When I was growing up, the name Job (pron. Joab) was one I heard constantly.
"Have you read the book of Job?" someone would ask brightly. "His faith never wavered. He always believed."
Or, "Nobody suffered more than Job. He got through it - why can't you?"
So who was this Job - who commanded such reverence from my elders that his name was mentioned to me repeatedly throughout my years?
Job was a biblical figure who lived over 3,000 years ago. The book named after him is thought to be one of the oldest written works in existence. And appropriately, it is a book that deals with an age-old question:
- Why do the good suffer?
At first, life was going well for Job. He was kind and respected. Devoted to God and his family. He owned over 7000 sheep and 3000 camels. He'd been blessed with seven sons and three daughters. He was described as being "the greatest man amongst the people of the East."
Then everything changed. His animals died. He lost his land and wealth. Even his children died. His wife, overcome with anger and grief, wanted him to die too and end his suffering.
When his friends visited, instead of comforting him, they criticised. He must be secretly wicked, they suggested. God would never punish a good man in such a way.
They even found fault with his recently deceased children - suggesting they had received their just reward for some unknown sin.
How hard it must have been for Job, covered in sores and boils, faced with his wife's grief and his own, to sit and listen to the harsh words of his friends.
In a nutshell, Job had it tough.
I marvelled at Job's resilience. Amazed that someone could bear so many troubles with such stoical courage.
It was something of a relief to read his story for myself in my teenage years and realise that he was not completely the noble saint I'd imagined.
Job was far more human in his response.
At the beginning he responded to his ordeal with great equanimity. Though overcome with grief he composed himself enough to say, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away..."
But as the months passed and his suffering continued, he found it hard to maintain his composure.
He questioned God and pondered the worth of his existence. He challenged God to answer him. He longed for death to release him.
"Why did I not perish at birth and die as I came from the womb?" he wonders. "Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest..."
When his friends visited, and annoyed him with their platitudes, rather than smiling meekly and offering them tea, Job let his irritation show. "Miserable comforters all of you," he snapped, patience pushed beyond limit. "You just go on and on and on..."
From being rather wary of Job and how I failed to measure up to him on some spiritual yardstick, I grew to appreciate him. In fact, I really liked him.
Job understood. And rather like me and, I suspect, you - Job also asked the question, why.
- Why are we left to wait, hoping for relief which we have yet to see?
- Why do our prayers go unanswered?
- Why do many of those from who we thought support would come, shun us or turn away?
God doesn't answer Job's questions. He hasn't answered mine. Yet there are still important lessons we can learn from his desert experience.
1. accept the silence
In our modern world we have largely lost our sense of awe and wonder.
Science has explained almost everything. There is no longer any mystery. We might marvel at the beauty of the stars but we also know that they are 4.24 light years from earth (whatever that means)...
So unresolved pain, that defies any purpose or definition, doesn't fit our 21st century mindset, which demands answers for everything. And when prayers and reason fail to provide solutions it is easy to become disillusioned.
"I have no peace," cries Job when he realises there is no end to his suffering. "I have no quietness. I have no rest, but only turmoil..."
Instead of us feeling awe at the mystery of human life, we're often berating it for not providing the answers we so desperately need. It feels like a sign of neglect.
"I cry out to you God," says Job in desolation, "but you do not answer. I stand up but you merely look at me."
So how are we to cope in that desert experience? What are we to do?
Hard as it may seem, there are times we just have to "be still and know."
Be still means to quieten our minds, quieten our complaints and our yearnings. Let go of our need for answers and explanations.
Know that despite our lack of answers we are loved.
Know that silence from the heavens doesn't mean neglect although it feels as it is.
Know that pain and suffering is, sadly, a natural part of life.
- What is the one thing that you can be still and focus on right now, in the midst of your desert experience? What is the one thing that can bring you a sense of comfort and peace?
2. Realise that Life is Unfair
We're raised in a Walt Disney world where good is ultimately rewarded, and kindness wins in the end. Our medical advances mean that thankfully so much pain and suffering, which was really the lot of most of mankind, has largely been eliminated.
We are no longer used to everyday pain in the West. We are lucky. But it makes those of us who do live with long-term health issues an anomaly.
Job reminds us that bad things happen to good people. Job wasn't hiding a dark secret, or leading a shameful life for which he had to be punished.
It was the opposite. He was loving, caring - taking care of the local orphans.
Yet all this counted for nothing. "My relatives have gone away. My closest friends have forgotten me," he says. "Even when I beg my servant for help he ignores me..."
When I talk to people from other cultures, where suffering and bereavement, is much more a part of their daily experience life, there is a more philosophical response to suffering. They truly understand the heart behind Job's words when he says of his losses, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away."
When God finally breaks his silence to answer Job his response is surprising.
He doesn't commend Job for being a good and faithful man. He doesn't praise him for the compassion he always showed to poverty-stricken children who bore no relation to him. Instead he questions him.
Where were you, he asks, when I created the earth? Can you make the sun rise in the morning or the stars come out at night? Can you create water or find food for the lion? I can do all these things.
On the one hand, God is telling Job his friends are wrong. He isn't being punished for some sin. But God also wants Job to know that his concept of God is inadequate - he is simply too small to have any real awareness of what is happening. There are things that our human understanding cannot comprehend. Despite the advances of science, there is still mystery in the human experience.
- Today is it possible for you to recognise our human limits and trust God to take care of the part we do not know?
3. Appreciate Nature
When God chose to respond to Job, he didn't answer his questions directly. Instead, he directed Job's attention to the wonder of nature and creation.
God speaks to Job of lions and of ravens. He directs his attention to the strength of wild ox and the diligence of the horse in battle.
It seems a very strange answer to a man who is in such turmoil.
Perhaps God does not answer us in the way we would like, but sometimes we can be so overcome with the circumstances of our health that we fail to see the beauty of God in anything around us.
When we are ill, it is vital we take time to recharge our spiritual batteries by getting out of our own lives and interacting with nature.
A visit to a park, a day by the sea, taking time to bury our feet in the sand - all these things have a restorative power on our psyche.
So somedays, when it all seems to overwhelming, get out somewhere fresh and invigorating if you can.
And breathe breathe breathe in the fresh air. It's what your body needs.
- What can you do today to appreciate the awesome quality of nature? Even if it's something small like taking time to sit in your garden or nearby park - just make time to enjoy and savour it.
- Or, on the days you can't get out, do what I do. Search Youtube for a relaxing nature walk and visualise yourself there, soaking in its energy.
4. realise It Shows Ourselves Who we Are
The accusation is made that Job only believes in God because God has been good to him. After all, he is blessed with a wife, wonderful children, plenty of land and a great deal of wealth.
It is easy to believe in God, it is alleged, when things are going well.
Yet his experiences helped Job develop spiritual depth. He had good old-fashioned grit.
By the end of the story, Job realised that it wasn't his good nature, or even the daily sacrifices he made to God that counted.
Yes, he complained about his fate but he never lost his ultimate belief.
Job was able to examine himself and his life and realise the duality of our existence. Although we are an amazing, wonderfully made part of nature we are also infinitely small in the big scheme of things. We are intelligent with a quest for knowledge and understanding. But we only see through our own gaze, and there is much beyond our comprehension.
- Look at yourself. Ask yourself what qualities have you learned and what lessons have you seen in yourself through this experience? At first you might not think of anything, but persevere! Qualities like grit and determination are not to be underestimated!
5. learn to Forgive Others
Which is worse - to be abandoned by your friends when you're ill. Or for them to visit and sit with you but berate you for your faults?
Three of Job's friends visited.
They sat with him in silent grief. He must have appreciated their concern, but when they spoke their words were wounding. And heaped more distress on someone who had already faced so much.
And Job, in his vulnerable state, was deeply hurt. That was understandable. He even asked them, “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?”
Do you know anyone like that? Someone who visits in the guise of helping you but then says things to bring you down? Perhaps it's not deliberate. Job's friends were trying to comfort not distress him - but they hadn't gone through what Job had, and their words were wounding nonetheless.
Yet after God spoke, Job was able to see beyond his circumstances, and overcame his anger toward his friends. He was able to forgive them their unkind words and even say prayers on their behalf.
One of the hardest things to face is the necessity of forgiving those who have been so harsh to us. I know that from firsthand experience.
Sometimes it requires more effort from us to forgive than to stay angry or hurt at the other person. But by forgiving others, it allows us to move beyond the stress of anger and emotional pain toward a place of peace and love.
And peace within ourselves is exactly what we need to help our bodies cope with long-term health concerns.
- Which is the friend or colleague who said hurtful words to you? Today can you make a decision to forgive them and move on? Even if you can't quite talk to them as yet, can you bring yourself to say a prayer for them or send them thoughts of loving kindness?
- Today let us not remain trapped by the harsh words of others. Let us move beyond them and live in the light.
Antoinette Faith is a writer who encourages women to lead optimistic, healthy and joyous lives whatever their situation. With a degree in Economics and Social History, and training in Positive Psychology, her website, antoinettefaithliving.com focuses on using the tools of Positive Psychology and Christian-based Spirituality to tackle the challenges of life.