(a sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce, 7th October 2018)
This week the Lectionary readings leads us into the Book of Job. This story is told in fable form and revolves around how a good person responds to unexpectedly difficult circumstances and adverse conditions. God and the Adversary are depicted as characters in the heavenly realm who orchestrate or at least allow disaster to be poured out on Job. It invites us to reflect on our own theology of where suffering comes from and how we sense God’s presence and involvement at such times. ‘If God is on our side’ – well, how do we make sense of life’s disappointments and hardships? How can a God whom we believe to be good and just allow what we see and experience as evil, or allow trials and tribulations and trauma to descend upon people?
Clearly, Job is a faithful believer, confident in his relationship with God. If you look at his circumstances through the lens of prosperity theology he surely deserves to be rewarded. Prosperity theology holds the belief that financial blessing, physical well-being and happiness are the will of God for faith-filled and faithful people. On the other hand, prosperity theology views trials and tribulations as being out of sync with God, and sickness and poverty as curses which can only be broken by a return to faith.
As the story begins, the Adversary says to God that Job only has faith in God because things are going well for him. What would happen if these things were taken away from him – would Job retain faith? That is the central question around which the story revolves. Will people lose faith and confidence in God when things go badly for them? As it turns out, prosperity theology makes no sense in the Job story – because here is a good, upright and blameless man subjected to adversarial circumstances and tested through ordeals, and he still remains faith-filled but without the rewards of faithfulness one might anticipate. We are left to ponder, why do bad things happen to good people?
In countless ways, people face trials – devastation, loss, financial ruin. We witness it each day on the TV news. A house burns down. An accident happens. People’s lives are lost in disasters and tragedies and families and communities are left to grieve. We mourn the loss of a loved one. This question about holding faith in adversarial circumstances is not a hypothetical question – it’s our lived reality, and a lively question for us all. How does faith survive in times of trial, or can faith be assumed only when things are going ok? What a minefield of issues emerge if we think God choreographs bad things to happen to people, or that we expect God to shield us from all trials and tribulations – that somehow people of faith deserve not to experience adversarial circumstances, to be protected from any difficulties and have a ‘charmed life’.
Prosperity theology seems to have the bases covered – God will reward you if you have faith. And if life presents challenges, then it’s because of a lack of faith. Job’s story puts a spoke in the wheels of prosperity theology, with the drama of a person of faith unexpectedly having his world turned upside down, but still holding faith.
I wonder, what is the basis of the things that make us feel secure – and what unravels when our world is shaken? We may give many answers: success, money, friends, property, popularity, family, faith, and so on. Our societal narrative of growth and success includes the ability to purchase comfort, security and stability. We are socialised from a young age to believe that fulfilment comes through having ‘things’. It is when we have the misfortune to lose our money, our friends, our looks, our popularity that our anxiety reveals how deeply our sense of security is rooted in these things.
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, names a contemporary issue – perfectionism. She says perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a protective shield. Perfectionism, at its core, is about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think? (The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown). It leaves us vulnerable when perfectionism is dismantled.
Just doing all the ‘right’ things doesn’t equate to a trouble free life, contrary to prosperity theology. Things happen. To us. To our family and friends. To our global community. More and more people face financial insecurity, work longer hours. We live in an increasingly complex and challenging world with a fast paced, high-tech lifestyle. Disaster looms at every corner and stress is in the air we breathe.
Henri Nouwen’s classic spiritual work, Life of the Beloved, is a reminder that one of the most important lessons in the Christian tradition is that we are God’s beloved and our self-worth does not depend on what we do or have, but on our inherent human dignity. It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good; you are worthless; you are nobody”. These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that many people find it easy to believe them. A spiritual life is a life which seeks the inner wisdom that tells us that our security is based not in any created things, good as they may be, but in God, who is everlasting love. And this knowledge sustains us even in the times of trial. It enables us to recognise the integrity and worth of what we do, and who we are, to look beyond disasters to the promise of God in spite of the external circumstances. This is foundational to what enables us to be resilient. Resilience is the ability to meet, learn from, and not be crushed by the challenges and stresses of life. Even failure can be viewed in a productive way, because it provides an opportunity to reassess how we’re doing and to put things in perspective. Our internal resilience and spiritual practices and rituals enable us to weather the external storms and trials that descend upon us. Resilient people tend to open up a generous space for people where they can rest their burdens, which creates space for deep communion, inter-connection, mutuality. People who are not resilient tend to occupy that space with their own needs, their needs to be liked or be seen as helpful, right or in control.
I was interested to learn about the book, The Courage to be Disliked, by Japanese authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. It takes the form of a dialogue between a teenage student and a philosopher/mentor. One of the major themes of the book is that one cannot be overly concerned with what others think of you. It encourages people to be themselves, that they cannot please everyone and – crucially – that seeking recognition is an egotistical trap that easily leads people into internal disarray. Sometimes that internal disarray and dis-ease creates external disorder, which in turn leads to some of the difficulties we encounter.
The apostle Paul used the word hypomone (hip-pom-en-ay) to express the way he was able to endure hardships and tremendous adversities. The very struggles he endured became opportunities to develop resilience and spared him from a decline into hopelessness. As it turns out, even hardship can be transformative rather than destructive, even to the point of being a blessing through the gift of endurance. Paul’s experience of God’s grace caused him “to know sorrow and yet always rejoice, to be poor yet make many rich, to have nothing yet possess everything”.
Job did not project blame onto God or curse God when things went wrong, or wonder where an interventionist God was when things went wrong, or throw faith to the wind in times of trial. History bears the truth that our human journey as individuals, families, communities and nations, will be punctuated by hardships and tragedies, personal and communal, local and global. The Book of Job leads us through this truth – that it’s not the amount of darkness in the world that matters or even the amount in oneself, but how you stand in the midst of that darkness. We have a close up view of Job’s faith in the midst of his experience of darkness and despair.
The Lectionary has only 4 selections from the Book of Job. I encourage you to read the whole story for the wisdom it contains for our human journey, and the questions it invites us to ponder – about God, about ourselves, about the nature of suffering, about faith, about resilience and endurance. May you find fertile ground for deep pondering. Amen.