Read the Book of Job! More than a thought but less than a voice, the words slammed into my consciousness in a manner I found four years later described in Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, like a hammer shattering rocks?” (Jer 23:29). I accepted these quiet but compelling words at face value and then surprised myself by following them instinctively, without examination.
While the response to my question came immediately, the answer took days to understand. I knew that Job was somewhere in the Old Testament. I found a Bible on line and read the pages.
On first reading, the meaning of Job escaped me. Well, there is the expression, the “patience of Job,” but I did not think that the message I was supposed to be getting had anything to do with patience. After all, how does lack of patience explain why children might be born with handicaps?
So, I read the Book of Job again. I read about all the torments and testing, about how Job remained faithful through all the tests. I did not think that was the message I was supposed to be getting, either. That, too, did not explain why my children would be born with handicaps. My children are not torments. They are delights.
So, I read the Book of Job a third time, paying attention to how Job’s friends exhorted him to turn his back on God, but instead he turned his back on their advice. This, too, did not seem to be the message I was supposed to be getting for I had neither blamed God nor believed in God at the time of my children’s births. It seemed I would need the proverbial patience of Job to ferret out whatever message I was supposed to be getting.
So, I read the Book of Job a fourth time and began to feel much empathy for him, especially in the loss of his children. I noted well that I had been spared such pain even in the case of Doah, whose first two years took the form of a dance between life and death and life again. An understanding was beginning to emerge but not one that I could articulate. Just one more time and perhaps I would understand!
I read the Book of Job a fifth time, and then I finally got it. It was not the concept of patience that I needed to understand, nor was it a test whose requirements I needed to meet. No, it was the concept of agape (unconditional love) that I needed to develop. No matter what was taken from Job or what he had to endure, he continued to love God. What the message of Job said to me at that time is that God's presence in our lives and what happens to us and those we care about are separate things. God has promised to be with us if we allow it. What happens to us, on the other hand, is often a result of free will with which God does not usually interfere. My children’s birth defects, in a parallel way, were an unfortunate combination of genes, resulting from the free will of two people who chose each other as marital partners. Even with the animal kingdom, God allows genetics free play. God could have chosen to intervene but did not do so. There likely are reasons for every bad thing that befalls us where God does not intervene, and there likely are reasons for my children’s birth defects. Certainly, my being unaware of the reasons does not mean that they do not exist. Just as likely, were I aware of them, I might not understand them. Scripture tells us that God’s thinking is as far above ours as the sky is from the earth. The reasons, in any case, are irrelevant. Our love of God must be as unconditional as is God’s love for us. What happens in life—the bad things and the good things—cannot be conditions for whether or not we love God. They are tangential. I understood that God was not to blame for any of the bad things that happened to Job or to me, but God has been omnipotent at turning the bad, once it happened, into good.
The reading of Job began to answer my question as to why God could exist and not intervene or why it might even be better to allow the birth defects to occur, as counterintuitive as the latter may sound. My children’s value is not defined by their birth defects but by what they do with their lives, how they help others, what they contribute to the world, i.e., not by what they cannot do but rather but what they can do and do do.
There was one more thing. God protected Job. It did not seem that way to Job because Job was not in on the agreement that God had made with Satan. Satan could take things away from Job and then, later, God even allowed Satan to torment Job physically. Job, however, was never in danger of dying. His life was always in God’s hands as so many times have been my life and the lives of my children when I, like Job, could not see what was transpiring.
As I came to know God better, I began to understand the story of Job in new ways. One important thing that I now understand that would have made no sense in the beginning of my walk with God is that God does not owe us anything. God does not owe us a life without trouble. God does not owe us peace and tranquility. God does not owe us intervention at any particular point in our lives or at all. God sometimes assuages our pain because God wants to. That assuaging is an act of grace, not an entitlement.
C. S. Lewis (The Problem of Pain) points out that we would not ever expect pain to be assuaged were we not to believe in a loving God. It is the concept of a loving God that creates the “problem of pain” for us because we assume that a loving God would not want us ever to feel any pain. I now understand, however, that any assumption that it is God’s will that our lives be free of hassle, pain, and even death is a wrong assumption. When we assume that a loving God would want to heal us of all our illnesses, prevent the loss of our relatives at too early an age, or destroy all our enemies, we fail to understand that every intervention, every assistance, every gift is a grace. Our God-given compassion for our fellow man tells us that human intervention is good. Perhaps that is our basis for assuming that God’s intervention would be good, but we are not privy to the kinds of knowledge that God has. Nor are we capable of seeing and understanding the human condition in the way that God does. We are told in the New Testament that the way of the cross is both necessary and good, and St. Pio specifically points to this way as essential to our spiritual development: “In order to grow, we need hard bread: the cross, humiliation, trials, and denials.” Yet, it is the way of the cross that we attempt to avoid when we demand to know why bad things happen to good people. Might it not be arrogant to believe that any one of us should be exempt from the pain and suffering that comprises the human condition? I would posit that we don’t deserve children without birth defects. We have not earned a right to no pain. Rather, as St. Paul told the Ephesians, “we are all by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Some may experience little pain, thanks to God’s mercy. Others may experience much pain, also thanks to God’s mercy. I did not come to understand this continuum of mercy until I had passed through a series of metanoias.
Further, simply by asking the question why God would allow us to experience pain, we separate ourselves from God — another understanding that took a long time to settle in among my logic-driven neurons. Bonaventure suggests that God does not observe our suffering from afar but rather suffers with us from within, that out of an abundance of love, God is drawn to those who suffer. In one of my favorite books, The Humility of God, Ilia Delio beautifully provides a touching description of this co-suffering:
Suffering is . . . the place of transformation. It is a door by which God can enter in and love us where we are. . . As Clare of Assisi realized, God bends down in the cross to share our tears out of a heart full of mercy and love . . .Suffering, then, perhaps should be welcomed. “Tribulation is a gift God gives us,” St. Thomas More tells us, “one that he especially gives his special friends.” St. Rose of Lima concurs, “Without the burden of afflictions, it is impossible to reach the height of grace. The gift of grace increases as the struggle increases.”
The power of God is the powerlessness of God’s unconditional love shown to us in the cross. God is the beggar who will not force his way into our homes unless we open the door. . . . God shares in the brokenness of the world out of the abundance of divine love.
Was my question answered? Not completely. I still did not know for certain why God intervened to save my children’s lives but not to prevent their birth defects. I have come, however, to understand that knowing is not important; trusting without knowing is paramount. Knowing can be detrimental to a relationship with God. One could take the Israelites as an archetype in this respect. When God let them know things more fully, they turned away from God. Likewise, when Adam and Eve began to know, they strayed. So, I accept not knowing as an inherent condition for real trust, a strong relationship, and deep conversion.
In his homily recently, a visiting priest told the story of three people who went to learn from a guru. The guru asked them why they had come to him. One replied that he had heard of the guru through local people and wanted to learn from such an august man. The guru sent him away. The second replied that she had looked around to see who could teach her what she wanted to learn and in this way had discovered the existence of the guru. He sent her away. The third stammered out that he really did not know how he had heard about the guru or what he really wanted to learn. The guru replied, “You’ll do.”
Clearly, to the guru, not knowing was not only acceptable but also desirable. Some day, if I continue to accept the not-knowing part of my relationship with God, perhaps I, too, will hear the words, “You’ll do.”
I like to think that perhaps this is what happened in the case of my children. Perhaps God looked for parents who would love them just the way they are and fight for them to be everything they could be without questioning the reason for their infelicitous combination of genes and said, “they’ll do.” I like to think that even though I was an atheist and Donnie an agnostic, God thought that we just might do.
God entrusted some very special people to us: children with wide smiles, great love for people, and needs that have allowed people with whom they have come into contact to help them in ways that have been mutually rewarding. Because of their ability to bring smiles to others, I call our children God’s rainbow makers. Just like a broken sprinkler gushes more water onto a parched field, God’s rainbow makers sprinkle more water onto parched souls. The thought that God blessed and entrusted me with these rainbow makers entered my head only after a very long pondering of the experience of Job. Realizing the extent of God’s trust in me has engendered within me a reciprocal trust in God.
Excerpted from A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God (forthcoming), copyright 2011.