Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The is the second part of a series that was previously published in a local paper. I've lightly edited it for this platform; again, although it reflects my Quaker approach to chaplaincy, this isn't explicitly "Quaker." Any thoughts or feedback would be welcome.
Job was a righteous man who lost almost everything: his children, his flocks, and his health. And he was angry about it. He wasn't angry at any particular person, not the bandits who made off with his flocks, not with his servants for failing to prevent it, or even with himself for not doing more to prevent this kind of loss. This is at least in part because the losses of all his children and all his flocks happened at the same time, which would be completely overwhelming. But he was angry, angry with God. How could this happen?
In my previous post, I wrote about reacting to a loss – whether it’s a death of a loved one, loss of a job, or a break in a relationship – with denial. And I mentioned last week that some losses are too big to deny: they knock the wind out of you. One normal response is to get angry and try to hit back, This doesn't always happen, of course, but it’s not uncommon. We get angry at the person or people who seem to have caused the loss. When I was working as a hospital chaplain, I saw families get angry with the doctors and the nurses. Even when, to a bystander, it seemed obvious that the medical staff had done all they could do, families would occasionally get angry and start blaming people, because they weren't ready to say goodbye. Their anger could be difficult to deal with, but I understand not being able to let go, not yet.
I have also seen people get mad at the person who has died, asking, “How could you leave me, what am I supposed to do now?” Our plans get disrupted, and no matter how many years we've had, we would often like just a little more time.
People will also sometimes get angry at themselves, for things recent and for things long past. This can be potentially problematic, complicating grief in ways that cannot be easily resolved. Regardless of the circumstances, we cannot go back and change things, and we cannot get the forgiveness of people who are no longer with us.
Anger is not an inevitable part of grief, but it often covers other emotions. We sometimes feel angry when can’t admit that we also feel sad and powerless, that we feel overwhelmed by things out of our control. When we're angry, it seems as though we can still do something, even when there's nothing left to be done. Admitting that there's nothing to do, that we just have to sit and deal with it, can be very hard.
Some people, such as Job, get angry with God. Job wanted to understand, but there did not seem to be any explanation for what had happened. I think of this often when I’m talking to individuals who are dealing with different kinds of loss; even when there is a straightforward answer as to why it happened, there’s never a good answer for why God would allow it. We may know one day, but probably not in this life.
God never does explain what had happened to Job, but instead indicates that there’s more to the universe than we can possibly understand. Even though Job was angry with God, Job is ultimately vindicated by God. God can take our anger. That’s one thing we can take away from that story. Another is what it means to be a friend for someone who’s grieving. The three friends of Job were truly acting as friends when they first arrived to keep Job company on the ash heap, saying nothing for seven days and seven nights. People are often at a loss as to what to say to the person mourning, and that seems exactly right: there is nothing that came make things better, but a supportive presence is almost always welcome.
[At some point I may elaborate on the connection between that final image - of Job's friends gathered on the ash-heap - and unprogrammed worship, but not today.]