Living a Good Life: A Good Practice
A Good Practice
October 7, 2018
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
We turn again to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew text today for one more week in our series called, “Living a Good Life.” On a tour through the book of Proverbs, with a stop last week to tell the story of Esther, we’ve been trying to assemble the building blocks of a good life: a good name, a good mind, a good community, a good cause. Today: a good practice.
It is quite interesting to me, then, that we end our series on living a good life—all these weeks following ancient wisdom that offers some priorities and practices for good human living—confronted with a story that deflates any fantasy of the moral coherence of the world in which we live.
We’d love to live in a world where behavior predicts outcome—after all, isn’t that the point of living a good life? Do the right thing, make the good choice, be a nice person…and in the end everything will turn out great!
Well, it didn’t happen for Job. As one commentator points out succinctly: “What happens to Job is our worst nightmare. He is a good person who does all the right things and ends up losing everything—his family, friends, home, possessions, and even his health. It takes just 35 verses to catapult Job from his perfect life to an ash heap, covered in oozing sores, and completely alone.”
This is perhaps not the exact place I would have wished for us to end this series on living a good life. Maybe even more than you do, I wish we could end up with a predictable formula for success, but as you notice this series is called “Living A Good Life,” not “Living THE Good Life.” Too often organized religion has missed this subtle distinction, and we’ve been promised: if you act a certain way, if you attend church enough, if you give enough money, if you are a good person, life will turn out sweet.
But all of us have been around the block enough to know that this is just not true. Good people experience bad things; people behave badly and are rewarded; human life is punctuated with pain, no matter who you are. So maybe it’s best that we’re ending our consideration of how to live a good life with this story. The story of Job reminds us that living a good life is about…integrity. Doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing, no matter the outcome. A good practice.
The structure of the book of Job is fairly straightforward. There are two book–ends to the story, and in between the book-ends the author of Job has created a series of conversations about the question of suffering—a set of dramatic dialogue pieces, if you will.
The book of Job isn’t meant to be a historical recounting of a cultural time frame or even the biography of one guy who lived a dramatic life. What inspired the writing of this book was the fact that someone was troubled by the prevalence of suffering all around him. He had learned from an early age what the cause of suffering was and how to avoid it, but, having lived this life long enough, he was starting to think that the lesson he learned growing up, the lesson that suffering and abundance are factors in some huge cosmic math problem, just was not true.
It did not explain what he saw all around him—righteous people suffering; wicked people prospering—the cosmic equation turned on its head. So the writer of Job composed the book as a kind of morality play, beautiful poetry raising some of the most profound questions of human life.
To review, Job was the all-star quarterback of the faithful. Homecoming king and most likely to succeed, Job was blameless and upright. He feared God. He turned away from evil. Job’s author describes him as someone who came with good genetics, but it was more than that. Job actively pursued holiness. He even, chapter one tells us, prayed extra hard for his children, just in case they made some foolish mistake and forgot to apologize. Job had it all covered, for himself and for everyone else around him.
And by the time we read our passage from chapter 2 this morning, Job has already been through enough soap opera for one life. In chapter one he’s lost his camels, his sheep, quite a bit of property, his servants, and, worst of all, his children. One thing after another, pain after pain, disbelief after disbelief, loss after loss . . . they all happened to Job.
And we also heard scene two this morning, which takes place up in heaven. God opened heaven for an audience with whoever it is that hangs out in heaven waiting for an audience with God. Satan snuck in again this time, and some divine agreement was reached about testing God’s servant Job. This time around Job loses everything and is covered with painful sores from the tip of his toes to the crown of his head. He sits in a pile of ashes and scrapes at his sores, and worst of all, his wife gets mad at him! Picture it: a man, exemplary citizen, upstanding and well-off, nice family, long marriage—gone. All gone. Job has sunk about as low as he can sink, and all he has left is just enough energy to think about why it is that he is going through such pain. And, here’s the clincher: God, here, seems to let Satan get away with all this. And that right there is enough to give anyone’s faith a good, hard shaking.
Still, the text tells us, Job persists in integrity; he rejects the advice of his wife to curse God and die because he doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him; he keeps shouting his questions at the sky because he knows that relationship with God is a not a cosmic math problem, that God cannot be controlled or manipulated, that there is oh so much pain and division and fear in the world, and that throughout it all God does not leave us.
Scholars have written for centuries about how the book of Job was written to answer the question of why good people suffer, but I don’t see much of an answer to that question here. What I do see is a new way of understanding relationship with God, and some encouragement to persist even in the face of pain, injustice, sorrow.
No, God does not step in and put an invisible super-shield around Job. What God DOES do is place full confidence in the faith of God’s servant Job. God says, “I believe in you, Job. Human life is full of pain, but you are an active participant in a divine relationship, and I believe that that relationship is what ultimately defines your life, not any of the details, not even the most profound suffering.”
Liberationist theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls this a disinterested faith, and he says that the only way for us to make sense of our suffering and our relationship with God is to develop and cultivate a disinterested faith. Through his commitment to integrity in all things—a good practice—Job was doing just that: believing in God without looking for rewards or fearing punishments. No matter what life sends our way, living with an authentic faith born of committed practice will always result in living a good life.
John Claypool was a notable speaker, preacher, and pastor. I like his thoughts on this strange way that the practice of living in relationship with God offers the key to living a good life, even in the middle of the most terrible pain. While sitting at the hospital bed of his ten-year-old-daughter who was dying from leukemia, Claypool was out of options; none of the treatments the doctors had tried were working. As her life slipped away, he could just sit by her side, hold her hand, and weep. It took every ounce of spiritual energy to keep from fainting.
Later, he considered this passage from the book of Isaiah:
“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Claypool notes that this passage reverses the order of what we might expect from relationship with God: Isaiah begins with soaring and ends with walking. Claypool wrote: “Now I am sure that to those looking for the spectacular this may sound insignificant indeed. Who wants to be slowed to a walk, to creep along inch by inch, just barely above the threshold of consciousness and not fainting? That may not sound like much of a religious experience, but believe me, in the kind of [despair] where I have been, it is the only form of the promise that fits the situation. When there is no occasion to soar and no place to run, and all you can do is trudge along step by step, to hear of a Help that will enable to you ‘walk and not faint’ is good news indeed.”
Living a good life means having a good practice: remembering over and over, with our words and our very lives, that God is God and I am not, and that relationship with God is worth everything we have to give it. So live your life with a good practice:
Tell your truth even when people disregard it.
Be kind even if the occasion doesn’t call for it.
Protest, canvass, vote, even if all the cards seem stacked against you.
Remember and proclaim God’s goodness when the pain feels too intense.
Keep walking even when it feels like you’ll never be able to fly.