Since we celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday, I trust you all reflected adequately on blessedness this past week, so I’ve decided to preach on something altogether different from blessedness. Today, I take as my subject matter one of the most tragic, profound characters in the history of Western civilization and literature. I mean, of course, Alexander, from Judith Viorst’s classic children’s book Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
In case your memory of the story is foggy, here’s a quick recap. Alexander is having a rough go of it from the moment he wakes up. He went to bed with gum in his mouth, and he wakes up with gum in his hair. There is no window seat available in his carpool. His mom forgets to pack a dessert in his lunch. This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and it’s just getting started. After school, Alexander goes to the dentist where Dr. Fields’ finds a cavity and then afterwards he falls in the mud and starts crying because he’s muddy. Anthony calls him a crybaby and then while Alexander is punching Anthony for saying crybaby his Mom comes back and scolds him for being muddy and fighting.
And you’ll remember that all throughout this terrible day Alexander vows that he’s going to Australia—somewhere far away from his problems where everything is upside down.
Things aren’t much better when Alexander gets home in the evening. It’s as if all of the world’s misfortunes have gathered at poor Alexander’s doorstop, just waiting their turn to ruin his day. Alexander bemoans, “There were lima beans for dinner and I hate limas. There was kissing on T.V. and I hate kissing.” These injustices, along with a whole host of other injustices, pile onto Alexander relentlessly until he climbs into bed with a few final pouts.
The story concludes with Alexander saying, “It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. My mom says some days are like that…Even in Australia.”
Judith Viorst’s story introduces many children to one of our oldest and most persistent questions: How are we to make sense of suffering and misfortune? Alexander’s mom offers an answer. Some days are just like that, even in Australia. In other words, you can’t run away from your misfortunes to a place of safety where nothing hurts. These sort of days just happen sometimes.
That’s one explanation, but maybe not the most satisfying. On Amazon there are many pages of book reviews for Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and several of Judith Viorst’s reviewers were not at all pleased with her treatment of suffering or her “these things just happen” explanation. The story, they say, has no moral or resolution. It is too negative. Alexander pouts himself to sleep without even the hope of moving to Australia where everything is better.
The scripture reading for today deals with a much tidier ending to a story of suffering and loss. The Cliffnotes version of the Job story is pretty simple: God allows everything to be taken from Job. Job loses his property, family, and health—everything except his life and free-choice. But it’s okay, because at the very end of the story God gives Job back twice as much as he had before. And Job, after living long enough to meet his grandchildren, dies old and full of days.
So if you don’t like the ending to Alexander’s story—if it’s too negative—here’s a cheerier resolution to a tragic story. Job has a really rough go of it, but he gets all of his stuff back, plus some.
But you know what? I think the book of Job’s ending is an absolutely terrible ending. And a lot of our Bible scholars agree. Actually, a lot of our Bible scholars think the ending we read earlier wasn’t part of the original text at all. They think it was added later to make the overall story read differently. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I tend to agree.
There are a few problems with the ending to the book of Job, the first of which is that it’s too good to be true. Job wasn’t a real person, so the story’s ending is untrue in a narrowly-defined historical sense. But that’s not the problem. The book of Job is meant to be a poetic story about the meaning of suffering, not a history lesson. So the problem isn’t that Job’s story isn’t real. The problem is that Job’s story doesn’t communicate much to real people. God brings back Job’s health, wealth, and family, which is great—if you’re Job. What about all of the human suffering that isn’t miraculously undone at the conclusion of the story? What’s this story supposed to mean for real people right now? Job got all of his stuff back. Good for him. Now what should we all do or expect when we’re suffering?
Since most people who lose things don’t have their lost things magically restored, the conclusion of Job is out of place here in the real world, but it’s maybe even more out of place in the book of Job itself. What I mean is that, given the content of the rest of the book, it seems an awful lot like someone decided to tack on an alternate ending. It’s almost as if one of those Amazon reviewers who didn’t like the ending to Alexander’s story got a hold of the manuscript and said, “You know what? I think I’d like it better if Alexander’s horrible day all turned out to be a nightmare. Let’s have him wake up all of a sudden from the horrible, no good, very bad nightmare and then have the best day ever.” It’s possible that a group of folks got a hold of the Job story and did something similar.
And we even have a pretty good idea about who might’ve decided to fix Job’s story. Not, like, which person exactly, but we know what sort of ancient compiler of the Bible might’ve tacked the feel good ending onto the book of Job. The people who wrote and compiled the Bible had agendas just like the rest of us, and this is all part of an ancient, high-stakes theological debate.
The Bible has a couple of competing perspectives on the meaning of blessedness and suffering, and the book of Job is part of the debate. In one corner, we have the Deuteronomists. A Deuteronomist is someone who believes—in accordance with the book of Deuteronomy—that God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked. This is a really good perspective to have if you’re a materially prosperous person who also needs to feel that your wealth must be indicative of personal moral value and divine favor. Ben Franklin, the man who said that “God helps those who help themselves,” is one of our most famous Deuteronomists. And if you want to claim the reverse side of the Deuteronomist coin—that poor or sick people are being punished for their immorality—if you want to claim that, then there will always be somewhere a merry band of Deuteronomists ready to welcome you into their ranks. Anytime you hear someone try to lecture poor people into prosperity through nicer morality, you are in the presence of a Deuteronomist. This is one Old Testament perspective that’s still alive and kicking.
And then opposite the Deuteronomists we have those who tend to identify more with the book of Ecclesiastes. Most people know the insights of Ecclesiastes second-hand from an old #1 Billboard hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” which was recorded by The Byrds in 1965. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” And so on.
So here are two clear-cut, oppositional perspectives. The Deuteronomists saying that we suffer because of unrighteousness, and the book of Ecclesiastes saying that misfortune is just part of what it means to be human.
Then there’s the book of Job, which both sides want to claim. It’s contested material. Job is completely blameless, and Job is blessed. But then, all of a sudden, Job’s blessings quickly disappear right before his eyes. Job doesn’t know the reason, but what’s happened is that God was approached by a character called the Adversary. The Adversary says to God, “The only reason Job is so pious is that he’s blessed. If those blessings were taken away from him, Job would curse you.” And so God gives the Adversary permission to afflict Job, and The Adversary starts taking Job’s health, family, wealth, his everything.
And then for the next 35 or so chapters, Job is trying to figure out what’s going on. Four of his friends show up, and they are all committed Deuteronomists. They’re all trying to get Job to confess his sins, because they think that he must’ve done something wrong to warrant such severe punishment. Job keeps claiming that he’s innocent, but Job is also a bit of a Deuteronomist. He asks at one point, “Does not calamity befall the unrighteous, and disaster the workers of iniquity?” So Job is thinking that maybe he committed some sin or injustice unknowingly, and he starts making confessions to God. He’s wearing sackcloth and ashes as he’s doing penance.
God has listened patiently as Job and his friend’s speechify about the nature of God and the meaning of Job’s suffering. Apparently having heard enough, God gives a speech of God’s own to set all of these Deuteronomists straight. You’ll notice that everyone in this story has assumed that God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked. Job assumes it, The Adversary assumes it, Job’s friends and Job’s wife assume it. Everyone except for God assumes that God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked. God never affirms that Job is blessed because Job is righteous. Everyone else does that. When God speaks, God says, basically, “Who are ya’ll to think that you know the mind and purposes of God?” Job is challenged by God with a serious of sarcastic questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”
I like this sarcastic, sovereign and unknowable God better than the Deuteronomist God that Job’s friends were imagining. Honestly, I think it sounds a bit ridiculous if we follow some of our ideas about God and suffering to their logical conclusion. For some reason, I’m always hearing the best, most sincere God-talk from people other than pastors and theologians. A few days ago, I listened to Tig Novaro’s latest comedy album, which deals—in part—with the experience of tragedy and ideas about God. Novaro reminds us that The Good Lord giveth, and the Good Lord taketh away. But sometimes, she says, The Good Lord just keeps taketh and taketh-ing. That had been her experience. In the course of about 2 months, Ms. Novaro had a life-threatening bacterial infection, came down with pneumonia, lost her mother in a tragic accident, went through a breakup, and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Job may have had it easy. But the good thing, Tig Novaro says, is that God will never give you more than you can handle. She goes on to imagine a conversation between God and the angels. God is looking at all of Tig’s immense suffering and saying, “You know, I think she can handle a little bit more.” The Angels are mortified at hearing this. They say, “No, God, that’s crazy! What are you thinking?!” God says, “No…just trust me. She can handle it.”
And then Ms. Novaro concludes the bit by saying, “God is insane…if [God is] there at all.”
I think there’s something to that sentiment. What are we to make of a God who actively presides over and approves of every misfortune, tragedy, and illness? Is anyone at all attracted to a God who punishes the wicked with sickness or environmental disasters? Or to a God with tornadoes for fingers and hurricane coughing fits? That God sounds insane, or—at the very least—terrifying.
The book of Job, in the end, rejects the notion of a transactional God who trades blessings for righteousness and curses for wickedness. After God scolds Job for having the gall to assume that his own knowledge is God’s knowledge, Job gets it right and God vindicates Job. These are the last words of Job, as recorded in the 42nd chapter:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, and I will speak; ‘I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
I normally try not to bore people with the niceties of the Bible’s original language, but there’s something at the end of Job’s little speech that’s too important to pass up. Most translations read “I repent in dust and ashes,” but the Hebrew here is really ambiguous. A better translation may be “I repent of dust and ashes” or “I repent concerning dust and ashes.” In other words, Job repents from repentance. He turns away from his Deuteronomist, transactional notion of God. Now he’s going to live his life with the knowledge that misfortunes aren’t punishments.
And God backs him up. God tells Job’s staunchly Deuteronomist friends, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So when we consider God’s speech towards the end of the book, along with Job’s rejection of repentance and God’s rebuke of Job’s Deuteronomist friends, it seems that the book’s fairy-tale, happy ending was probably added on later in an attempt to give the book of Job a Deuteronomist spin. The way I read it, though, the authors of the book of Job are sharply rejecting the notion that God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked.
We don’t know what ultimately happens to Job. Maybe he lives to be old and full of days. Or maybe not. The authors didn’t mean to tell us. What we do know is that Job brushes the dust and ashes off of himself and gets back to living his life. He’s no longer doing penance or trying to figure out why God is punishing him.
The stories of Alexander and Job contain two lessons about suffering. They were written thousands of years apart but they’re equally relevant. Alexander teaches us that some days are terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad. No one can escape those days, not even by moving to Australia. The book of Job teaches that suffering is not divine punishment. Dust, ashes, and repentance won’t appease an angry deity, because God isn’t punishing us in the first place.
For Christians, there’s one more connection to make between God and suffering. The God we know through Jesus Christ suffers all the pains of humanity. There’s no suffering or misfortune too tragic for the presence of God. Always, always God is with us in our tragedy. But God doesn’t suffer passively or helplessly, and God knows that suffering for suffering’s sake is not redemptive. Jesus Christ suffers for the sake of God’s righteousness in the world, and when the work of God through Christ is finished with the world, the causes and implements of suffering will have been abolished. Until then, we can brush the dust and ashes off of ourselves and change out of our sackcloth, because no one is being punished. Our God loves everyone, even snot-nosed, pouty little kids like Alexander. And our God is working to redeem all of the world’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things.