For a few weeks now, we’ve been reading the Book of Job as our lesson from the Old Testament. It’s the story of a prosperous, good man in the prime of his life, with a family and a large farm, and because the devil wants to tempt him, and talks God into going along with this plan, everything is taken away—Job loses it all. Hearing about the terrible things that happened to him, it doesn’t seem like the kind of book that could be described as a love story. But it is.
In a way, it’s like the story of the Princess Bride—you may have seen the fabulous movie, or read the even more wonderful book. It’s a fairy tale. Young Westley is a poor farm boy, who loves the beautiful Buttercup. She lives on the farm and generally makes his life miserable, telling him what to do from dawn to dusk. All Westley would say to her, when she was rude to him was, “as you wish.” He goes off to make his fortune, and loses everything. He is kidnapped by the Dread Pirate Roberts and his gang, who make him work for them and threaten him with death every morning. He is separated from his beloved Buttercup, who, in fact, becomes engaged to Prince Humperdink. In these desperate circumstances, when the pirate captain is about to put him to the sword, Westley only asks humbly, “please, I need to live.” Why, asks the cynical pirate? True love, replies our young hero. Even when, in disguise and unrecognized, Westley is pushed off a cliff by Buttercup, he simply says again, “as you wish.” That’s when she realizes it’s him, and throws herself off the cliff, too. As you can see, it’s just like the story of Job.
The story of Job is so hard to read; it’s one that resonates with us so profoundly. It speaks to us of the randomness of loss. Sometimes when faced with the onslaught of illness, or work we depend on being taken from us, or the death of a person we love or death, plucking people from the world when they should still be here, we can feel as if someone were playing with us. How else can we explain our suffering, or that of others? And then there are the different ways in which we can respond to life’s tragedies and misfortunes; our responses can be as harmful as the events themselves. Most of the Book of Job is not a description of what happens to him—that only takes a few lines. The majority of the text is a series of conversations between Job and his friends about what has happened, and why. It goes the way it so often does, when we confront our fears—cancer or dementia, failure, violence, betrayal. Trying to be helpful, the friends come up with interpretations that force Job’s losses into some meaningful shape, to ease his pain, and perhaps their own anxiety. You caused this when…, you deserved this because…, you’ll do better if you just… Don’t those little voices whisper in our own minds, when something happens to someone we know, even if we don’t say them out loud—we’ll I’m safe because I eat better than she does, or I exercise, or I would never act like that, thank goodness my family isn’t like theirs. We need to shore up our own sense of security by explaining why it happened to them, why it won’t happen to us. But none of their pat explanations is enough for Job, and he insists, with terrifying honesty, on the injustice of what he’s suffering. He rejects their rationalizations and demands an explanation from God, the only one who could give it. Are we afraid, to look the unfairness of the world in the face? To admit the frank horror of life—even of natural processes, aging, the vicissitudes of love, the passage of time, much less the evils we do to each other on purpose. To be alive, to understand something about how the world is for people, is to be angry, at this condition we find ourselves in. Do we doubt, or give up on God, when faced with the unanswerable questions of suffering and evil? Or do we allow anger to have its time, trusting that God can take it?
At different times in our lives we can understand different things, make sense of things differently. Sometimes we are Job getting crushed by life. Sometimes we are looking back, reflecting on our ignorance or confusion, with new insight. We may look back and despise our former selves, wish we could have been otherwise, been the right person for that time or for those people, made the right choice. We long for fairness, for conditions we could try to live up to, and hold other people to, even hold God to. We are limited, and small of mind and spirit. We would settle for a conditional love, if it would be something we can count on. That is what we find ourselves doing in life, if we don’t believe we’re worth much. An “I’ll love you if,” is good enough, is all we can manage. But God is so much more than that. Love that doles itself out according to conditions is not love, it’s a way to control. And God is not interested in controlling us; God doesn’t need to. God’s love sets us free.
At the end of Job’s story comes his final conversation, with God. God’s response to him is not, you deserved it or there was a reason, but, I am wild, unknowable, not on a scale you can comprehend. Don’t try to explain or control me. We might want, or think we want, a conditional relationship with God, but we don’t get that. What we get is unconditional. What we get, is Westley and Buttercup—a comedy, a tragedy, a fairy tale. We get a God who jumps off a cliff for us. We get a God who acts incomprehensibly, always offering that “as you wish,” and listening to see if we might say it back. What we get is true love. As Job says, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
As Westley says: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn’t you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well…you were dead.
Westley: Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.
Hear this now: I will always come for you.
Buttercup: But how can you be sure?
Westley: This is true love-you think this happens every day?