Amy Yoder McGloughlin is the pastor at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. These reflections originally appeared on her blog, Stories from the Red Tent.
If you are on social media, perhaps you’ve seen the hashtag, #blessed.
“I got into grad school!” #blessed
“I went on a Caribbean cruise!” #blessed
“Sixty people wished me a happy birthday!” #blessed
It’s become the equivalent of a humble brag. Folks don’t want to say how much money they have or how many friends they have or what an amazing school they are attending, so folks say they are #blessed.
#Blessed is often used in our culture to signify that we are lucky more than anything. People feel lucky to have gone on vacation or gotten into school or to be surrounded by friends. But blessed? I don’t think so.
Blessed is one of those biblical words that has been removed from our relationship to God or falsely used to talk about our good fortune. And I’d like to explore the nature of this word in the context of the book of Job.
There’s a lot in in the book of Job that I consider to be disturbing. Just listening to this text again gives me the shivers. God is playing games, using Job as a pawn to prove the goodness of humanity.
Satan, an associate of God, has the job of wandering the earth, gathering the worst of humanity. Satan reports to God that his suspicions about the evils of humanity are true and God reminds Satan of Job. And God invites Satan to test Job.
I have issues with humanity being used as pawns in a game between celestial buddies. I have to be reminded–when I take this story too literally and my anger towards God comes to a boil–that this is a story about humans trying to understand God.
This book is a classic biblical theodicy–a literary device used to deal with the ongoing human struggle: Where is God in this human mess?
And I believe we get to the heart of the struggle in this tense conversation between Job and his wife. Job was afflicted with painful sores all over his body. This came after his children were killed in a tragic accident and after he lost his fortune.
Job and his wife and been through more than their fair share of suffering. And in her frustration, she proclaims, “Curse God and die.”
Maybe you can relate to the sentiment. I’ve had a few days where I have had some pretty unsavory one-sided conversations with God. I’ve cursed God plenty of times. I’ve wished for that relationship to end. I’ve cried out to God, “Where are you? If you can’t fix this, what good are you?”
Job’s wife says this horrible thing. She tells Job to curse God and give up.
But is that what Job’s wife is really saying? The Hebrew word for “curse” used here is actually a word that many of us know: Barach.
Barach means, “To bless.”
So why does this phrase get translated as “curse” rather than “bless”?
This word for bless is also a euphemism for “curse” because no one would want to say “curse God” out loud. That would be blasphemous. It would be like a family 100 years ago saying that their daughter was “going to visit family out of town” instead of saying she went away to have a baby. Or like saying that someone “passed away” instead of that they died. Sometimes it’s easier to sugarcoat the language we use than it is to really say what is true, and what is really on our minds.
Job’s wife could have been blessing or cursing God. We don’t know which it is. But rabbinic scholars believe that this blessing and cursing is very closely linked. Because how can we bless God when good things happen, but not hold God equally responsible for the bad things? If we are all about blessing God for the good things, are we not to bless God for the bad things? If we are going to curse God for the bad things, should we not also curse God for the good?
We want to attribute the good things in our lives to God, but then we must also attribute the bad things to God, too.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel too great about the kind of God that pulls strings like that, making my life good when God feels I deserve it or making my life bad based on God’s whim or latest conversation with Satan. But for so many of us, that’s our concept of God–someone that we have to appease to keep our lives good. If God is angry with us, than we can lose everything.
This idea of God doesn’t take into account the institutional sin and oppression to which we are inextricably bound. You can be a very good person, but if you are born in a refugee camp in Syria, life is going to be tough. You can pray every day, but if you live in poverty, your life will be challenged. You can go to church every Sunday, read the scriptures faithfully, do all the right things, and still get diagnosed with a debilitating disease, have fertility issues, struggle with depression or get hit by a drunk driver.
Things happen. Life happens. Sometimes it’s all really good and sometimes it’s challenge after difficulty after trauma.
So if we are going to bless God for the good, we have to be ready to bless God for the bad. This is not about being lucky or #blessed by God. More and more I understand this to be about God being with us–in the #blessed and in the #worstdayever.
You will never hear me, as a pastor, say that God caused good things to happen. I believe God’s power is far more creative than all that.
When I pray for healing, I do that convinced that healing will come, but never in the way we expect it. When I pray for a change in life situations, I pray convinced that in whatever happens, God will walk with me. When I pray for an end to suffering, I recognize that suffering may not end, but that God will give me strength.
God is not a fairy godmother available to grant our wishes. God is not our puppetmaster, pulling the strings. And God is not a sadist waiting eagerly to ruin us when we screw up.
God is love. It’s as simple as that. God. is. love.
And that love is the kind that walks beside us in good days and bad, in terrible life circumstances and when we’re on top of the world.
We often mistake the highs of life for God’s blessing. We praise God for these things. And certainly, God is worthy of all our praise. But, can we muster that same praise for God when times are tough?
By the time we get to the end of this book, Job has put God on trial. He has cursed God and he has asked God all the questions. And God finally replies by saying, “What do you really know, Job? Who do you think you are? Were you there when I created the earth? Do you know how my mind works?”
And Job realizes just how little he knows. And he gives up. Job stops asking the questions. God has responded to him not by giving him what he wants, but by reminding Job of his own place in the universe. And what can Job say to that?
So Job gives up. Job blesses God and curses God, just as every person of faith before him did.
We come from a long line of faithful who live in that mess–who live somewhere between blessing and cursing. Blessings and curses aren’t mere hashtags to be strewn about on the internet. They are serious business. They are the heart of our faith and our questions. Blessing and cursing God means that we are still engaged with God; that we are still wrestling with a God we don’t understand or fully know.
And that is a good thing.