A year will have passed between the time that I write this and when you read it. We work on each issue of the magazine far in advance to allow time for translation and distribution around the world. This poses a unique challenge in responding to current or recent events because by the time the issue goes to press those events will be neither current nor particularly recent. So I tend to avoid references to events that are occurring as I am writing. However, given the past couple of weeks, both in my own community and in the world, I feel deeply compelled to break with this tradition.
On the night of March 2 and early morning hours of March 3, 2020, tornadoes killed several people and destroyed even more homes and businesses in Middle Tennessee. As we have struggled with the tragedy and loss caused by the storms, we are also dealing with the uncertainty and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic and mourn the havoc that it is wreaking at home and across the globe. I feel the weariness of my neighbors; and I feel my own.
As I try to make sense of it all, my mind keeps turning to Job and his story. Job is likely not the first person to whom we would think to look when reaching for a word of hope. Job offers, however, one of the finest examples we have of what it looks like to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. In the first two chapters of the book, Job faces unimaginable loss — his property, his family, even his character is called into question. How could anyone in Job’s position carry on?
We often attribute patience to Job as the primary virtue that distinguishes him from other characters in scripture, but were you to ask me, I would say that higher on that list are his persistence and tenacity in questioning God and God’s presence in his circumstances. Chapter after chapter Job argues with God and demands answers concerning his plight.
I see more of myself in Job than anyone else in the Bible. Not so much the side of Job that was resilient and somehow remained steady in the face of unthinkable tragedy and loss, but the part of Job that was relentless in his questions and need to understand. Job wanted to know how God could allow everything that had happened to him and wondered where God was in the aftermath. And I don’t blame him. I am with Job on that. “Today . . . my complaint is bitter,” Job says. “Oh, that I knew where I might find [God]!” (Job 23:2-3, NRSV).
Job’s story reminds me that there is something deep within human nature that searches out meaning and understanding in our suffering and loss. But like the events of the past few days, Job’s story ultimately leaves me with more questions than it does answers. God says to Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7, NIV). God seems to be saying to Job that even were God to explain it, Job couldn’t possibly understand. In one sense, I have never found this response all that satisfactory or helpful. But in another, I find it inexplicably beautiful. Maybe it’s the image of the stars singing or angels shouting with joy. I can almost let myself hear it as God’s way of saying to Job that there might not be as much to understand or as much meaning to be found in hard times as we would want. Sometimes it is just bad — plain and simple. But God is still God.
If there is a word of hope in Job, it is not in how the story ends. Hope comes long before God restores Job’s life. “I know that my redeemer lives,” Job says, “and that in the end he will stand on the earth” (19:25). Here Job recognizes that God is in the business of redemption and can bring good from the bleakest circumstances. I am always struck that Job doesn’t speak these words after his struggle is over — he utters them in the middle of it! That in itself is enough to give me the persistence and hope to imagine that while there are hard days ahead and though life might not have completely returned to normal by the time you read this, evidence of God’s work of redemption in our lives and the lives of those we love will most certainly surround us.