One good way to learn what this book is teaching
us about suffering will be to look at what it tells us God especially
likes about Job. When we see what God approves of in Job we may discover
some guidelines about how best to endure deep suffering. Here are some
of the things I see.
1. God likes that Job is a good man, that
he is upright and moral.
2. God likes that Job is a religious man,
that he is "my servant," i.e., that he serves God.
3. God likes that Job "keeps his integrity"
amidst all the trials visited upon him. In some fundamental sense he
stays whole. He is true to himself, even if that requires that he raise
his voice in anger toward God, and demand that God explain himself.
This reminds me of the much quoted advice
that old Polonius gives to Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act
I, scene iii)
This above all: to thine ownself be
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Integrity is one of the truly important
and self-preserving virtues.
4. I notice that the friends never address
God, but always speak about God, almost as if he weren't there.
(In the end, God disapproves of how the friends speak of him.) Job,
on the other hand, seldom speaks about God; instead he speaks
If, as is believed in the Hebrew tradition, God is fully present in
the world, then not speaking (praying?) to God directly, but instead
only talking about him, would be a kind of insult. It would be
as if we were in a group of acquaintances but never spoke to one of
them. And not only did we never address that person who is right there
in the group with us, but we even sometimes even talked about him as
if he weren't even there.
That is how the friends speak, never to,
but always about God.
I think that the fact that Job always speaks
to God indicates that God is very real to Job. God seems to be
less real to the friends. They only talk about him, as if he were not
really present with them.
God, in the end, approves of how Job spoke
about him and disapproves of how the friends spoke about him. Even in
the depths of his suffering, one of the most important realities in
Job's life is his relationship with God.
5. We could characterize the kind of relationship
that Job has with God as an I-You relationship, and the kind of relationship
that the friends have with him as an I-It relationship. Job's relationship
with God is clearly more intimate and personal than the friends' relationship
These categories, the I-You and I-It relationships,
may perhaps become somewhat more clear later in the quarter when we
discuss Martin Buber. This quarter we will not be reading Buber's classic
I and Thou (which discusses these two modes of relating), but
the book we will be reading does hint at these two modes of relating,
as we will see in a few weeks.
6. Job forgives his friends.
In the end, despite the fact that his friends
have heaped even more suffering on Job than was originally dumped on
him by God and ha satan, in the end Job forgives them.
Forgiveness is an enormous theme in the
Hebrew tradition, and seems to play a larger part than in almost any
other of the world's spiritual traditions, so I want us to look at it
briefly. I do not myself pretend to understand what forgiveness exactly
is, but I do have a pretty clear sense that it is something crucially
Rabbi Raphael Levine (of happy memory) and
I once team-taught a Philosophy of religion course at North Seattle
Community College or rather, he mostly taught the course and I
mostly listened. He told many stories that quarter, but one of them
made a particularly big impact on the class. He told us that in his
many years as a Rabbi he had counseled hundreds, perhaps thousands,
of young couples who came to him prior to getting married. He told us:
"I always sit them down in my office,
and after we've talked for a while I tell them: During the years of
your marriage, there will be three little words that the two of you
must say to each other over and over and over again. Without your
regularly saying these three words to each other, your marriage will
weaken over time and perhaps ultimately fail. So I want you to tell
me now: what are those three important little words?
"The couple would always blush a
little, look tenderly at each other, and then tell me that the three
words were 'I love you.'
"Oh yes, yes, of course," I
would tell them. "Those are three very important words, and you
must say them often to each other. But they are not the most important
three words. The most important three words you must say to each other
over and over and you must mean them when you say them
(and here I paused for effect, he told us) are 'I forgive you.'
"Because you two will hurt each other
over and over during your years of marriage, maybe sometimes on purpose
but probably more often accidentally, and you must be willing and
ready to apologize and forgive each other if the relationship is ever
to survive. Whenever two human beings get within spittin distance
of each other, they'll hurt each other, even if only by accident,
simply because they are two separate persons with two separate wills.
That's just the way it is, and if you want your marriage to endure
you must be willing to apologize and to forgive.
"Because when someone has hurt you,
especially if the hurt is deep, you really have only two basic options.
You can remember the hurt and resent it, or you can forgive the person
who hurt you and let it go. One option will eventually kill you, and
one will set you free.
"When you forgive someone, it is
as much for your own benefit as it is for theirs."
Those words on the importance of forgiveness,
spoken straight out of the Hebrew tradition, had a real impact on that
class and on me. I think that when Job forgives his friends at the end
of the book, he sets in motion a healing that would just not happen
without the forgiveness.
This is not to say that forgiveness is easy,
or even that it can be accomplished all at once in one simple act. When
a hurt has been deep, it may take much inner work and perhaps even a
long time before forgiveness can be authentic. But eventual forgiveness
does seem to be necessary.
And another lesson about forgiveness came
in a dream that one of my daughters told me about many years ago. She
was a freshman in college at the time she had this dream, and the dream
seemed to her to have major significance.
She dreamed (she told me) of walking and
skipping happily down a pleasant sidewalk one sunny afternoon with
several of her girlfriends. They were talking and laughing and having
a fun time together. Then one of the friends noticed that she was
so happy she could actually float right up off the sidewalk and just
coast along in the air. The other friends soon noticed that they could
the same, so they were all laughing and floating and enjoying the
happiness of being together on a pleasant day. But my daughter couldn't
seem to float like the others. She tried all the little tricks they
suggested to her, but she just couldn't float up off the ground like
they did. She was trying everything they suggested, but nothing worked.
Then one of her friends suddenly asked
her, "Say, have you forgiven Georgie yet?" (When my daughter
was telling me this dream I did not ask what it was that Georgie might
have done that required forgiving, and she didn't offer to tell me;
I wasn't even sure it was something a father would want to know about.)
In any case
My daughter thought for a minute and then
said that no, she hadn't actually forgiven him yet. "Well maybe
that's what's holding you down," one of them suggested. So my
daughter turned inside herself for a moment, brought Georgie to her
mind, and then directed all her inner attention and energy to the
work of truly forgiving him.
When she was done and had truly forgiven
him in her soul, she was then suddenly able to float just like all
When she had told me this dream she said
that the main thing that she had learned from the dream was how important
it was to forgive people, and that without forgiveness we only hurt
ourselves even more than we might be hurting the other person.
I'm not sure that I have any adequate understanding
at all of what forgiveness truly entails, or even what it actually is.
But these two stories Rabbi Levine's and my daughter's both
come to my mind when I try to understand what forgiveness is about.
And I think that this is another of the
things that God seems to like about Job, and thus another of the things
that we might learn from this book.
7. Job prays for his friends.
Job prays for the very friends who hurt
him when he was suffering, for the ones who (wrongly) told him that
he brought his own suffering on himself, who thus blamed him for his
own suffering. This was very cruel of the friends we sometimes
call it "adding insult to injury and God clearly disapproves
of it in the friends. And yet more to the point, he approves of Job
praying for them, despite what they have done to him
These are a few of the things I see God
liking about Job. There are doubtless other things about Job that God
(and the book) clearly approve of as well, things that suggest what
we might learn from the book about how to bear up under the sufferings
that we have to endure in our lives.