“Get along well with God and be at peace; from this something good will come to you.”
–Job 22:21, CEB
For anyone familiar with the book of Job from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, this quote seems a bit callous. For those of us unfamiliar with the story, Job is a text that wrestles with the balance between God being good and the suffering of the innocent. All the while, as innocent Job suffers for no reason (chapter 2, verse 3), his friends make pretty lazy, haphazard attempts to console him, ironically through blaming him. Obviously, some secret sin of his has cost him his family, his wife, his health, and all that he ever possessed. Sounds pretty relevant to today, no? One resolution many decide on when faced with the pain of existence is that there is no God, but I have always found that route to be rather petulant. I also find the bad God route to be equally irritating. Both of these have a self-centered nature that ultimately says, “Life isn’t what I want it to be all the time, therefore there must not be anything bigger to it.”
While an atheistic approach to the world’s evils is problematic, I also find the theology of Job’s friends to be rather repugnant. However, many of us who grew up in or encountered the faith know that many well-meaning people still cling to the answers of Job’s friends. What’s worse, they use that logic as way to comfort those who are in pain.
Take the quote above, for example. Have you ever been going through a particularly dark time in life and fed something akin to that? Whether it’s “get along well with God” or “give it up to God” or any other well-intended but non-descriptive advice, it’s not really helpful. What does that mean? How does one do that? What if everything doesn’t get better after that?
First off, everyone needs to acknowledge the love behind any attempt to bring comfort to a situation of pain. Many people are “fixers,” and they cannot make themselves sit by in silence, even though this may be more necessary and beneficial. That love needs to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Secondly, if you’re one of those people, a “fixer,” God made you that way for a reason, so don’t read this post and think it’s an attack on you. Hopefully, what you read here will encourage you to re-interpret your gifts. I have had to do this many times and will probably do it a million more, so I hope you will be encouraged, not discouraged by this conversation.
With all that out of the way, here we go!
Let it be known that the words of “comfort” we just picked are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Indeed, the issue tends to be whether or not they are properly understood, which, in a culture saturated with the prosperity gospel, is a hard task to tackle. The prosperity gospel is the usage of the story of Jesus to gain a profit. It involves telling people if they give extra money, have extra faith, and believe correctly, their life will be materially excellent. Intentional or not, I would guess that most churches have fallen into this trap, if not in the pulpit, in the pews. It is an easy enough system to believe and subscribe to, particularly in a nation like the United States, where things can be expected to pan out well, more or less. The problem is that the prosperity gospel builds a load of unrealistic expectations that also deny the very thing that defines the Christian faith and honestly addresses the darkness of life: the cross of Christ. It is through the cross that we can hope to gain valuable (not to mention honest) insight into Scripture’s words of comfort and hope.
First of all, in the story of Jesus, as in Job, faithful living never means that everything is going to be fine all the time. As a matter of fact, Jesus is quite clear about this here, in Matthew 10:34-39. Faith in Jesus can actually bring more tension and issues into even the most sacred parts of our lives, including our families. As a matter of fact, families did betray their loved ones to the authorities if they were followers of Jesus, which doesn’t exactly fit with the prosperity gospel narrative. Again, looking at the cross, Jesus, the human who was one with God, the very substance of God made flesh, still ended up dying a terribly painful and humiliating death.
While not many of us here in the United States will not experience this particular form of pain (as opposed to other places in the world), the same truth can still be found in the fact that the faithful suffer just as much as anyone else. Because of what we won’t do, buy, support, or participate in, the faithful Christian often finds themselves under some form of strain, not to mention the harsh realities of sin, illness, and death that affect all people as a rule, which brings me to my next point.
Faith is about seeking the ultimate Good (God) in the midst of life, not about experiencing only the mere goods that are a part of life. Rather than focusing on whether or not our lives look like we would prefer them to, faith challenges us to focus on making our lives into what God would prefer them to be. In the midst of the beauty, pain, loss, love, and sheer chaos of life, the life of faith is one that is devoted to using our freedom to care for others.
This will not always be noticeably rewarded, but that can’t be what it’s all about. Similar to yesterday’s topic, we can’t just abandon the work of faith because we aren’t getting what we want (2 Thessalonians 3:13). What we are doing seems to cost us too much. We still experience the harshest realities of life even though we feel we don’t deserve it. We still struggle, despite our best efforts. If, however, we let these things keep us from loving God through loving others, and we turn our focus inward, we end up strengthening the darkness that afflicts us.
On the other hand, if in the midst of the pain of life we resolve to continue seeking God through prayer, Scripture, and the love of others, we will experience blessedness. Being blessed has nothing to do with what you possess or the comfort of your life. In the Bible, being blessed is about being in the presence of God and sharing that presence with others. This is what Job’s friend should have been trying to communicate in the quote that kicked off this post. Seeking God will yield good results, “something good will come,” but it doesn’t mean that everything bad will go away. Instead, it means that we become gifted with the knowledge that whatever we face, we do not face it alone. As we continue to march through whatever dark valley we are stuck in, we can be comforted by the knowledge that if we continue to love and trust, the power of good in the world (indeed, the power of God) will grow with each step until we eventually come to the place where we can see what God is doing in and through us.
When the time comes to comfort others, perhaps the best thing we can do is simply keep a silent vigil with those who are suffering. Presence goes a long way. If we are to speak, however, let’s speak words of comfort that don’t lay blame or give false hope. Instead, let’s tell the honest story of a God who is with us in the darkest of moments, who shows us, in the person of Jesus, what it looks like to live faithfully through the pain of life. In doing so, we offer the real hope we are given in the story of the resurrection, that this pain doesn’t have to define us, that it doesn’t get the final say.