Bless God and Grieve
By Pastor Seth
Perhaps one of the most controversial books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Job is anything but straightforward. A family man from a foreign land called Uz, we are introduced to Job as “blameless and upright,” steadfast in his devotion to his God and blessed with all manner of wealth and status. That is, until a cosmic wager is placed on his faithfulness. In Job 1:6, we read of a heavenly being called hasatan. Commonly translated in English as satan, this figure is not to be confused with the later Jewish and Christian notion of Satan, the Devil. Rather, hasatan (literally meaning “the accuser”) is presented as a member of a heavenly council whose role is something of a prosecuting attorney. And it is here in the narrative portion of the book of Job where things start to get interesting, if not wildly problematic.
Upon God’s instigation, hasatan makes a bet with the Creator of the universe: that if all the good in Job’s life was to be taken away from him, Job would discard his faithfulness and curse the Divine. Unbeknownst to Job, God accepts the challenge on his behalf and makes a deal with the devil-ish councilman, who proceeds to manipulate events to kill off Job’s servants and children, destroy his livelihood, and afflict him with bodily misery. Yet, even after all this calamity, Job refuses to utter a curse — at least until the next chapter. In walks Job’s wife.
Nameless in the biblical narrative, the wife of Job pleas for him to relent, only to be told that she is a foolish woman. Often portrayed as a foil to Job’s righteousness, history has portrayed the wife of Job in a largely critical light as a temptress and blasphemer, a stumbling block to Job’s faith. Augustine in the fourth century goes so far as to call her “the devil’s accomplice” — comparing her to a misogynistic interpretation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, guiltily dangling before her male counterpart the temptation of disobedience. However, there are those theologians who consider the wife of Job in a different light: as a grieving mother, as a wife concerned for her husband, as a woman who has lost everything, as a child of God who might have a point in her pleading.
Opinions on the wife of Job are as varied in perspective as the text itself. So the question I want to consider is: what does the wife of Job teach us about suffering?
What does the wife of Job teach us about suffering?
- We all grieve in our own ways
- Job’s perseverance and his friends’ not-so-pastoral care
- Scripture makes space for the voice of the marginalized
- Lament as a form of faith
The year is 1975. Twenty seven year old Paula D’Arcy is in the car with her husband and young daughter when, all of the sudden, her life is changed forever. Without warning, a drunk driver crashes into their moving vehicle — an accident that results in the death of both her husband and her only child, leaving Paula alive to contend with the loss of her entire family on her own. Except, as Paula recounts in her book, Stars at Night, she was not in fact alone. Up against seemingly insurmountable anguish, Paula stopped fighting it, permitting herself to descend into the enveloping darkness of grief. And as she sank to the depths of her pain at all the birthdays that would not happen, graduations no longer possible, anniversaries uncelebrated, laughter unheard, tears unshed, kisses undelivered, as Paula made her way down into the dark, she discovered a Presence awaiting her there — a Divine awareness unafraid to plummet to the valleys of her heart, accompanying and sustaining her every step through the long, dark terrain that is the journey through loss.
Quoting the mystic/poet/psychologist, James Finley, Paula shares, “when you come to a fork in the road, you either despair or go deeper.” Wrestling her despair of desiring life to go back to the way it was, Paula made the choice to go deeper. And in the excruciating wake of loss, it became clear to her that our suffering is meant to be met, not ignored — experienced, rather than merely explained away. As she found the courage to meet her pain, the experience of suffering fully felt led her to a Presence that, she says, “moved in the depth of the dark, responding to [her] from within.”
She credits this Presence and her own determination to dwell in the deep with her healing, recognizing, she remarks, that “concealed within the darkness was the unfolding light” and, further, that “to flee the darkness would be to flee the light.” Over the last few decades, drawing upon her own journey through a painful past, Paula has helped countless individuals come to terms with their own grief through her books, retreats, and the organization she founded called Red Bird Foundation, whose mission is to “[assist] others in the transformation of pain and the restoration of hope,” (redbirdfoundation.com).
Losing his children and servants and afflicted with bodily sores, a determined Job sits in the ashes of his undoing, refusing to utter a word against his God and circumstances. Witnessing her husband experience such misery under the shadow of her own grief, Job’s wife confronts his stoicism, saying, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die,” (Job 2:9). Job’s wife is confined to a single verse, and scholars wrack their minds on its meaning. The traditional interpretation is of Job’s wife telling him to forgo his integrity and blaspheme his Lord who seems utterly disinterested in Job’s welfare. This is, perhaps, one way to read the text; however, some scholars suggest another. Instead of telling Job to forget his integrity, his wife is telling him to keep it. That if any remnant of Job’s integrity still remains in him, he should act upon it and lament. The word integrity here is associated with honesty and authenticity, and the word translated in English as “curse” can also be translated as “bless” as it is in other passages of scripture. Perhaps the wife of Job is pleading for him to keep the integrity of his faith, to hold on to his honesty, so that he might bless God by truly and courageously experiencing the death of a life that used to be.
Only after this encounter with his wife does Job begin to grieve. In the following passage, Job sits in his grief for seven days accompanied by his friends — a Jewish practice known as Shiva, the week of mourning observed by the family traditionally following the funeral of their loved one. Resulting from the wisdom of his wife, it is here in the story where Job begins to cry out — cursing the day he was born, lamenting in utter anguish, questioning the Divine in raw, unfiltered vulnerability. As the story progresses, Job’s so called friends try to reason with him that such suffering must be a punishment at the hand of God; that surely Job must have done something to deserve it. And for the largest portion of the book of Job, we read of Job’s lamenting, maintaining his innocence in the face of his friends’ accusations until we finally hear a response from the Divine.
Up until now, we read of no direct encounter between Job and God. It is as if God has been peering behind the clouds looking down upon the calamity Job is trudging through from a distance. It is human habit to experience and make sense of suffering as if God resides somewhere up there, stomping the divine boot of just deserts down upon the offending soul. And sometimes in life, our suffering is so great, so piercing, so complete that it feels as if there must be some weight of cosmic force crashing down upon us. I wonder if the first part of this book, this cosmic wager placed upon Job, is not so much a description of how God relates to us as it is a description of how we sometimes relate to our own grief. The universe has to be against me, for how else could such anguish be explained. But God’s relationship to Job is not one from beyond the clouds but, rather, one of Presence amidst the very depths of Job’s grief once he finally finds the courage to face it.
I want to suggest that the wife of Job does not try to push him away from God, but towards God — and the only way for Job to go towards God was to go towards his own grief. It is here that God meets him, responding to Job’s crying out not with simple, pithy answers but with a willingness to dwell amidst the complexity of creation and paradox of life itself. Towards the end of the book, we read that God scolds Job’s friends for wrongly saying he deserved it, and praises Job for speaking rightly — an affirmation seemingly encompassing Job’s lamenting just as much as his refusal to blaspheme, which are perhaps one and the same. Job might call his wife foolish for daring to rattle him from his stoicism, but where would he be without her?
I do not have an answer for you to the “why” of suffering; all I know is that we must give ourselves permission to grieve it — to confront our pain, dwell in the darkness of overwhelm, and be willing to die to the reality of what was so that we might learn how to live in what is now. For it is only by meeting our shadowed despair head on, by allowing ourselves to sink to the depths of our shaken souls, that we might realize that there has been a Presence waiting there for us all along. A Presence whose hand is extended in invitation to walk the labyrinth of grief until our walking blows the ash away, revealing the sparking embers that light the way back to hope. But, first, we must walk a little in the dark.
If we go looking for explanations, there are countless contradictions to find. But if we go willing to experience, that is when we are found.