|The Happiest Place on Earth
March 24, 2005
“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. (Job 2:10)
On returning from a week-long trip to Disney World, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” I've just been going through my accumulated email. In my inbox is an update from an acquaintance - a man I don't know well but see every now and again.
By way of background, just understand that this man - his name is Jim - has been through a lot recently. His wife has chronic and painful back problems. One of his daughters has a chronic medical condition. And the email that I received today tells me that his other daughter, his youngest, has been diagnosed with heart problems. In addition to the obvious fear and uncertainty about his daughter's health, the family will need to consult with a specialist and that expense will not be completely covered by insurance.
So while I enjoyed a week with my (perfectly healthy) wife and son and (mostly healthy) parents, Jim and his family received unsettling, uncertain, unhappy news. He's, of course, not the only one - just the closest to home. While I was in Florida, Terry Schiavo's husband and parents battled in the news over whether Terry would live or die. There was an explosion at an oil refinery in Texas which killed, the last I heard, fifteen people. Other people, other families, struggling with death and fear and grief.
Other families not exactly in the Happiest Place on Earth.
As I said, I know Jim, so his situation hits closest to home for me. He's a good man, a man with a deep faith in and love for the Lord and a deep desire to please him. He's convinced that God is just and loving and merciful and compassionate. He says that his family is being “tested,” and I can see how he could come to that conclusion. But here's what I struggle with when I look at Jim's tests: why him? Or, maybe more to the point, why not me? Why did I get to spend a week relaxing and playing with my family while Jim spent a week hurting and wondering and fearing? Why am I refreshed and rested while the weight of the world presses down on Jim's heart?
It's certainly not that I'm a better person than Jim, that much is certain. It's not that God is arbitrary or uncaring. But that's just the tension we live in, isn't it: there are times when God's actions don't fit with our expectations. Even if you don't believe that God pulls every string, causes every calamity; even if you think that he's allowed some randomness in the universe, you still have to come to terms with the fact that at the very least he doesn't always prevent bad things from happening to good people. And that cuts against our sense of fairness, especially when it happens to us.
It's that tension that makes me glad that the book of Job is in the Bible. Maybe you're passingly familiar with the book, enough to say something like, “Oh, yes, that's a book about patience.” I suppose Job's patience is a minor theme, but more often you hear things like “I wish I'd never been born” pouring poetically from Job's lips. Not that you can blame him: the guy lost his fortune, his children, and his health in the space of about 48 hours. His wife told him to “curse God and die.” Job lived about as far as a person can get from the Happiest Place on Earth.
We readers of the book know what's going on. Satan has challenged God by calling into question the integrity of God's shiniest example of righteousness and virtue. He suggests, in effect, that Job is righteous only because he's smart enough to see the connection between pleasing God and enjoying wealth and success. “Take away all his toys and comfort and the people he loves, and he'll curse you to your face,” Satan claims.
Well, to make a long story short, Job doesn't. Oh, he complains. He asks questions. He argues with his friends and their tight, amateurish, hopelessly out-of-touch-with-reality theology. He challenges God to tell him what he's done to deserve what he's received. By the end of the book he's forced to acknowledge that God is bigger and more inscrutable than Job ever imagined. But he never curses God, never turns his back on the Lord. We know what's going on, but Job doesn't. All he knows is that the God who has blessed him has suddenly withdrawn those blessings. “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” Job says in one of the books most memorable passages. “May the name of the LORD be praised. (Job 1:21)”
Job, by the way, never gets an answer to his questions. God never explains to him, and in fact tells Job that he doesn't have to explain anything to anybody. Job gets his fortune back. He has more children, though I doubt they could ever replace the ones he lost. God vindicates him, in the end, but if Job had any notion that there was a cause-and-effect relationship between righteousness and prosperity he undoubtedly lost it in the process.
The book of Job is about the faith of a man whose theology and sense of justice have been severely challenged. It's about trusting God in a world of fear and uncertainty, about continuing to trust when everything is in doubt and you can't see how it's all going to work out. From what I can tell, Jim has that same kind of trust, even though he can't see what's happening in heaven or in the mind of God. As Easter approaches, we're reminded that what looks like failure and death and injustice can be, in the hands of God, the beginning of new life. We believe that we have, in the risen Jesus, exactly the person Job longed for: “someone to arbitrate between” human beings and God, someone “to lay a hand on us both, someone to remove God's rod” from us (Job 9:33).
Please pray for Jim and his family, if you can. And remember, if you're not exactly in the Happiest Place on Earth right now, that God is still in heaven and your life is still in his hand. And that there's a Happier Place than can ever be found on earth, and that it's in the embrace of God. And that nothing will ever take you from his arms.
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