Sunday, November 29, 2009

Of Our Humanity

God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. (Job 27: 5)

Job's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, argue with Job along two different lines. Along one line, they accuse Job of very specific sins, namely oppressing the poor and ignoring the pleas of the widow and the orphan:
Is not thy wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite? For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing. Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry.... Thou hast sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken. (Job 22: 5-9)

Their accusations are, of course, utterly false. The Lord's own testimony of Job is that he is "a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil" (Job 1: 8). When Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar find Job unwilling to accept their first line of argument, they seek to undermine Job's confidence in himself with a second line of argument, namely that all men are inherently weak and sinful:
Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth? (Job 4: 17-19)
If Job is not guilty of the specific sins of which they accuse him, his friends insist, he must be guilty of some sin worthy of God's punishment. Furthermore, in failing to acknowledge his sinful nature, they argue, Job is at least guilty of the sin of pride. If he will acknowledge his sinful nature, and thus relinquish his pride, they promise him, God will cease to punish him.

This second line of reasoning is impossible to argue against. To take issue with his friends, Job would have to argue that he is perfect and without sin, when all other men are not. Furthermore, since Job's friends are now accusing him of sins of the heart (such as pride), there is no proof that Job could offer them that could possibly convince them. Whatever he says in his defense will only convince them further that he is guilty.

Job is stung by what feels to him like betrayal. His friends simply won't believe him. Their would-be comfort is no comfort to him at all. "Ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. O that ye would altogether hold your peace!" (Job 13: 4-5). In this exchange between him and his friends, Job realizes he is completely alone. His children are dead, his wife has abandoned him, and now he discovers that even with these companions there is an unbridgeable chasm of accusation and mistrust. There is no human connection or consolation for him at all.

It might have been easier for Job to succumb at least to this second line of reasoning. After all, could he really be sure that he was not guilty of some sin that had brought these trials upon him? To acknowledge this would at least have allowed them to comfort him (even if on their terms rather than his). Why not admit that in fact all humanity is sinful, and therefore he must -- in his humanity -- indeed be guilty of some sin? Why not humble himself before God in this way?

But ultimately Job cannot do this. He cannot accept the sort of abstract theorizing about his situation that his friends insist on. And thus his cry: "Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me."

Job's integrity is found in the specificity of his life, not in some theoretical discussion of sin that is abstracted from the details of a lived human life. But Job's integrity is also found in his capacity to perceive, understand, and relate directly to God. Job does not need anybody else to tell him whether he is sinful or not. There is no reason why Job is not capable of discerning the nature of his dilemma at least as well as -- if not better than -- his friends can. To his friends, Job insists (slightly mockingly) "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you" (Job 12: 2-3). He feels obliged to underline it repeatedly, because his friends just don't seem to listen: "Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. What ye know, the same do I know also: I am not inferior unto you" (Job 13: 1-2).

In his aloneness, Job realizes, if his friends will not believe him, he has only one recourse left. "I would speak with the Almighty; and I desire to reason with God" (Job 13:3). And perhaps, if I who am outside of Job's suffering, who am outside of his unique, specific relationship with God, can discern any purpose in God's putting Job through this kind of trial, it is in this. Perhaps it was to teach Job about his utter, existential dependence on God and God alone that Job was permitted to suffer the way he did. "For God maketh my heart soft," he says toward the end of his exchange with his friends, "When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as pure gold" (Job 23: 10, 16).

Integrity is a hallmark of Job in another sense too, a sense I alluded to in my earlier essay. It was in his insistence on the integrity of body and spirit, his sense that without physical existence, without his connection to wife and children, without a healthy physical body free of disease and pain, there is no existence worth having. We cannot transcend physical existence; there's no spiritual truth that has meaning apart from real physical bodies and real relationships in this life. This is why Job insisted that when he gets his explanation from God, it will be face to face, in the flesh (Job 19: 25-27).

I believe this is why gay Mormon suicide continues to be a problem. I believe gay Mormon suicide will continue to plague us so long as our community cannot recognize the fundamental nature of the bond between body and spirit, a bond that is the same for homosexuals as for heterosexuals. There is something fundamental within us that yearns for the wholeness and integrity that comes from intimate relationship. To be told that we are unworthy of that is to be told that we are fundamentally inferior. It is to shatter the fundamental unity that makes us both human and divine.

I have searched, I have wrestled, I have pleaded. I've wished for my life to end, and came close to ending it. I have argued with friends (and with people I wouldn't really call friends). I have studied, I've fasted, I've prayed. I've offered my heart and my relationship and everything I have and am on the altar of God. I have suffered, physically and spiritually. I have been in the dark, alone. And one day I came through the other side with a profound, unshakable sense that there is nothing wrong with me as regards my sexual orientation. There are things wrong with me; I have physical imperfections/handicaps/disabilities (the most obvious one is my asthma) that I anticipate being fixed in the life to come. But in my love for my husband, I experience only wholeness and goodness that continues to grow in perfection and beauty. If there were something wrong with me in the loving relationship I have with my husband, God should separate us in order to perfect us.

My sense of this is mine alone. I cannot give it to anybody else. No one can know -- either professed friend or professed enemy -- what I have experienced or the nature of my relationship with God. Like Job's friends, my friends can only speculate about what is in my heart. And then, if they choose to do so, condemn me on the basis of their speculation. On the other hand, to others in my situation, there's no assurance I can give that will offer peace. You cannot go by somebody else's life or example. There is only your life, your struggle, your dark night of the soul in which you wrestle with God alone and find your own answers. Only after you have asked yourself the hard questions and answered them honestly will you know how you stand and where you need to go.

But I can bear witness for myself, of my humanity and my integrity. I can say that a world that would divide me from my husband, penalize us for making our lives together, make us inferior under the law, punish and coerce and harass us into being straight, is not a world that recognizes humanity or integrity.

We are not inferior.


Holly said...

this is really beautiful. Like so many people who struggle with the meaning of faith and who question divine justice, I have long been fascinated by the story of Job. I really like the insights you arrive at, particularly this one:

We cannot transcend physical existence; there's no spiritual truth that has meaning apart from real physical bodies and real relationships in this life.

Yes, yes, yes.

Thank you.

J G-W said...

Holly, thank you. I know you are going through your own Job-like trial right now. You were in my prayers last night, and this morning again too.

I love the Book of Job because it mercilessly pokes holes in the illusions of the conventionally pious. But I also love it, because it captures so precisely the nature of suffering, and therefore has the capacity to comfort. Job has helped me through more than one dark night of the soul.