Trust in Adversity

“Trust in Adversity,” Bob Ryder

“No one ever said life is fair.” (author unknown)
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” (author unknown)
“Tough times don’t last.  Tough people do.” Robert Schuller
“Good things come to those who wait.” (author unknown)
“You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” Rolling Stones
“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet’ Helen Keller

Invite other memorable sayings / adages / proverbs / clichés, etc. on the theme of fairness, justice, adversity, perseverance, etc.

Last week Susan helped us begin exploring the theme for our current reflection series “What does it mean to be a people of trust?”  It’s a worthy subject, and I’m grateful it’s posed as a question rather than purporting to offer an answer, as we might expect were the series entitled, “What it means to be a people of trust.” I’m not sure I’d have predicted it, but it turns out trust is a challenging subject.  Trust implies living up to an expected standard of behavior in the context of a relationship.  “I trust you to do this.  You can trust me to do that.”  Or it might imply non-action, “We can trust one another NOT to do this or do that.”  Either way, that’s not a complicated concept in relationships between people, difficult though it may be to live up to. But what standards of behavior are we to expect between us temporal / mortal beings and the sacred mystery, the very foundation of existence, the source of reality?  How does trust figure into our relationship with the unnamable, the inconceivable?

A lot of faith tradition is dedicated to the idea that we can and should trust the sacred (however we conceive of it) to provide for our needs, protect us from harm, restore us from illness and other tragedies.  Iconic scripture passages make very poetic and specific promises.

Isaiah 40:28-31
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Indeed, we’re told that the sacred can be trusted even when we for our part are not trustworthy. Israel fails to live up to its covenant with the sacred again and again.  The disciples fall asleep during their watch as Jesus’ prays in Gethsemane awaiting his arrest. Peter denies Jesus three times.  Yet again and again the sacred is merciful, restoring people to wholeness and the anticipation of a desirable future. We can trust in the sacred to be good to us even when we ourselves are not good – so we would hope and so we’re told.

Attractive as promises and stories like that may be, I’m permanently past being able to hear them in a way that causes me to expect that all will be well, be it in my own experience or in the grand scheme of things. I don’t trust the sacred to ensure a generally safe and pleasant sojourn through life.  We know too much of natural history, in which weather and tectonic plates go through their motions indifferent to the lives of plants and animals including we humans.  We know too much of human history in which the rich and powerful subjugate the poor, and Presidents throw rolls of paper towels.  We all know of those who experience undeserved suffering and never recover or get relief.  (Insert your own examples here.)  If we could trust that “waiting on the Lord” would always result in having our strength renewed and mounting up on wings like eagles, that would be amazing.  Who wouldn’t be devoutly religious if that were the way of things?  But that just doesn’t match our observations or our experience.  We see the wicked prosper.  We see the innocent suffer.  I knew I had my work cut out for me leading our thinking this morning.  I read a draft of my manuscript to Susan last night and she responded, “I’m glad you’re doing this one.” What does it mean to be a people of trust in the midst of adversity?  Good question.

To prompt my thinking, I listened to Stephen Mitchel’s translation of the Book of Job.  I recommend it to you – sort of.  It is fascinating.  It is gripping.  It is not light-hearted or comforting.  It’s not known who wrote the book, when, or for what kind of audience.  I wonder if Stephen King maybe found a time machine, jumped back eight thousand years into the past, and published one of his most terrifying short stories anonymously.  It’s that genre.  You can find it in the card catalogue under philosophical-horror fiction.

Don’t take me wrong – this isn’t to detract from its beauty or importance.  The Book of Job is a masterpiece of human thought, not because it answers important questions but rather because it raises important questions that can’t be answered.

The gist is that Job is a righteous business man who has been blessed with immense wealth and a large, loving family, and God takes pride in the quality of Job’s faith.  One of God’s angels challenges his assessment, pointing out that Job has no reason to be anything but faithful, having been so richly blessed.  This angel proposes an experiment to see how Job would respond if afflicted with adversity, and God consents, giving the angel permission first to destroy all of Job’s family and possessions, then shortly after to afflict Job himself with utter physical misery.  What follows are descriptions of sustained physical, emotional, and spiritual agony, and what makes it especially striking in my estimation is that his sufferings are imaginable.  In this age of a constant news cycle attracting viewers and listeners by leading with the most shocking stories of tragedy and scandal, we have seen and heard people talking on air who that very hour lost their homes and families in a hurricane or tornado.  We have seen loved ones weeping in the wake of losing loved ones in mass shootings, we’ve seen those starving in the midst of famine and pestilence. The Book of Job laments the actual human experience of undeserved suffering.

Much of the story takes the form of a debate between Job and three of his friends who have come to commiserate with and comfort him.  Their company turns out to be at least as painful as the afflictions imposed by the angel, as they can’t bring themselves to accept the possibility that Job is innocent. In a fairly snarky conversation, they go back and forth with Job insisting that he confess and repent of whatever sins he must have committed to bring about the calamities he suffers. Job maintains his innocence vehemently, agonizing over his losses and demanding an explanation from God.

Excerpts from the debate…

Eliphaz – “Can an innocent man be punished?  Can a good man die in distress?  For pain does not spring from the dust or sorrow spout from the soil. Man is the father of trouble as surely as sparks fly upwards.  You are lucky that God has scolded you, so take his lesson to heart.  For he wounds, but then he binds up.  He injures, but then he heals.”

Job – What you know, I know also.  My mind is as clear as yours.  But I want to speak before God; to present my case in God’s court.  Will you lie to vindicate God?  What crime have I committed? How have I sinned against you? Why do you hide your faces from me as if I were your enemy? While there is life in this body and as long as I can breathe, I will never let you convict me.

The translation I read is by Stephen Mitchell – an exquisitely sensitive and thoughtful author / philosopher who has translated on some of the most iconic texts in history including “The Iliad” and “The Tao de Ching.”  His translation of Job includes a beautiful commentary on the book, and he summarizes the discourse between Job and his friends this way…

The friends and Job all agree that God is wise and can see into the hearts of men. He is not the kind of character who would allow a good man to be tortured because of a bet; nor is he a well-intentioned bungler. Given this premise, they construct opposite syllogisms. The friends: suffering comes from God. God is just. Therefore, Job is guilty. Job: suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore, God is unjust. A third possibility is not even thinkable: suffering comes from God. God is just. Job is innocent. (No therefore.) Even if the friends are right about God‘s justice, their timing is bad. In fact, they don’t speak to Job at all, they speak to their own terror at the thought of Job’s innocence. And though they defend God‘s justice, they can’t afford to understand what it is. “If the wrong man says the right thing, it is wrong.” So they are driven to their harsh God-the-Judge and their harsh judgments, like greater men after them who tried to justify the ways of God to men. Any idea about God, when pursued to its extreme, becomes insanity.  (Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job)

How do we trust the sacred with that sort of landscape clearly in view?  For me, the simple answer is that I don’t. At least, my experience of trust is not a sense of confidence in the source of the universal wisdom and justice and power to spare me from adversity.  I don’t trust that I will necessarily enjoy a happy / prosperous / fair experience for the remainder of life.  I’m no more entitled to prosperity or comfort than refuges at the border or girls being trafficked as sex slaves.  I calculate that my odds of living a congenial existence for the rest of my life seem somewhat better-than-average given the accident of birth by which I was born a heterosexual male into an upper-middle class white family in the United States.  But I don’t trust that I will or should be reliably be spared from adversity and suffering, and certainly not because I’m a relatively decent guy.  “Rain falls on the just and unjust alike.”  Our morality doesn’t guarantee us anything, probably doesn’t figure into it much at all.

The only thing I can think to say or aspire to about trust is to strive for being trustworthy myself.  Susan mentioned as we were talking about this draft last night that observation Mr. Roger’s made about making sense of disasters, quoting his mother telling him to “look for the helpers.”  It’s the possibility of rising up to become one of the helpers that keeps me sane in a world with so much senseless suffering and absurd injustice. If the experience of trust has some place in the whirlwind of history, for me at least it feels more correct to think of being someone that others can count on for some measure of stability or relief, as opposed to feeling that I am somehow owed that security from the sacred mystery who does not answer to human subpoenas or indictments.  Perhaps if anything I might hope for the unnamable to give me strength in adversity to continue being a neighbor.

I’m reminded of the verse that was selected for me at my confirmation… Isaiah 41:10 “Fear not, for I am with you.  Be not dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you.  I will help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right arm.”

That seems like the he best I can come up with – and in no way do I feel this is adequate – but perhaps mine is to keep my perspective, my wits, my sanity and courage in the midst of a beautiful and terrifying world and to grow in trustworthiness.  I cannot understand much less control the flow of goodness into my life.  I’m grateful for it as best I can be, but I know better than to count on it or to feel entitled to it.  But there seems to be something worthy in the possibility of striving to be a reliable source for relieving the suffering of others to the small extent I can.  For me, that’s what comes to mind in response to that question, “What does it mean to be a people of trust in the midst of Adversity?”