Saturday, July 08, 2006

Confronting Job III

Why do we portray Jesus, visually and verbally, the way we do? With so little regard for the realities of the texts of the gospels?

I wonder if other Christians struggle with getting rid of that white tunicked, blue-sashed, ethereal, sad-eyed, straight-haired, gently-gesturing Jesus who seems to block my way on the journey to know the real Jesus?

It’s all wrong, and I’m trying to get past it. Perhaps the mushy Jesus is a victim of one of the primary doctrines of Jesus’ life on earth, one that we misinterpret, leading us to come up with a Jesus who wasn’t totally in charge of His mission.

I speak of the suffering of Jesus. Evangelical Protestants don’t really focus on the suffering of Jesus, but the New Testament does. The writer of Hebrews states: "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (Heb. 2:18). Right after the glory and approval of Christ’s baptism, we see Him cast out, driven into the desert to be tempted or, more likely, hounded by Satan and His own humanity. We have a hard time reconciling a Jesus who is human and who suffered and yet was in control the whole time He was here, who was orchestrating the Passion week and before and after, who was orchestrating the forty days in the desert.

Suffering has been a subject of reflection for me recently because I’m teaching the book of Job, and Job really doesn’t make any sense ripped from the context of the Messiah-driven Old Testament and cross-based New Testament. Yes, one can read it as a dramatic or literary form and benefit, but the Christian hits a brick wall, I think, without looking at it from this side of the cross.

Job and Jesus do not have a great deal in common, really, except for the fact of their suffering. Job did not have the benefit of a savior who had suffered to whom he could look. So he had to ask the same questions we would, hold onto his own integrity (as perhaps we could), lift his complaint to a dead sky, endure the karma-based rantings of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and then listen to the more reasonable but still coldly correct theology of Elihu who sees the sovereignty of grace but not grace’s love and intimacy.

I’m teaching Elihu’s section tomorrow. He is right, in so many ways. He presents a world not based on cycles of punishment or retribution but the plan of the personal, just, holy, powerful, all-knowing Almighty. His words are a forerunner to the LORD’s speech, but they are not the LORD’s speech, because God can speak for Himself (which Elihu isn’t quite sure about; he thinks both God and Job really, really need him). I know a lot of Elihus; shoot, I’ve been Elihu.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.” Amen and amen. God tells us to think, consider, believe, and obey in many forms, but never to “feel.” That’s not because emotions are unimportant or have no place. It’s because God knows that we will have the emotions without being told, and that no amount of telling us to have “good” emotions will work; the emotions have to come from somewhere, what we think and believe and do. How is this relevant? Elihu doesn’t realize it, but he is leaving out the emotions, the heart. He has little empathy for Job; only anger, it seems. We can have the almost right doctrine, but only the truly right doctrine, the doctrine that includes the mysteries of the incarnation and the cross, can take care of the heart as well as the mind.

Somehow, and this is the one question I would ask Jesus if I could, somehow, being human and suffering taught Jesus Christ something. The New Testament says much more about Jesus’ suffering as a human being (and before the passion) than we study or acknowledge; maybe we do think suffering translates to powerlessness, or maybe we can’t get used to the idea that He learned from suffering. How could God learn?

And if it taught Him something, what about us? Thinking that suffering is only about our spiritual benefit is somewhat limited, because we expect that benefit to be immediate; as soon as the trial is over, we’ll get it, we’ll understand, and we can go on happy and confident we won’t have to go through anything like that again since we learned our lesson, we gained another peg on the maturity scale. Yes, suffering does bring spiritual benefit to ourselves, but in a much larger, long-term, behind-the-scenes way than we can imagine before and during and even after the trial, if indeed the trial ever ends.

When the book of Job is over, we know a few things. Job was not being punished. Job didn’t say, “I’ll stop doing that sin now, I’ve learned my lesson.” Elihu was not commended although the other three were reprimanded (perhaps as much for their lack of empathy as their doctrine). God is big enough to take our questions and complaints, but He doesn’t share His glory with another and He has given us plenty of evidence that He’s in control and we’re not. Job never knew the cosmic drama behind his suffering. We don’t get neat answers to Job’s suffering or a bulleted list of what doctrines/life lessons he was supposed to learn.

Suffering is a mystery that the God who uses suffering went through Himself. Job lets us see somebody actually suffering. We see the contrast of a man who undergoes the worst and the speculations of those who have not. It is only after the suffering, usually much later, that a person has earned the right or the ability to discuss it in clear terms, terms that put abstractions into flesh. I do not feel I have earned the ability or right to talk about suffering, not really, although some may think I have. I could point to trials of life, but they pale besides losing a child or being stricken with a life-altering disease. We are better off to feel that way, I think, to be conservative about making pronouncements about suffering, and to only sit by the afflicted loved one for a week or longer without words.

Perhaps that is why the shortest verse in the Bible tells us that Jesus wept at the death of a friend and the uncomprehending grief of his friend’s sister. This man bears little resemblance to that figure of the clean robe and vacant expression, and he looks much like the father who sits outside the ICU, waiting for the half-hour visit with his injured child, or the elderly man who accepts visitors at his wife’s funeral, or the Old Testament saint who sits in a dirty tunic outside the city, covered with sores.

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