Beginning Thursday, September 27, I will be leading a study group on the biblical book of Job, shaped by the book my friend, Dr. Milton Horne, and I are writing. The group will meet from 6:30 to 7:30, every other week, and will include a period of contemplative meditation followed by discussion of a chapter. I’ve already shared a couple of chapters on this blog, and there’s another one below.
The cost for participation is $15/per meeting. I will be glad to provide CE credits for LPCs, LMFTs, and MSWs. I will need a minimum of 10 participants for the group to make. If you would like to sign up, please shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enticing God and the cost of religious faith
There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.
As the word enticing can have both good and bad connotations, so can religious faith. Religious faith can both be liberating and enslaving. In Frank’s case his religious faith is the latter.
The story’s initial picture of God is enticing to us. What we don’t realize yet is that we may be “enticed” in other, more costly, ways. The opening scenes of Job’s story include an image of God that everybody would like to have. He is a God who is unwaveringly in Job’s corner. When the “sons of God,” God’s heavenly attendants, show up to confer with the creator, God cannot stop praising Job. In fact, the particular member of the heavenly court to which he speaks is the one called “the satan,” or “the accuser.” After God learns that the satan has been going “to and fro” on the earth, it’s God who brings up the question of Job. And God repeats what the reader already knows: “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8)” What a cheerleader for Job! Who would not want to have some heavenly deity on one’s side like that amidst the heavenly council? In fact, most of us wouldn’t mind simply having a friend or family member who stood up for us like that, recognizing all of the good things we do, and sharing it among those who might be interested.
Of course the satan is interested in Job for reasons that are not necessarily evil. We really do not want to confuse this character with the later character of Satan (even though many of our English translations call him Satan and risk identifying him with the New Testament “Devil.”). It’s the satan’s job, in fact, to stand over against humanity as their accuser before God. And that’s what this character does; he entices God to take a more scrutinizing look at Job’ motives. He wants God to consider the possibility that Job doesn’t really love God singularly, but is simply taking advantage of God’s goodness (and perhaps, God’s naivete). Readers might react to this complication by silently saying to themselves, “don’t do it; don’t let him fool you.” And in the end, this exchange between God and the satan is ultimately the explanation for Job’s suffering? Job is really innocent of the whole affair.
And at that point we might pause and think both about the importance of our sacred stories as well as their costs. Having a heavenly council with a caring deity as an explanation for the way our lives turns out can be wonderfully helpful. We may not understand the decisions handed down by this council, or in Job’s case, by God, who heads up the council. But that there might be such decision-making going on about our lives, might in and of itself help us religious folk make more meaningful choices. That’s especially so when things are going our way and God’s decisions favor a pleasant life. What is more, we prefer the convenience of saying “it’s God’s will” rather than reflecting upon the reasons backing our moral choices. Having a God at least makes moral choices initially more convenient. And, we all know that convenience is not the best reason for choosing anything. The ordinary rules of cause and effect can be suspended, we could argue, because God and his courtiers can intervene in our lives whenever it suits them.
The only problem is when God’s decision-making does not go our way. Then our sacred stories get in the way. I mean, we’d all like for our gods to get things right all the time. But sometimes they do not. Or, worse, he’s a God who can be enticed by such characters as his satan, and subject his loyal human subjects to all kinds of miserable pain. At such times, don’t we think it might just be easier not to have anything to do with such a God? I do wonder when I get to Job’s words to his wife, “shall we receive good at the hand of God and not also receive the bad? (2:10)” if he really believes the words he’s actually saying, because he finally comes around and wishes he’d never been born (3:11-16). Job’s sacred story, along with his suffering, is so problematic to him when he offers those words, he’d rather to have never been born at all. If sacred stories can be so good to us and so bad to us at the same time, how do we decide how to live with them?
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
― Galileo Galilei
Frank is, by all appearances, a broken man. Fifteen years of marriage to an emotionally abusive woman has decimated his spirit.
“And now I’m simply trapped,” he murmurs.
“Trapped?” I ask.
“Of course. The Bible says that divorce is a sin. I can either stay in my marriage, or I can leave God’s will.”
“Where did you get the idea God operates like that?”
Frank looks at me skeptically. “That’s what the Bible says. That’s what my preacher preaches.”
“Frank, I don’t have the right to tell anyone that his reading of the Bible may not be quite accurate, and it would be irresponsible for me to suggest you not trust your pastor. I would only say that when I read the stories of how Jesus dealt with people in pain, he seems a lot more interested in how folks experience the grace and love of God than how well they keep the rules.”
There’s much more to this story, but enough here for reflection. Frank is a man with what we therapists call “boundary issues.” This simply means that, in some relationships, he doesn’t know how to protect himself. Like a timid homeowner, he allows his wife to regularly storm into his soul and vandalize his heart while he sits helplessly. He would never allow an actual vandal to destroy his family’s home. Yet he allows his wife to destroy his soul, hardly raising an objection. And he uses his religion to justify his choices. He experiences himself as trapped — as a victim.
How is it that we are enticed toward a God who cares little how much we suffer so long as we are keeping the rules? I suspect it is the same impulse that vaults a harsh military general to power by people who are frightened, and find comfort in his brutal strength. Perhaps the safety seems worth it, until he sends his goons to conscript the boys into the army.
So, Frank has boundary issues with his wife, and with his God or, more accurately, with his religion. He allows his wife to say all manner of demeaning words to him, and assumes he has no choice but to endure it. He allows his religion to assert all sorts of rules on his life, and assumes he has no choice but to accept them.
“Frank, if your son made the common mistake of marrying a woman while he was too young and stupid to understand what he was getting himself in to, and if the woman he married treated him like your wife treats you, what would you say to him?”
Franks eyes tear. “I’d tell him that I love him, I’ll support him in whatever be decides to do, and I’ll help him as best I can.”
“And you would also tell him that if he decides to leave his marriage, you wouldn’t be willing to have a close and loving relationship with him anymore?”
“Of course not. I’d be there with him through thick and then as long as he wanted my help.”
“Of course you would. So why do you suppose you’ve come to believe that God wouldn’t love you in the same way? I recall Jesus saying that even ‘pagans’ know how to meet the needs of their children, and that God loves us in infinitely deeper ways.”
“I never really thought about it like that before.”
“Frank, you’ve got me curious. I’m wondering how much of your suffering is due to your marriage, and how much of it is due to your religion, or least to what your religion has taught that God expects.”
I’m very aware that this conversation can come perilously close to “God doesn’t want you to feel bad, so do whatever feels good.” (Can you believe that a girl I (Wes) was dating in college actually used those exact words with me?) This is exactly the sort of thinking the small self likes to grab hold of, so I find it important to set the context.
I remind people of some of core tenets of the Christian faith:
- God created us in a spirit of love, and out of a desire for relationship.
- Creation became radically broken, and this brokenness gets on all of us, fairly or not.
- Scripture offers wise counsel in the shape of rules and principals for redemptive living, but we cannot escape failing to live up to the expectations of Scripture.
- When we break the rules, we are called upon to be honest with ourselves and others regarding those transgressions.
- God’s grace and forgiveness are available to help us move beyond the break.