without bitterness. I do not know which is the harder to do.

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