Last Thursday morning, I was teaching a freshman honors seminar in Newberg, Oregon. We were discussing Genesis 32, that enigmatic passage where Jacob wrestles with God. Just south of us, in Roseburg, Oregon, my students’ counterparts were being murdered in their writing classroom.
In another of my classes, for that entire week, we had been studying the Book of Job; we were having our own wrestling match with God, trying to reconcile the existence of a loving, all-powerful God with the pervasive reality of human suffering. After the shooting, I dreaded returning to the classroom, especially to that conversation about the meaning of suffering: what answers could I possibly give, in the wake of a close-to-home tragedy? What comfort can be found for us in such a strange and difficult text?
Any attempt to give meaning to suffering runs the risk of explaining away both its horror and its mystery. This is the misstep of Job’s companions, who are ultimately rebuked by God. They reduce the workings of God to a clean scheme of righteousness and reward, wickedness and punishment. Yet Job insists, against their explanations, that his suffering is undeserved.
After a tangle of poetic dialogues, God finally speaks. Many of my students, at least at first, are not impressed with God’s speech. He is sarcastic, blustering; he answers Job’s questions with louder questions. Yet, I counter, he shows up. He makes his presence known. One layer of Job’s suffering is a longing for a time when “the friendship of God was upon [his] tent.” In his lament, he expresses the anguish of God’s abandonment: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”
God responds by shattering the illusion of his absence. Even though God does not explain himself, offering instead his own dark questions, Job is comforted.
I had a recent experience that, in a profound but quiet way, mirrored this encounter between God and Job. I was shadowing a Eucharistic minister from my parish, learning how to bring Holy Communion to patients in nursing homes. I remember I was carrying a pen and some paper, thinking I would take notes like some dutiful intern. In the first room we entered, I was surprised to see, not an elderly woman, but someone middle-aged, in her fifties at most. She smiled when she saw us, but soon she was weeping. She was telling us that she wants to die. “This isn’t living,” she said, “This is just existing.” I learned later that she had been struck down by a stroke, out of the blue. She was healthy, active, a horsewoman, and then she was almost dead, in a coma for months. Two years later, she is still climbing out of that pit, unable to move much of her body, bedridden in a nursing home, in constant pain and, like Job, haunted with visions of her former self, her former life. Her agony was so great that she could not hold back her longing for death, even in the presence of a complete stranger like me.
It is difficult to write about this experience, to funnel it into words; in that room I was thrust into a world that is sharper, more real than the world I usually inhabit, which seemed hopelessly trivial, almost cartoonish in comparison. There before me was suffering—not as an abstract topic of theological speculation, but suffering: unadulterated, raw, impenetrable.
Any attempt to explain to this woman why she was suffering would have been obscene. Of course God rebuked the friends for their easy answers, their lack of respect for Job’s pain. Speaking at all seemed profane. And yet there was something we were carrying with us that we could offer: the Host, the mystery of the Incarnation presented anew. Even in her despair, she reached out to receive him, to welcome him into the house of her broken body. The present Christ spoke what we could not say, and his nearness was as potent and sharp and overwhelming as the reality of her pain.
This is a profound mystery. This is what the Book of Job teaches us. This is what God comes out of the whirlwind in glory to proclaim. What Job learns is not “the answer” to suffering; the gift he is given instead is God's thunderous I AM. And this is no small thing. This entrance of God into Job's suffering anticipates Christ's complete kenosis into our suffering, into all human suffering. We worship a God whose mercy flows from his wounds. That’s the only comfort I can offer my students who are grieving the deaths of their friends; it’s the only comfort I can find myself. Not an answer, but a Word.
Abigail Rine Favale is assistant professor of English and faculty fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University.