If any Bible story speaks to people with chronic illness and other long-term miseries, it’s got to be the Book of Job. Job’s story is about the healing power of acceptance. As presented in Job, the idea of “God” might throw you off, because God doesn’t come off looking so good. But if you substitute “the World” or “Life,” for “God,” this story will sound familiar to most readers of this blog.
Job had it all. He was rich, with a loving wife, good children and grandchildren. I’m not sure how old he was, but he still looked good. He was like God’s poster child, the kind of guy who made all the work of Creation worthwhile. (“See Job over there? THAT’S what I was trying to do.”) He was faithful, going to temple, sacrificing animals as prescribed, thanking God for all his blessings, never missing a chance to praise Him. Everybody loved Job; he was famous for dealing fairly in business and helping the poor.
Then, as part of a bet between God and Satan, Job loses his herds, his children, his servants, everything except his home and his wife, in a single day. That doesn’t shake his faith. He doesn’t even take time to grieve. But as the test continues, Job’s health breaks down.
This is where the story starts to relate to people like us. I’m thinking most of us were never big shots like Job, but at this point, he becomes just another cripple. His skin is covered with painful, itchy sores. His energy is gone. All he can do is lie around scratching and putting on various ointments and herbs, which don’t make him feel any better.
He starts wailing, “Curse the day that I was born,” he says. “Why did I not die at birth? “Sighs are my food, and groans my drink,” “Just let me die,” etc. etc. He wasn’t exactly depressed, but he was grieving for his body in a way he never did for his children or his wealth.
Job’s friends and neighbors come to him and say, “Look, man, we’re really sorry for your pain. But you must have done something wrong to cause you to be punished in this way.”
Starting to sound familiar? You must have done something – did you eat the wrong foods, think the wrong thoughts, not exercise enough, or worry too much, or use drugs, or sleep around, or this, or that, or the other thing? It must have been something!
The friends believe good is always rewarded and evil always punished. Their prescription is more prayer, confession and repentance, but Job insists he has prayed enough and has done nothing wrong. He still believes in God, but he wants to know why this is happening to him.
He challenges God to come and explain what’s going on. To everyone’s astonishment, God actually shows up. But instead of answering Job, he says, “Who are you to ask me anything? Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Do you make the rain or keep the sea in its bed? Is it you who gave the horse his strength, or set the zebra free?”
God goes on for dozens of beautiful, poetic verses about how amazing the world is and how little Job has to do with it. In the modern translation I’ve been reading, it sounds almost as though God had an IMAX video playing scenes of mountains, whales, storms to illustrate his message.
And finally Job gets it. He says that he had known how insignificant he was in an intellectual sense, but now he could see and feel how small he is and how great God (the World) is, and he can accept it. He sees that the World is too big and goes too deep to understand. For him to wonder why he was sick was like an ant wondering why a human had just stepped on him in the grass and crushed his thorax. There is no “why,” at least no why we can understand. Job understands this, and he starts to heal.
According to the translator, Job’s change of heart wasn’t about “submitting to God.” He says that’s a mis-translation. Job had already submitted, but that wasn’t enough. Religions are always trying to get you to submit. The word “Islam,” for one, means “submission.” But submission implies that there are orders and pathways to be followed, rules you must obey. These rules are made by men, mostly to suppress women and other men. Acceptance isn’t about following rules; it’s about embracing the world as it is and loving life as best you can. It’s about not taking too much credit for successes and not beating ourselves up when things go wrong. It’s realizing that social conditions and Nature have a lot more to do with our outcomes than we do.
I’m not talking about accepting everything people do to each other and to other living things. Maybe some of that can be changed. I think it’s worthy to try to protect people, animals and plants, and help them however we can. I also believe that we should do whatever we can for ourselves, which is why I write about self-care. But it helps to understand how little we can actually do and how far beyond our understanding most of it is. Then we can get back to living, healing, and loving each other.