2/5/12, Where is God in All This Hell

Where is God in All This Hell? 

Job 7:1-4, 6-7, 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23, Mk 1:29-39

 A week or two back someone posted a picture on Facebook that caught my attention.    This slogan apparently originated with the AA movement.  Part of me thinks it’s profoundly wise and part of me thinks it’s way too simplistic.  What do you think?  Is there any way in which this speaks to your experience?  “Religion is for people who fear hell.  Spirituality is for people who have been there.”


That slogan kept coming back to me as I reflected on today’s passage from Job.  Job is one of several biblical writings that give voice to humankind’s ancient and universal struggle with the question of suffering.  When bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, how does one defend the existence of a good and loving God?  What redemptive meaning is there to suffering?


The story of Job was written by an unknown author around the year 500 BC. We find in other societies and cultures similar tales. The story of Job probably adapted these stories to address the problem of suffering from a Jewish perspective.  The Hebrew religious experience proposed that God blesses the righteous and brings down chastisement on those who are disobedient to divine laws.  Job is the epitome of a religious man, a righteous man highly regarded by God, friends and family. Yet he is afflicted most grievously.  The brief passage we read today is but a short taste of his own complaints about this unfair treatment.  Job was basically in a living hell.


Many of us have experienced religion with its rituals and rules as a way to avoid going to the kind of hell we learned about as children.  Hell represents a place of endless physical pain and separation from God, completely deserved when people lack righteousness. Our images of fire and brimstone come mainly from artistic rendering of medieval thought.    It’s important to recognize that for Jews and early Christians, hell was simply the place where the dead went, whether they lived good or bad lives.  Church doctine speaks of eternal hell as freely chosen separation from communion with God.  (Catholic catechism 1033)


Job’s physical and emotional and relational distress put him in a place where he experienced what truly feels like hell- his sense of separation from the benevolent God he thought he knew.  He understood God to be the one who rewarded righteous living with physical and material blessing.  The God he came to know was the God of simple presence.  This was the God of power from whom all emerged and to whom all would return, the God of mystery who had no need to explain or defend himself.  When we read all the way to the end of Job’s story, we discover that Job’s perception of God has been transformed. Because he has been humbled and changed from religious certainty to a simple spirituality of trust, God uses Job to intercede for the sins of his friends and restores Job to a full life. 


Job is transformed from being a religious man to living as a spiritual being.  A religious person is one who finds his or her connection to God through a structured system of beliefs that is held with ardor and faith.   Attitudes and practices and values are shaped by one’s religion in ways that can be very positive as one grows from infancy to adulthood.  God, however, in whose image we are created, will not be limited by the constraints of any religious system.  The God who seeks our transformation into his/her very image offers us the possibility of becoming truly spiritual beings, freed from the desire or need for material or physical wellbeing. Spirituality finds hope, comfort and inner peace in life as it is lived in simple trust that a greater power than me holds everything together with ultimate meaning. It is possible to find spirituality through religion but many also find it in the beauty of music, art or a connection with nature. Others find it as they act out their values and principles in service to humanity.


Both the story of Job and the gospel passage, however, point us to another means of spiritual transformation that we want to resist with all our being.  The means that often works the deepest change in us is that of suffering.  Suffering is our living experience of hell (separation from God) that has the potential to move us from religious rigidity to true spirituality.  That’s the point of Job’s experience.  That’s the point of the many stories we read in the gospels. These stories are about Jesus encountering people in all the many ways of human suffering.

The people Jesus meets know what it is to exist in the suffering of a living hell.  He encounters them in their sickness, their hunger, their blindness, their demon possession, and the spiritual isolation of their rigid adherence to law. His healing touch brings not simply a change meant to relieve their physical conditions.  They are meant to be spiritually transformed, connected to God in a new way.  Their healing from whatever afflicts them frees them to be servant-citizens  in the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus claims has come among them in fullness.


In the passage from Mark today, Jesus says that he has come primarily to preach good news. The Good News that Jesus preaches with words and with action is that he is truly Immanuel, God with us in all of the joy and the distress of human life.  We live in a Divine Presence that longs to transform people from the constraints of religion to the freedom of spirituality.


How about you?  Is it possible that you have experienced or maybe are even right now experiencing a living hell?  You may be suffering physically or emotionally. Maybe you  are enduring a sense of separation from the God you always thought you knew but now feel is a complete stranger to you.  Let today’s lessons from the stories of scripture sink into your soul.  Hold them as promises that even though God seems remote and silent, there IS a Presence that loves you regardless of your doubts, your questions, your complaints, your resistance.  This Presence invites you to simply relax into the love and beauty that is all around you, allowing yourself to be transformed into the love and beauty that is the mystery we name “God.” 

Call us, God, to further transformation today.

Enlighten and sustain us.

Draw us to new discovery and deepening of heart.

Move us to care and to nurture,

To grow and welcome others into our lives.

Call us to share their burdens,

To be present with prayer and action

With words and deeds of loving kindness.

Let us honor the great gift of freedom you give us

To live, to create love and find meaning in our lives.

Invite us to truly live in that mystery of love which you are.

Kathryn Carrington and Gregory Norbet