Today’s first reading is an epic unfolding of disaster on the house of Job. Satan suggested that Job would be quick to turn his back on God in the face of devastation. And so God gave the devil permission to cast ruin upon Job’s life, but not to touch him personally. Faced with a tidal wave of material and familial disaster, ‘Job rose and tore his gown and shaved his head. Then falling to the ground he worshipped and said:
I think we all agree that life can sometimes fall heavily upon us. Aside from major trauma – illness, bereavement, grave injustice, etc – we daily come face to face with what can feel like the limits of our coping mechanisms.
Sometimes, it just isn’t possible to deliver ourselves from the mess we get ourselves into. For example, assuring ourselves that worrying won’t add a single cubit to our lifespan won’t necessarily stop us from worrying. If it was so easy to stop worrying, then none of us would worry. No, it isn’t that easy.
By way of a recent example from the life of the writer, sitting on an airport-bound coach in heavy traffic, and becoming increasingly aware that we’ll miss our flight, is a worrying experience, not least when we know it will impact on others. We might, on some level, be able to ‘let go’, to say to ourselves: ‘OK, there’s nothing I can actually do – from this coach seat – to change the situation I’m currently in.’ But this admission probably won’t make the worrying stop.
In a faith capacity, there needs to be a self-giving into the hands of God, an act of faith that balances two important truths. Firstly, that God is on our side. Just because we’re encountering trying circumstances doesn’t mean that He has abandoned us. We give the situation to Him as a gift. We turn a situation we find very difficult into an opportunity to give something to our Creator. After all, we can’t cope with it; He can. Secondly, on an experiential level, our gift to Him – our trusting in His love amidst hardship – will not necessarily diffuse the worry we are experiencing. The essence of these two truths is that meeting place between fragile human nature and the eternal consistency of God’s love.
There’s an old saying: ‘It’s easy to have faith when everything’s going well.’ But to trust when life is difficult: this is the real test of the faith.
Humanity is skilled at beating itself up. First of all, we worry, then we make an offering of it to God; but when the worry continues, we abandon our self-giving, even our prayer, and tell ourselves that faith is useless, that we can’t pray, that nothing happens.
When, through grace, we come to the realization that God is in love with us despite the turbulence of our human condition, there is the beginning of transformation.
I think it was the Carmelite writer Ruth Burrows who wrote that, for the Christian, the opposite of imperfection is trust. What a beautiful thought to ponder: the opposite of imperfection is trust. Yes, not perfection, not an absence of failure, disaster and ‘bad luck’, but a clinging to our Creator despite all of this, and through it.
Perhaps we might remember Christ hung on the Cross, shouting out with all His might that bleak line from the Psalter: ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’ Notice that Christ, even in the midst of that bewildering and painful sense of abandonment, is still talking to the Father, still addressing Him – even if to express His dreadful isolation. There is no turning of His back, no decision to abandon prayer. Here, in the throes of the agony, a keen sense of isolation from His Father is fundamental to Christ’s prayer.
If nothing else, the notion of Jesus shouting to God about His abandonment should inspire us towards a new way of thinking. This new way is basically this: that Christ came first. He is present in our difficulties as one who has already given His life for us. We may all sometimes feel isolated from God – through whatever circumstances – but we continue speaking to Him, calling to Him, asking for help and assurance, for peace and rest – just as Jesus did from the Cross.
To return to Carmelite influence for a moment, there is a well-known prayer, not by today’s saint (St Therese of Lisieux) but by St Teresa of Avila. It reminds us that we are fleeting, especially when set against the glorious backdrop of God’s eternity:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patient endurance attains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
It is staggering to imagine that, upon receipt of the devastation of his family and possessions, ‘Job fell to ground and worshipped.’ The world can’t understand this kind of behaviour anymore. But this is the action of the person of faith. In the midst of devastation and hardship, God lives, as One who has already suffered for us and for the whole world, who knows hardship and trials, who was despised and who grieved bitterly. And, because He dwells in this part of ourselves, it is here that we begin to recognize the outline of true freedom.
‘Whoever has God lacks nothing’.