Friday, June 6, 2014

The Story of Job, Doubt, Unbelief and Faith

A crisp early morning breeze, unseasonal for June in Kentucky, jarred slumber, and a red Kentucky cardinal, his pre-sunrise song unabated, refused to let me return to my dreams.

It's one of those mornings where the doubts with which I have wrestled for the past four years nag me, much like the bird's ardent chirping.

And what is it that I can't get out of my mind?

The story of Job.

This is a blog entry I have wanted to write for at least three years. But until this morning, the ruminations haven't crystallized. Just as the soft sunlight broke through the nighttime shadows, the resolution to this silent, ongoing debate with myself finally illuminated my heart's recesses.

But let me rewind and give you the back story.

This whole thing first started when I was in my early 20s, with one of those late-night conversations that never leaves your consciousness and stays with you throughout the years.

I have a brilliant younger brother, four years my junior. Usually the older sibling is the one to whom the younger must aspire. In our case, I was the underachiever in the family, bringing home report cards filled with mostly B-grade averages (with a great deal of studying and effort). He was the child who could ace a test without barely cracking a book open and sailed through school at a 4.0. At age 13, he hacked into Syracuse University's IT system and changed students' grades -- and those were the days before we had an Internet.

While I was superficially focused on making the cheerleading squad or playing pranks on my college campus, he was a diligent, deep-thinking philosophy major. He studied ancient Greek, delved into the underpinnings of C.S. Lewis's complex works and successfully challenged the establishment everywhere he went.

Now I tell you all of this about my brother, because I need you to understand why and how this late-night conversation was so poignant, and continued to be poignant many years after the fact. A debate with my brother on any subject meant entering into a decision to challenge one's long-held beliefs and perceptions.

In short, nothing about these conversations was ever comfortable.

Basically, he vociferously made the argument that we really didn't know if certain stories in the Bible were about real living, breathing human beings ... or if they were Jewish folklore, cobbled together as metaphors and parables to help the ancients grasp the meaning of life.

At the time, I was aghast at the mere suggestion. Not take the Bible literally? How could any believer consider such a thing?

He drilled through the list of names, starting with Adam and Eve ("Really? We all came from these two people?"), moving to Noah ("A flood over the entire Earth?") ... and then he hit Job.

His reasons for Job being just a fable were rooted in the storytelling approach of the book of Job itself ... Satan presents himself to God in the middle of all of the angels, and he and God get into a debate about one guy that God thinks is doing great. Satan says, "If You strip him of all he has, he will curse You."

And you know the rest of the story ... God allows Satan to take everything from Job as a test of his faith, and when Job stays faithful to God, God restores everything to him again, except with more bounty than with which he started.

My brother's point of view was that the book read like a Greek myth -- good versus evil -- and that there was absolutely no proof that a guy like Job ever existed. The basis for the story, he said, was an attempt to help the ancients understand why bad things happen to good people. But it was not to be taken literally. There was no reason, in fact, to take it literally, he said.

Besides -- he asked me -- why was it so important to me to take it literally? Why did it have to be read literally? What was the reason, the drive within me, to insist that Job was a real person who lived and breathed on this earth? Why did I feel I had to cling to the idea that there really was a conversation between Satan and God and that this poor sap was targeted? Why couldn't I just be happy with the idea that Job was a great piece of Jewish literature but was nothing more than folklore?

I have to admit ... I was stumped. And I was bothered. And I didn't know why I was bothered. I couldn't get my head around my own strong desire to want this story to be true, to be literal, to be an actual event.

And for the next 26 years, this conversation ate at me.

Until this morning at 4 a.m.

All of it clicked together like a World War II code cracking tumbler, the mosaic pieces of my bewilderment suddenly falling together into a complete picture and making sense.

(Usually on this blog, I would break here and tell you to tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story ... but this has been pressing on me so hard for the past three-and-a-half hours that I'm just going to keep writing here ... and if you want to break off here and return to it later, you can. :-)

See, at the time that this conversation took place in my life, I had experienced no hardship. None. I had lacked for nothing in my childhood and had been raised by two God-fearing, loving parents. I hadn't been touched by any sickness or tragedy. The story of Job was just that -- a story -- to read with interest and curiosity.

And for a long time in my life, that was the case. I did have some hardships, don't get me wrong ... my father died when I was 26, which was devastating ... and I watched my former husband go to war in Iraq when I was three weeks out of a C-section with a colicky newborn, following one of the worst pregnancies known to women ... and during my marriage, I went through some horrible illnesses. And all of those life events tested me at various stages.

But even at that, I can honestly say that I didn't know hardship -- really know hardship.

Four years ago, all of that changed, however.

I lost everything.

I won't go into detail, because many of my readers already know the story and it's too long for this blog entry's purposes, anyway.

But let's just use the Cliffs Notes version and say again:

I lost everything, including my health, to the extreme where at one point I thought I only had a few months left to live.

It was then that the first piece of my mosaic came into focus.

The reason I wanted the story of Job to be true -- even when I was at a point in life when nothing bad had happened to me yet -- was that I wanted to be able to know that someone else had lived and experienced the worst and still came through it with blessings for God on his lips and blessings from God after it was over. For me, it was crucial for this to be a true story, because I needed the assurance that if the worst ever came to my door, I had a real life person to look to as an example of how to handle it.

In short, I needed Job to be a real guy, for my own emotional coping strategy when the going got tough.

For a while, when I would think back to the conversation with my brother, I thought it was as simple as that ... my emotional needs being met by the truth of the story.

But this morning, I realized it was so much more.

Job's story also illustrates that God is involved in the lives of each and every person. When bad things happen to us, we're not on a limb alone. I needed the story to be true, because I needed to know that God knew about each plight. We are not isolated. He is with us. And because of the promise of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 (the birth of "Immanuel," which means "God with us") and the promise of John 14:16-17 (the coming of the Comforter), we are further assured that just as God was involved in the events of Job's life, so is He in ours.

As for my brother's argument that these stories could be fables ... I look to Hebrews 11, which we know as "The Faith Chapter." If you haven't read it, you should. It details the ancients whose stories of faith and trust are examples for us in our own walks. I don't think that the author would have listed each of these individuals if they hadn't lived. And in Matthew 1, we have the genealogy of Jesus, which provides the lineage that traces His origins ... to Adam and Eve and even Noah.

Is Job mentioned in either of these passages? No, he is not. That said, I think this establishes a Scriptural pattern of identifying these people in the stories of old as real individuals ... and if Job's story was important enough to be included among the writings of the Old Testament, I am confident he existed, too.

There are readers of this blog who may point out to me that I am a supporter of the theory of evolution and that I have made the argument that it is not mutually exclusive from the story of the Creation in Genesis. For more on that, we need another blog entry, but my reason in bringing it out is that you may argue with me, "You can't cherry pick which stories in the Bible are true and which aren't. You can't say you take one thing literally and another not so literally."

But I would say that you can't put God in a box, nor can you do that with the Bible. I think there are some instances in the Bible where you have to read with the understanding that these were ancient people communicating ancient happenings in the way they understood them. With something like creation, where they did not have the benefits of scientific knowledge, the story would be written in the way they would be able to communicate it best. With something like a story about an individual's life, however, that is pretty straight-forward. You wouldn't need the benefit of science to grasp it or understand it, which is why I think it can be taken literally. My point is that we would have to be very short-sighted to demand that all of the Bible be taken literally or all of the Bible be taken as fable or folklore. If the Bible is God-inspired, then it can be read with wisdom, inspired by God. And for that, we simply need faith to ask Him to reveal His mysteries to us as we read it.

Finally, there is one final (and most important) reason that I believe Job to be a literal story:

It is a story of hope.

It is a story of one man's destitution and loss following a life of great blessing. And it is a story of redemption, faith, courage, honor ... and blessing following his refusal to curse God in spite of all that had happened to him.

During the past four years of my arduous personal journey, I have repeatedly turned to the story of Job as a lifeline to get through. I have repeatedly relied on his example as my predecessor for how I should respond to hardship. I have repeatedly realized that if one person can go through what he did, then my sufferings can also be endured. And I have repeatedly realized that with his faith and trust, God smiled ... and God smiled on him and blessed him and more than repaid what had been lost because of Job's persistent love and hope in Him.

Hardship is a part of life, and life isn't fair.

But God is God.

God is on His throne, and He sees the evil that is done to His children.

And if we take the story of Job literally ... if we hold on to Job's example as one to which we can aspire ... if we grasp firmly the faith and love in God as Job did ... God will give us grace, peace, assurance, but most importantly, His love ... to carry us through.