I recently watched a Chinese historical drama called Red Cliff1. The movie was set in China between the end of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Three Kingdoms. A John Woo film, it was full of beautifully choreographed fight scenes, and of course, suffering and death. We all know it’s not a good Chinese drama if no one dies in the end. The protagonists were the ones who suffered, even died, for their cause.
Watching Red Cliff made me reflect on suffering. In a Chinese movie, suffering is assumed. Everyone suffers – whether emperor, bureaucrat or peasant. In our culture of privilege, we seem to think we should be exempt from suffering; we feel entitled not to suffer. We avoid people who suffer. We avoid spaces where suffering exists. And yet we can’t escape suffering and it happens when we least expect it.
The Old Testament resembles Chinese historical drama in its depiction of suffering. And the character synonymously associated with suffering is Job. After losing seven sons and three daughters and his livelihood, Job said, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21, NKJV).
Job doesn’t spend a lot of time asking God questions, instead he makes a strong statement.
Soren Kierkegaard2 writes about how Job’s response to suffering is a guide to the human race.
“In stormy times, when the foundations of existence are shaken, when each moment shudders in anxious expectation as to what is coming next, when every explanation grows dumb at the sight of the wild tumult, and when what is innermost in a person groans in despair and in ‘bitterness of soul’ screams out to heaven – then, too, Job still walks alongside the human race and vouches for the truth that there is a victory to be won, vouches for the truth that even if the individual loses his fight there is nevertheless a God.”
In the throes of suffering, Job acknowledges God.
First, he acknowledges the Lord gave. The God of heaven and earth is the giver of every good and perfect gift, according to James. The problem is when we’re suffering we tend to forget the things God has given us – our gifts, resources, life.
I was one month into my maternity leave when my employer told me they were eliminating my role. A month later, I got a call from a recruiter who had found my resume in their database for a role I had applied for six months prior. The recruiter was from Microsoft, and he asked if it was ok that the job was not what I had applied for. Of course it was! What were the chances of a recruiter singling out my resume out of the hundreds they get for a job I didn’t even apply for? The Lord gave me a job at Microsoft while I was on maternity leave.
Next, Job says, the Lord takes away. Kierkegaard notes that Job doesn’t go into why suffering happens, but does point to God as the one who takes away. This is disturbing as I like to believe only in a God who gives and call that God good. But in Job’s story, we learn it’s the same God and that his name, or character, is blessed.
Back in the dotcom glory days, I was part of a thriving e-commerce company. I had a great work environment, worked with great people. We had plans to go public. Then one day, the first round of lay-offs came. And a few months later, the entire division was laid-off, including me. The dotcom bubble had burst. The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away.
In the throes of suffering, Job blesses the name of the Lord. He doesn’t curse. Instead, he blesses the character of God.
A dozen or so years ago, we left a church due to conflict between me and the lead pastor. We had invited many of our friends at the time to the church. And like a divorce of sorts, they were forced to choose who to believe – me or the pastor. Perhaps the most painful thing for me was that some of my “friends” questioned my character. I was shocked that despite what I had done to earn their trust, they would question my character.
I realize this must be how God feels whenever I question his character, despite all that he has done. I question that he is good. I distrust who he is at his core. This must really hurt God.
In the throes of suffering, may I acknowledge the Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, and bless his character.
1 Woo, John, director. Red Cliff. China Film Group Corporation, 2008.
2Kierkegaard, Soren, translation by Pattison, George (2010). Spiritual Writings: Gift, Creation, Love, Selections from the Upbuilding Discourses. New York: HarperCollins Publishers