Walking Through the Storm: Suffering in Perspective

Storm - Maxime Raynal copy

Newspapers and the world beyond

Every Saturday and Sunday morning of my younger childhood was more or less the same. I woke up before anyone else in the house, got an oversized bowl of cereal and turned on Saturday morning cartoons. Since I got up a few hours before everyone else, I had the TV and the living room to myself. One by one everyone would get up and when we were all awake, we went to the four-way store.

The four-way store was simply the convenience store sitting on the corner of a four way intersection. We would drive the mile it took to get there and my sister and I would run in to the candy rack and pick our weekly treat of one candy bar while my father picked up the Saturday or Sunday newspaper. For many years the candy was the high light of our weekend trip. But then I discovered the funny papers – Peanuts, The Far Side, and Beatle Bailey became a part of my childhood. I would also read the scores on the sports page, but rarely ever the articles. As I got older, I discovered Lewis Grizzard, the southern humorist, and all his stories about life in rural Georgia as well as his social commentary on the world at large.

Little by little, page by page, I learned to read the paper from front page to the weather on the back of the classifieds. As I did, I found a new world. I learned about the Chernobyl disaster in Russia and read about the Challenger crash and all the things that went wrong. I read news coverage of the Soviet Union all the way up to its dissolution in 1991. Beirut, Granada, the Falklands, and every other military action of the 80’s. The world I lived in was smaller and smaller with each article, each newspaper, each passing year, until the news from across the pond felt like the news across town.

A Big, Little World

As we grow in our faith, our spiritual world becomes a bigger place to explore as well. We find the simple, straight-forward beliefs we began with in our early years of faith become a more nuanced, more experienced understanding of God. Job is experiencing this expansion of his world in chapter 38.

After a long discourse between Job and his friends, God speaks into the discussion and sets a few things straight by asking a series of three basic questions: who are you, where were you, and are you able? Let’s look at a few examples of these kinds of questions:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” – Job 38:2

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” – Job 38:4

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place,” – Job 38:12

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” – Job 38:19-21

These are pretty straightforward questions, a very direct response to the previous conversations. Ultimately, the question being asked here is, are you man enough to see the bigger picture? Are you able to set aside the discomfort and the pain you feel and look beyond them to something greater?

As God asks Job and his friends these questions, they point us to an understanding of creation that calls us to see a wider world beyond our suffering. I believe one goal, perhaps the major one in God’s speeches, is to remind Job and his friends of their place in the greater universe. By pointing to the grandeur of the cosmos and powerful aspects and creatures of creation, God is telling Job and his friends that they are a part of something greater than themselves.

A good example of this is when God refers to the sea in verses 8-11 of chapter 38. The sea is, as we said previously, is the symbol of chaos and disorder in ancient Semitic and biblical literature. As Job laments his situation, God reminds Job that the seas are under the Lord’s control, “Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, “You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?” As Job has questioned God, God is now putting those questions into perspective for Job. God is not that Job is unimportant of less than worthy of his attention. I think the exercise that we see here is similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you…?”

Suffering in Perspective

When we experience suffering, we should not ignore the pain and angst of it but we should put it in the proper perspective. Often, our pain keeps us so busy, so preoccupied with recognizing it and placating it, that we fail to ask big picture questions: What can I learn from this? What is God saying to me in this? Who am I becoming through this? It is only in looking both deeply into our hurting and widely beyond it, that we can truly learn to work through our circumstances in a healthy, spiritual way. Japanese artist and theologian, Makoto Fujimura, wrote:

Willingness to spend time truly seeing can change how we view the world, moving us away from our fast-food culture of superficially scanning what we see and becoming surfeited with images that do not delve below the surface.

– Silence and Beauty

Too often, as Fujimura says, we take the quick glance and the easy answer to our pain. Going back to the beginning of the sermon, we look at the funny pages and avoid the rest of the newspaper. We fail to do the hard work of walking in the fashion of disciples and recognizing that the path we trod is not an easy one and that we are not called to a life of comfort but a life of service. The gospel of Luke records a conversation with Jesus and some disciples something like this:

As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”

Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

The writer of the gospel is essentially saying, “this is not going to be easy. The road we walk is hard. The road we walk is rough.” But as we see in the book of Job and as Jesus tells us, we do not walk alone. In John 15, Jesus offers words of comfort on the final night before the crucifixion saying, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Jesus has not called us to follow him through difficulty and pain alone; he has called us that we might walk with him and learn from him while we deal with the hard things of this life.

I think that’s the key to all of this, ‘remain in me.’ We try to complicate a relationship with a theology. Sure, theology is a good thing for helping us frame our ideas about God, but each of us has a particular, peculiar, relationship with God that is different and unique from that of anyone else. The good, the bad, the indifferent of this life has to pass through the lens of our own personal connection to God. For us, that’s really the big picture, the broader panoramic view of things; to step back from the circumstances and see everything as a n extension of our relationship with God.

I think that’s what God is saying when he asks all the questions of Job. He’s really saying, “I can see the bigger picture that you can’t. Keep walking with me and I’ll show it to you.” I think it’s what Jesus is saying to the disciples in the upper room when he’s telling them about all the things that are coming over the rest of their lives. “Remain in me and I’ll help you see the bigger picture. I’ll show you the God sized view so you can see better.”

Pixels and Pictures

For the first part of my adult life, I worked with computers designing everything from t-shirts to marketing campaigns. One of the first skills you learn is to use is that of the zoom button. Usually it’s found on the bottom left hand corner of the screen and goes up in various increments from 16.5% all the way to 2500% or higher in some programs. At different times in the design process, you have to be able to see the minute detail and the overall image.

For the Christian life to make sense, we have to do the same. There are moments where we will have to deal with the minute details of both suffering and happiness, joy and pain, peace and sorrow, and the overall image of the life we walk with God. Our being able to move back and forth between these two perspectives in a healthy way is the ability to live in harmony with God and neighbor, seeing our circumstances as they are from every angle.

So our question for today is, how are we seeing the world? Are we limiting ourselves to one perspective or can we zoom in and out to get some clarity?

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