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When Job doesn’t Jibe with Reality

What happens when suffering is meaningless?

by Carol Howard Merritt

Old Testament Reading: Job 42:1-6, 10-17

For Sunday, October 28, 2012: Year B—Ordinary 30

I saw the young man in the fall. He looked like a well-equipped urban hiker, getting ready for his next adventure. He had an optimistic attitude. He had lost his girlfriend, job and home, but he would work as hard as he could until he got back on his feet.

A Different Man

I met with him regularly, listening to him, praying for him, and giving him a bit of spiritual direction. As the weeks wore on and the nights got colder, his situation became more desperate.

He couldn’t find a job. He gave up on the work that it required for him to keep up his personal hygiene while living on the streets. Then he ran out of his medication. With his increased paranoia, his parents began to ignore his his phone calls. The rejection added depression to his precarious mental state. He lost his appetite and his clothes barely hung on him. And in a few short months, he looked like a different man.

Lost Hope

When I saw his case manager (who worked in our church building), I asked, “What do you think? Do you think there’s any hope?”

She shook her head while giving me a look of pity reserved for the naïve, “I’m afraid not.”

He had lost everything a few months before, but that wasn’t as difficult as we he had lost hope. He was on his way to chronic homelessness.

Refrains for the Privileged

It was a situation I saw repeatedly while serving as a pastor in D.C. The economy was a little better in the city so many people would travel there to try to find work. But, the streets could be brutal and so they would often end up in much worse shape than when they came.

I never got used to seeing the men around, going from bad to worse within four seasons and the individual stories often played havoc with my shiny, happy faith. Verses like “all things work together for good” and “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength” began to sound like refrains for the privileged and didn’t always hold up in the midst of people who had much more of the hardness of life than they could handle. Likewise the book of Job began to frustrate me.

Backstage of Divine Intention

Job has given meaning to suffering people by showing the backstage of divine intention. The problem of suffering tends to revolve around three truths that don’t go well together: God is powerful, God loves us, and bad things happen. The book of Job tries to put those pieces together by looking at Job.

Did Job suffer because God didn’t love him? Of course not. God was exceedingly proud of Job.

Did Job suffer because God was not in control of the situation? No. God was in control the whole time. We know that because the adversary had to report to God.

Did bad things still happen? Yes. They happened to test Job, to show that Job would be faithful through out all of it.

We are looking at the end of Job, where his fortunes have been restored. Although no amount of wealth could replace the children that he lost, God multiplies the abundance of the divine servant.

The Hardest Question

I’m sure there are many people who are like Job, but the questions get hard when we begin to know people who don’t have a positive end.

The hardest question for me when I look at this passage is: How is it that by “despising myself” and repenting in “dust and ashes” I can get “twice as much as (I) had before?”

Carol Howard Merritt grew up along the beaches of Florida. After being raised as a conservative Baptist and attending a fundamentalist Bible college, she went to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and decided to become a minister. Carol has been a pastor for 13 years, serving growing Presbyterian Churches in the swamps of Cajun Louisiana, a bayside village in Rhode Island, and in an urban neighborhood in D.C. She is the award-winning author of Tribal Church (Alban 2007) and Reframing Hope (Alban 2010). She has contributed to numerous books, websites, magazines, and journals. Her blog,, is hosted by the Christian Century. She blogs regularly at Huffington Post and Dukes Divinity’s Faith and Leadership site. Carol is a sought-after speaker. She hosts Unco (short for Unconference), open-space gatherings where participants dream about and plan for the future of the church.  And she co-hosts God Complex Radio, a podcast with Derrick Weston. Carol lives in Chattanooga, TN with her daughter and husband, Brian Merritt, who is starting a new church. You can follow her on Twitter (@CarolHoward) or  Facebook.


  1. Jennifer says:

    the backstage of divine intention.

    I love this line.

    I think the irony of Job is this. I don’t even consider the very beginning or the very ending to be the original message, but ‘the powers that be’ absolutely could not stand to NOT to know why or NOT to have their Hollywood ending. They answer ‘why’ by saying (with the very beginning) this is just a chess game between cosmic powers. They have their Hollywood ending by giving Job daughters whom he gives frivolous names to, then includes them as his land inheritors. I love his *new* daughters’ names (Dove, Cinnamon, and Container of eye shadow), but that is the Hollywood ending. The hole remains for the children he lost and the suffering he endured for no good reason even if he does find some joy again. Suffering happens, and God is there with us. That’s the meat of Job.


  1. [...] Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt wonders if this passage and others in the Bible only work for those who are privileged in society a…. [...]

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