My older sister Patricia died of spina bifida before I was born. My younger sister Linda died of spina bifida when I was 3. Given that I was raised in a traditional, stoic, Irish-Catholic family, my sisters and their deaths were never talked about.
In fact, I didn’t even know they existed until I was 5 and found their names in our family Bible. “Who are these people?” I asked my mother.
“They are your sisters”—that was all she said.
As I grew, I thought about them a lot. Eventually, I began to ask my mother why God did this to our family. She said simply that some crosses were heavier to carry than others. Somehow that answer and the related resignation didn’t work for me. And so I began to become angry. Specifically, I began to become angry with God.
For most of my youth, I felt this anger was wrong, sinful. Yet it didn’t go away. I encountered more and more suffering that did not make sense. A friend lost both his parents by the eighth grade. A very good priest dropped dead of a heart attack. The brother of a friend died in Vietnam.
As I began my work as a psychologist, I would touch on spiritual matters with my clients. I found that I was not alone in my anger. Worse, I met people whose explanations for tragedy were heartbreaking.
One woman, for example, believed that her prayers for a dying daughter did not work because her prayers were “not worthy of God’s attention.”
Even my own father, as he dealt with a series of strokes, told me they were “punishment for my sins.” As I heard such struggles, I felt more and more that, because of anger, I was bound to grow away from my faith.
Then I read the Book of Job.
Image: A family mourns during a funeral at the Lion's cemetery in Sarajevo, 1992. Mikhail Evstafiev.
Job: Not Merely Silent Suffering
Given that the Catholicism of my youth did not include a great deal of biblical study, I knew very little about Job other than the phrase “the patience of Job.” When I read this marvelous book, I realized among other things that Job was hardly patient. In fact, like me, he was angry!
The story of Job begins with a bet. Satan is arguing with God, saying that faith is easy when everything is going well in one’s life, but that people tend to lose that faith when times are tough. He then brings up Job, pointing out that Job has great faith but is also very comfortable and successful.
But suppose, suggests Satan, that Job falls on hard times: Will he then be so faithful? God gives Satan permission to take away everything of Job’s but not to harm him. Satan does this, but Job holds on to his faith. So Satan ups the ante by asking God to let him harm Job directly.
And so Job ends up homeless, penniless, and afflicted with horrible skin diseases. He begins to seek an explanation from God. In fact, Job demands an explanation!
Job’s friends show up and offer standard explanations for his troubles. “You must have sinned,” suggests one. “You haven’t prayed hard enough,” says another. And yet Job continues his outcry, ultimately demanding that God show up and explain himself.
And God shows up! Granted, God tends to put Job in his place and never really answers Job’s “Why?” question. But the important points are that God shows up and that he never punishes Job for his outcry.