If you haven’t read this Old Testament book, you’ve missed out on a major part of the Jewish spiritual understanding of pain and suffering. I won’t narrate the complete story, but in summary Job had to go through tremendous calamities. He lost his possessions, his servants, and his whole family… and he even suffered a wound that stretched from his head to his feet. The explanation the bible gives of what happens to Job is that the “enemy” tempts him through trials and suffering in attempt to make him deny and curse God.
The narrative explains that Job tried to look for answers that allowed him to resist the devil’s temptations, since he knew God is good. Amidst his pain, desolation, confusion and anger, he fired in every direction without hitting on any consolation, any logical idea to fill his heart. A couple of friends even went to him to comfort him, but there was nothing they could say to appease his sorrow or to explain all that was happening to him. The confusion caused by all the things he lived through was so great that even his friends were at a loss. As the scriptures say:
“And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2, 12-13).
I suppose you’ve probably been through an inexplicable suffering that just knocks on the door of your life, leaving wordless even your closest friends. Nobody, not your friends, nor you, nor your faith are capable of giving any explanation to what happened, and hopelessness and anguish start to grow in your heart. In the face of these situations, the foundations of faith, life, what we believe in and what we do, start to falter.
The first chapters of the story are unsettling, above all because apparently, and justly, Job didn’t deserve any of what was happening to him. On the contrary, what Job really deserved were blessings and prosperity, which come hand in hand with God. I personally have sometimes felt challenged by the story of suffering Job, especially on those occasions in which I have given all of myself, I have persevered in my work, my faith and in my love for others in service; and I have kept my heart clean and right; and even then, things have turned out awful: I’ve experienced pain, brokenness, loneliness, poverty, suffering. Surely you too have felt this way at some point and know there isn’t much to find comfort on.
I know I haven’t suffered as deeply other people have, but the study of the Book of Job during the painful and hard times of my life has helped me bring out some ideas that could be of use to you. Better yet, it may help you to accompany others in their tribulations and sustain them in hope.
I personally liked to look at the book of Job and validate feeling sorry for myself and sitting down on the ashes without doing anything but suffering… dwelling there, aching, looking at my wounds, feeling pain and waiting for it to magically pass or, even worse, until the end of my days. This is the Christian depression, selfless and resigned, which many of us believe is holy for the sole fact of accepting it without complaint. We forget that Job is a book from the Old Covenant, and that Jesus came later to make all things new, that He came to give us life in abundance, that for His merits we are saved, and that His love restores our friendship with God. We forget that every battle, test, tribulation and suffering was nailed at the Cross and exiled from our lives forever.
We often live as if Jesus had not saved us definitely, or even worse, as if his salvation were only to happen at the end of our days or as if it only affected the spiritual dimension of our lives. Job didn’t have a Jesus to look at. We do. Let us never forget that our every aching was suffered by Jesus at the Cross of the Calvary and his blood paid for us to be saved. This doesn’t make our lives free from pain and suffering, but it makes them temporary. Our life doesn’t end there, all of our battles are won hand in hand with Jesus. Don’t let any pain steal your hope.
The story of Job is from the Old Testament. Keep this in mind when you read it. Because the dynamic used by Jews (who didn’t know Jesus yet) to explain God’s way of acting is different from what the New Testament shows us. The text says that one day Satan approached God to talk about Job, boasting that his temptations could induce Job to blaspheme against Him. God permits it in order to strengthen Job’s faith. It’s important to read this story from a spiritual perspective. God doesn’t play games, He doesn’t experiment on us like a child playing with ants.
As the Apostle James says: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me’. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” (James 1, 13); because, in fact, the last thing God wants is to test how strong we are to know whether or not we are worth it. That would be despising Jesus’ sacrifice. If we believe that God wants what happens to us, then within the possibilities we would find that God wants us to fail, to not pass, and to be incapable. Do you think God would want something like that? Of course not! God permits things to happen in our life, always to show us something better.
This idea could be confusing to us, in fact many people through history have been puzzled since they’ve had the impression that God is there to help them in their self-fulfillment and they pretend to use Him for it. This is to put backwards the nature of creation, and unfortunately it is destined to fail. I’ve seen myself fabricating complicated and detailed plans and afterwards presenting them to God so that He blesses them without changing anything I’ve so intelligently prepared. It’s different when I, alongside of God, take the time to discern what His plans are, and to carry them out myself, that way His blessing will always be with me.
It’s us who help God’s “great plan.” Our participation and the discovery of our purpose helps in the fulfillment of His will, not the other way around. We were made for God, not the opposite.
The Catechism, paragraph 27 says: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.”
“God would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself” (St. Augustine).
There are two questions we could ask when faced with a situation that shatters our lives. Why? Or… for what? It sounds like pop psychology… empty, especially in the case of terrible sufferings, like death or a serious disease. But these kinds of questions should be made with a peaceful heart. First, you have to process everything with a sense of calm. Discovering God’s purpose is not a matter for a couple of minutes of prayer and then it’s done. God knows this and is waiting for you to get closer to Him and ask the necessary questions, to ask, to doubt, so that you finally accept, even without completely understanding. His will, although often indecipherable is amazing for our lives, and everything that happens to us, although hard to comprehend, makes sense in His bigger plan.
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (Peter 1, 6-7).
He obviously doesn’t want your suffering, He’s not mad at you, your life or your story. God wants what’s best for you! This is a truth you can’t doubt of for one second. The thing is, God knows that in order to do that which He has in mind, you often have to go through a desert.
“Tribulation is a gift from God, one that He gives his special friends” (St. Thomas More).
It’s a part of our modern culture, we anesthetize ourselves. It makes us uncomfortable to see people suffer. So we marginalize them, we try to erase the pain, we cover it up. And we ourselves hide our pains with the excuse that “the procession is carried inside”.
Job sits down on the ground, shaves his head and covers himself in ashes as a sign that he doesn’t understand anything, that his battle doesn’t seem to make any sense. He sits down to suffer, to mourn over himself. We instead try to rapidly pass over our pains and, if after 3 or 6 months of mourning someone is still sad, we tell them “come on, it’s time to move on,” or “you have to be strong and move forward.” But, in truth, each of us has his own time and we have to respect it.
Embracing the one who mourns and crying with him instead of making him stop, letting him soak our shoulders with his tears instead of offering a tissue. Aching with the one who’s suffering, anguishing with the vulnerable, filling your face and heart with the other’s passion… that is to feel compassion, that your own heart turns, not for mere masochism, not as penance, but as an exercise of communion, as the Church’s body. It’s like when you stub your little toe and your whole body contorts, the whole body suffers the pain of a single toe. This should be our way of accompanying.
Job teaches us to suffer with dignity, to live the pain while allowing others to be there for us, to not hide the sufferings, to ask for help, and to get frustrated when answers are not easy to find, but accepting that losing, getting sick, dying, not having explanations, is terrible and has to be lived, not hidden nor covered.
The first time I read the book of Job all the way through was when my younger sister died, a little three-month-old girl with a diagnosis of an untreatable genetic condition.
Sorry about the spoiler if you haven’t read the book, but the story ends with God restoring Job to life, seeing that after suffering and accepting it, Job never denies nor curses Him. Job goes on to form a new family, much more fruitful that the first one. He prospers economically more than before, and his fame as a blessed man extends everywhere. In other words, the idea that the biblical author wants to express is that if you live your pain like you ought and without rebelling from God, He Himself will bless you and give you back even more than what you had before. Yes and no. That is to say, it’s not a spiritual trade in which God gives you back more than what He has taken. In the spiritual economy of Christians, there is no meritocracy; it’s all Jesus merits and even when we do things right, we don’t deserve a thing from God. He gives us everything for love, not because we are good or bad. Despite this, God comforts us, gives us relief, and accompanies us just like the Angels accompanied Jesus through His passion in Gethsemane.
Therefore, it is expected from God to show Himself, to bless you, to act in your favor, but don’t expect it to be a “quantitatively superior” manifestation, compared to whatever good or easy situation you were in prior to your suffering.
As an anecdote, I remember a time when I went on a retreat of spiritual exercises. I arrived with a dry heart, without wanting anything. My spiritual guide sent me to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament, told me to sleep if I felt like it, but to spend time there, “sun-bathing under His light.” I have no idea what happened, but I got out of there bronzed, with a robust heart. Although I didn’t get any explanation that I can put into words, I did find answers, sense, and hope just by being there, before Him.
This post originally appeared here for Catholic-Link Spanish. It was translated into English by María Isabel Giraldo.
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