The things we can remember have a way of dating us, telling other people how old we are. Certain moments in time, certain foods, certain clothes, mark us all as part of a generation, in my case, Generation X. For instance, I remember when the first video aired on MTV. I can remember the Challenger explosion, remember watching it happen on television. I remember the day Ronald Reagan was shot. I also remember things that were not generational stuff but still put me in a certain place at a certain time. I can remember seeing my baseball hero Nolan Ryan pitch against Phil Niekro in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I remember the first time I saw a cable box on a television. And because of that box, I can remember a host of old television shows.
One of those shows that I remember, mostly from watching with parents and grandparents, was Hee-Haw. The show was like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In but with less topical humor and a focus on rural culture. Most of my family listened to, and continues to listen to, country music and since the show was a mainstay for country artists and folksy humor, it was something we watched often. While not necessarily a country music fan, I can remember being suitably impressed watching Roy Clark play banjo and guitar or laughing at the silly skits that the cast put together.
The one skit that everyone liked was Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me. Four men – usually Roy Clark, Gordie Tapp, Grandpa Jones, and Archie Campbell – would sit around in shoddy hats and overalls and lament their lives by singing individual verses around the repeated chorus,
Gloom, despair, and agony on me-e!
Deep dark depression, excessive misery-y!
If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all!
Gloom, despair, and agony on me-e-e!
Each man would sing a verse about how terrible his life was or how bad things were going, and the others would commiserate and wail in the background. The sketch was one of the more famous ones and sometime musical guests would fill out the quartet.
I’m sure we’ve all had our moments when we could have made this quartet a quintet. I have certainly had times in my life when this song could have been playing as the background music behind me while I went through my day and I’m sure you have, too. Life has a way of bringing those things – gloom, despair, agony, depression, misery, bad luck – to us whether we want them or not. Most of the time, we just muddle through and get to the other side of it, hoping our optimism isn’t misplaced.
When we read Job 23-24, we see a man deep in the throws of gloom, despair, and agony. For what he’s been through, Job could be a solo act and ditch the rest of the quartet. In the chapter, Job talks about the idea of what he would like to tell God, that he would present his case before God and offer his complaints about all this. He would try to not only speak to God but to reason with God and then hear what God would have to say back.
The problem? God is nowhere to be found. Job laments that no matter where he turns, where he looks, God is not there, not anywhere as far as Job sees. Despite not being able to see God, Job knows that God sees him and believes that this is all part of the test, a test Job seems confident to pass. Yet, Job is afraid of this test and what God may have in store for him and though he believes he will pass, Job fears going through it. He ends his lament by saying, I just wish I could disappear into the darkness, just be covered by darkness.
Job is wrestling with what we have come to know as the problem of evil. The problem is simply this, why does bad stuff/evil/suffering happening in a world where we should find an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving and morally good God? Looking back at last week can see how the problem of evil is set up by looking at the beginning of a common argument on the problem.
- If God exists, God is omniscient, or all-knowing.
- If God exists, God is all-powerful.
- If God exists, God is morally good and loving.
- Evil and suffering exist in the world.
In our story, I think Job believes in each of those points and is experiencing the final point. I think this is what creates his tension, his sense of insecurity. It is in asking the question of the problem of evil not on a philosophical level or in an academic sense, but in the very real, very personal sense of someone who must face the possibility that the God he thinks is God may not be God as he understands God. Job, however, knows that if he can just find God, plead his case, talk with God, face-to-face, they could resolve things. One writer says,
Job knows in his heart that his problem will be relieved not by theological dispute, nor by penitence for sins which he has not committed, nor by pulling his socks up, but by the gift of communion with God. It is on this that he rests his hope.
Yet, if we go a little further, on into chapter 24, we see that Job calls for the condemnation of the wicked, those who, unlike him, are sinning and sinning gladly against God. His question is Why will you not show your face to me, a loyal worshiper, and yet you turn a blind eye to all those who sin against you? He asking the core question of the problem of evil – how can God allow evil and suffering in a world that He created when He could easily rid the world of them?
People have wrestled with this question for years and with greater fervor in the latter half of the twentieth century as people have slowly moved away from the church or in some cases, as the church has moved away from their parish. The core question assumes two basic things: There is evil in the world and God is doing nothing about it. But there are some things that need to be clarified before we allow those who would lay this charge before God.
First, there is a difference between what philosophers call natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is made up of those things in the world that do not or are purported not, to have anything to with people. People do not choose to create hurricanes or tsunami or blizzards or lightning strikes or any other natural phenomenon. They simply happen. Moral evil is the product of our choices, the actions we take because of being creatures of free will. Things like genocide or murder or theft are considered moral evil. Generally, theologians and philosophers are willing to accept that moral evil is the responsibility of people. We make choices and those choices have consequences for us and for the people around us, but they are choices we make, not God. Natural evil is something that usually is regarded as God’s responsibility. Things which we are incapable of creating or controlling are considered natural evil – weather, disease, and so forth.
This idea of evil is a bit muddled in the story of Job. There is no moral evil here because the story insists that Job did not sin against God at any point in the story. According to the story, God has allowed the Accuser to attack Job as part of a wager so there would be a sense of natural evil whether it is the ultimate responsibility of God or the Accuser. Of course, how you read Job makes a huge difference in this endeavor. Is it a historical event that happened in the land of Uz sometime between the fifth and seventh century before the common era or is it a moralistic story intended to explain certain aspects of God’s character in relation to man’s character? Or even a fable intended to mirror the journey of the Hebrew people as they grapple with what it means to be the people of God? This is a very important question because it sets up your understanding of what kind of God we are dealing with. If it is historical fact, then God may not be the God we think he is. What kind of God gambles with a man’s life, allows his family to be murdered, his livelihood taken from him, and left with nothing but sackcloth and ashes just to prove a point about the man’s loyalty? If it is a metaphor or a fable meant to convey a truth, and I think this is the more reasonable idea, what truth do we derive from it?
Have you ever wondered about these questions? Have you ever had those moments when you thought, what in the wide, wide world of sports is God getting at here? I think Job did. And I think a potential understanding of how to answer these questions lies in the ideas of free will and Irenaen theodicy. And next week, I’ll explain how I think those two things play into solving the problem of evil in the story of Job and how we might use them to look at the struggles and suffering in our own lives.
The One Point: Things, stuff, life happens to all of us. What makes those things or that stuff good or bad is our perspective.
Atkinson, David. The Message of Job. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1991.
Beebe, James R. The Logical Problem of Evil. n.d. https://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/ (accessed October 10, 2018).
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.
Epicurus, Sextus. “Concerning God.” In Faith & Reason, edited by Paul Helm, 38-40. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Evans, C. Stephen. Philosophy of Religion: Thing About Faith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982.
Greene, Joel B., and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Janzen, J. Gerald. Job: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.
Mohn, Elizabeth. The Problem of Evil. 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=03ed9c6a-c807-4de4-a590-d3ef65e25688%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=87995384&db=ers (accessed October 10, 2018).
Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons Indexed by Number, Title and Scriptural Reference. Sarnac Lake, NY: Cedar Eden Books, 2014.
 (Mohn 2017)
 (Atkinson 1991, 102)
 (Beebe n.d.), (Evans 1982, 131-132)