Learning From Job

Few people enjoy tests. In fact, many of us are in the middle of final exams right now and those are never fun. The fact remains however, that much of life seems to be a test. If you prescribe to one of the three Abrahamic faiths, this life (for most believers) is actually a “proving ground” of sorts in order to secure one’s reward of eternal life following death. In this way, daily trials can be viewed in two lights: tests directly from God, or temptations from the Devil (Christian/Islamic modification). Either way we must rise to the occasion during these stressful times and show what we are made of–spiritually speaking.

Few stories receive attention on the matter of absolute faith more than Job. You remember Job. According to the Book of Job in “The Writings” section of the Tanakh, he “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” And if that wasn’t enough for his pious resume’, he was also “wealthier than anyone in the East.”

So we have a fellow who’s not only loaded, but extremely pious.

God seems to think so too and brags about him to Satan (In the Jewish perspective, Satan was literally “the adversary”, a member of God’s celestial court responsible for finding fault and sin in man). Satan though, isn’t impressed. The first part of the book is Satan (permitted by God) demolishing Job’s life because Satan’s argument is that Job is only pious due to his blessings from God. Job doesn’t budge in his devotion to his Lord, however he does question the reason as to why he–the most faithful man alive–has suddenly fallen out of favor. Eventually his friends drop by and refuse to believe that Job is sinless. He must have screwed up royally somehow.

Job’s wife mocking him for his refusal to curse God. Or maybe it’s for those chicken legs of his…

Eventually the moral of the story comes to pass. The Book of Job is about (depending who you talk to) taking one’s piety too seriously. Job was so much so that he couldn’t imagine the ills of the world falling upon him. There is then, a thin line between holiness and ego. Was he so pious that God, the creator and master of the universe, was not permitted to touch him? “Of course I can!” God basically says. After this lesson in humility, Job is eventually rewarded for his faithfulness despite his latent ego and all his wealth is restored beyond its previous measure.

Job’s story has ever since served as an example of steadfast faith despite the ills of life. I remembered this story today as my week thus far appears to collapse around me. Ever since Monday it just seems like anything that can go wrong does. Ever had one of those? I won’t go into details but let’s just say the events involve my car (repairs), my dog (parvo virus) and lots of money that I don’t have. Yeah, life can suck, and at times it seems like one tiny event becomes a huge snowball hell-bent on rolling over your entire being.

You have to have “the faith of Job” to get through these times, but I’m not Job. I’m Andrew. Two things we have in common though, is that a) we’re both human, and b) we’re both Jews (Okay, he is more than me. Chill). With this in mind, I should be thoroughly equipped to handle mid-level disasters right? Judaism is full of commentaries and philosophies about facing life with faith in God intact, but sometimes it just seems like too much.

When life seems to get me down or I’m stressed, my wife’s favorite bit of advice is “Well at least you have (insert blessing).” I don’t really buy that. If I just hit my thumb with a hammer and I start screaming explicatives, my wife might say “At least you didn’t lose your thumb.” That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that my thumb hurts.

So as I’m sitting in the veterinarian’s office with our sick labrador, I start thinking about this concept of ad infinitum blessings. I can’t solve the problem of my current bad situation by focusing on what I have relative to the bad because it still leaves me with a smashed thumb. There is also the issue of what I’ll call ”blessing via relative circumstances.” Let’s say I get some wind damage on my roof from a storm. I lose some shingles and it’ll cost me 500 bucks to repair. I grumble about the work to be done and someone says, “Well at least you didn’t lose your house in that tornado.” Your current 500 dollar problem suddenly looks brighter due to the higher suffering of another. I don’t like this method either because it means our degree of positive outlook is dependent upon greater suffering elsewhere. In other words, we then need someone else to suffer more to feel better ourselves!

Again, we need to examine our example with Job, but we can also take this a step further. Job’s piety was based on a blind and ignorant faith because he didn’t know what it was like to have faith in God outside of prosperity. When disaster struck, he instantly shored up his faith yet questioned how someone as good as himself could suffer the world’s curses. I think if we are going to effectively bring about a more positive humanity we need to look outward instead of inward.

By concentrating on the “well, at least I have this or that” when something happens or is taken away, why not look at what we have to offer to those around us? If tragedy befalls your life, are you still able to serve your community? If you lose an arm, can the other still help another man off the ground? If you lose the ability to speak, do you still have ears to listen to a friend who just needs someone to listen? How about just a smile?

Science proves that we gain more satisfaction from life when we spend more of our time and energy serving others rather than hording the blessings of life for ourselves. It all comes down to perspective. Am I relatively lucky because of what I still have, or because of what I can still give? Think about this as your day, week, or life continues to seem like it’s crumbling around you. If you change your outlook, you might see the aftermath as an opportunity to learn and build something new.

…but it still sucks that my dog is sick.

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  • Umm Yasmin

    Greetings (shalom)!

    I know you’re not in the Islam month yet, but I couldn’t resist posting a comment because what you write about, facing tests and trials, is something my shaykh talks about as impetus for spiritual growth. He points out that if everything is going well, we ascribe it to our own doings, and we have no reason to want to change anything. But the moment we face some sort of difficulty, pain, we are pushed to do something about it: if even to understand why it is happening (as in Job’s questioning)

    Thought you might appreciate the dars.
    Kind regards
    Umm Yasmin

    • Anonymous

      Great point. We are never thankful when things go well all the time, are we? Sometimes life has to smack us around a little to get some perspective.

  • Amy

    By Job! I think he’s got it! ;-)