In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, two smart, funny teenagers named Hazel Grace and Augustus fall in love. They play video games, read poetry, and visit museums. Hazel and Gus also both have terminal cancer.
Despite the book’s genre – teenage cancer love story – it is never maudlin, and seldom sentimental, refusing to romanticize suffering and death. In one memorable passage, Hazel snarks about the embroidered “encouragements” that Augustus’s parents have placed all over the house. “’Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for ages, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.” Hazel and Augustus do not love each other because they have cancer; they just love each other.
While Hazel dismisses this argument – “without pain, how could we know joy?” – it remains enduringly popular in the category of what you might call “Hallmark theodicy.” As you may remember, last year we talked about Noah’s ark and the concept of theodicy – the theology of explaining God’s engagement with human suffering. Hallmark theodicy, then, is the common Christian practice of explaining away incredibly difficult questions about pain and suffering with pat answers, clichés, and empty statements such as “it’s all part of God’s plan.”
This viewpoint – that God speaks, heals, and works through suffering – is a prevalent one in Christian circles. It’s even shared by famed Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who writes in The Problem of Pain, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Though he was not speaking of the Christian God, the Greek philosopher Epicurus refused to accept this explanation. In his famed argument for atheism, he writes, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
As you can see, this question can be very troubling. Perhaps you yourself have encountered instances of pain and suffering in your life that have made you wonder whether God is being just or not.
The Book of Job is an unusual story: one in which Satan drops in to heaven to chat with God, and they have a debate about one particular person. Satan bets that if he takes everything away from Job, a righteous man, that Job will curse God. God eventually gives Satan permission to do whatever he wants to Job as long as he does not “lay a hand on his person” (1:12 NKJV). What follows is utter devastation: Job’s livestock are stolen, his sheep and servants are burned by fire from the sky, and then while all of his children are at a party the building collapses and kills them all. Job collapses into grief, but – the author notes – “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (1:22 NIV). Job then breaks out in sores, his wife scorns him, his friends urge him to “curse God and die” – and yet he refuses, though he does curse his own existence. “Though he slay me,” Job insists, “yet will I hope in him” (13:15a NIV).
After chapters of debate, we have heard Job declare his innocence and struggle with his faith in God. We have also heard three of his friends insensitively argue that Job must have done something to deserve this, that it must be a punishment because God is just. One character, Elihu, steps in and criticizes everyone in this debate, and proposes that perhaps God allows suffering as a warning against future sins (33:12-18) or perhaps to help people develop character (32:19-33). Elihu's answers seem similar to some of the more common arguments that Christians use today in their theology. They aren't perfect answers, but they are more theologically sophisticated than the points that Job's friends make
When God finally replies to Job, he does not directly explain his actions, or mention anything about Satan from earlier on. Instead, he points to the majesty and complexity of the creation that he oversees and asks if Job really thinks he can comprehend all of it. In essence, God's answer is, "I could give you the answer about why this is happening, but there's no way you could understand my actual perspective on this."
The book ends with Job having his fortunes restored, and even a new family with more children. (This is important in ancient Near-Eastern culture because many people saw children as an extension of themselves that would live on, often as an alternative to beliefs about an afterlife.) It is a strange and perhaps unsatisfying ending for modern readers. Still, the story does confront us with the nature of life that we do experience: bad things do happen to otherwise decent people, and in the midst of that we still find these decent people believing in God and that the lives we live, even the painful parts, actually do mean something.
Jesus acknowledges that God sends both sunshine and raindrops on the righteous and the wicked (Matthew 5:45). All belief in God happens in a world where we already know this to be true. The question is, what will you make of your pain, and what will pain make of you?
Related texts or passages to consider: 1 Peter 3:13-17; Romans 8:18; Romans 5:3-4; Isaiah 53:3-4;
• Read the first two chapters of Job. What do you notice here? Take note of three things: 1 - Something that's new to you. 2 - Something that is interesting. 3 - Something that is life changing.
• Now that you have read the opening of Job, read the last chapters, 40-42. Does this feel like a good conclusion, given how the book started? How do you feel about God restoring Job's fortunes? What point do you think God is making about these powerful, dangerous creatures called Leviathan and Behemoth? Do they have anything to do with the rest of the story?
• Now read Job 32-37. This is a bit longer but it's interesting. What does Elihu have to say? He seems to disagree both with Job and the three other friends. Do you find Elihu's perspective interesting? How does it compare with God's arguments presented in 40-42?
• Some people will argue that God does not cause pain to happen to us directly, but he allows it to happen to us. Is this more comforting? If God could prevent evil but he doesn’t, does this make him complicit? Why or why not?
• Some scholars suggest that Job is not meant to be a recollection of factual events, but rather a fable or fairy tale. How would that change your perspective on the story? Do you think it would be more comforting if Job were not a real person, or do you think that would rob the story of it's power?
• What do you make of the beasts Leviathan and Behemoth mentioned in Job 40 and 41? Are they normal animals, perhaps dinosaurs as some have suggested, or mythical literary devices used to prove a point? What makes the most sense with the rest of the story? What makes the most sense with Job's personal journey in the book of Job?
• Do you find God’s final answer to Job satisfying? Why or why not?
• Read Matthew 5:43-48. Take note especially of verse 45. How does Jesus' ethical teaching about loving your neighbors relate to how God runs the world? How does it relate to God's treatment of evil people and good people? How does this relate to the story of Job?
• Check out this video from the Bible Project about Job. Do you find it helpful? What questions does it raise or answer for you?