Shift Happens: Finding God in Suffering

Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Job 23:1-9, 16-17

John 9:1-12

In my home state California, after an earthquake, the old-timers often say “shift happens” to comfort – or tease – frightened newcomers to the state. Everything seems stable until the tectonic plates shift, and your life is turned upside down.  “Shift happens” is an apt description happens to what happens to the legendary Job, the man who loses everything in the space of a few days.

The Book of Job is an ancient tale from the Middle East.  You can find versions of it among the Babylonians and Assyrians, and of course, it addresses a reality that all mortals must face either directly or indirectly, the unexpected tragedies that turn our lives outside down and annihilate our sense of protection, privilege and piety.

Job may have not have been an historical figure, but he is every woman and every man, who comes home with a diagnosis that shakes you to the core, leaves a child or parent at the graveyard, loses everything you have worked for through the evil machinations of bankers and politicians, or has done everything by the book and finds him or herself unemployed or publicly humiliated. It is not just the question of “why bad things happen to good people?” but the reality that “shift happens,” that no gets out alive, that grief abounds, and that our children live in relative peace and security while seventy million refugees live in poverty and uncertainty.

Often, I ask myself, “Why me?”  But, for different reasons than you might expect.  I ask “Why have I – a person who has faced a child’s cancer, death, unexpected and unjust professional losses – nevertheless lived a healthy, happy, affluent, and privileged life? Why have I been able to bounce back while others have collapsed in similar situations?  Why was I born in America, the child of parents who valued education and provided a secure home, where my son could receive the best medical care, and I could go to college, pursue my dreams, and find myself in a place of beauty, doing work I love with people I love?  I’m no better than the sixty year old – if he makes it that far – in the Sudan or Myanmar or the sixty year old woman who came to the church last week seeking a food card to buy groceries or the child crossing our border to avoid gang violence or the parent who must see her child wasting away from malnutrition.  I have no moral or spiritual advantage, even if – as our Hindu and new age friends assert with the theory of reincarnation – I did good things in my previous life.”

The Book of Job challenges our sense of privilege and our vision of God. According to the story, there was a meeting in heaven where God celebrates his faithful servant Job.  Job is pious and faithful, the best of mortals, God boasts.  Ha-satan, the devil’s advocate, the district attorney, says Job’s only doing it because of his good fortune.  Take everything away from him, and he will renounce you, Ha-satan challenges.  And, so God allows Ha-satan to take away Job’s children, wealth, place in society, and health. Once respected, he’s now a nobody and, worse than that, his friends assume that his loss of status is due to some moral lapse on his part.

Now, I see Job as a legend, a myth describing the human condition, and not a literal fact; but the story is still true – the meeting in heaven describes the reality that many things happen to us without warning -we don’t plan on them nor do we deserve them.  We look for a calculus of good and evil, of who is guilty and who is righteous, and can’t find one.

No one has fully answered the problem of evil, though there are lots of explanations people propose, such as –

  • You reap what you sow, the doctrine of karma, or acts-consequences– you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, because of what you’ve done in this or a previous life. This was the viewpoint of Job’s companions and perhaps Job himself: the righteous are healthy, wealthy, and wise; while the immoral suffer the slings and arrows of fate.
  • It’s God’s will – God determines who lives and who dies; who gets cancer and who’s scot free; which plane goes down and which doesn’t; which car slides off the road and which makes it safely home.
  • God is punishing us for some misdeed– Sin requires punishment, even if the punishment is greater than the crime.
  • God is teaching us a lesson or giving us trials to build character.
  • God is refining our spiritual lives, never giving us more than we can handle.
  • Evil is part of a larger picture –the tapestry of life must include light and dark, suffering and joy.
  • Or, the secular vision, stuff simply happens; there is no rhyme or reason; it is pure accident.

Now, I don’t believe any of these explanations are either adequate or entirely helpful – they lay the blame for evil either as an act of God – but who can trust an arbitrary God, a Zeus whose thunderbolts strike indiscriminately – or divine punishment, but should that include our children, too? or our own decisions – but what happens to us hurts our innocent children and friends, who’ve done nothing wrong.

Job struggles with the suffering he experiences: he wants to be faithful, but God seems absent; God is either silent or uncaring; or treats us as pawns in God’s game without value or rights.  Job still believes in God, even as his vision of a just rewards-punishments God’s collapses.  Like Jesus, Job the best of mortals, cries out “why have you forsaken me?”

Listen to Job –

If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!

Eli Weisel, who survived Auschwitz, describes an exchange that occurred as he watched a young man hung, gasping for air, on the gallows.  A voice cried out, “Where is God?”  Another voice replied, “Hanging on the gallows.”

I believe God did not create the Holocaust, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or

hurricanes or forest fires. Some of these events are accidental; others occur as a result of human decisions. But, God is with us, on the cross, feeling our pain and celebrating our joy.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for treason by Hitler’s henchman asserted, “Only a suffering God can help.”

Jesus was once asked in regard to a sight impaired man.

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” After asserting that “neither the boy or his parents sinned sin to cause his illness,” Jesus responded by healing his blindness. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but get to work – work while there is light.”

We may not be able to solve the problem of evil.  We may not decipher the mystery of pain, but we can reach out in love to those who suffer.  Perhaps the only answer to the pain of others is love, and not intellectual gymnastics – a caring voice, a gentle touch, a willingness to sacrifice for the earth and its peoples.

When we love, we become God’s companions; God’s light shines in us, casting out the darkness, and reminding us that we are never alone.  In the midst unexpected and undeserved pain, our willingness to share God’s love heals and overcomes, giving us hope to face our pain and ease the pain of others.


Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, writer, and spiritual guide. He is an author of over forty five books, including “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” “A Month with a Mystic: Discovering a God-filled World,” “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”