For me, the real mystery of the book of Job – and one that still continues to puzzle me – is not the typical theodicy questions, the mechanics, so to speak, of how evil (acknowledged and not merely glossed) and a just, good, and all powerful God exist in the same universe. No, the question rather for me is how one relearns to pray after one realizes they do indeed exist in the same cosmos. What I am inquiring after is exactly what we don’t get at the end of Job – his prayer life after all the trauma.
What do I mean by this? I mean that, even after one shuts one’s mouth, stops complaining, and lets God be God, one still has to reckon with the fact that this God is not a principle, but a person. How exactly do you relate to a God who, the last time you prayed to Him, let all your children die in spite of daily prayers for them? Even if one has come to a place of theoretical trust, it does not always translate into instinct on the ground level of experience. One may be intellectually satisfied with God’s goodness – or at least satisfied that one is not qualified to sit as judge on His merits – and still by gut reaction shrink back when it comes to any kind of expectations or hopes. Our psyches are not as easily altered – or argued over and processed – as our more theoretical theologies.
This has in fact become a personal problem for me, because I am beginning to see that there are two problems one can fall into when dealing with evil and suffering and God. The first and perhaps most easily recognizable is the problem of Christians sweeping evil and suffering under the rug, of which I have written and thought extensively. But the second is one I was less aware of and more prone to, and am only now beginning to unlearn. This is the tendency to opt for a merely philosophical and stoic conception of God. I say merely because I do think there is certainly a good deal of overlap between these conceptions and the Christian conception of God; but I also think there is a good deal more to God than these conceptions suggest – as Christians, we call this “good deal more” the Trinity.
To clarify all this, what I am getting at is that, if one does come to a point of acknowledging evil and suffering, and also believes in God as defined by Christian orthodoxy, one is left with the dilemma of figuring out how to believe in that God. One can, I suppose, make God a direct agent in all the evil and suffering, so that He becomes little better than a fiend – this is the way some Calvinist theologies go. One can also limit His sovereignty in a way reminiscent of pantheism or those favoring a so-called “emerging,” or evolving New Age-y kind of God. There are I suppose other options, but to get to the point, one can also inadvertently do what I tend to do, that is, conceive of God as a principle, an unmoved-mover, exalted such that he cannot be expected to cater to every whim of petty humans. This is in part so attractive because it is a direct challenge to the narcissism and individualism of those theologies that conceive of God as they might conceive of a personal genie, and insofar as it does this, it is faithful to the Biblical mandate against idolatry. And yet, as I have been finding, going too far in this direction forgets something equally integral about the nature of God, and this is that we must trust Him, hope in Him, and love Him. When God becomes a principle – a mere assertion of what is – rather than a lover – there is a problem.
I suppose I have most realized this since starting to pray the liturgical hours as I am able, and thereby returning to liturgical prayer of the Psalms. Praying the Psalms are a sure recipe for emotional confusion. Sometimes one takes on the words of one expecting a lot from God. Sometimes it is the words of someone deeply disappointed by Him. At other times it is the words of someone angry, whether at God or fellow humans. The words are almost invariably never what we want them to be. Too naively expectant of blessing. Too violent. Too hopeful. Too despairing. Et cetera. Indeed, perhaps the only single unifying factor in the Psalms is stubbornness – whatever I experience, I am going to talk about it alongside God. This may mean shouting at Him at times. But what matters far more than the exactness of the words being said is the insistence with which they are said. The formula of the Psalms, where x represents any given emotional state on any given day, is, “My heart is x. And God.”
The problem of course with this, though, is that it is very difficult for one who defensively views God as a principle to pray like this. One doesn’t want to expect things of God – or hope for things – because it would be far easier not to be disappointed when those expectations are dashed. And yet the Psalms call our hearts to do this. It is still unclear to me how exactly this works and what specifically it looks like, but the Psalms teach our hearts to be suspended between fulfilled hopes and disappointed expectations in our relationship with God, and they are never suspended in quite the way we wish. When we are in despair, we are pulled upward, and when we forget reality, we are tempered. But we do not lose hope, or maybe, as in my case, we begin learning not to lose hope. Perhaps there is hope for Job’s prayer life after all.