Its Bigger Than You

Reflections on God’s response to job, suffering and the climate crisis

Job 38-41

Your first thoughts about the book of Job are not likely about the vastness of the universe and the wonders of God’s creation. You are more likely to ask why. Why is there human suffering? Why is life unfair when good people suffer, and bad people prosper? For 37 chapters, Job struggles to understand how he could lose everything; family, health, and wealth; when he has been so good. Doesn’t God protect us if we are good? Job has three friends who come to offer comfort, but they conclude Job must have done something to upset God, some sin he is repressing, or he would not have this misfortune. Everything happens for a reason, Job, so it must be on you.

Job finally has a meltdown after 37 chapters and directly challenges God. Are you really good, God, because this is unfair. God finally speaks and delivers a 1477-word sermon, which would take me 13 to 14 minutes to preach. It is God’s longest discourse in the Bible, yet we seldom read it. Here are a few selected lines of God’s response:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together

Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?

Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars
And spreads its wings toward the south?

After 7 minutes of this poetic summation, God takes a breath, and Job can only say, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” And God launches into part two of this sermon on the vast creation.

I confess to having conflicting thoughts about God’s response to Job. First, I feel moved by awe and wonder at the splendor of creation. This theology is the same as Genesis 1. The earth is good, and we are blessed to go and be fruitful. But part of me feels like the question of suffering is not answered. I’d like God to say in 25 words or less the answer to the mystery of suffering. Does everything happen for a reason? Is it all random? Does fairness get worked out in the afterlife? Is this the best universe possible? If you want these answers, the book of Proverbs tells you the righteous will prosper, and the wicked will suffer, so trust in God. But the Book of Job is not that simple. Job suffering is real and remains, but the world is awesome anyway.

These questions are timely for the summer of 2023 as we experience God’s awesome creation delivering disaster. Fires in the Canadian Boreal forests have burned an area the size of New York state. We saw the heartbreak of Maui, Montpelier, Vermont flooded, villages in Iraq turned to dust, and fish dying in the Gulf of Mexico as waters became the temperature of a hot tub. One might answer we brought much of this on ourselves by ignoring the climate impact of our cars and heating our homes. But natural disasters have always happened; just ask people near Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. What are the implications of a theology of creation amid climate-related suffering?

The opening of God’s speech says the voice came from a whirlwind. In the Old Testament, a whirlwind is often symbolic of God’s power. When God acts through a whirlwind, it is often to challenge injustice and crush the oppressor. Unlike whirlwinds of God’s action, Job’s whirlwind is not destructive. It demonstrates strength but does not knock Job around or threaten him. God is answering Job with an experience of awe.

We have been reading the book “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder” in our book group. The author, Dachar Keltner, says awe quiets the default self, often caught in a small view of the world and our lives. Aldous Huxley called this self “the interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show.” When this default self is in charge, we are anxious, searching for someone to blame, often ending in self-judgment. Awe puts us in a different state. When this anxious default self is challenged, a better self can emerge. Ironically, when we shrink the self, we feel more connected and a part of greater things than ourselves.  Is God responding to Job’s suffering with awe?

The awe of God’s whirlwind reminds me of life in Iowa’s tornado alley. On June 12, 1976, an F5 tornado, the most severe with winds nearing 200 MPH, touched down near the little town of Jordan, Iowa. (Jordan had 20 houses, a school, a church and several bars.). I was watching as the warning sirens blared, and had already seen six smaller funnel clouds in different directions. The Jordan twister descended from the angry sky like one of the plagues from Moses and the Ten Commandments.   When the twister touched the ground, it threw dirt, trees, telephone poles, cows, tractors-everything-hundreds of feet into the air.  I later learned it was a mile wide at the base and contained two funnel clouds joined together, each rotating in a different direction.  It was like a giant rototiller plowing the earth.  I watched it move toward the tallest thing in the county, the grain elevator, about the size of a 10-story building.  The tornado engulfed it and left behind an empty horizon. When I later saw the damage, I found a fence post where husks of straw driven into it like nails.

For about 25 minutes, an eternity, it moved toward my home, and there was nothing to do but watch and stay close to the cellar door.  I prayed for friends who were in its path, and fortunately, it missed us, and then it lifted back into the sky and disappeared.

We went out to help those struck by the storm.  There was no moral pattern to the destruction.  An entire house was destroyed except one corner. The only thing left was a fragile teacup collection undisturbed on the wall. Kindhearted, hard-working people lost their homes, and selfish, arrogant, nasty people were sparred.  Why did this happen?  Surely, we were not greater sinners than people in the next county.  It happened because a warm and cold air mass came together over our flat fields and caused the largest recorded funnel cloud in history.  We were just in the way.  Then I wondered, why did God make the world such a dangerous place?  Why make a world with tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods?  Perhaps God had to make creation much more powerful than human beings, or we would think we were masters of the universe.  Despite the destruction around me, I also felt the power and presence of God. I get the same feeling when I watch ocean waves crest and fall against rocks, see a tree uprooted by the wind, or watch thunder and lightning turn night into day at a second’s notice.

This destructive tornado also created the most powerful experience of what a church community can be. Minutes after the tornado lifted, hundreds of us rushed to the disaster area around Jordan. When we arrived at the home of people we knew, church members were already there with staple guns and plastic covering the shattered windows from the wind and the rain. Some were cleaning up the house, and I was sent with a group to rescue a terrified herd of cattle stampeding through the fields. Our youth group spent a week picking up debris in the fields to be replanted. It was one of the best experiences of community in my life.

I later came across a book by Rebecca Solnit titled, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.” Solnit writes about five disasters in-depth, such as the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, and Hurricane Katrina. She was fascinated by the stories of compassion, bravery, and community action that were far more powerful than reports of looting or selfishness. Solnit said, “Our response to disaster gives us nothing less than a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

This thought gives me hope as we face the growing climate change disasters. We may soon all find ourselves in Job’s situation, surrounded by tragedy. I hope we will not be like Job’s poor comforters who looked for blame and treated suffering as a philosophical problem. I pray that nature’s incredible destructive power will wake us up and help us see that life is bigger than any of us. We face a common threat. A storm or fire doesn’t care how you vote, the color of your skin, or if you are LGBTQ. All are united in suffering. Could this common threat become a unifying force helping us rebalance our lives with creation? Could it humble us and help us think in new ways? God answered Job’s suffering by turning him toward a new relationship with nature, which may also be an answer for us.

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