Thinking Anew – Hope and new life beyond loss

Job is forced to abandon his notion of a made-to-measure God who will respond to his every whim and face a greater reality. Photograph: Getty Images

Job is forced to abandon his notion of a made-to-measure God who will respond to his every whim and face a greater reality. Photograph: Getty Images

 

‘I know how you feel.” We often say it to people going through difficult times and mean well. It can undoubtedly be a genuine expression of sympathy but over the years I have come to recognise its limitations. I cared for my wife in her long decline with Parkinson’s disease and in those difficult times I often thought of lines from a song by Peter Sarstedt: “Where do you go to, my lovely/ When you’re alone in your bed? Tell me the thoughts that surround you/ I want to look inside your head . . .”

It chimes with my experience that no matter how close one is to someone in distress there will always be limits to one’s ability to know what that person is going through emotionally, physically, or spiritually.

While we may never be able to fully understand however, personal experience can help. Susannah Cibber was a well-known and successful actress and singer in mid-18th-century London. She was also a student of George Frederick Handel and became one of his leading soloists. But she fell from grace following a disastrous marriage and ended up in a debtor’s prison, an outcast in London society.

Around that same time Handel who had his own problems in London relocated to Dublin where he composed the Messiah.

When it came to choosing soloists for the debut performance in 1742, he invited Susannah Cibber. Her moving performance of one aria in particular drew much favourable comment: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”.

She knew exactly what those words from Isaiah meant because she too had experienced rejection and grief. It was reported that the Rev Patrick Delaney, rector of St Werburgh’s, who was present, was so moved that he stood up and declared, “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven.”

One of tomorrow’s readings is from the Book of Job which tells the story of a man who is suffering badly and feels he is not being listened to by his friends or God. At that time in Israel there was a belief that wealth and prosperity were signs of divine approval whereas illness and suffering were punishments for wrongdoing. Not everyone shared that view, as we read in psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.”

Job’s friends are convinced from the outset that he must have done something wrong; that God in his mercy would not permit an innocent person to suffer.

He eventually gives up on his friends and turns his frustration on God, who he is convinced has failed him too.

We often do the same when life gets difficult, and many will have memories of pleading with God in a time of crisis and feeling that “the world has been empty of his presence”.

Tomorrow’s reading tells us that Job is forced to abandon his notion of a made-to-measure God who will respond to his every whim and face a greater reality.

He never found an answer to the problem of his suffering but the gospel reading which anticipates the suffering and death of Jesus provides the Christian perspective.

Christianity does not explain suffering with a theory but rather by events, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which assure us that beyond suffering and loss there is hope and new life.

Bishop George Appleton put it this way: “Our Christian faith does not completely explain the mystery of suffering. It teaches us how to deal with suffering. It assures us that God does not will suffering, but he is in it, to redeem it and to turn it into good and blessing.”

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