Most everyone knows something about the biblical figure, Job: a husband and father, a good man, blessed with wealth (1:2-3). But a great calamity overcame him: his children died, his livestock were destroyed, his house was leveled by a powerful windstorm and Job himself was left with boils all over his body and face. The major portion of this book consists of a dialogue between Job and three of his friends, who try to comfort him and to help him understand how something so bad, could have happened to a good person.
While many have found comfort with this book and its message, others find it too heavy and altogether depressing. Consider what we heard today: “Is not man's life on earth a drudgery?...He is a slave who longs for the shade...So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me....My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to an end without hope”. Then finally he says, “I shall not see happiness again”.
I read a book a while back called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The author proposes that our American culture demands positive thinking: a cheerful and optimistic attitude: a society that has produced ‘positive psychology’ and the ‘science of happiness’. The author speaks about how this attitude has shaped the corporate world and even some mega-Christian churches. There’s no room for negativity; put on a smile and start believing that good things will happen. There’s definitely some truth to her assertion.
Years before I went to seminary, I volunteered at a hospital, and my work involved visiting patients. I would sometimes encounter a person struggling to coming to terms with the realities of their health. Having not received any sort of training for pastoral sensitivity, my instinctive response was to offer anything I could to cheer them up. In trying to be helpful, I had no idea of how dismissive my words often were.
No doubt, part of that response was that I saw a problem and wanted to fix it. But maybe my motivation—even though I wasn’t conscious of it—was also that I wanted to cover up the other person’s pain for my own benefit. In the same way that the Job’s story may not pleasant for us, neither is being confronted with the suffering of another. Sometimes our tendency is to shield ourselves from their pain. It’s just too depressing and there seems no solution, so I’d rather put it out of mind.
But regardless of any desire to wish it away or mask it, the realities remain: people overwhelmed by the effects of mental illness, heartache, physical illness, addiction, grief, divorce, unemployment and crises of the family. We must face those realities, and at the same time, remain people of joy, people who persevere in the promise and hope of the Resurrection.
Like Job, we still ask why these things happen. The Book of Job makes it clear that it’s not punishment for our sins or those of our parents. And the book Bright-sided makes it clear that it’s not because we’re just aren’t thinking positive enough. But still, why?
Perhaps the best answer we have is the one God eventually gave Job, though it may not seem immediately satisfying. He told Job that from our limited human perspective, we can’t see all of God’s grand scheme. So, for what we can’t see, we’re called to trust in His providence and goodness. And just as God ultimately restored Job’s life, our faith tells us that God will provide what we need, even if it’s not what we desire, nor according to our timing.
Until His providential goodness prevails fully, how do we live in this fallen and often harsh reality? How do we respond to the suffering of others? In the ways we can do something, we must, responding with corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. But so often, despite our desire, the needs are seemingly un-fixable. In that, the only thing we really have to offer is our loving presence: being with the other: a communion of hearts. For that, we rely upon the spiritual works of mercy: comforting the afflicted, praying for the sick, etc.
And for some of us, that’s the comfort we need, right there and now at this Mass. Where are you hurting? Without a word, our Lord Jesus comes to us, mercifully and gently touching our hearts, and whatever pain we may bear. As we receive his gentle touch, let us in turn, be agents of mercy for others in the ways we can. And like Job, let us try to trust in God for what is beyond our ability to fix or fully comprehend.