Very Christian Questions from Tragedy: Job and Tennyson

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

The Sunday School teachers paint the biblical Job in pastels and pretty words. Felt-board employed, snack-time pending, they tell us how that pious, righteous Job suffered and never lost his faith in God. He never blamed God. Undeniable pain and grief did not shake his trust in the Lord. From those days of plastic armor and hand-painted Noah’s Arks, he is evoked as an example of a patient, holy man.

Then, you read Job for yourself.

And, who doesn’t feel a little uncomfortable on that first post-Sunday School reading? After the build-up we receive as Sunday scholars, we can find ourselves ill-prepared for Job’s cries like, “Why have the times escaped the Lord’s notice? Why have the ungodly stepped over the boundary, snatching away the flock with the shepherd?” (24:1-2). I suspect that, without the build-up, we would be more inclined to admire the amount of faithfulness he has. But, it is a raw, galvanized, painful state of faith. His faith is the kind that pours out questions and wants real answers the same way a wound pours out blood and wants – not a bandage – but healing.

Yet, Job scandalized teenage me. He broke my nicely polished category of righteous suffering. Of course, that’s only because he was a better sufferer than I knew how to be. The teachers who told me that Job patiently, silently suffered did not understand the importance of questions in a broken world that begs for answers. Job suffers vocally, with question marks.

When Job has asked his questions, God comes in cloud and lightning and tells him: “I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” (38:3). Over the next few chapters, God asks a series of questions designed to point out the limits of Job’s knowledge and the extent of His own. Job responds humbly, and God calls Job righteous and blesses him.

The questions of the suffering are questions that cut the sufferer further open. They lay bare the inside. They are questions that change the person who asks them.

Questions are the heart of honest suffering. I’ll end with the only thing here worth remembering: a beautiful piece by Tennyson called In Memoriam A.H.H, in which the poet slowly grieves the death of Tennyson’s friend and would-be brother-in-law. My favorite lines comes in Stanza 96. They illustrate the type of questioning Job exercised, as well: the questions which must be asked.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own.