Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things Too Wonderful For Me, Which I Knew Not

My daily scripture reading has brought me to what is quite possibly my favorite book of the Old Testament, the Book of Job. Job is particularly appreciated by Latter-day Saints because of its references both to a pre-mortal existence and to the resurrection. But what is typically seen as Job's greatest contribution is its subversive answer to the troubling question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" The book's relevance has not diminished, and probably never will diminish no matter how theologically sophisticated we become, thanks to the all-too-human tendency to want to believe that good things happen to us because we are good, and bad things happen only when we are bad. This is an understandable way to distance ourselves from the misery of others, a way to comfort ourselves with the false reassurance that "that could never happen to me."

But Job also has a special relevance to me personally as a gay man. I re-discovered the Book of Job shortly after I came out of the closet publicly, and began to experience rejection and judgment from the church community I belonged to at the time. So much of Job resonated so very deeply with me, it felt to me as if it had been written specifically with my situation in mind. At the time, it was perhaps my single greatest source of comfort and reassurance. Since then meditations on Job have continued to help me find peace in my darkest hours.

Job 3 speaks powerfully to the despair that so many gay men and lesbians feel, upon coming to terms with the reality that their sexual orientation is simply not going to change, despite their greatest efforts and struggles. "For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me" (3: 25). Job, having lost everyone he loved, everyone who was of significance in his life, yearned for death. But more significantly, Job wished he had never been born. "Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" (3: 11). His agony goes right to the very root and reason for his existence. Why would God have even allowed him to be created, if this was going to be his end?

That existential anguish is precisely what I experienced as I came to terms with my sexual orientation. What was my purpose, if I had no hope of the kind of family and life for which I had always been taught to believe I was created? Not to mention that I had heard those same words from the lips of Church leaders and teachers talking about homosexuality: Better I had never been born. Better for me to return home in a casket. I did yearn to die; and many do die.

"Comfort" and Blame
The Book of Job would be short indeed, if it weren't for the many long chapters comprising the dialogs between Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Most people find these chapters boring, preferring to skip over them to the very end of the Job story. But in a very real sense, the book of Job is not as much about Job as it is about these so-called friends. The whole book of Job was intended as a refutation of the view of life that they espouse and advocate.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are presented as well-meaning, upright, pious, and completely clueless when it comes to their understanding of the nature of Job's particular predicament. Nothing they have experienced in their lives has prepared them to absorb the full meaning of the events that have befallen Job. More importantly, their evaluation of Job's circumstances amounts to simple denial. They begin with the premise that God rewards the righteous with a good life and punishes the guilty with suffering. Job is suffering, therefore he is guilty. Their premises are inconveniently contradicted by the facts of Job's life and Job's own testimony, so they simply choose to ignore the facts.

Job's friends accuse him of lying; they accuse him of secret sin; they accuse him of cursing God in his heart. God, argues Bildad, cannot be unjust. Therefore, for Job to assert that he is not guilty of any sin worthy of this suffering is to call God unjust. Job must be a liar, or the honor of God cannot be maintained. This is so reminiscent to me of those who respond with outrage when I express my profound sense that God created me gay. To even suggest such a thing, God's would-be defenders indignantly assert, is to make a mockery of God. What can I respond to that? Nothing that will convince them, since my very existence is an offense to their notion of creation, and denying my understanding and accusing me of lying is all that's left. In fact, the reason the central section of Job is so long, is because Job's attempts to reason with his friends bring on ever more vehement arguments. Argument under such circumstances is impossible. And to those gay men and lesbians who have found themselves arguing their own case until they were blue in the face, Job's demonstration of the futility of argument is instructive.

Job's friends assert that affliction is always the result of sin, and Job readily agrees, but points out that in his case, this principle does not apply. Job, in other words, finds himself in the extremely inconvenient position of asserting that he is a special case. It's not something that Job himself is comfortable with. And at the root of Job's spiritual malaise is the fundamental confusion he feels about the situation in which he finds himself. His own circumstances simply make no sense to him. He longs for greater understanding, but that understanding is not forthcoming.

When the Sons of God Shouted for Joy
Job's inability to solve the conundrum of his creation leads to his testimony -- perhaps one of the most moving passages in all of scripture:
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. (19: 25-27)

Job's only hope for redemption from this plight is in the life to come, when he can stand before his Maker, and petition him for a full accounting of the mysteries of this mortal life.

In the Book of Job, this accounting takes place not in a future life, but in the present one. The encounter between God and Job, as described in the Book of Job, has been the subject of much theological discussion. To many who read this "resolution," God seems to give Job an answer that is not an answer at all. God does not seem to resolve the philosophical problem around which the whole Book of Job seems to be built -- why bad things happen to good people. Indeed, as the arguments of Job and his friends demonstrate, the philosophical problem runs deeper than that. For as Bildad asserts, God being all powerful, the suggestion that unjust suffering exists in God's world is a challenge to our sense of God's righteousness. This is the classic theodicy problem that has exercised theologians for centuries. But God answers none of these questions.

Yet Job comes away from the encounter with God satisfied... In a way that many readers often are not when they read the Book of Job. This is a key point in the book. The book itself points us beyond the explanations, beyond the words offered in the book. We will not find the answer to Job's problem in the Book of Job. We can find it only in the way that Job himself found it... In an encounter with God. The Book of Job points us toward that encounter, but it cannot substitute for it.

But there are hints in the book's description of the encounter between God and Job about what we may expect when we ourselves come face to face with God for our own accounting. God speaks to Job about the foundations of the world, the very beginning "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (38: 7). Job's anguish is existential -- it is about the very nature and meaning of his being, about the reasons for his creation. And it is to the Creation -- in the broadest sense of all created being, but also in the very intimate, specific, personal sense of Job's individual creation -- that God points Job in his answer.

When we come face to face with God, in other words, the Book of Job promises we will not be disappointed. The most important questions in our individual lives will find their deepest and truest answers in that encounter.

But in the meantime, we must wait.

The English language has a turn of phrase, "the patience of Job." I always wondered about that upon reading the Book of Job, because Job does not seem very patient to me. He complains a lot.

But Job's experience of living in a situation that seems unbearably unfair is to some extent the lot of all humanity, living in this world in this time between the Fall of Adam and the Coming of Christ. To those of us who are gay or lesbian, there are a number of particularly bitter lumps we must swallow, not the least of which is the gross misunderstanding we have to contend with among those whose understanding we yearn for most -- our Church's and our family's.

We have no choice but to wait. And we might even complain. But patience, I think, is the not-so-passive virtue of cultivating good in our lives even in the face of gross injustice, while we wait.

We might as well. We have nothing better to do.


Quiet Song said...

Yet another blog post that buoys me, thank you again.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Thanks, QS. Actually, I wrote it very much for myself... I needed buoying up too!

That central affirmation of Job: "In my flesh, I shall see God..." One of the most powerful and comforting in all scripture..!

Anonymous said...


You rock.

An anonymous fan

Anonymous said...

I tried writing you an e-mail, John, but it came back undelivered. There was a message saying there is a permanent error with your e-mail. I double checked and I did not misspell something. Do you have a different e-mail than Thank you.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Odd... I actually got your email, and just responded. Not sure why you're getting bounceback messages, since it's working fine on my end. (I hope you got mine!)

Anonymous said...

I received your e-mail. Thank you, John!