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John A. ColemanNovember 10, 2012

Every once in a great while I chance upon a spiritual book which I not only delight in reading but also want to chew on and ponder prayerfully and save to share with others. One such is Richard Rohr's Job and the Mystery of Suffering (Crossroad Publishing, 2011). I received the book via Amazon.com from someone who comes to see me for spiritual direction. Rohr says of The Book of Job that it is "the perennial ungodly story that must be told whenever God makes no sense and we are tempted to tell stories other than the story of faith."

Job is an unusual book in the bible: no covenant, no law, no clear ten commandments. Job is not even an Israelite but, rather, a God-fearing pagan who seeks the truth and will not compromise on it. Truth is the best ally of God. Job's counselors appeal to tradition and law and common sense. Interestingly, they keep talking about God but only Job wants talk to God. They want to foresee what God will do while Job just wants to see God. The counselors "use every stock phrase we've ever heard from clergy stereotypes or read in pious books. And they are rather intelligent but the conclusion of The Book of Job is that none of these remedies is adequate or even correct."

Job's prayer (which includes anger and complaints to God) can be a kind of compendium of how we might learn to pray. As Job puts it in Chapter 13:12, rebuking the counselors: "Your old maxims are proverbs of ash. Your retorts, retorts of clay. Silence! Now I will do the talking, whatever may befall me. I put my flesh between my teeth. I take my life in my hands."

Job is going to risk everything. He is going to talk back to God. He seeks truth more than the private religious experience of Eliphaz, the orthodoxy of Bildad or the conventional wisdom of Zophar." Let him kill me if he will; I have no other hope than to justify my conduct in his eyes. This very boldness gives promise of my release, since no godless man would dare to appear before him" (13:15-16). Job is wrestling with the mystery of evil and suffering. He knows or assumes that God is a benevolent God, even his friend. He contrasts this to an illogical, inconsistent and unjust world. Which of us has never wrestled with that same conundrum?

Job is not setting any condition on God's answers, only demanding that he might truly talk to God, make his case, have it heard: "O that today I might find him, that I might come to his judgment seat! I would set out my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments; I would learn the words with which he would answer, and understand what he would reply to me." (23:3-5). The key here is less looking to God as some answer or answerer and more seeing what counts is a leap of trusting faith in the presence of God, even if he remains hidden in a cloud of our unknowing. "This I know, that my Avenger (go-el) lives and He, the last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakeniing, he will set me close to Him, and from my own flesh I shall look on God. He whom I see will take my part, these eyes will look on Him and find no stranger" (19:25-27).

Rohr reminds us that faith also means being willing to live without answers. True friends, unlike Job's counselors who spew out what they learned in the catechism, engage in redemptive listening." One can't ultimately provide the answers for others. All one can do is walk with the other and help others rightly to hear themselves, to be there, to understand. "Job's God is not just looking onto the suffering of the world. He is participating in it." In this way, as Rohr argues it, Job is a foretaste of Jesus. "Jesus becomes the new Job, the one pleading for justice from God, pleading that God will defend his case. When we have studied and prayed our way through The Book of Job we are much more prepared to understand the passion of Jesus."

When finally Elihu embarks on a long hymn to God's wisdom and omnipotence, God effectively intervenes and shuts him up, as God appears out of the whirlwind. Note God does not really answer any of Job's questions but, instead, poses questions to Job. Finally, in chapter 42, we get Job's final answer: "I know that you are all-powerful. What you conceive, you can perform. I am the man who obscured your designs with my empty-headed words. I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand, on marvels beyond me and my knowledge. I knew you then only by hearsay; but now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract all I have said." None of Job's questions are answered but he has seen! In the end, God is less an answer than a presence and an encounter!

Ultimately, suffering does have meaning and even, through God's grace, a kind of redemption. Rohr notes: "I believe--if I am to believe Jesus-- that God is suffering love. This God who suffers the most is also the God who saves the most. The wounded one is the redeemer. Thus, many cultures loved to picture Jesus as wounded from head to foot, and we thought the iconography was overdone. But it is exactly the same image that begins The Book of Job: "Job was struck down with malignant ulcers from the sole of his foot to the top of his head" (2:8). "He who carries all, understands all, He who has suffered all, has a universal compassion. He who has been afflicted and lived is the bearer of hope. The wounded one is always the gift given."

In the end, God burns with anger at the counselors of Job "for not having spoken correctly about me, as has my servant Job." ( 42:7). Moreover, Job then prays for his friends ( 42:9-10). Job's redemption is not complete until he prays for those who caused him such pain.

As Rohr puts it: "No piece of religious literature teaches the way of descent more daringly and effectively than The Book of Job. Even the name Job is considered by some linguists to be an acronym for 'Where is the Father?'. The name and the story cry out against a darkness that refuses to reveal itself—and a path that does not, at first, feel like life at all. Surely, no book is less an answer book than The Book of Job. No book is less thearapeutic or less "helpful," as we ordinarily use the term. It fixes nothing, explains nothing and dismisses those who even try to explain. Surely, it is amazing that anyone dared to write or publish such a book. It shows all the signs of authentic divine revelation but reveals hardly anything that we first hoped for. Yet the story of Job realigns and regenerates the soul in ways that few books can." It shows that when we encounter God as a person our wounds (real though they are) can become sacred.

Finally, Rohr points to an important sub-plot of Job: "The radical critique of religion that emerges from The Book of Job. All our usual religious responses are judged worthy of God's anger at his people for not having spoken correctly about me" (42.7). Imagine God saying that about religious ideology, orthodoxy, conventional wisdom and heroic idealism [the varying stances of the counselors of Job]. Yet these are the ever-so-close masquerades and substitutes for authentic faith that characteize the four good friends of Job. They are dangerous precisely because they are "friends"—so close, so common, so connected to "the real thing" but off kilter if they do not bring us to a true encounter with the living and mysterious God."

John A. Coleman, S.J.


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9 years 9 months ago
He said, “I Am Who I Am.” But who is God? Once St. Francis of Assisi was heard praying, “Who are   You, most holy God and who am I, a poor little worm your servant?” In the “Suffering Servant” narrative, Isaiah identified Jesus as “A WORM, and not a Man.” Isaiah also pictures God as an eagle, swooping down as eagles do to grasp falling eaglets, learning to fly.  Later Jesus would do it again, identifying himself to another animal form, a “hen” saying, “How often would I have gathered you as a mother hen gathers her chicks … “ obviously also identifying humanity as “chicks.” Scripture as well equates Jesus, whom we believe to be “co-equal to the Father, as a Lamb heading to the slaughter, the Paschal Lamb, also as   a lion in the  “Lion of Judah.”

So, apparently  ,the unfathomably great “I AM” may be understood to a degree by studying animate, or is it animal  creation?  God   knows   how to be as “wriggly” as a worm, hard to pin down. Or how to be as maternal as a mother hen, able it seems to “play chicken”  I mean hesitant to act when most  needed. Also as watchful as an eagle relative to developmental needs of its young. Also as   “meek as a lamb” easily pounced on by predators wagging their heads saying in innumerable ways,  “God is dead!” Also “I AM” may come   as a predatory lion, tearing  down and gobbling up people, places and things, through multiple natural disasters. As in “Sandy.” Yes,   Who is he? Who is the real God? Let's ask Job.

Father Rohr in his writing on the Book,  of Job, interpreted by Jesuit priest John Coleman, comes close to answering that question, the best yet. Equal perhaps to his work, is “Creation Untamed,” by Terrence Freitheim, a near perfect explanation of the “hows” and “whys” of natural disasters like “Sandy,” and God’s place in it.

I find the Isaiahan imagery of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity  as  “Worm” most attractive. As a Secular Franciscan hearing St. Francis refer to himself as “a little worm” gives my choice ever more affirmation about the spiritual connective tissue between “Worm” and Ichthus. The worm is not only fishfood, making the fish itself food eventually, but like Ichthus an ancient signification of Christ, the worm is an absolutely essential creature intrinsic to the greening of the earth. By way of its wriggle, the worm of the earth, the earthworm, allows oxygen to enter the soil and its waste material provides nitrogen – Oxygen/Nitrogen, the two  indispensable elements needed to green the earth. Without the life sustaining activity of the earthworm, planet earth would be as desolate as the moon! Applied on a spiritual level see how necessary the Divine Worm is to the negation of spiritual desolation!

Having said all that I have said, I have to ask myself, “What have I said?” Certainly the “I Am Who I Am” remains an elusive mystery and the mystery of suffering remains a mystery. Perhaps the best I can say is, the “I AM” cares for all the works of his hand, ever giving, yes, he is ever for giving. That’s something!

Crystal Watson
9 years 9 months ago
I hate the book of Job.  God makes a deal with the devil to torture a decent man, and when that man asks why, God basically tells him that he doesn't deserve an answer.  I think Fr. Rohr tries very hard to find cosolation in the story, but in a way he's acting as one of Job's friends, making excuses for God's behavior.

 * "the story of Job realigns and regenerates the soul in ways that few books can." It shows that when we encounter God as a person our wounds ( real though they are) can become sacred." *

How is that so?  This seems to me like a way of romanticizing suffering - to say that watching your children murdered, as Job had to, can become a sacred thing is obscene.
Amy Ho-Ohn
9 years 9 months ago
I think the comparison between God's relation to Man and a man's relation to a maggot is nonsensical. We have copious evidence that God has created us with some (limited) capacity to learn to understand Him, that he wants us to learn to understand Him, that He assists and approves our efforts to understand Him.

The evidence is that He has given us the capacity to understand (some of) the laws of the physical and moral universe, and to develop ways to improve our understanding; He has given us the ability to experience the act of Creation in creating music, art, literature, friendships, families, bridges, spaceships, etc.

There is no analogy to this in a man's relationship with a maggot.

I don't think God's answer to Job is "You are unworthy of an answer." His answer to Job is "Trust me, I know what I'm doing."
David Smith
9 years 9 months ago
There's been a discussion at Commonweal about the lack of Catholics' knowledge of the tenets and history and theology of their faith, and how important that is, and how much of a failing we exhibit if we don't have it. It seems to me that when you set up elaborate intellectualizing as the touchstone of the ideal Catholic, you make a Church fit only for scholars. Job seems to be about direct experience, openness, and, at the same time, a sort of primitive, unbending faith.

One problem the Roman Catholic Church has today, I think, is that it's weighted down with a great deal of scholarship. That must, on the face of it, seem to be a plus, and certainly nothing negative - especially here and at Commonweal.  But in an age in which prolonged schooling has become perhaps the highest marker of social standing - and, thus, of individual worth - joining with that common attitude and insisting that the best Catholic is the one who's studied and learned and memorized most is, I think, more than a little Pharisaical. 
9 years 9 months ago
“Clamat ad coelem vox sanguinis et sodomorum, vox oppressorum, merces detenta laborum.”
Amy Ho-Ohn
9 years 9 months ago
God unambiguously tells Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar that Job has spoken rightly. The implication is that Job overhears Him saying it. God's answer is that Job has it right; sometimes it does appear that Evil is winning and when it does, you should say so. To proclaim that whatever God allows is good is tantamount to saying that Man has no capacity to distinguish good and evil, which is blasphemy. On the other hand, to forget that Man's capacity to discern facts is limited is impiety. The only right approach, in morality as in science, is to say "This phenomenon appear to contradict our theory; let's investigate it."

I agree with Crystal that the setup with Satan and the supernatural wager thing vitiates the effectiveness of the presentation. But I'm not really bothered by it. It's not history, it's a thought experiment. When you write a thought experiment, you're allowed to introduce artificial and even ridiculous hypotheses if it helps you get to the point expeditiously. It's like the one where a pole vaulter with a ten meter pole runs at four-fifths the speed of light at a barn eight meters long.

I guess I'll skip Richard Rohr's book. I've always found Rohr's writing pretty flakey, kind of a waste of time. If your time for reading is limited, Pope Gregory wrote a commentary on Job which has stood the test of time pretty well.
JR Cosgrove
9 years 9 months ago
When I was a student at a Jesuit college, the courses that gave me the most trouble were philosophy.  It all seemed so vague.  And with all the religious courses I had, I never remembered much at all about the theodicy problem. I had never heard the specific world till about 15 years ago when I heard some lectures on religion and it was described as the most insoluble of all religious problems.  It seemed strange to me because I had thought the answer was obvious and here I was unschooled in any of it.  I never even remembered ever having a lecture on the Book of Job.
Then I came across what I consider one of the smartest men I ever heard lecture on topics in philosophy and religion in his ability to explain esoteric and vague concepts in an easy to understand way, often using street terms.  It took philosophy and theology down to the level that almost anyone can understand.  His name is Michael Sugrue. He has a 45 minute lecture on the book of Job and the message it contains.  But after this lecture the message in the book of Job is not to judge God, no matter what happens.  We cannot hope to understand the mind of God and it is presumptuous to do so especially using criteria of this world.
One of his examples is to compare us as humans to a maggot.  Would we presume that the maggot can understand us and presume to judge us.  No!  So how could we presume to understand God when we are probably closer to the maggot than to God on an ontological scale.
Sugrue goes on to say that the book of Job is the most un-theological book in the bible and it is really an anti-theology book.  It implies that all those theologians who are trying to understand and write about God are like the maggots trying to figure out us and presuming to tell us what is appropriate.  The book is essentially telling those who challenge God that they are sinful because to judge God is the height of impertinence and folly.  Too many people judge God but as we see around us on this site people are doing this every day. 
Sugrue has has done hundreds of lectures for the Teaching Company and the book of Job lecture is one of my favorites.  He also has an excellent one on Aquinas which ended on a similar theme.  There is a legend that Aquinas had a dream, probably not true according to Sugrue, that had an angel taking tea spoons of water out of the ocean and pouring it on the beach.  Aquinas asked the angel in the dream what he was doing and the angel said theology.  The implication was that no matter what we do to understand God, theology is like taking tea spoons out of the ocean and there is an infinite amount that remains.  Supposedly Aquinas stopped his writing and died shortly after.  A good story but probably untrue but it makes the point about trying to understand the essence and mind of God.
I highly recommend Sugrue and book of Job lecture if you can find his lectures in your library.  They are out of distribution but I recently got some old ones on Amazon.  He finally explained Hegel which I could never understand but now find out that Hegel's ideas are the origin of the Progressive movement that has caused so many problems in our society.  If anyone is interested in the Sugrue lecture on Job, I can send it to them.  It is about 40 megs and one can listen to it on Itunes or on an IPod.
9 years 9 months ago
I know that my Vindicator lives. (I prefer Redeemer.) I do not know how He lives, nor do I expect to know untiil I see His face. I do not know, but I feel prettly certain that He is pleased when we wrestle with the question because wrestling with it demonstrates our desire to know Him better. We ought to give it a workout at least once a day. I look forward to reading Job and the Mystery of Suffering.
Kang Dole
9 years 9 months ago
Bildad is the one who actually does compare humankind with maggots (25:6), and I don't think anyone should walk away from reading Job wanting to think like Bildad.

I love Job, and I think that some of Rohr's ideas approach something not all together wrong, which isn't that bad, considering the text under examination. Job is a beautiful antidote to the garbage in Proverbs, but I think that if you try to force Job into having a satisfactory lesson to pass on, then you run the risk of shutting down its wonderful contribution to the Bible, which is a refusal to be easily satisfied. (It may be that Job itself tries to do this).

Job already has a pretty good sense of the wonders of God even before God shows up and starts going on about fishing. But Job complains that in spite of all that God does, people only hear a bare whisper from him. So it could be that God's actually showing up to face Job's challenge, even though he doesn't truly respond to Job's questions, provides a kind of satisfaction.

I've always thought that when God shows up, he's sort of like the guys on the Jerry Springer Show who come out on stage and get booed by the crowd: "Y'all don't even know me!" Except with God, it's true.
Crystal Watson
9 years 9 months ago
Gustavo Gutierrez wrote a book about Job too - "On Job:  God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent".  I haven't read it.

If the book of Job is about love, it seems to show that Job's love of God is akin to that of a battered wife for her husband, and that God doesn't love Job, but loves being a winner.

I don't think it's history either, but the stories we are willing to accept about God say a lot about us.
Amy Ho-Ohn
9 years 9 months ago
Here is St. Pope Gregory's commentary, free online:

Gerelyn Hollingsworth
9 years 9 months ago
For those too young to remember J. B., the play about Job by Archibald MacLeish that won the Pulitzer and the Tony in 1959, here's a link to the Wiki article about it:

For a current play about Job, see a review from the NYT:


In the NYT Book Review yesterday, an interesting comment about a young boy:
After reading the Book of Job, Joe decides he doesn’t want to be bar mitzvahed because, as his father reports, he “didn’t want to have anything to do with a deity who would ruin someone’s life essentially to win a bet with Satan.” God, he thought, was kind of a jerk. 
JR Cosgrove
9 years 9 months ago
'I think the comparison between God's relation to Man and a man's relation to a maggot is nonsensical.'

You have just limited God because there is a finite difference between us and the lowliest creatures, alternatives used have been insect, worm and slug, (no understanding of single cell organisms in that time) then that is implying there is a limitation on God. But if God is infinite, then we can never hope to approach him ontologically in any form. That was the point of my comment about Aquinas and theology having a similar theme.

That is one of the lessons of Job but there are others.  The second is heteronomous love (one that is contingent on external circumstances) vs. autonomous love (one given freely independent of the external circumstances).  That is the central theme of Job and was not mentioned in Fr. Coleman's OP.  I have no idea if it is covered in Rohr's book .  Job's love of God was independent of his fortunes on earth and was the basis of the original bet between God and Satan.   It is easy to forget this because of the things that happen to Job.  The story of Job is about love.

The third theme is evil.  Just what is evil?  Are all the afflictions on Job really evil? A priest told us once in class that in most Christian theology there is only one evil, denial of being with God or the lost of salvation.  All other problems humans encounter are imperceptibly small compared to that.  So does God somehow allow what we tend to focus on as evil for some reason we do not fathom when in fact they are not really evil.  Is he testing us as he tested Job?

Now in some current theology I have seen on this site, there seems to be an opinion that all will be saved despite what they do in this world which begs the question is there any behavior that can be objected to because it changes nothing ultimately.  Out time here is like our comparison of ourselves to God, imperceptibly small and irrelevant according to this viewpoint.  So who cares what we do here, we are all saved even if we vote for Republicans.
Kang Dole
9 years 9 months ago
Oh man, leave it to Christians to take something awesome like Job and screw it up by cramming it through the slaughter house of systematic theology.

This is a book that argues on the basis of behemoth and leviathan, not the differentiation between various species of love.

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