In Job, God and Satan make a bet. God asks Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” When Satan responds that Job only shuns evil because God has blessed him and further provokes God by stating that Job would surely curse God were God to strike everything Job has, God puts everything Job has into the hands of Satan, with strict orders not to harm Job himself.
When Satan has destroyed all of Job’s wealth and taken all of Job’s children in a catastrophic accident, Job falls to the ground in worship. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
Not to be thwarted, Satan insists that if Job were to be afflicted in his own body, sure then he would curse God. And so, God gave Job’s body into the hands of Satan, stipulating only that Job’s life must be spared. Covered in painful sores “from the soles of his feet to the top of his head,” his wife says to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” But Job replies, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all of this, Job did not sin (Job 2:7-10).
After this, three of Job’s friends come to him. They each tear their clothes and sprinkle themselves with ashes. The sit in silence with Job for a week. After a week, these friends of Job rebuked him. And it is here that we see a change in Job.
In the earliest parts of the book of Job, we see Job lose his fortune, his family, and his health. In all of these losses, Job praises God. It is when Job is rebuked by his friends who insist he must have sinned to have earned the wrath of God that Job begins to suffer. At this point, Job curses his own existence.
Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave? Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? (Job 3:20-23)
Job goes on to answer to his friends who rebuke him, but there is a significant shift in his focus. No longer does Job defend God; rather, now Job goes on to defend himself. Job’s suffering comes from the isolation of being with others who move from a posture of joining with Job in his suffering to attempting to explain and fix the root cause of Job’s condition.
When the question, “Why ?” is asked and attempts are made to answer the question rather than join the questioner, suffering ensues. Vulnerability. Isolation.
Upon learning of his diagnosis of terminal cancer, Dr. Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist, wrote an Op-Ed essay for the New York Times. In My Own Life Sacks wrote:
"There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death."
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart,” declared Job. The famous actor, writer and director Orson Welles put it like this, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
Religion is humankind’s first attempt to explain how the world works – what the mechanisms are that are at work in our experiences. As the earliest book in the bible, Job attempts to explain the how thusly: God and Satan making a bet.
But if religion is humankind’s first attempt to answer the question how?, then divinity or God is, at its most basic, the process by which we answer the question why? God is the means by which we attempt to transform trials into triumphs.
Job is also the earliest Hebraic attempt to make meaning out of those experiences. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
It is “the genetic and neural fate – of every human being being to be a unique individual,” to be utterly, beautifully, gloriously alone in this world. To be alone does not meant to be lonely. Suffering happens when we experience our alone-ness as isolation.
We have the ability to reach out to and connect with others. After all, we all come from the same place; we are all made up of the same stuff – star dust. Astrophysics tells us that everything in the known universe is made up of the elements of the first exploding star in The Big Bang when the universe began. We live because the first star died.
The bible explains it this way: From dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19b).
Though each is born alone, makes the journey through life alone, and dies alone, we can through love and friendship be present for and with another. This is no illusion.
When we seek to answer the question why with something more than our presence however, when we attempt to define the cause, when we seek to fix the problem by fixating on the notion that things must be different, when we grow attached to a specific outcome and fail or simply forget to be present in the current moment, this is when we or those with whom we sojourn suffer.
Who or what is God in the midst of suffering? If religion informs us of the how, God informs us of the why.
Though I do believe in divinity, though I believe God exists, I do not believe that God is some being or entity out there somewhere, working here and now for God’s own purposes. God is not a capricious puppet-master giving control of our fates to an adversary simply to settle a bet.
When faced with the most basic and complex question that can be asked, “Why do we suffer?” I can only answer one way: Life gives. And life takes away. Life is still a blessed endeavor.