Why Do We Suffer? Job’s Answer
Why do we suffer?
(Spoiler alert(?)) Kafka’s answer to suffering is that, well, we’re born, we struggle and suffer, we go through all kinds of confusing, absurd stuff that we don’t understand, and then we do the mortal coil shuffle and take the dirt nap.
All, it seems, for no apparent reason.
Or even worse, it does happen for certain reasons – but those reasons make no sense. The reasons are, it turns out, the unexplained, un-articulated whims of some unseen, faceless bureaucrat, who has his own reasons that we’re never informed of.
This, in so many words, is just about the only conclusion we can reach within a worldview that negates any form of spirituality.
Sure, we can soften the blow a little around the edges. Automatic doors, for example, that liberate us from the burden of opening doors for ourselves. Which is nice.
But in regards to the Big Stuff, well, there’s just not much we can do about that. The answer, in Kafka’s view, is to suffer through absurdity as comfortably as we can.
But there’s another answer for suffering in life besides Kafka’s.
It’s been around for thousands of years, and its message is one of stark contrast to Kafka’s.
The explanation comes, of course, from Job.
There have been plenty of interpretations of Job, and we aren’t going to offer much that’s new here.
That said, we want to briefly explain why we think it’s worth mentioning.
First, a quick recap.
Job, the story goes, is a decent guy.
He starts suffering a lot.
It doesn’t seem fair. He asks why. After all, hey, he’s been a decent guy. He hasn’t done anything really wrong. He tries to treat people well, and so on. He’s not guilty of any great crime – not, at least, that he knows of. He’s innocent, as far as he knows. In this sense, he’s like Kafka’s hero.
So then, why the suffering?
He gets no good answer. His genius buddies come up with plenty of genius answers, of course. He’s suffering because of this, or that, or the other thing. Some of their reasoning might not seem entirely off base.
But none of those answers are right, or satisfying.
Job suffers even more.
And he starts questioning even more.
Why the heck is going on? Why?
Eventually (this is the abridged version), something breaks.
Job has a conversation with The Almighty.
Or, to be accurate: it’s not really much of a conversation. God does pretty much all the talking. Job does pretty much all the listening.
Part of it goes something like this;
“Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk,
and who laid the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
And who shut within doors the sea
when it burst forth from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment
And thick darkness its swaddling bands?”
(Job 38 3-9)
There’s much more than that, of course, but that’s a small sample.
And in that conversation is “The Answer.”
It might not seem like it to us.
We can read through that conversation hundreds of times and still not get it.
Nowadays, we often want logical, rational, linear, mathematically sound, verbal sound-bite bumper-sticker answers to just about everything.
But some questions – especially Big Questions – don’t necessarily work like that.
If we’re asking what 5+4 is or the price of peas, we can get straight, logical, verbal answers that we’re all satisfied with.
But when we’re asking Bigger Questions like Why Do We Suffer? – well, there are plenty of logical, verbal, sound-bite answers. But none of those would satisfy us. Any answer we’d get like that, we’d question, pick apart, deconstruct, doubt, misinterpret, and so on.
But Job, apparently, did get an answer to his question about suffering.
The answer came in the form of a spiritual experience.
Many folks are so literal-minded these days, they tend to imagine that what’s being described here was a literal conversation with a big, booming voice out of the sky. And that seems irrational to rational, literal-thinking minds, and so, the entire thing gets rejected. Folks misinterpret, caricature, and then reject that caricature. It would be like rejecting Star Wars because it’s not about one star getting into a fistfight with another star. It’s silly, and it’s approaching certain situations in entirely the wrong way.
But the problem there might not be the passage itself, but certain sticky-minded interpretations of it.
The entire passage might be an effort to put something into words that’s much bigger than those words. Those words are like fingers trying to point to the moon, and we shouldn’t get hung up on the finger. We should look at what it’s trying to point to.
It’s trying to point to a spiritual experience.
Job is a story of experiential spirituality.
Job, it seems, got an answer to his question.
That answer satisfied him.
What he came away with from that experience isn’t a phrase we can Google, or a piece of data we can pass around, or anything we can slap on a bumper sticker. You can’t Google an experience. The only way to really understand the experience of eating chocolate ice cream is to actually experience eating chocolate ice cream.
Part of Job’s response:
“I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you.” (Job 42: 5)
Before, he had only secondhand knowledge. But now, he knows directly.
If we want an answer, too, and we’re serious about it, maybe the best route for us is the same.
To see for ourselves.