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The Book of Job and the Question of Suffering (Part 2)

Today, we continue our reflections on the book of Job.
What the book of Job does NOT do for us: 
1. It does not answer the question as to 'why' there is suffering in the world today. Theodicy (the search for the origin and nature of suffering and evil) remains an unsolved mystery. Suffering is not merely a theological or philosophical problem, it is a human problem that no one is immune to, though some people suffer more than others. Yes, God does intend our good (Romans 8:28) but that doesn't mean that we will always figure out how our experiences benefit us (Ecclesiastes 6:12) and our "good" cannot be always defined by our comfort or our success.
C.S. Lewis once said, "Pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." True, suffering and pain can serve to draw our attention to God, to rely on him and perhaps to engage in self-evaluation. However, we should be cautious to suggest that suffering is always to be viewed as God's instrument for accomplishing any of those goals. We cannot know or assume that there are reasons for our suffering though God does have purposes, though we may never know them fully. 
2. It does not validate the long-held ‘retribution principle’ which states that the righteous will always prosper and the wicked will always suffer. In Israelite theology, this principle was integral to the belief in God's justice. Since God is just, they believed that he would always uphold this principle. This also led to the belief that if a person prospered, they must be righteous (i.e. favored by God) and those who suffer must be wicked (i.e. experiencing the judgment of God). However, the retribution principle is too simplistic. Yes, it serves as the basis for general trends in human experience (as presented in the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Psalms and Proverbs) but there are no guarantees and there are always exceptions (Job being a prime example). A person’s sinfulness cannot be inferred when one is suffering nor can a person’s goodness be inferred when one is prospering.  
Jesus confronted the retribution principle on two specific occasions. A man born blind was seen by the disciples as caused by sin (John 9:1-3). Jesus shifted their focus from causes (actions in the past) to purpose (God's ongoing plan), offering an expanded theology. As in the book of Job, no explanation for the suffering was given, possible or necessary. More important is the need to trust God's wisdom and to seek out his purpose.  
In Luke 13:1-5, the issue concerns whether those who have died in recent tragedies should be considered to have deserved their death. Again, Jesus turns the attention away from the cause and even states that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between sin and punishment. As an alternative, Jesus tells his audience to view the incident as a warning. Once again, as in John 9, he refuses to engage the question of cause and concentrates instead on purpose.  
3. Job is not a perfect model of how to respond to suffering. Yes, he never cursed God and he persevered through his trials (James 5:11). He also had a more accurate understanding of God than his friends but he did not have a totally clear perspective on his situation nor a full understanding of the nature of God and his ways, any more than we do today.
4. Although God is the central subject of this book (not Job, his friends or the Challenger), it does not fully explain how God is involved in his world. We have to continually maintain the tension of believing that God is not distant (as in deism) nor does he micromanage everything that occurs in our daily lives. There really is no language adequate enough to describe God’s involvement or lack of involvement and simplistic generalisations can lead to flawed theology. John Walton uses the example of gravity: it was created by God from the beginning through his wisdom but each expression of gravity is not necessarily 'caused' by God though it does not operate without him. In the same way, God’s activity is beyond our comprehension and powers of explanation. 

The Book of Job and the Question of Suffering (Part 1)

Over the last few months, I have been slowly reading through the book of Job in The Message Bible translation, reflecting on it, and also reading John Walton's excellent commentary on Job in the NIV Application Commentary series, as well as Tremper Longman III's book on Job in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms.  
The book of Job is a 'classic' in ancient literature and one of the most intriguing books in the Bible. It outlines the story of a man named Job who was one of the wealthiest people in the ancient Near East. Suddenly, a series of tragedies flood into his life, resulting in the loss of his herds and flocks, the death of all of his children, and finally a severe skin disease of some sort afflicts Job himself.
The prologue to the story (Job 1-2) shows us some behind the scenes dialogue between God and his divine council, one of whom is called 'the Satan', or better 'the Challenger' (though he does nothing evil in this particular story). God's policies for running the world are under debate and the Challenger states that Job only serves God because of the blessing he has experienced. God disagrees and so the challenge begins.  
Job is unaware of any of this dialogue and responds to his tragedies with appropriate grief and mourning (Job 3, 29-31). Three of his friends soon gather and they mourn with him in silence for seven days. Finally, they begin to speak and so begins the dialogues and debates that make up most of the book (Job 4-27). Each of the friends draws upon a variety of sources, including reason (logic), life experience, tradition and spiritual experiences, to try to solve Job’s problem of suffering. After an intriguing poem or hymn about wisdom (Job 28), another friend, Elihu, appears and adds his two cents worth to the dialogue (Job 32-37). He is a raging, young man, directing his passionate speech towards Job because of his apparent self-righteous attitude and towards the friends for their philosophical incompetence. He defends God's justice and views himself as speaking on behalf of God. 
Despite the suggestion from his friends that his suffering is a result of his sin and arrogance, Job continues to declare his innocence (not that he is sinless) and wants a response from God. As in a court of law, if Job is guilty, he expects God himself to show up and prove this.  
Finally, God does show up (Job 38-41). Speaking from the midst of a storm, he rebukes the friends for their flawed thinking about God and how he runs his world. But he doesn't answer any of Job’s questions. Instead, he declares his power and the wisdom of his creation. Job's response to God's first speech is one of awed silence (Job 40:3-5). God speaks again, highlighting two unfathomable creatures - Behemoth and Leviathan. Job's response to God's second speech is one of humility and repentance (Job 42:1-6). He distinguishes between a second-hand experience of God ("my ears had heard") and first-hand experience ("now my eyes have seen"). As a result, he is ashamed of his presumption in challenging God's ways and he regrets his previous statements, his distorted characterization of God, his presumptuous belief in his own understanding, and his arrogant challenges.  
The epilogue then details the repentance of Job’s friends (42:7-9) and the restoration of Job to a place of prosperity (Job 42:10-16). 
We don't know the author of Job (literary works in the ancient world were often anonymous) or it's date of composition. Most likely it is from the patriarchal period, due to the absence of any reference to covenant or law (although this is understandable as Job was not an Israelite; he was from the land of Uz - 1:1). We also don't know whether the book is based on historical events (a real person named Job) or whether it is purely a literary construction - a 'thought experiment'. This does not affect our interpretation of the book, nor its authority and inspiration as sacred text. Most scholars believe that Job was a real historical person who was righteous and suffered greatly. The story of Job still speaks to us today in profound ways.  

Weight Loss Tips

I'm not a doctor nor am I an expert on weight loss, by any means. However, I do know what it is to be skinny and I do know what it is to be overweight. I definitely prefer the former to the latter.
I'll never forget one day when I was carrying in a bag of oranges from the car after a grocery shop with my wife, Nicole. She noted that that one bag of oranges weighed 3 kilograms. Being overweight just 3 kgs is like carrying that bag of oranges around ... all the time. It saps your energy and makes you feel more tired. Of course, if you are overweight by 6 kgs or 9 kgs, well that's just a lot more oranges you're taking for a ride ... everywhere you go.
I know the challenges of trying to lose weight. Sometimes I feel like I almost need to starve myself in order to lose weight and even when I do, one bad day puts me right back to where I was again. It can be so frustrating and so discouraging. I feel terrible being overweight and I don't like the flab around my stomach, which looks bad and is a health hazard for me. I really want to change but I often struggle to find the discipline to do so.
Losing weight takes much more than jumping into some new fad diet. After all, diets only work while you are on the actual diet. We need more holistic lifestyle changes. Shedding those extra kilos takes more than regularly repeating a few motivational mantras such as, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!". It also takes a lot more than mere willpower, something we all have in limited supply. That's why our discipline often slackens by day's end due to something called 'self-control depletion' (our use of will power to resist temptation). 
For me, it is all about habits - developing small healthy habits every day. This creates progress over time and assists me in reducing my weight level and then keeping it off. Some form of structure or a set of daily routines helps to eliminate the need for recurring decisions.
Here are my TOP 10 habits of behavior and/or thinking for successful weight loss:
  1. Think ahead about your meals for any given day. Where are you eating and with who and what? As you get older you don't need as much food. So plan your meals and food quantities ahead of time. Three bigs meals a day aren't going to help you lose weight. Choose to eat smaller portions of food. Select an appetizer or entree rather than a main. Yes, smaller plates do help you to eat less food.
  2. Eat more slowly. Be the last person to start eating and the last to finish. That way your body gets a chance to know it's full. You probably won't go back for seconds! Eat only until you are 80% full. This slows down the body's metabolism.
  3. Have more home-cooked meals from fresh ingredients. Re-discover the joy of cooking. Learn to eat different types of food too. Prepare big batches and freeze the leftovers. 
  4. Eat as much natural food as possible - fruit and vegetables (prevents over-eating), seeds and nuts, beans and legumes, etc. It's the easiest way to lose weight. It is often neither laziness nor over-eating that makes us fat: it is what we eat. That's why exercising more and eating less will not necessarily prevent us from being overweight.
  5. Avoid processed foods as much as possible (which are full of sugar, salt, and fat). The fast-food industry has a dark side. Learn to not trust your taste buds. Beware of artificial flavoring.
  6. Reduce your intake of carbohydrates. This includes pasta, potatoes, noodles, rice, bread, desserts, and sweets or chocolates. Too many carbs make us fat ... and sick.
  7. Beware of sugar, which is a real killer, working like a drug that leads to addiction.
  8. Drink lots of water - at least 4 glasses a day.
  9. Be physically active - walk, swim, hike. Get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. 
  10. Fast occasionally. It's good for your metabolism. See this excellent article on the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Make modest, incremental changes rather than big, sweeping ones. Make tradeoffs. Remember, the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady always wins the race. The heavier you are, the more difficult it is to lose weight because you always feel much hungrier. Become aware of the triggers that influence your behavioral goals. Consider the people and situations that influence whether you achieve your goals or not. Feedback teaches us to see our environment as a triggering mechanism. Review every day and implement your learnings the following day. When you drift, simply get back on track. Get some help if you need too. See a doctor, join a gym or find a coach. Accountability and support from others are extremely helpful.
If you are keen to do a little extra homework, I have also found these resources very helpful:
Here's to long life and a healthier you!
P.S. See also yesterday's BLOG post Weight Loss Musings.

Weight Loss Musings

As a teenager, I was as skinny as a rake. Even my bones stuck out of my shoulders. This often led to questions or laughs from both friends and strangers anytime I took my shirt off, like when swimming.
I could also eat like a horse. My dad used to jokingly say that if you were looking for the 'bottomless pit', I was it. I remember never being full. I could eat and eat endlessly. And did I mention that I was skinny?
We lived in Portland, Oregon at the time and there was this restaurant called Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor that everyone loved to go to. The biggest item on the menu was 'The Pig Trough'. It was a huge ice cream sundae with too many scoops of ice cream to count, covered with all the sugary goodies - whipped cream, flavored syrup, nuts, etc, etc. It was so big that IF you could eat it all, the restaurant staff would come around with a microphone and a pounding bass drum (the marching band type) and announce your achievement to the entire restaurant, culminated by pinning a big prize ribbon on you that said, "I made a pig of myself at Farrell's." Good fun.
Well, after my high school graduation, a bunch of friends and I went to Farrell's. I am a bit ashamed to admit this ... but my friend, Steve, and I, actually finished off TWO pig troughs that night ... each! Needless to say, my stomach was a little queasy night, but I slept it off and life went on. And did I mention that I was skinny?
Fast forward to age 40 - my appetite hadn't changed much but I could eat and actually be full. And I wasn't skinny anymore. Since that time, shock horror, I have struggled off and on with this thing called weight loss. At age 55, I weigh myself pretty much every day and there are often groans as I realise I've put on another few kilos. How annoying!
I am currently reading the best-selling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harai. I was shocked to learn the following:
  • Overeating is now a worse problem than famine in our world. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010, famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
  • Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries. For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.
  • In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
These facts are quite alarming and should definitely grab our attention. After all, the best gift you can give your family and loved ones is living a long life - staying around as long as you can. None of us can guarantee a long life but we can choose to develop some healthy habits that at least make that a greater possibility.

A Bigger World

I hope you enjoyed John O'Donohoe's poem,  For A New Beginning.

It really resonated with me, mainly because of the changes and transitions that Nicole and I have navigated over these last few years. Back in October 2015, I was at Phillip Island with some pastors on a two-day retreat. Early one morning I went for a walk on the beach and down to an area where there is a heap of rock pools. I took the photo below on my iPhone.


You can see in the foreground this beautiful rock pool which is a complete eco-system, teeming with life.  For any fish or marine life in there, that is their entire world - and it is a BIG world to them. But an outside perspective helps you to see that there are other rockpools, some of them smaller and some of them even bigger. Then if you dare to look right to the horizon, you will see the ocean. Now there's an even bigger world!

Each of us lives in a context, an environment, a rock pool if you will. We need to find a sense of 'home' there and be rooted and faithful to that world in which God has placed us. But at times, God calls us to leave our comfort zone and move to other places - to another world.

All of these thoughts and insights as I stood on the shore that morning were part of the shaping of my own journey and eventually led to me deciding to leave the world I had been a part of for over 30 years.

That day, as I contemplated all of this, I wrote the following poem - A Bigger World

Seems so big
Everything that is
My world

Seasons come
Seasons go
It's all I know

Yet there's more
So much more
Small world

Stay and shrink
Leave and grow
I don't know

Called to stay?
Or chase my curiosity?
Big decisions

Time to leave?
Or stay the course?
Hard to know

New perspective
Larger horizons
The Truman Show

Fear or faith?
Stay or change?
The Village

New worlds call
Adventure beckons
Freedom song

Out of the box
Break the mold
It will be different

Leap of faith
Faith of leap
Liminal places

Let it go
Don't hold on
Opportunity knocks

Necessary endings
Possible beginnings
Transition time

Out of the cocoon
From dark to light

God's world
Bigger world
My world

For a New Beginning


My wife, Nicole, just returned from a week's Silent Retreat on the beautiful Bellarine Penisula in Victoria. The dogs (we have two - Oscar, the kindest labrador you've ever met, and Nikki, the naughtiest, yet smartest pugalier ever to enter the world) and I managed to survive while Nicole was away. In fact, we had a lot of fun and I enjoyed the time to work in the garden, watch some sport, hone my cooking skills, read a lot, and do a heap of office tasks and projects. 

While away, Nicole sent me this poem by Irish poet, author and priest John O'Donohue called "For a New Beginning". It really captures our personal journey at this stage in the story of our life and was therefore very meaningful to me. I hope it resonates with you in some way too.

Enjoy ...

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time, it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Next: A Bigger World