This year, as we anticipate and celebrate Christ’s first coming — after months of social distancing, job loss, and death — many of us are more at home mouthing his final words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In other words, it’s easy to feel closer to the cross than the manger during this Advent covered in COVID. And while many of us always experience Advent as hope and joy mixed with sorrow and loss, this year, more than any other, has bound us together in collective suffering.
So as we participate in Advent this month, the Old Testament story of Job may be a helpful text to explore. Job addresses the enigma of suffering head-on, mincing no words but never really answering the question of why we suffer. Perhaps, though, the simple freedom to question God and mourn our losses is just what we need this Christmas.
The book of Job opens with a dramatic scene in the heavenly throne room, with the accuser (often translated “Satan”) asking and receiving God’s permission to murder all of Job’s family, destroy his entire way of life, and wreak havoc on his body. Job, of course, never hears this part of the story, and throughout the 40-odd chapters of dense Hebrew poetry, he protests his innocence again and again. His friends, for their part, sit with him in his sorrow for several days. Their silent suffering with Job is laudable and demonstrates a helpful way for humans to care for one another — the simple ministry of presence.
Things go awry, of course, when Job’s friends finally feel compelled to speak. All of their explanations for Job’s suffering ring hollow, and through their mouths we hear the bankruptcy of retribution theology, this idea that good things happen to us because we are good, and bad things happen to us because we are bad. Job holds to retribution theology just as much as his friends. Whereas his friends think he must be suffering because he has sinned, he contends to the end that he shouldn’t be suffering because he has not sinned. Their theological constructs are the same, even if they apply their theology differently.
In Western culture we articulate this same ideology with phrases like, “What goes around comes around” and, “Turnabout is fair play,” among more colorful expressions that capture this basic idea: We get what we deserve. The sentiment is common enough, but deep down we suspect it’s not true — and COVID-19 has given plenty of evidence to confirm our suspicions.
In the end, Job finds out that his understanding of suffering — and God’s role in that suffering — was truncated, but he never does find out why he suffered. Rather than answer Job’s questions about his unjust suffering, God appears to him in a terrifying storm cloud, pummeling him with questions. Job’s final words ring out after God’s questions overwhelm him: “I had heard reports about you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them; I am dust and ashes.”
God’s answer to Job has always bothered me; I want God to come to Job’s defense, to tell Job what he had earlier told Satan: “No one else on Earth is like him, a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8). But God doesn’t do that. Instead, God compels Job — and us — to see himself as he truly is: weak, finite, and in enormous need. Likewise, God teaches Job — and us — to see God as God truly is: omnipotent, infinite, and sovereign over all of life.
Most importantly, though, God’s response confirms that God is trustworthy: If God “assigned the dawn its place” (Job 38:12 CSB) and oversees all the creatures of the world, then God is also trustworthy to guide Job’s life — and ours as well. This, rather than a justification of Job’s complaints or defense of his righteousness, comforts him.
We can draw a direct line from Job to Jesus Christ in a way that may help us navigate suffering during this Advent season. Like Job, the arc of Jesus’s earthly life confirms that suffering is inexplicable and God remains good and trustworthy. Jesus was sought by Herod as a child and later rejected by his family, ridiculed by “influencers” in his culture, and finally murdered on a cross as a young(ish) man. He is the righteous sufferer par excellence, the one who never sinned and yet endured horrors at the hands of others — and for others.
The clearest indicator of God’s trustworthiness is therefore in the totality of Christ: God put on flesh like us, came and lived among us, shared with us in our suffering, died, and was resurrected. Now with Job we say:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the end he will stand on the dust.
Even after my skin has been destroyed,
yet I will see God in my flesh
I will see him myself;
my eyes will look at him, and not as a stranger.
My heart longs within me. (Job 19:25–27 CSB)
Immanuel has come once, and we long for him to come again. Maranatha.