Following Job’s example

By Simone Rizkallah

This is the third of a series of seven meditations examining the Christian meaning of suffering according to the thought of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris.”

It is unsurprising that St. John Paul II, in his meditation on the meaning of suffering, explores the problem of human pain and suffering in light of the biblical character of Job. We discover in examining the Book of Job not only rich content for some of the reasons behind suffering but also the way in which suffering undoubtedly affects our relationship with God.

St. John Paul II writes, “it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God” because of suffering. One of those reasons, St. John Paul points out, is that so much of human suffering is undeserved and so many people who are the cause of suffering remain unpunished. Another reaction to suffering is to deny that God is a personal God – Christian in name, but a deist in practice. God exists and sets things in motion but can’t possibly be personal and active in human affairs.

The Holy Father encourages us not to fall into those temptations but instead to put God on trial so to speak: “Man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety.” In other words, the pope is asking us to follow Job’s example when it comes to confronting the meaning of suffering and how to be in relationship with God in the midst of it. Of course, this must be exactly why the Book of Job is in the canon of Scripture in the first place.

Job is not only the quintessential man who suffers because he suffers unjustly since he was known for being a righteous man (bad things happen to good people) but also a man of faith. How do we know this? Because he quite boldly airs his grievances to God.

Those who shy away from “questioning God with all the emotion of his heart” aren’t being faithful, no matter how pious they believe their avoidance to be. In another, earlier text on suffering, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) warned that Christians run the risk of living “with the shades down” when confronted with the reality of evil and that those who don’t converse with God the way that Job did embrace “a kind of refusal of faith, or at the very least a profound form of skepticism that fears faith will not be big enough to cope with reality.”

Job’s friends advise him against this kind of faith and boldness. They wrongly believe the meaning of his suffering is merely punishment for sin. While it is true that suffering is sometimes punishment or the consequence of sin, that is not always why we suffer. The cause of suffering, as in Job’s case, is sometimes a great mystery. In this life, we cannot always find a complete answer to the question of why. But partial and incomplete answers in no way negate the fact that there is indeed a meaning embedded within the mystery.

For this reason, we can use the great mystery of suffering as an invitation to dialogue with God. This reaction is much more noble than denying Him or reducing His existence to a deistic “watchmaker”-type God, or reducing the meaning of suffering to a divine teaching moment. While it is true that suffering can and does impose profound life lessons, there is a recognition in the complexity of suffering that all the puzzle pieces may not be sorted out until the light of the eternal. And so the problem remains: Will suffering be the condition for dialogue? And will that dialogue assist in the grace of seeing God’s creative and surprising mercy operating within life’s dysfunctional circumstances?

Simone Rizkallah is the director of program growth at Endow Groups, a Catholic women’s apostolate that calls women together to study important documents of the Catholic Church. Endow exists to cultivate the intellectual life of women to unleash the power of the feminine genius in the world.

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Simone Rizkallah is the director of program growth at Endow Groups.