Mike Stavlund on Cancer Theology

April 2, 2012 · 1 comment

Cancer & Theology

This post is a part of a series which features an assortment of adroit voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series.

Solidarity: Speaking Without Words

Whether in times of illness, sadness, relational trouble, depression, natural disaster, or death, we humans can be our own worst enemies. As Michael Shermer has wisely noted, humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals who find find causal relationships in our physical and social environments.1 This tendency to discern order is too often our undoing.

One of our unfortunate embedded theologies is the persistent conviction that there must be a reason for the things that happen to us. A reason for this cancer, for that failed relationship, or this divorce. A reason for this injury, for someone’s shift in mental health, or for a job setback. For everything. We see events unfold, and we long for some reason or explanation or rationale. There must be some door, some window, some silver lining in disguise. There must be some positive outcome. There must be a reason for everything.

Enter Job.

Probably the oldest book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Job is an ancient account of the manifest unfairness of life. Job is the ultimate archetype of the best kind of person who suffers in the worst kind of way.

The story opens with a peek behind the curtain. God is speaking to some unnamed accuser (Don’t be too quick to envisage a fella with a bifurcated tail and a hayfork — the Hebrew here reads ha-satan, literally the adversary. The persona of Satan doesn’t develop until much later). This adversary pays God a visit, whereupon God begins to brag about his man Job: a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil Who else is like Job?

Does Job revere God for nothing?, comes the derisive retort. Haven’t you fenced him in — his house and all he has — and blessed the work of his hands so that his possessions extend throughout the earth? But stretch out your hand strike all he has. He will certainly curse you to your face. The accusation of the adversary is clear: Job honors God because God honors Job. But if God will cut off the supply of kindness, Job will surely turn against God in a second.

It is a chilling challenge; a brutal bet with many lives at stake. And in a frightening turn, God says, I’ll take that bet, allowing this adversary to rain down terror on Job, his family, and his fortune. He is free to do anything short of touching Job. Which he does, without hesitation: within hours, Job’s ten children are all dead, along with many servants and livestock.

Job worships God anyway, and the narrator offers this omniscient statement: Job didn’t sin or blame God.

Reset the scene between God and the adversary. God commends Job all the more, and the adversary ups the ante: Don’t protect Job’s flesh and bones. And again, inexplicably, God takes the bet, asking only that Job’s life be spared. So to add injury to insult and tragedy, Job is stricken with painful sores from head to toe.

But again we are told that Job did not sin with his lips.

The most behind-the-curtain revelation comes in a single devastating word in chapter two: God clearly states that the adversary has “incited me to ruin him chinnâm.” God has done all of this to Job chinnâm — the initial guttural character chet catches in the throat every time we remember the story because it means, literally, without cause. There is no reason for it. It has no cause. A gratuitous act for nothing. It is meaningless.

Enter Job’s friends, who have not been privileged with this special insight. It is hardly fair to them, the stooges in this grand drama stepping into the scene. As the story unfolds, Job’s friends are both a blessing and a curse. At first, they bless Job by keeping their mouths closed and sitting with him in the dirt in all of his pain and grief. They sit with him and they suffer with him for seven days and nights, and we cheer for this perfect display of love and solidarity.

But inevitably and quite understandably, Job launches into a long complaint that turns into a lament. He curses his life, he wishes he were dead, he complains to God.

What follows that is not so great. In what stands as a cautionary tale for (so-called) friends forevermore, Job’s companions assault Job with perfect piety and flawless doctrine, pelting him with questions and pointed observations:

How did this happen
Why did it happen?
What is the reason for it?
How can Job reverse his poor fortune and get back on God’s good side?
Shouldn’t we praise God instead? (In a move akin to emailing someone a YouTube link to a worship chorus, one of Job’s friends launches into song.)

They seem intent on protecting God’s reputation, not knowing what we know: Job has done nothing wrong. If anyone has been unfair, it is in fact God. But as proto-Platonists, they cannot imagine that to be the case, ergo they will act as God’s defense team, accusing Job of malfeasance and heresy and misbehavior. Why else would God treat him so? So repent of your sins, Job, and God will relent.

Job does not welcome this line of thinking, or the implicit accusation. Standing against their surety, he flatly proclaims his innocence. He has done nothing wrong, certainly nothing to deserve this. He will not curse God, but he will also not lie or confess to a crime he has not committed. And we cheer for Job because he is righteous, but even more because he is honest. The whole world seems to be set against him, but he will stand against that world and all of its presumption and simplistic thinking. He has lost everything, but he still holds fast to the truth. Even if that truth is an unveiled accusation of God.

Job is vindicated, of course. We can’t help but cheer when these so-called friends have their hair parted by God Almighty, who is as displeased by their callous theology as Job has been injured by it. God points out their error and insists that they make sacrifices before Job and tells them to have Job pray for them.

But not before Job famously takes his lumps, too, as God humbles him with a withering line of questioning about the origins and management of the world. It is hard to know if this is a denunciation, or a simple presentation of God’s wider perspective. In any case, Job seems to accept it without shame or pride. He backs down, returning to his place in the dirt.

The truth, it turns out, is that God has been with Job all along. Not as some grand inquisitor, and not as some distant figure demanding proper homage, but as a partner suffering alongside Job in solidarity And in fact foreshadowing the solidarity that God the Father will have with Jesus in both the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

My friend Jake has asked his contributing writers to provide a succinct theological statement to conclude their observations — a bit of truth to contravene the painfully pithy comments people automatically prattle about when tragedy strikes. We’ve all heard them, and we all admit that we’ve said something like them:

There must be some reason for this.
God must be teaching us something.
You must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
God will provide a way out.
Maybe we have something to confess.
When God closes a door, he opens a window.
Everything will be okay.

My theological phrase is not meant to be offensive, but rather freeing (to both the person suffering and the person both ministering to them and suffering alongside them). It may be offensive, and to those offended I can only counter that trite platitudes are indescribably, screamingly offensive when we are facing some loss or struggling with some pain or shouldering a seemingly impossible burden. So to those seeking answers, and trying to patch universal solutions over people’s particular problems, and trying to defend God’s good honor (when God has clearly let us down), I offer this brief theological summary of the ancient wisdom of Job:

Shit happens. There is no reason for it, no necessary cause; it is chinnâm. But God is unmistakably present in the shit, enduring it with us and loving us indescribably.

Suffering like this will visit all of us eventually, either directly or indirectly. It is left to us to come alongside our loved ones when they are afflicted, offering our solidarity if not our words. Knowing that, truly, such suffering cannot be ameliorated or even soothed with anything except our presence.

Mike StavlundMike Stavlund is a writer, blogger, poet, and semi-pro handyman who is part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table. His first book, A Force of Will: The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief—a grief memoir without a happy ending—will be published by Baker in March of 2013.

  1. Shermer, Michael. How We Believe, 2nd Edition: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: H. Holt, 2003. 148. []
  • Jake

    Beautifully said. From the son of a mother with terminal breast cancer; and who has heard the countless trite religious platitudes.