Lesson 5: Lamenting Life
Anxiety, anger and turmoil stalked us in 2020. With millions of people out of work and infected with the coronavirus, George Floyd brutally murdered, rancorous political divides and countless tales of suffering, we were inundated with terrible news. With one day very much like the one before it, the pandemic produced a “brain fog” for some people. Parents coping with jobs and schools moving online caused frustration that reached boiling points. Life became overwhelming for many — and if not overwhelming, a malaise and numbness settled upon us.
In the Book of Job, Job reaches the end of his rope. Job’s children are dead and his flocks are decimated. He is afflicted with sores all over his body. Job is understandably angry, depressed and hopeless. Some of us can identify with Job when the undertows of life drag us under. A debilitating illness, the break-up of a relationship, the trauma of racism or military combat, job loss or mental illness can overpower us. Even when things have been going well, we may enter into a period when life seems meaningless and it feels as though God has withdrawn.
For tormented Job, there is no point, no hope. He simply wants the misery to stop. He wants the stars of the night to be snuffed out and prays that the morning would not come for him. Job believes that if he were dead, there would at last be peace.
From birth until three years of age, my son did not sleep more than three or four hours a night. I was working full time as a pastor and could not resign because we were living paycheck to paycheck. I was always exhausted. Like Job, I remember thinking that death would at least be restful.
Job’s friends visit him and sit with him in horrified silence for seven days. Thereafter, they try to make sense out of Job’s suffering by telling him that it is because of his sin or someone else’s sin that so much has been stripped from him. It was a common belief that sin caused sickness and that we get what we deserve. The Book of Job fights that belief and asks us to look deeper into human suffering, whether it is the plight of the mentally ill or the poor.
Job refused to believe that he caused his own suffering. Good for him. There are indeed situations that we did not cause and for which we should not shoulder responsibility — domestic violence being a prime example. Job is angry with God. He wants his day in court with God so he can be justified in his innocence, but the God he has faithfully served will not answer.
The dark night of the soul is a time when doubt and futility claim us. What we thought mattered seems hollow. Our faith, our work and our relationships seem irrelevant. We believe that God has abandoned us. As author Lynn Miller writes: “Job’s experience, triggered by the loss of people and material things, disordered his life completely. He was unable to find God or to find comfort in friendship.”
What can we do in the face of another person’s intense suffering? Job’s friends get it right when they sit in silence. We can sit with another person, without trying to make them feel better, accepting them as they are. We can create a safe and sacred space in which all emotions are acceptable so those who suffer can be glum, silent, share funny stories, talk about God’s absence or be angry. I remember when a friend’s husband died very suddenly of a heart attack. Months passed. One day, upon inquiring about how she was, she answered, “I am so made at John leaving me with all this mess!”
Paul exhorted Christians in Romans 12:15 to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” To rejoice and weep with other people requires sensitivity and, at times, self-sacrifice. We put our own agenda aside to focus on others, and in doing so create deep relationships that can weather storms.
What can we do in the face of a peoples’ suffering, specifically the Black, brown and Indigenous people of our country? We can listen to and respect their stories. We can learn the history that most of us were never taught. We can join a group like “Coming to the Table,” which has more than 40 affiliate groups in 16 states. This organization creates a welcoming, safe space for structured, honest interracial dialogue aimed at building relationships, healing and seeking constructive ways to build a more just society.
As uncomfortable as it may make us, listening to and accepting another person’s suffering is a Christ-like activity. It bridges differences and creates bonds of love.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
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