J.B. and the Triumph of Love 1

A woman and man standing in a field of yellow flowers, shoulders pressed together, laughing - the triumph of love

Job’s Story

You may know the story of Job. A pious citizen, he had been blessed by God with wealth, a large family, a lovely home, and many animals. One day, when Satan came with the other heavenly beings to God’s court, God boasted of his “servant” Job.

Satan responded that anyone would be as faithful as Job if they’d been so blessed. “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11).

So, in a move that seems more human than divine, God gave Satan permission to take from Job all that he had. And Satan did. Thieves carried away Job’s livestock, marauders murdered his servants, and a storm toppled the house in which his children had gathered, killing them all. Distraught, Job tore his clothing and shaved his head. Falling to the ground, he cried out, “[T]he Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Not once did he blame God, nor did he sin.

Again Satan went to God, and again God boasted of Job. Satan suggested that God allow him to strike Job’s own body.

“Very well,” said God, “he is in your power; only spare his life” (Job 2:6).

So Satan afflicted Job with horrible sores. Scraping himself with a potsherd, Job sat in ashes. His wife told him to curse God, but he refused.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” he asked.

He would not blame God, nor did he sin (Job 2:10).

Job’s Friends Sit with Him

Hearing about Job’s misfortune, three of his friends went to see him. They were horrified by what they found. Weeping, they rent their clothes and tossed dust onto their heads. For seven days and nights they crouched with Job in the ashes, “and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).

What an incredible thing they did. How many of us would abandon the duties of our lives for seven days and nights to sit with a grieving friend? If we did, how many of us could remain silent beside him, knowing that any attempt to cheer him up would be cruel?

But this silence did not last. When Job began to lament his fate, decrying the injustice of it all, his friends could not keep quiet. They insisted that God does not strike down the innocent. They reminded Job that no one is perfect. Surely he had done something to earn God’s wrath.

Job refused to accept their attempts to derive meaning from his misfortune. No lesson would make this horror acceptable. No bigger picture would help him understand how his misfortune was part of God’s plan. He was innocent of wrongdoing. Even he had sinned, this misery was beyond what he deserved, and he would not pretend differently.

But if Job was right, then God must be either cruel or impotent, the world random and uncertain. Unable to accept either tenet, his friends continued to argue with him.

For over 30 chapters, they argued. A passing stranger added his own thoughts. Together, they presented Job with most of the excuses humans give for why good people suffer and evil ones thrive.

A woman and man standing in a field of yellow flowers, shoulders pressed together, laughing - the triumph of love

Scholars Weigh In

Many scholars have attempted to explain this story. In The Book of Job, Harold S. Kushner outlines some of the different interpretations, but perhaps the most popular is that humans are but “dust and ashes.” We have no right to question an omnipotent and omniscient deity. We can’t possibly understand all God must balance to keep the world functioning, nor is it our place to do so. Our lot is to trust in God’s plan, to accept the gifts and the losses. No matter what, we should praise the God who brings us blessings and curses both. If we do, we might find that, like Job, we are in the end blessed with renewal and abundance for the rest of our days.

Kushner is not impressed with this analysis. He prefers a message found at the end of J.B., an Archibald MacLeish play about Job. MacLeish declares that the answer to Job’s suffering is not meaning or faithfulness, but love.

But how can this be? At least on the face of it, Job’s story is not about love. It explores the question of theodicy, that age-old debate about how God can be good if there is evil in the world. The biblical book of Job talks about justice and injustice, blessings and curses, about the suffering of the innocent. What does love have to do with that?

Love in the Book of Job

In the 42 chapters of Job, the word “love” is used three times. First, when acknowledging the gifts he has received from God, Job says:

You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.
You have granted me life and steadfast love,
and your care has preserved my spirit (Job 10:11).

This tender and caring God loves us wholeheartedly, and he blesses us with the love of friends and family. But as we have seen, if God can give something, He can also take it away, and Job soon finds himself friendless. Then he uses the word “love” for a second time:

All my intimate friends abhor me,
and those whom I love have turned against me (Job 10:13).

Though we love others, they do not always love us in return. This adds to our distress.and those whom I loved have turned against me” (Job 10:13).

Finally, Elihu speaks the word “love.” Younger than Job and his friends, he remains silent for a long time, but can keep his peace no longer. If we can’t understand God’s justice, he proclaims, that doesn’t mean God isn’t just. We might not know why He turns rivers into ice or brings down lightning, but we don’t need to.

“Whether for correction, or for His land, or for love, He causes it to happen” (Job 37:13), and that should be enough for us.

Do tragedies occur because we need to be corrected? Is what seems so oppressive to us good for the earth as a whole? Do we suffer because God loves us? What sort of love desires our misery?

The Book of Job doesn’t answer that question. Love is incidental to its story, which is more concerned with justice. MacLeish doesn’t mention love often in his play, either, but it figures prominently in the end. If love is not the reason for suffering, it is at least an answer to it.

The Story of J. B.

In MacLeish’s modern-day rendition of Job, J. B. is a prosperous man with a large family. He and his wife, Sarah, know they are blessed. Yet as two circus performers act out the roles of God and Satan, J. B.’s fate is bargained away. All his children die, a bomb destroys the bank he owns, and then, in an atomic blast, thousands are killed and J. B. is wounded. Like Job, he breaks out in sores. He concludes that he and his family deserve their suffering, but Sarah cannot accept this. [1]

“Curse God and die,” she tells him.

J. B. will not do so, and Sarah runs off to kill herself.

Three “comforters” appear at J. B.’s side: a Catholic priest, a psychiatrist, and a Marxist. They beleaguer him with pointless rhetoric about guilt. At last, in desperation, J. B. cries out, “God, my God, answer me!”

A voice from the clouds does so, echoing words from chapter 38 of Job:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:2-4).

Having heard the voice of God, J. B. realizes his mistake. He admits his ignorance and powerlessness. His head hanging, he says, “I abhor myself and repent.”

But that is not the end. Hearing a noise at the door, J. B. goes to answer it and discovers that Sarah has returned to him, presenting him with a flowering forsythia branch. As she was heading to the river to drown herself, she discovered it, and it gave her hope. To J. B., she says, “You wanted justice and there was none/ only love.”

All But Love Is Silent

The play’s three comforters, who represent religion, politics, and psychology, are fools; there is no answer there. Nor can we find one in the stars, for like the candles in the churches, they have gone out. Science, mythology, and mysticism are silent, too.

But a coal remains smoldering in the heart. If we blow on it, J. B. tells Sarah, “we’ll see by and by.”

In the world of J.B., no God rescues us. Justice is never certain. All we know is that at one time or another, our hearts will break. We love, and what we love will eventually turn to dust. That is the story of our lives. You might say suffering arises out of love.

Even so, we choose to live, and not just live, but also to love. That is what J. B. tells us in the play’s last lines: “Over and over, with the dark before,/ The dark behind it…/ and still live…/ still love.” [2] Darkness lies behind us and before us, yet love remains.

In his play, MacLeish does not emphasize our insignificance. Compared to the awesome and invincible god of the Bible, we might be ignorant and insubstantial, but for MacLeish, what matters is our indomitable spirit. Over and over, we rebound in the face of disaster. Time and again, we rebuild our lives when everything has fallen apart. We do this out of grit, determination, stubbornness, but also out of love.

The Need for Suffering

But suffering matters not just because love eases it, but also because love arises from its ashes. If we never experience loss, we will not know how to love. Not everyone who suffers can transform their pain into love, but until we have experienced heartbreak, our love will be immature and self-centered. An infant’s love is undeveloped, but soon enough she faces disappointments and abandonments, small and large. This helps her heart crack open, and an open heart can stand firm in the face of tragedy. An open heart is courageous. It reaches out with love, and love holds it. Love like this sustains our world.

Kushner implies as much in his analysis of God’s rebuke of Job. In His speech, God demands to know who Job thinks he is that he dare question God. Some commentators propose that He is saying essentially what Elihu said chapters earlier, that God is so superior to humans that we cannot begin to understand Him or His universe, so we should accept what we receive without complaint, the bad and the good, and offer thanks and praise.

This may be true. What do we know about the creation of the world? Who are we to question that which formed us?

Yet in these chapters 40 and 41, the author is implying something more. Here, God brags about his ability to control two overwhelming monsters, the behemoth and the leviathan. Still, it is not easy for God to do this, so how could tiny human beings manage these creatures? They might wreak havoc upon the earth, but they are necessary.

Choosing Goodness

Kushner notes that the behemoth symbolizes “the primal life force that gives people the energy to do things.” [3] It is our creative passion, our sexual drive, our human curiosity, our yearning to build something that is ours. Whether we use its energy for good or for evil, the power contained within the behemoth makes growth possible.

The leviathan is another frightening beast. It represents the capriciousness of nature. Like the sun and the rain, it can provide food for growth, but it also destroys. With earthquakes and tsunamis, with impersonal storms, the leviathan wipes out humans and animals alike. At the same time, this force reshapes the landscape and allows new life to arise. Without death, nothing could be born.

A world without suffering would stagnate and decay. The same vitality that gives birth to joy and love also gives birth to anguish. It is chaotic and wild because it must be. If God were to tame it, freedom would disappear. Not only would the monsters become docile, so would we. We would behave according to God’s will, but not out of our own desire. There might be no evil in the world, but goodness would mean nothing.

We must be free to choose love or what we express will not be love, but fear. In the same way, we must be free to choose goodness. Obedience isn’t enough, for without freedom, our actions will be rigid and unkind. To be good, goodness must be chosen.

Freedom to Choose

Yet if we can choose goodness, we can also choose disdain, apathy, hatred, and evil. Like the biblical monsters, we contain within us the power to create and to destroy. Kushner writes, “Chaos seems to be as much a plan for God’s world as order is.” [4] This is true in nature; it is true in the human heart. In a sustainable world, it cannot be any other way. Thus, suffering will follow.

This doesn’t mean suffering makes sense. It is not fair, nor is it reasonable. To seek answers or excuses, to look for meanings or blessings in the pain, is natural. It’s what we do. If we want to console ourselves with purposes and plans, if we can’t face a world that is uncertain, that’s up to us. But when we seek to erase the wretchedness of the Jobs of the world by abandoning them in their pain and minimizing their distress, we do not make things better. We make them worse. Is it so hard to accept that sometimes life falls apart for both the good person and the evil one?

We can learn about love from Job’s friends. Once they started talking, they revealed how obtuse and offensive they could be, yet in the beginning of the book, they showed immense compassion. Their patient silence in the face of Job’s wordless grief is inspiring. In those early days, they brought genuine comfort. They modeled what it means to love in the face of heartache.

Love Is All We Have

We can choose how to respond. Will we hold the sufferer in a loving stillness or berate and cajole her, seeking answers that console us more than they do the wounded one? It is natural to feel hopeless and curse God. We are prone to addiction; we act out in anger. Yet even in this uncertain world where children die, the righteous break out in sores, and bombs destroy entire cities, we can choose life. Ours is not a fair world. It is not just or dependable. But we continue living in it because, as Kushner writes, “God help us, it is the only world we have.” [5]

Despite trials and tribulations, we live, and in our living, we learn to love. Though love, we can find the strength to bear witness in silence. Through love, we may discover the courage to return home though we have lost everything.

Love heals, love carries us, love brings us together. It sustains us through the worst of times. In the end, it is all we have.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Synopsis and quotes taken from “J. B. .” Drama for Students . . Encyclopedia.com. accessed 1/20/2020 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kushner, Harold S., The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, Penguin Random House Audio, 2012, Chapter 9.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid Chapter 10.

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved


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