In many Christian churches, a passage from the Book of Job was recently proclaimed. Job, you might recall, had a lot of good reason to feel really bad. His children, his wealth and his health were all taken from him as a result of a wager Satan made with God that Job would not remain faithful in the face of such suffering. Satan would lose that bet, but Job certainly came close to making him a winner. Part of what we proclaimed in church was Job, in the midst of pain, saying, “Is not our life drudgery? My days come to an end without hope…I shall not see happiness again” (Job 7:1,6-7).
It is one thing to simply hear those words, and another thing to put yourself in the writer’s place and imagine the depth of suffering out of which those words flow. Some of us might react with curiosity about Job’s experience and try to relate to it with remembrances of our own past pain. Others of us, like those very many of us who suffer with depression or other persistent hardship, will hear an articulation of thoughts and feelings that we know all too well.
The fact that depression, pain, and suffering are right there in the Bible tells me something. While very unpleasant, they also can be holy experiences. They can be holy because they are our experiences and God loves every part of us. They are also holy, when, like Job, we speak our pain to God. Our pain becomes our prayer to the one who holds us.
I have been reading a new book by James Martin called Learning to Pray, in which he lists 10 common reasons people do not pray. One is that when they prayed in the past for their pain to go away, it didn’t work. God did not grant their prayer and so they figured “What’s the point of praying?”
Others with the same experience of unanswered prayer actually grow closer to God, and have the deepest faith of any of us. I think this happens when they look to God less to take away their pain and more to help them live in the midst of their pain. Faith for them is not an accessory but absolutely essential for them go forward in life with a sense of purpose and hope. And even, sometimes, like Job, to go forward without a sense of purpose and hope.
Honestly, I don’t know if I can say I have a deep faith or not. I know for sure, though, that it’s a lot deeper than it would be if I had never suffered. I went to church consistently during my first twenty years, but, while religiously observant, my spiritual life was quite shallow. Then, I suffered. The beautiful Marie, with whom I was wildly infatuated, dumped me. Body slam! I know people suffer much worse, but I had never experienced such emotional pain as that. I don’t wish it on anyone, but I do credit it for teaching me that I can lean on God for consolation and strength when I am hurting.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could get closer to God by just eating candy? That doesn’t seem to be how it works, though. There is usually some suffering involved. How it worked for me was that in my pain and great frustration that reality was not the way I wanted it to be, I asked God to help me. Though the process of healing took many months, right away I got this sense that there was more to my life than this loss. Jesus was inviting me into a more expansive life. It was as though Jesus were saying to me, “It’s OK not to get what you want. It’s OK to feel bad. You can let go of all those self-centered needs, accept my love and mercy, and follow my lead. You can judge each day not by whether you got what you wanted but by how well you followed my lead. You can even find joy in it!” I think this is what people mean when they speak of “Letting go and letting God.”
Following God’s lead is not just for the strong. It is also for the weak, the self-doubting, and the failing. In fact, I think we do it best when we are weak because then we know that following God’s lead it not just a good idea but the only thing that will keep us afloat, the only thing that truly saves.