Job, the guy from the Old Testament, stopped by the house the other day for a visit. He looked good for somebody pushing 2,500-years-old. We had a nice chat. I wish I’d turned on the tape recorder in time, but I didn’t think about that quickly enough. However, I’m pretty sure I can recall the gist of the conversation.
So what follows is a pretty close transcription…
From Job, Chapter 40:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?….
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. “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! …
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth? “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?
“Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?
Me: Hey! What do you know?
Job: What do I know?
Me: Um…yeah. That’s just an expression I use when I greet people.
I got tired of always saying “How’s it going?” –stuff like that– so instead I just usually ask folks “What do you know?”
It changes the pace.
Job: “How’s it going?”
Me: They’re expressions, that’s all. You know…forms of greeting.
Anyway, don’t worry about it. How have you been?
Job: Why would you ask somebody “What do you know?”
That’s a pretty broad question.
Me: Like I said, it’s an expression. Don’t worry about it.
But since you asked, I just figure that anybody who’s really paying attention to life is always learning something new and might like to share it.
I guess I just figured it might break open a different conversation than the same old “How’s it going?”
Job: Why would you ask somebody “How’s it going?”
How’s what going?
Me: Well, that’s the whole point really….to give the person an opening where they can tell you a little about what’s happening with them.
Listen, I’m sorry I brought it up. So, why are you here?
Job: You tell me. You conjured me up. I was doing just fine where I was.
Well….how is your life going?
Job: My life? Peachy.
Me: I guess I wouldn’t have guessed “peachy” after all the things you went through. I mean, you saw some pretty hard times.
Job: Well, yes, it was rough….real rough. But just look at things how things turned out. At the end of the story, I had twice as much stuff as I had before. Everybody who knew me gave me gold rings, I had the most beautiful daughters in the whole world, and I died when I was a hundred and eighty.
What’s not to like about that?
Me: I guess when you put it that way…
Job: Yeah, it turned out pretty good for me, really.
But there were times…
Me: Well, that’s what I’m talking about. It just seems to me that you had so much go wrong. And so I guess I conjured you up because of what I see happening to so many people all around me. In fact, the more I think about it, I’m certain that’s why.
I just find that the older I get, the big questions of life don’t get any easier. In fact, they seem to be getting harder.
I’ve got a good friend who seems to have lost her battle with cancer, who is among the kindest, dearest, human beings on the face of the planet. I’ve known few other people more gracious and loving than her. I’ve seen other young mothers and fathers taken away from their families in the prime of life.
And I’ve always known these kinds of things “just happen.” But now they seem to be happening more to often people I know. It’s got my rattled.
Job: You’re getting older.
Me: Yeah. Thanks.
Job: Hey, what do you want from me, sugarcoating or the truth?
Me: If you put it that way, I’m not exactly sure.
Job: Look, here’s what I know…bad things are always happening. You want to know the truth? The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to believe that the world is always just about a half-step from total anarchy.
When you throw in your natural disasters…your “free will”…your laws of nature, interacting with stuff like automobiles and airplanes….when you add in our human pride and our need to dominate people…when you mix in our laziness and all the ways we don’t take care of ourselves…when you throw in our shame, our fear, our reactiveness toward “strangers,” it’s a wonder civilization ever survived longer than a day.
Me: How cheery.
Job: Look, I’m just sayin….
Me: You’re just saying what?
Job: It’s an expression.
I’m just saying when you’re down in the middle of a personal crisis you think that all the bad stuff happening around you is only happening to you. But it’s not. Now, there may be periods in life when the bad stuff seems particularly heavy. That’s what happened to me.
But don’t kid yourself…there’s nobody out there who’s immune to it.
The rain falls on the just and and the unjust
Me: I’ve heard that somewhere before.
Job: I bet.
Maybe you remember those words you say on Ash Wednesday? “You are dust, and to dust you shall return?” Life is short, even for the best of us. When bad things are happening, when somebody has to fight against cancer, it’s just that they’re facing a truth all of us will face eventually.
Nobody gets out of this life alive. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow.
Me: See, I know all this.
But it doesn’t help sometimes when you’re face-to-face with the particulars…the young mother taken from her kids…the friend with cancer….the evils and injustice of war….justice denied to so many people…
You know what really gets me about your conversation with God?
Me: When God finally shows up, God never answers for any of it. Your friends had all sorts of questions. Heck, you had all sorts of questions.
Job: I really did, didn’t I?
You know, it’s funny, so many preachers just gloss right over this part. But, Jeez, I was pissed.
I was hurt and questioning and confused. I didn’t really blame God.
Well…take that back…I suppose that, inside, perhaps I did.
Me: Well, who could blame you?
Job: And then I had those friends.
Me: With friends like those…
Job: Tell me about it.
Talk about a lack of a bedside manner. They were convinced I’d done something wrong….I’d sinned…that I’d done something I wasn’t copping to. You know the type. They just wanted to me to pray harder….to admit the thing I hadn’t admitted yet.
Me: That never works, does it?
Job: Not really. I mean, especially if you don’t know what the hell you’re supposed to be confessing.
I hadn’t done anything wrong. Everybody I know called me blameless.
There was nothing to confess.
Me: And yet, they wanted you too.
Torture doesn’t work, no matter who’s doing the torturing.
Me: That’s a good reminder.
Job: I’m just sayin…
I mean, I was sitting there with all the crap that had happened to me, trying to make sense of it all, and they kept just asking me to admit what I’d done….to remember what I’d done….like when you’ve lost your key and somebody says, “Just stop for a minute and think about where you’ve been.”
Me: Actually, that usually works for me.
Job: OK, so it’s not the best example.
But that’s what I was doing. I was looking back over everything I’d ever done, and everybody I’d ever interacted with, and it just didn’t add up. There was no reason why what was happening to me was happening to me. That’s why I wanted some answers.
Me: But you never got any answers, did you?
Me: See, I think that’s what bothers people who read your story today the most . It really bugs them that you never get any answers.
I mean, God shows up. But God doesn’t have any answers…just more questions. Lot’s of questions, in fact.
And God seems real….
Me: Yes! Sarcastic. Sarcastic and….and…
Me: Yep. That too.
I mean, God took God’s time to come to you. And there’s no explanation for that. Ever. Where the heck has God has been, for God-sake?
Job: Good one.
Me: And then, God doesn’t offer one single answer at all. Just these sarcastic questions about “Who are you to question me?”
See, people read this stuff and then begin to think, “Well, if this is what God is really like then why believe in God anyway?” If God is going to avoid answering these tough questions of theodicy, then why should I believe in God?
Job: Nobody has to believe in God.
Me: I get that. I really do.
My point is, that God doesn’t seem to be helping God’s case.
Job: What makes you think God has a case that God wants to make?
Me: Good point.
Job: Or help?
Job: Seriously. See, that was one of my big learnings: God doesn’t have a case to make. God isn’t out there, working hard to convince us that God exists or that God is loving, or that God is present with us. That’s just not what God’s “in” to.
Bad shit happens in the world. Lots of it. And it’s going to happen to you or somebody you love eventually.
Me: Again, thanks for the cheery news.
Job: Like I said before, you want cheery or you want real? Make your choice.
Nobody gets out of this life alive. Nobody gets out of this life without loads of hurt and suffering coming on them. Somebody gets sick. Somebody dies. Somebody does something intentionally evil to somebody else. Some natural disaster comes along and wipes out a whole city. Some society falls under the trap of propaganda or militant nationalism. People use religion as a weapon.
There’s a lot of bad shit out there. A lot of it. Mathematically, some of it is going to come your way.
Me: You know, I know that. I really do.
Job: Do you?
Me: Well, maybe not every day. I am sure there are days when I’m more lucid than others. And I know that God doesn’t cause all the evil in the world.
And, actually, I’ve always had a pretty nuanced view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience.
Me: The idea that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. I’ve never bought into that idea the way most folks do. A lot of traditional theology buys into this notion, and then spends countless dollars cutting down trees to write the books to defend it….when it’s really indefensible the way it’s usually posited.
Me: Have you heard of Charles Hartshorne?
Job: No. Not really.
Me: He was a philosopher in the process-philosophy tradition who once wrote a book called “Omnipotence, and Other Theological Mistakes.”
Job: I LIKE it!
Me: It’s one of my favorite little books, really. Because it take a whack at this problem I’m talking about here: that traditional theology makes assertions about God’s all-knowing nature and God’s all-powerful nature that are impossible to defend.
If free will is really free, then how can God be all-powerful?
Job: Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.
Me: And if God knows that all this bad stuff is going to happen, then why doesn’t God do anything to stop it?
Job: That was my question.
Me: Well, the point Hartshorne makes is that God doesn’t know everything that’s going to happen. I mean, God doesn’t know it exactly. God doesn’t know the exact path.
God doesn’t know whether you’re going to eat Wheaties or Corn Flakes for breakfast.
Job: What are those?
Me: Breakfast cereals…work with me here…
God doesn’t know the exact choice you’re going to make in each and every moment of life because you haven’t made them yet. You have the free will to choose Wheaties or Corn Flakes.
Job: I’ll keep that in mind.
Me: God doesn’t, for the most part, step in and stop evil from happening either. So, the traditional way that “omnipotence” gets talked about doesn’t make any logical sense either. There is no logical sense in which God has that kind of omnipotence.
Job: What do you mean, “that kind?”
Me: I mean it’s like saying “The unicorn is all-powerful.” There’s no such thing as a unicorn, so simply saying “The unicorn is all-powerful” doesn’t make it so.
It’s a statement of no-sense.
Job: What’s a unicorn?
Me: A fictional character that comes down to us through ancient mythology.
Job: Fictional, huh?
Me: Don’t change the subject.
Me: Process Theology says that God is not just IN all things, but instead in all things…plus a little bit more. It’s akin to the way your own body works. YOU are more than the sum of your parts.
Job: I hope so. My parts are more than 3,000-years-old.
Me: The being that is YOU is more than just blood vessels and organs…more than just synapses firing in your brain.
Job: But I understand that some scientists today are claiming that this is exactly the truth…that we are little more than these biological processes.
Me: And yet, all of them together are still more than the sum of the parts. There is something about how all the parts work together that is greater than the sum…almost like “the sum, plus one.”
That’s sort of what God is. God is “the sum, plus one” of all existence. God is both transcendent and immanent…..far off and very near. God is in all things, and yet is not JUST all things.
Job: OK, interesting theory. What does this have to do with those “power” and “knowledge” questions you were asking earlier?
Me: Well, what this means is that the only REAL thing is each eternally present “NOW.”
Job: That’s what the Quantum Physicists are saying too, right?
Me: You know Quantum Physics?
Job: I know enough to know I really don’t know anything.
Me: Me too. But I think you’re right. There is a lot of interesting connection between what Process Theologians say about the nature of reality, and what Quantum Physicists say.
Me: So, back to that “eternally present NOW”…
The point is, that a part of God is a part of that eternally present NOW. So, some Process Theologians argue that God is actually CHANGED by what happens in the world…by our actions….by the events that unfold in each NOW moment after the other.
Job: God is changed? That doesn’t go over well in the church-world does it?
Me: Doesn’t it?
We talk about the different revelations of God in the Bible all the time…the Old and New Testaments.
We even have that time when God is talking to Moses and the Bible says that God “changed God’s mind.” In that story, the things that happen seem to make a difference to God and God ends up in a different place.
Job: But what about “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever?”
Me: You’ve heard that slogan, have you?
Job: Very catchy. I always thought I could’ve used something like that.
Me: Well, let me ask you this: Are you the same person you’ve always been?
Job: Yes and no.
Me: Well, which is it? Yes or no?
Job: It’s both, I guess.
Me: Exactly! You’re different than you were when you were, say, fifteen.
Job: Or a hundred and twenty!
Me: And yet, you’re still you, right? There’s something about YOU that’s always YOU, isn’t there?
See, those modern reductionist scientists –who say that we’re all just biological process and nothing more– can’t account for that. They can’t account for the fact that there’s always been YOU-ness to you….a part of you that’s unchangeably YOU no matter whether you were fifteen or fifty.
Job: Or a hundred-and-fifty.
Well, Process Theology says that God’s a little like that too. God has an “immutable” nature that’s always God-ish.
Me: Look, I’m trying not to use 64-million-dollar theological words….work with me…
There’s a part of God that always stays “the same,” and there’s a part of God that reacts, responds to, and perhaps is even changed by, the “free will” that we have in the world.
Job: I’m listening…
So, what about that all-knowing/powerful stuff?
Me: Well, the theory is that if God knows all…and there’s some folks who imagine that this is just not possible…
Job: The “unicorn” thing?
Me: Right. The unicorn thing.
If God knows all, the way to say this that makes any logical sense at all is that God knows all the possibilities.
Me: Yes. God knows that you might eat Wheaties. You might eat Corn Flakes. You might go to Starbucks for a muffin.
God knows all the choices you might make…all the choices I might make…all the choices each of the six billion persons on earth might make. And that’s in any given instant of time. And God knows what the consequences of those choices might be.
There’s just one thing God doesn’t know.
Job: Do tell.
Me: What’s actually going to happen.
Nobody –not even God– knows that.
Job: So, what about all that “God knows the hairs on your head” stuff?
Me: Well, you could argue that that’s really true. God just doesn’t know how many you’ll lose today.
Job: Never been a problem for me.
Me: Let’s not go there.
Job: Probably best.
So, God knows all the possibilities, huh?
Me: Yep, that’s the theory.
Job: That’s not really the all-knowing-thing that most folks talk about, is it?
Me: No. But if you allow yourself to think about it, it’s actually far more knowledge that the typical way of claiming that God knows, or has, one path –and one path only– planned out for your life. The sum of possibilities, in any given moment of time, approaches infinity.
And that knowledge? It’s actually knowing far more than just the “one set plan” for the world that predestination-lovers talk about.
Job: Are there are a lot of those around today?
Me: Well, there are a lot of folks who say they are. Lots of preacher-types crow about finding God’s one true plan for your life…about listening to God so that God can reveal that one true plan. And, certainly, hindsight is 20-20, and it’s easy to see patterns in the rear-view mirror.
Job: But you’re not big on the “God has a plan for your life” idea, are you?
Me: Not really.
Job: I knew there was a reason I liked you. Because I’m not either.
I saw too much suffering during that one period of my life…too many people die…I suffered too many losses to believe that it was somehow a part of some grand plan God had in mind.
But my friends kept telling me I was.
“Just pray more,” they said, “Just confess. It will become clear.”
But, know what?
Sometimes there’s just no good reason for the bad that happens to you, anymore than there’s a good reason for the good that happens to you either. I mean, I was up as high as you could get at one point in life. Then I went down to the depths. And I finished back as high as you could imagine.
If I’m not going to claim the bad stuff was God’s will, how can I claim the good stuff either?
That was probably the one truest learning out of all my tribulations….that, bad or good, the things that happen to you just…HAPPEN. You don’t necessarily deserve them either way.
I don’t really deserve to have twice as much loot as I did before. Although…understand…I’m not complaining.
I can’t explain it all, really.
I just really like that line “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”
It seems so…so true.
Me: So, you and I have a lot in common, I’d suppose.
Job: Sounds like it.
And also about that “eternal now” you were talking about a moment ago.
Me: You liked that too?
Job: Yes, quite a lot. Because even if God doesn’t give us simple answers, we still have today. Your Alcoholics Anonymous friends often talk about taking “one day at a time.” Well, I learned that sometimes it’s the only way to get through everything. If I looked too far down the road, it would have made me crazy. But if I just payed attention to today, I could find strength to get through that day.
But now, you’re telling me that thinkers believe this is the reality of reality, huh? That “today” or “the now” is all there is?
Me: Yep. That’s what they seem to be saying.
Job: Make sense to me.
Me: But at the end of the day, I’m still troubled by God’s response.
I’m still troubled by the real bitchiness in God’s reply to you. God’s just so condescending to you.
Like I said earlier, a lot of the folks who read your story hate that part of it. They’re glad God shows up…finally…but they just think God could have shown you a little more sympathy.
Job: You know, I can see how it might feel that way to read it. But that’s not how I took it at the time.
Me: So, how did you take it at the time?
What I heard in what God said was “get a little perspective.” You know what perspective is, don’t you?
Me: I suppose.
Job: Well, you blogged about it a few months back.
Me: I did?
Job: Yes, right here.
Me: Oh…nice…I forgot about that one.
Job: See that picture? That’s what God was a trying to give me. God wasn’t really being condescending. God was just being honest. We are small. We are insignificant. Our little problems –even our big ones– are nothing in the grand scheme of the entire created order.
And if what you say is true about God knowing all the possibilities, then I understand it even more now.
Me: How so?
Job: Well because, like you said, there’s a lot going on in any given moment.
I think that’s what God was telling me when God challenged me on all those acts of nature.
Me: Whether or not you knew where light and dark come from….the storehouse of the snows….the wisdom to number the clouds?
Read that passage again. I think what God really wanted me to understand was a little perspective…to understand that, even with all I’d been through, there was still so much I didn’t know.
You know, even with all the stuff you all know today, there is still so much mystery to life. You now seem to understand what makes light become light….you can define it…you can control it on some limited scale, even. But there’s so much out there that’s still uncontrollable by everyone. There’s so much mystery.
Me: You think the mystery is all God?
Job: Who knows? Maybe some of it’s just mystery. But I’d guess some of it’s God.
What I know is that it’s a big, beautiful universe out there. At any given moment, there is so much at stake, and we just don’t see it. There are so many processes happening, so much life unfolding, so much grace, only we can’t notice it.
Me: Can’t? Or won’t?
Job: Both, I suppose.
Can’t because it’s just too much for any one person to take in.
Won’t because we so often can’t see past the end of our own noses…like me in my hour of turmoil.
There was no way I wasn’t going to be angry, upset, confused, by all the things that happened to me. It didn’t seem fair.
And it wasn’t fair.
It’s not fair that your friend has cancer. It’s not fair that young parents are taken away in death far too soon. It’s not fair that the rich seem to get away with murder, and that justice seems far off so much of the time.
But, know what?
Job: God came.
God finally showed up. And that was enough.
Me: Really? It was enough?
Job: Yes. It was. It was enough for me. God couldn’t give me all the answers. Heck, to hear you tell it, maybe God didn’t even know all the answers. Maybe there were no answers. Maybe a lot of the time when evil or bad things happen, there are simply no answers.
See, I’m at a place where I can believe that now.
But what I also believe is that, eventually, God shows up.
God shows up, and God is present.
Me: God’s really there all the time, right?
Job: Of course, of course…
But, damn, there are times when it sure doesn’t feel that way. Lot’s of times.
But God does show up. And there was something about God showing up that made all the difference for me.
All the loot? All the second chances I got? I really could care less about them. They can –and will– come and go.
But God came, and that made the difference.
So, to those friends of yours who are suffering, tell them to trust that God will come. God will be present. Grace will come. Every day. Whether things get better in life, or whether they get as horrible as they can get. You may not like all the answers. You may not like THAT answer. Hell, at times there may not be any answers. But God will come and be present. There is grace in every day.
And God will offer perspective….perspective that doesn’t trivialize what you’re going through at the time….but honest perspective that reminds us just how big the world is, just how big God is…and how, as small as we are, we have our place in the grand scheme of things too.
Me: You know, I’m glad you came by today.
Job: I am too.
I don’t get the chance to talk with many folks these days. It helps me to think through my story by telling it to you.
Me: Kinda like me asking, “What do you know?”
Job: Now that you mention it…touche.
Ha! Funny thing….
Me: Well, you’re a remarkable man who has been through a great deal.
Job: Oh, you’re too kind.
Me: And I appreciate you coming by.
Job: The pleasure was all mine.
Me: I mean, especially since your whole story was predicated on a bet.
Job: Yes…a….a what?
Me: A bet. You know….the bet?
Job: What bet?
Me: The bet between God and Satan…the whole premise for your story in the first place. The whole set-up to your story is that God and Satan have a little bet going to see whether or not misfortune will break an honorable man like y….
Job: Listen, I need to go….
I’ve just thought of a few more questions for God.
Thanks for having me.
Me: Sure thing.
Sorry to bring the bet-thing up….hope I didn’t ruin the whole day with that.
Job: Um…no….Not ruined.
Just another…um…perspective that I’m going to have to work through, though.
But that brings me to the other big learning I can pass along from my story.
Me: What was that?
Job: God can always take our questions.
You be careful out there.
Me: You too.