Friday, February 11, 2011

Suffering and the Book of Job: A Pastoral Perspective

   The topic of suffering has been a consistent source of struggle for many Jewish people. For Christians the reality of suffering can be linked directly to the sufferings of Jesus Christ and His followers can unite their sufferings to His in an effort to make sense of the struggles they are going through and receive consolation in knowing that they are not alone in their pain and anguish. The fact that Jewish people do not worship an incarnate God they must come up with a way to make sense of suffering which allows them to maintain their covenantal relationship with God. The most profound example of suffering present in the Hebrew Scriptures is in the Book of Job.
   While the story of Job is quite "simple", the content becomes problematic because of the reason given for Job's suffering. In the beginning of chapter one, Job is referred to as an upright and blameless man who feared God and turned away from evil. There is no indication in the story that Job is Jewish, in fact there is a strong possibility that he was not an Israelite at all. The story continues that Satan was roaming about the earth and God asks him if he has considered God's servant, Job. Satan replies that the only reason why
Job is so faithful to God is because of all that he has been given. However, if all of this is taken away Satan is convinced that Job would turn away from God instantly.
    As a result of this conversation, God and Satan enter into a bet and Satan is given permission to do whatever he wants to Job as long as he does not kill him. By the end of the first chapter, Job's livestock and children are all killed. Upon hearing this news, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell to the ground worshiping God. He said, "Naked have I come from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there: the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21) In regard to the death of a child, Shapiro writes, "The integrity of the family system is shattered by the death of a child. Although couples with surviving children have continuing responsibilities in their roles as parents, they frequently become preoccupied with the attachment loss to the dead child and the implications of the death for their injured sense of self as person and parent."1 The way this story is written, Job is not really given sufficient time to mourn the loss of his children. Beginning in chapter two Satan starts to attack Job's health. Job is covered with loathsome soars from head to toe and sits in ashes as a sign of repentance. Job's wife offers him less than helpful advice by encouraging him to curse God and die so that his suffering might come to an end. Job responds, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?" (Job 2:10) Job refuses to turn from God.
   Next his three friends stop by and attempt to console him. They rent their garments and sat with him for seven days and nights without saying a word. Job then cries out in anguish and curses the day he was born. He begins to feel that it would have been better for him to have died in the womb than to have to suffer the way that he is now. The experience of pain and loss appears to be overwhelming Job. In regard to this sense of overwhelming emotion, Shapiro writes, "Adult grief is part of a family developmental crisis that disrupts adult and family stability in the interrelated domains of emotion, action, and meaning. Grief is a crisis not only of overwhelming emotion but of daily interaction and identity. Adults will have mobilized all the resources at their disposal - intrapsychic, family systemic, community, and cultural - in arriving at strategies for containing the overwhelming emotion."2 At this point, Job is responding to his overwhelming feelings by cursing the day he was born. He has received no real support from his wife and his friends were present to him for seven days and nights but offered no words of comfort or consolation. The loss of his children and health appear to be too much for him to bear and what makes it even worse is that he cannot make sense of it by pointing to something he has done which is causing his grief.
   It is important to keep in mind the cultural context of Job's suffering. He is living in the Ancient Near East at a time when it was a common belief that suffering was understood as punishment for certain behavior. The belief would have been that Job must have done something to anger God, otherwise he would not have lost his children and his health the way that he did. This belief is born out in the statements of Eliphaz in chapter four. Eliphaz, one of the three men who came to visit Job, responds to Job's lament that he should never have been born by stating that Job has become impatient with God even though he has been the source of strength for many. Eliphaz asks Job to "Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish and by the blast of his anger they are consumed." (Job 4:7-9) Surely Job has done something to deserve this. Eliphaz evens goes so far as to make reference to the death of children as a sign that one has turned his back on God. In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas
Wolterstorff writes, "Job's friends tried out on him their answer (to why he his children died).'God did it, Job; he was the agent of your children's death. He did it because of some wickedness in you; he did it to punish you. Nothing indeed in your public life would seem to merit such retribution; it must something in your private inner life. Tell us what it is Job.Confess!'".3 These comments are not only unsupportive, but they are actually adding to the grief which Job already feels. Job can find no meaning in his suffering, he professes that he lacks the inner resources to cope with his anguish, he has received no support or encouragement from his friends, and his overwhelming emotions are becoming a weight which is too heavy to bear. In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, J. William Worden states "A fifth special feature of sudden death is the sense of helplessness that it elicits on the part of the survivor. This type of death is an assault on our sense of power and on our sense of orderliness. Often this helplessness is linked with an incredible sense of rage, and it is not unusual for the survivor to want to vent his or her anger on someone."4 It is quite interesting that Job does not get angry at God, as much as he laments God's absence. In Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook, Rabbi Myriam Klotz writes, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are all unable to comfort Job through asserting that his suffering must be his own fault. The text does not permit Job to be understood as guilty, but rather, as a good person whose sufferings were not deserved. What does provide comfort for Job? He begins to reach peace when he feels again the presence of God in his life. It is not that God has provided any answers to Job in his suffering. In fact, when God becomes present to Job, God explains that human beings can never fully comprehend the ways of the Infinite and Powerful One. The simple affirmation of God's presence with Job in his sufferings is what comforts him.5
   The theological concept, incarnation, is fitting given Job's struggle. According to the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (DPCC), incarnation pastoral care is understood in two senses; first, as human existence as embodied or incarnated and second as the doctrine of
Incarnation, the mystery of the Second Person of the Trinity's becoming human; Jesus Christ as being both fully human and fully divine. 6 While Job would certainly not have known about the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, he would certainly have been aware of the fact that human existence is embodied. The narrative of Job reflects two possible ways to respond to those who suffer. One of the one hand, like Job's friends, one might offer explanations for the suffering, perhaps even point fingers of blame at the sufferer. These answers might help them feel more security in their understanding of the workings of the universe and of God, although they did not assist Job in making personal and redemptive meaning of his own experience. The biblical narrative suggests that providing explanations for suffering only heightens the alienation of the sufferer. On the other hand, the text suggests that developing a caring relationship with sufferers in the presence of the mystery can help to heal the suffering. It was not God's answer but God's presence that helped Job. Unlike his friends, Job is not concerned with discovering why he suffers, only with feeling God's mysterious presence before him in his journey. Furthermore, only personally knowing the presence of God can help him. Job cannot have a proxy.7 According to William Clebsh and Charles Jeckle in their article, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, the pastoral function which would fit
Job's dilemma and the theological concept of incarnation is "sustaining". Sustaining pastoral care function consists in helping a hurting person to endure and to transcend a circumstance in which restoration to his former condition or recuperation from his malady is either impossible or so remote as to seem improbable.8 From a human standpoint, the likelihood that Job's health would be restored to its former state seemed extremely improbable and the restoration of his children is impossible. As Rabbi Klotz stated earlier, it is important for a pastoral care provider to enter into a relationship with the sufferer in the presence of the mystery since this can aid in the healing of the sufferer. Job's experiencing of God's self-communication of love in his own life may help him to accept his loss and begin to turn to God and others for assistance and guidance as he realizes that God truly does love him and that one of the ways in which that love is expressed is through the care and support he receives from those around him. The fact that Job receives such a strong sense of consolation from the presence of God indicates that he is a deeply religious man and has not turned away from God as a result of what he has gone through. The pastoral care relationship can help Job to begin to readjust his world-view and hopefully continue to experience God's presence as he makes the slow transition from his earlier life to his present situation.
    As Klotz states, "It is not the role of the pastoral caregiver to diminish the awesome mystery at the heart of the experience of suffering by explaining it away, but it can be helpful to sufferers in their journey to provide them with an understanding of theological contexts in which Jews have tried to understand God's relationship to suffering. Pastoral caregivers can offer some of this understanding, and can extend validating permission for sufferers to consider these frameworks as a possible springboard for meaning. At different times in life, one perspective can be more helpful than others. This model of relationship to Jewish theological approaches to suffering evolves over the course of a lifetime. It reaffirms the presence of the Shechna's imminent mystery (God's presence), hovering over those who suffer, encouraging them to respond to their suffering in a meaningful, reflective way.9
   In his chapter on Grief Counseling: Facilitating Uncomplicated Grief, Worden offers ten principles for pastoral caregivers which could be used to assist the sufferer. Principle Four is "Help Find Meaning in the Loss". He mentions that some people who cannot answer the question "why" with regard to the death of a loved one have become involved in political, philanthropic, or caretaking activities related to the manner of death which took their loved one. These activities help them to believe and to say that his or her death was not in vain.10 One prominent example of this is the creation of the television show, "America's Most Wanted". The show was created by John Walsh, whose young son, Adam, was murdered in Florida. Mr. Walsh became involved in the cause of victims' rights and began his television show in 1987 to help bring fugitives to justice. This was (and is) his way of coping with the death of his son.
   With regard to finding meaning in suffering, Rabbi Yaakov Feldman writes, "There is more yet to say about the place of human suffering in the big picture. It's that sometimes we're made to suffer so as to step back and look deeply within ourselves. After all, when all is well and the world itself is sweet, good, and then some, the world is enough. The idea of introspection and change is absurd, for all intents and purposes. Why take the time?"11 The notion of human's being a combination of body and soul is both a Jewish and Christian teaching. As embodied spirits we yearn for a connection with our creator. This yearning to see God was not simply a wishful thought for Job, but an anxious yearning for the fulfillment of a promise, which we refer to as the theological virtue of hope. As Job himself states, "For I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God." (Job 19:25-26) For many, including some Jewish scholars, this passage is understood to be supporting the idea of an afterlife. Some strains of classical Jewish thought maintain that God gives suffering to people in this world so that they might experience joy and liberation in olam habah (the world to come). The medieval mystical text, the Zohar, states, "God gives pain to the righteous meritorious for olam habah. In this view, suffering can be endured because it has a long-term, redemptive, and transformative value.12 It is possible that Job was speaking to the redemptive and transformative value of his suffering when he made that statement in chapter nineteen.
   In the first thirty-seven chapters of the Book of Job we hear about Satan's wager with God, the righteousness of Job, the loss of his wealth, his children, and his health. We also hear the various statements made by his three friends and his wife who attempt to offer some reason for Job's suffering. Job is not impressed with their arguments and turns to God for answers. In Chapter 38, Job gets his wish, God responds to him. God's response begins with a series of questions which Job is completely incapable of answering. These questions include, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?", "Who determined its measurements?", and "Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?" These types of questions continue until the beginning of chapter forty. At this point Job responds to God saying, "See, I am of small account, what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer, twice, but will proceed no further." (Job 40:4-5) Throughout the rest of this chapter and chapter forty-one, God then challenges Job concerning the fact that God is not the source of evil and that He is not unaware of or unmoved by what goes on in creation. The Lord is telling Job, "Remember, I am God and you are not!" Job is encountering Shechna (the Divine Presence) and in chapter forty-two he repents after having questioned/challenged God.
    Job then prays for his friends that they not be cursed by God for their folly and God grants Job's prayer. God then brings about a dramatic shift in terms of the pastoral function of sustaining by restoring to Job everything that he had lost and more. Job was given two-fold as a reward for his fidelity and the story ends with the following statement, "All this Job lived one-hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. And Job died; old and full of days." (Job 42:16-17)
    According to Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, pain is a factor in the modification of laws including mental anguish as well as physical suffering.  This is particularly in evidence regarding the obligation to “call the Sabbath a delight (Is. Lviiii.13). According to the Talmud (bShabbath 118b), this injunction seeks to encourage the enjoyment of physical no less than spiritual pleasures, and the banishment of all sorrow, of the duration of the holy day. Yet, special consideration is given to people in distress.  Thus, although it is forbidden to fast on the Sabbath (O.H., cclxxxviii.1), a person harrowed when eating food may desist from it, “since it is his pleasure not to eat” (ib.,2 and 3).  Similarly, one need not have the Friday evening meal in the glow of the Sabbath candles, as normally required, if the light is the cause of undue discomfort (O.H.,cclxxiii.7), and it is allowed to weep on the Sabbath, if this may bring relief from mental distress (O.H.,cclxxxviii.2).13
   Rabbi Feldman takes a different approach to suffering when he states, "Knowing all this, wisdom would seem to suggest that people in pain should 'take advantage' of the moment and draw close to God right there and then, so as not to have suffered in vain. For while suffering is indeed horrible, it can seem to have been 'savory' if you will or at least nuanced after the fact if you grow as a consequence of it. While it will only have been horrible if you went through it without having grown. The truth be known, though, unless we 'get the hint' we'll be forced to suffer more and more until we do, God protect us. So, let this serve as a word to thewise."14     In an effort to offer a model for pastoral care giving, Rabbi Klotz writes, "There are no simple resolutions to the nature of suffering, no guidelines for being a companion to someone who is suffering. A pastoral care giver must first and last exude radical caring, the godly qualities of loving-kindness and empathic presence. With these, the care giver can assist others to find those qualities within themselves and to transform the harshness of their suffering into a more blessed situation. When care givers offer themselves in this way, those who suffer may not be the only ones who are helped. Perhaps, our own journey toward understanding the mysteries of life and death will be transformed into one of profound blessing."15

                                      End Notes

1 Shapiro, Ester. Grief as a Family Process (NY: The Guildford Press), 1994, p. 187
2 Shapiro, p. 42 
3 Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Lament for a Son (MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing) 1987, p. 67 
4 Worden, J. William. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for Mental Health Practitioners NY: Springer Publishing, 2002, p. 126
5 Friedman, Dayle (ed.), Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005), p. 9
6 Hunter, Rodney (ed.), Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (DPCC) (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 573
7 Friedman, p. 9
8 Clebsh, William A. and Jeckle, Charles R. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, p. 9
9 Friedman, p. 9
10 Worden, p. 63
11 Rabbi Yakkov Feldman: 5.html Posted: 2002, Accessed October 15, 2009
12 Friedman, p. 14
13 Jakobovits, Immanuel Jewish Medical Ethics (NY: Bloch Publishing Co., 1959), p. 100
15 Friedman, p. 25


  • Clebsh, William A. and Jeckle, Charles R. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective
  • Rabbi Yakkov Feldman: 5.html
  • Friedman, Dayle (ed.) Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005)
  • Hunter, Rodney (ed.), Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (DPCC) (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990)
  • Jakobovits, Immanuel Jewish Medical Ethics (NY: Bloch Publishing Co., 1959)
  • Shapiro, Ester Grief as a Family Process (NY: The Guildford Press), 1994
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas Lament for a Son (MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing) 1987
  • Worden, J. William Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for Mental Health Practitioners (NY: Springer Publishing, 2002)

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