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Dec 19, 2018

The Wisdom of Lamentation

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Stephen A. Gregg

Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas

Stephen A. Gregg is a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, in Texas.

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The Wisdom of Lamentation

Silence and Speech in the Book of Job

‘ Mourners’ Pran Nath Mago 1947

Mourners, Pran Nath Mago, 1947 (National Book Trust, India)

“Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).1 Indeed we have, many of us, heard of the endurance of Job,2 otherwise called his “patience,” “perseverance,” or “steadfastness,” and we tend to think, along with the Apostle James, that the path to true happiness must somehow mean being able to endure trials with integrity.

Job’s trials are grave: although Job is an influential and righteous man, God allows a satan—an adversary, accuser, skeptic among the heavenly court—to afflict him, first with the destruction of his wealth and children and then with the misery of disease. In response, Job’s wife urges him to curse God; three friends try to convince him to stop complaining and admit he is worthless (or somehow deserves his suffering); and then a fourth, younger man pops up in frustration to lecture everyone about God’s greatness. But Job resists them all, expressing himself with intensity and eloquence, demanding to be heard, until, in the end, God speaks from the whirlwind and gives him back twice what he had lost.

When we suffer—when, for all our innocence and dedication, the goods of family, health, and prosperity are taken from us and even our friends criticize us—we also wonder, “What did I do wrong? Why does God hate me? Or are we, to the gods, ‘like flies to wanton boys,’ that ‘they kill us for their sport’?” We demand an explanation, and our instinct, if healthy, is not to settle for the lesser counsels, mere ideas and words, even if they come from sources we trust. We want a real experience of it all somehow making sense; the soul reaches out for a coherence in which the spirit can rest, and the mind for a justification in which we and the world make sense and are happy. And so, when we suffer, we are not silent: even if we do not speak or cry out in our confusion, our hearts and minds whirl with barrages of anguished thoughts. We are forced to reconsider the purpose of our lives, and maybe, whether there is one at all.

What do we tell ourselves to resolve our worries? That all is up to fortune or chance? That we will be rewarded later for what we suffer now? That what does not kill us only makes us stronger? That God afflicts us to help us grow and teach us obedience? That we need to accept our limits and recalibrate our happiness? That death is preferable, since it means rest from this wearied and beleaguered life? Or that, after all, life was good while it lasted, so why complain when it ends?

These are not utterly foolish notions; they arise from the long human experience of those true troubles that cannot be solved by reading Trollope in a warm bath or Wodehouse in an armchair.3 We have texts in our faith traditions that are meant to help us understand and respond to real trials, and among these, the Book of Job has an important place. This book guides its readers to consider these greatest predicaments and, dismantling typical platitudes, invites us to find resolution in an experience of God. Many scriptures do the same, but the Book of Job makes a more universal appeal than many: the figure of Job stands apart from particular historical narratives, and, though in the Hebrew scriptures, does not stand within the covenantal confines of Israel.4 Plus, it takes little imagination to enter into this challenging and enchanting book, for it addresses common human concerns so directly:

Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like laborers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me. (7:1–3)

A First Approach: Toughing It Out?

Those who, in their suffering, turn to or are guided toward the Book of Job, often seem to find this lesson: God is so terribly great that my human suffering does not impeach His greatness, is bearable in this larger spiritual context, and can lead me to a fuller trust in His greatness. (Or at least the pastor’s manual might suggest that.) This lesson is founded upon the apparent wisdom affirmed early in the book. After the first trial, the loss of his wealth and children, Job reacts in this way:

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing. (1:20–22)

After the second trial, the affliction of his own body and the challenge from his wife, Job again responds with a kind of wisdom:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (2:9–10)

This stoicism on the part of Job receives the direct approval of the scriptural author: Job did not sin in what he said. He does not speak of a return of his goods or of some reward for his reasonable willingness to take the bad; he does not appeal to some higher plan. His is a patient recognition of a human being’s essential emptiness or nakedness, of his status as a temporary receptacle for God’s gifts, a frame to be clothed or stripped. He lays no claim on God, and so does not curse or complain. Whatever comes, good or evil, is from God and should be received in willing acknowledgment of the giver. This wisdom is not a matter of moderation, of learning to accept a little less good than we might have wanted, a little more bad. This is total: an abandonment of the sense that one has any necessary claim to good. Perhaps implied is trust that God knows what He is giving, and so all will work out for the best. The deeper good, we learn, is holy indifference;5 the deeper evil the foolishness of lamenting.

This recognition might be heroic—a bold leap of the conscience past appearances and the opinions of one’s colleagues to land on the solid rock of faith. But this quick answer is also a dead end in some sense. The mind has no further step to take, and Job seems to abide in an unsatisfying, silent resignation. Or does he? The trouble with the “endurance of Job” is that when his friends come in chapter 2, he completely opens up on them, in chapter after chapter of lament and argument. How is this steadfast patience? “He’s not taking it well.” Apparently, endurance is not about keeping quiet and acting like everything is somehow okay.6

Yet the ending of the Book of Job does confirm this silent posture: Job responds to God’s theophany with “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (40:4–5). This is matched by the heavy therefores of 42:1–6, with which Job recognizes that he was speaking of what he did not understand and therefore despises himself and “repent[s] in dust and ashes.” Although resignation is the opening step and silence the point of arrival in the Book of Job, we cannot assess this resignation and silence rightly unless we face the vast middle of the book, the rounds of discourse that fill chapters 3 through 37.

When we suffer, we are not silent: even if we do not speak or cry out in our confusion, our hearts and minds whirl with barrages of anguished thoughts.

Finding a Voice

The author of the Book of Job does not present a rational, step-by-step argument about theodicy7 here but instead offers three swirling rounds of discourse, framed by Job. After Job’s initial lamentation and questioning (chapter 3), the three friends speak in turn, each followed by a response from Job—thus Eliphaz/Job, Bildad/Job, Zophar/Job.

La Solitude du Christ, Alphonse Osbert, 1897La Solitude du Christ, Alphonse Osbert, 1897

There are two rounds of such exchanges, and it looks as if a third might follow, except that only two of the friends speak in the third, making way for Job’s closing monologue (chapters 29 through 31)8 and the arrival of a young man, Elihu, who gives his own four discourses with no responses from the others (chapters 32 through 37). This is not a Socratic dialogue: the interlocutors do not always respond to one another’s specific notions and words, and the style is acutely poetic. For this is not a contest between two sides of an argument but an interplay between a set of ideas and a desire that goes beyond them. On the one side is the wisdom tradition, which Bildad speaks of as the marsh in which papyrus should grow, the water in which reeds should flourish (8:11)—namely, the obligatory belief that the just will be rewarded by God and the wicked abandoned, contrary appearances notwithstanding. Although the Book of Job does lead us through an intellectual engagement with this tradition, Job’s side of these rounds of discourse raises a deeper issue: the very need and desire to think and speak further than this tradition allows. Does Job have the right to speak, to be discontent, to be unsatisfied by the friends’ wisdom? The inner pressure to speak is not eliminated by an imposed wisdom, and the need to address that speech even to God Himself urges Job not merely toward deeper thoughts but toward direct experience. Thus, the Book of Job compels its readers to see that the wisdom of faith is less a stable resolution in thought than a longing to see and know that is connected to our longing to speak.9

So the beginning is a tense and painful silence. When his friends came to him, “They did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:12–13). The greatness of his suffering has not only withered Job but also reduced him and his friends to silence. Their inarticulate weeping resolves into the silence of grief; of the recognition that borders on shock; of not having even one word with which to begin communing with each other, one word to express or explain the problem. If we will move from suffering to wisdom, what first step must we take? Job reveals that the step is not to attempt an answer but to articulate a question. Lamentation is this original question, and so Job begins: “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul? … Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (3:20, 23). Life should be beautiful and good, and the light of life should bring joy and clarity, but all Job has is the bitter awareness of pain and misery.

Silencing Job

His friends’ main concern in the discourses that follow is to get Job to stop talking like this. They are trying to silence him by reasoning and force of words. More important than any particular answer or explanation is their failure, in the end, to shut him up or make him confess some wickedness. As we read the beautiful text, we are drawn ever more deeply into Job’s desire to speak, and to speak with God, while at the same time, we are confronted by the friends’ attempts to drive Job—and us—back into silence. Consider Zophar’s first chance to strike at Job:

Should a multitude of words go unanswered,
and should one full of talk be vindicated?
Should your babble put others to silence,
and when you mock, shall no one shame you? (11:2–3)

Zophar’s goal is to outspeak Job, to shame him into silence; and if Zophar cannot do it, he goes on to hope that God Himself will (11:5–6).

Bildad’s first speech opens in a similar way—“How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?” (8:2)—yet Bildad founds his critique of Job on the authority of a tradition of “bygone generations” he proudly channels (8:8–10). Job’s desire to speak so much in his own defense is a refusal to submit to a tradition that has, for Bildad, already explained the issue (8:20: “See, God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers”), and thus, to Bildad, Job is a papyrus with no marsh, a reed with no water, one who trusts in gossamer and leans on a spider’s house. Job’s thoughts and words, unlike Bildad’s, have no sure foundation in received tradition.

Eliphaz, too, reprimands Job for presuming to speak his own original wisdom and then identifies himself with the authoritative wisdom of tradition (here in his second discourse):

Are you the firstborn of the human race?
Were you brought forth before the hills?
Have you listened in the council of God?
And do you limit wisdom to yourself ?
What do you know that we do not know?
What do you understand that is not clear to us?
The grey-haired and the aged are on our side,
those older than your father. …
I will show you; listen to me;
what I have seen I will declare—
what sages have told,
and their ancestors have not hidden. (15:7–10, 17–18)

So all three of Job’s friends contest his right to lament and to demand an explanation from God, motivated perhaps by the natural anger involved in debate yet principally inspired by their underlying concept of God. To the friends, God is so great that, at first, man is ultimately irrelevant and therefore has no right to address God. Early on, Eliphaz manifests this view gloriously in the second part of his first discourse, where he recounts a dream:

Now a word came stealing to me,
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
“Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like a moth. …”
Call now; is there anyone who will answer you?
To which of the holy ones will you turn? (4:12–19, 5:1)

More important than the friends’ unsurprising emphasis on the predictable fates of the wicked and the just is this vision of the world as completely worthless to God, with which both Eliphaz and Bildad conclude their third and final rounds of discourses (in chapters 22 and 25, respectively). Zophar, who caught on the least, has at that point nothing more to say. In Eliphaz’s dream, not even the angels are perfect or trustworthy to God, and there is therefore no purpose in calling on God. Job’s mistake is not merely his refusal to admit that his suffering must be merited by his own wickedness but his failure to recognize the even deeper worthlessness of all created things—that they have no right to call on their creator. For the friends, God crosses over this sundering chasm in order simply to make the just prosper—not as a matter of personal communication but simply as public commendation—so Eliphaz concludes, “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you. … If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored” (22:21, 23a).

The peace Eliphaz insists upon is the same as the silence the three try to impose on Job: suffering cannot give rise to speech, and man cannot truly commune with God. We readers see from the beginning that the friends’ vision is inaccurate, because we have been given as an axiom that God is arranging it all and that Job is, in fact, completely just, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). Before his trial, in his trial, and at the end when he is rewarded, God declares him righteous and praises what he says: “I will accept [Job’s] prayer not to deal with you [the friends] according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done” (42:8).10 The Book of Job is not meant to make us wonder whether Job is righteous or not. He certainly is just—yet he suffers, and his suffering draws him to call on God. By framing the book with clear contradictions of the friends’ assumptions, the book links us to Job as he reproaches his friends and insists on having something more than their “wisdom” is offering him.

Right View and Right Speech about the Divine

Job often contests the status of these friends: “My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed” (6:15), “I also could talk as you do, if you were in my place” (16:4a), “How you have helped one who has no power!” (26:2a). His disagreement with their vision of God and God’s relation to the just man is profound enough to break the connection of friendship. And yet, because he knows his own innocence, Job sees the separation between God and man as even more radical a divide than his friends imagine. God is terrifying even for the innocent:

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.
If I summoned him and he answered me,
I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
but fills me with bitterness. (9:15–18)

Or again, apostrophizing God in deeper anguish still:

Are your days like the days of mortals,
or your years like human years,
that you seek out my iniquity and search for my sin,
although you know that I am not guilty,
and there is no one to deliver out of your hand?
Your hands fashioned and made me;
and now you turn and destroy me. (10:5–8)

Job sees that God makes wretched even his most faithful servant, so he is bewildered: his first thought is not confidence that God will hear him because of his innocence but instead the confusion of wondering why God bothers to attend to His creation at all, for good or for ill. His is a pure lament: What was the point of creating something only to destroy it so? Why oppress a good man with this terror of having no worth? Just crush us, and let it be over. God’s persistence with man is itself a cause of pain.

Job’s vision of God’s majesty is actually clearer than his friends’, but the crucial difference between them is the confidence or terror they draw from their vision. To Eliphaz’s dream, compare Job’s:

When I say, “My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,”
then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.
I loathe my life; I would not live for ever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,
test them every moment? (7:12–18)

William Blake, the Romantic poet and artist who printed many of his own works as “illuminated prints” by etching the text and illustrations on plates to print from, masterfully depicted these dreams in the engravings for the Book of Job that he was commissioned to produce toward the end of his life.11 In plate 9, when Eliphaz describes his vision, we see him seated before his interlocutors, lifting his left hand calmly into the sphere of the vision, where a majestically static and illuminating Lord shines upon him as he rests calmly in bed, left hand lifted slightly, his body at ease while his hair stands up with the energy of the revelation (like the face of Moses in Exodus 34:29–30, often depicted with “horns” of light12). He is enlightened and confident. Blake’s plate 11, depicting Job’s dream, shows us a very different vision. Here the Lord is a wild force, backed by the tablets of the commandments and jagged, limb-like lightning. His torso is like a flow of water and a billow of flaming smoke that tangle at his feet, as a wide-eyed dragon glares from behind His head—here, it is God’s hair, not Job’s, that stands on end. This Lord presses himself upon Job, who lifts his hands to keep Him off, while he directs his eyes in retreating fear toward the demons reaching up from the fiery pit below his bed to seize and chain him. The God of Job is much more terrifying13 but also much more alive than the God whom Eliphaz and the other friends have misrepresented. When we say that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord,14 this is what we mean: God is not an easy platform on which to stand nor a calm illumination, but a terrifying mystery who presses upon the soul. It is not so easy to find peace in the face of suffering, and the “endurance” we need is not only to trust in God more but to face even this God who frightens us, and to take our words with us when we do.

Job’s lowliness consists not so much in his external suffering of loss as in this: he acknowledges the awesome, living fearfulness of God and its terrifying consequence for man, the wish to be annihilated and left alone. Job’s greatness consists in his desire to speak with God nonetheless. He seeks refuge not in false guilt nor in the platitudes of the comfortable, but in the desire to speak with God. Thus he shows that the soul’s lowest point, when it faces not only its fragility in itself but its nakedness in relation to the divine, is also its turning point: Shall I descend into the dark silence of nothingness or follow my empty heart that cries to the Lord Almighty?

The suffering God allows Job to undergo reveals what is truly heroic about Job: his suffering draws him to a deeper sense of need, and the need itself propels him toward a greater and greater desire to know and encounter the divine.

The Desire to Speak and See

Job’s anguish is fearful and enchanting, and our delight as readers is to follow after him as his desire to speak with God becomes more and more dramatic. If, on the one hand, Job prays, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” (23:17), at the beginning of the same chapter, he can pray, “O that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (23:3–4). He wants to hide, yet he wants to speak, and in his insistence, Job presses himself back on God:

Even now, in fact, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high. My friends scorn me; my eye pours out tears to God, that he would maintain the right of a mortal with God, as one does for a neighbor. (16:19–21)
Old Man Praying Drawing By Vincent Van Gogh

Old Man Praying, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Although God terrifies him by his mysterious presence (cf. 23:8–17), Job wants God to make him a neighbor, to grant him the right to be near Him. Furthermore, Job insists that not even his mortality and vanishing substance can be an obstacle to God’s receiving him, as he famously prays (19:23–27).15 At the end of the rounds of discourses, in chapter 31, Job calls the Almighty to answer him and vows to present himself “like a prince” before God, crowned with his adversary’s indictment, royally exalted by the account he makes of his heart’s deepest troubles (19:35–37). By opening his mouth in lament, he has allowed the ennobling desire for intimacy with God to transform his servile fear of God.

Does God contradict Job and reduce him to silence, like the blustering young Elihu who interrupts at this point? If we want to understand well the “endurance of Job” in the beginning of the book, we must assess the nature of the theophany at the end, not just the framing circumstance that God rewards Job with renewed prosperity and long life. What kind of response is God making to Job when he speaks from the whirlwind?

The Voice out of the Whirlwind

The Lord’s response seems indirect: in chapters 38 through 39, he elaborates on the powerful forces of the world (e.g., night and day, rain and stars) and then also on the glory of animals (e.g., the horse); in chapters 40 through 41, he praises the might of two specific creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan, fantastic beasts associated with the hippopotamus and with the crocodile or a gigantic whale-like creature, which, as in Psalm 74:13–14, stands as an emblem of an indomitable natural power. In response to the first discourse, Job professes he will speak no further, and to the second, he says he repents of having spoken. The Lord simply says nothing about Job and his plight, and offers no consolation. If we take this rather simplistically, we will say that, by manifesting His own unique superiority to even the mightiest beasts, God intimidates Job into silence.16 “Who am I to answer your little worries? Were you there at the creation of the world? Did you create Leviathan?” The Lord offers challenges that He knows Job cannot stand up to.

What makes Job content to be silent now, however, is not fear or shame but something more: “I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You” (42:5). When the friends spoke against him, he knew what they said was merely hearsay, and so he would not settle for it; now that God has spoken, he has seen what he needed to see. What has he seen? The Lord’s words evoke His own almighty power precisely by praising the extraordinary, joyful beauty of the created world and its exuberant life:17 the singing of the morning stars at the creation of the earth’s foundation (38:7), the war horse that cries “Aha!” and charges when it hears the trumpet (39:25), the Leviathan that you cannot “put on a leash for your girls” (41:5). When the Lord speaks here, He does not scowl but smiles. Furthermore, God praises these creatures not to belittle Job but to exalt him: “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you” (40:15; KJV: “which I made with thee”). What God teaches Job is like this: “You ask why light and life are given to man—but if I were really to tell you? You can but barely sustain the glory of these other creations—and man’s spirit is so much greater!”

In fact, the Book of Job has been directing us toward this revelation from the very start. The trials of Job begin when God allows the figure of a satan to afflict him. Why does God do this? Note first of all that God remains in control the whole time, limiting the reach of Satan’s trials. He does not say, “Give it your best shot,” and then start worrying about the outcome, as in some game, but carefully constructs something to show His heavenly court. When He hears that Satan has just come back from roaming the earth, the Lord asks, “Have you considered My servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8 and 2:3). The motivation for this question is not that God is skeptical about His most faithful servant or feels He has something to prove to Satan; rather, it is an honest question: “Oh, back from earth? Did you see Job? If you didn’t, you missed the greatest thing there, and you should go back.” The Lord knows that man, unlike all else, is gloriously beautiful even in his lamenting; suffering need not finally diminish man, for he has a soul, which, in its integrity, reaches out to address God Himself. The Lord shows Job the glory of other creatures, but the Lord shows the heavenly court the enchanting glory of Job, while we readers are offered both. It is not a malevolent game, with man as its playing piece, but an affirmation of man’s expansive dignity and a promise to engage his anguished quest for wisdom.

Turning to Job

Be it sudden or gradual, suffering is the challenge to wisdom and to faith. Reading the Book of Job, however, actually amplifies our crises and unsettles our platitudes. As we read, we speak with Job’s words, and with his friends’ and his wife’s as well. We, like God, admire this lamenting creature’s power of expression; the power of thought, word, and speech to reach out from suffering; the majesty of life itself. We who really read it do not feel humbled or lectured, but magnified and challenged to live up to Job’s inner strength and God’s vision of life’s glory.

So, what does the Book of Job tell the innocent sufferer? Not “Think hard, since you must have done something to deserve this.” Nor “Don’t worry, God is just testing your faith to see how long you can suffer without saying anything.” Nor even “You just need to talk this out and you will find comfort.” This is not a trial of faith, a questioning of how long Job can persevere in thinking his suffering might make sense. This is a trial of desire: At what point will Job give up wanting his soul’s cry to be heard? At what point will he stop asking God to reveal Himself ? The book asks us, “How much can your soul express of itself, how much need for God are you willing to experience?” The suffering God allows Job to undergo reveals what is truly heroic about Job: his suffering draws him to a deeper sense of need, and the need itself propels him toward a greater and greater desire to know and encounter the divine.

What God loves and admires in Job is this ability to grow in spiritual desire, as shown by his speaking rightly. The Book of Job uses the excellent speech of good poetry to manifest this inner experience of pain, need, and longing. And perhaps right speech always grows from such need, seeking some rest. Speaking, for all the joy of it, is always difficult, always hopes for a mutual understanding that is not yet complete beforehand. Children cry out in both delight and need. How often do we express ourselves perfectly? How often are we perfectly understood? The Book of Job shows that speaking to God—lamenting in anguish, being willing to speak far beyond our understanding, being eager to question—is not a temptation against certain faith; it is our desire reaching out toward greater experience. When we complain or grumble about petty things, we do not really want an answer but only some cheap pity or affirmation. But when we lament like Job, the soul truly opens to something more.

And this is not just about God. Although we do admire the loving silence that is found between some people, their deep rest in each other, we also might well hear from our loved ones the reprimand “You should have told me!” We should have tried to speak, we should have dared, we should have felt the need more deeply. The more fully human I am, the more my suffering and need enlarge me and direct me toward others. Needs—physical, financial, social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual—are not just boxes to check, elements to include in our self-construction so we can feel stable. Our needs become words: as human beings, as rational creatures, our needs become meaningful possible connections, attempts to build up more than our solitary experience has, as words build up to infinite variety. Our suffering can always be a kind of speech, whether aloud or not, and this is what is so beautiful about human beings. When we encounter those who suffer, we do not just try to teach them a way out or simply console them, but we love them, want to hear from them, want them to share with us the pain of their souls, because that pain is a uniquely human treasure and the sign of the heart’s capacity for feeling expansion, a defiance of all spiritual dullness and numbness. Reading the Book of Job, we find that God is wilder, more majestic, more challenging, and more engaging than would be comfortable for us, but we also learn to rejoice in knowing that the same is true about ourselves.

Think back to the basic question Job has: “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul? … Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (3:20, 23). What sort of answer are we really expecting when this question rises in our hearts? What opening does it prepare? The question presents light and life as beautiful goods, and manifests the questioner’s bitter eagerness for his experience to live up to their beauty. The many questions and cries that follow lead us to a new silence—not the silence of oppression nor that of confident control, but the silence of recognition and repentance, a restful silence that is achieved as a victory. In that silence, we see that man’s soul possesses a glorious but indeed tortuous beauty; that the path to its height is winding and difficult; that by words it reaches out, but in experience it rests. In that experience, we understand what a god really is and what a man really is. That final silence is charged with many words. The Book of Job reawakens us to the power and beauty of our own suffering and our questions, and to the insight that sharing our pains will be part of the path to a new community.


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