The Serpent’s Kiss

In Bible, Life, Philosophy, Theology
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What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips. (Job 2:10 KJV)

This passage has always somewhat perplexed me. The story of Job is a familiar one: he is a righteous man in whom no blame can be found. Satan thinks he can get Job to curse God by taking his stuff and then ultimately bringing him to brink of death, and God allows Satan to do his worst.

All the bad things happen to Job, one hit after another, but in all of it he does not speak against God. While no doubt shrouded in grief from the loss of his family, his property and his health, he does not lift his fist to heaven- even at his wife’s insistence- and thus God’s assessment of his character is vindicated, and Job in the process.

Yet there has always seemed a disconnect between Job’s seemingly stalwart faith in the face of his suffering, and his later summoning God to the docket. We are told here that he did not sin in what he said, and even at the end of the story Job’s friends are rebuked for not speaking rightly of God, even though Job is said to have.

And since Job’s story is the perennial favorite for (at least modern) Christian theologizing on suffering, his questions for God seem enough to give us cover to do the same whenever things get bad or don’t go our way.

As I noticed in a previous post, Job’s complaint isn’t actually about suffering, which he actually seems to bear with an almost stoic composure. He exhibits an inner apatheia towards the misfortunes that befall him that would make Marcus Aeralius pine with envy. Rather, the holdout in Job’s heart was not an attachment to things or even to family, which he understood (quite rightly) to be a gift from God for God to do with as he pleased, but instead was his commitment to his own righteousness, which I think could be argued was the most important thing to him. Ultimately, Job needed to discover that his own righteousness was nothing apart from God’s, and God’s questions to him from the storm lead him to realize this.

But as I think through the story of Job again, and especially the passage quoted in the opening, I can’t help but think that we are very good at accepting good from God’s hand, but awful at accepting evil. In fact, most of the time we refuse to even allow that God could bring the troubles we face.

I have always bristled against the term “evil” here as is has been traditionally rendered in English, for the juxtaposition of the terms good and evil here seems to suggest that God is capable of “evil” in the moral sense, which is a theological and ontological impossibility. But “evil” in its more archaic forms is more than just a moral trait full stop, but rather encompasses all the ill effects that befall us. In other words, it can carry both the objective meaning of a moral evil as well as the subjective meaning of something which is experienced as negative. This might seem to create semantic confusion, but it actually makes sense, for as sin is really the privation of the good, so misfortune is anything which- in our subjective experience- does not tend toward or instantiate the good (as we understand it, of course!).

The absolutely crucial point here is that our experience of misfortune does not necessarily entail anything objectively evil; what can seem in our our inward subjectivity to be an evil might actually arise out of good.

Of course, parsing the distinction between the objective moral nature of any subjective experience is fraught with difficulty at best, primarily because our lack of knowledge leaves gaping holes in the analysis. And thus when it comes to suffering we are often content to ask “why are bad things happening to me,” rarely ever open to the notion that the evil befalling us might arise out of good.

Job’s words make perspicuous the reality that sometimes misfortune comes to us directly from God. To be sure, in this story Satan was the one who instigated the attacks on Job, and God allowed them to happen. But interestingly enough, near the end of Job’s affliction’s at Satan’s hand God does not try to hide behind any secondary cause:

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Job 2:3 NIV

Of course, we have become experts at washing God’s hands of the evils that we experience, precisely because we too easily conflate evil in the objective sense and evil in its subjective sense. And so we lay the blame for suffering at the feet of chance or meaninglessness or lesser moral agents; anything to avoid the possibility that God could be the source of our suffering.

Job’s friends are interesting in this story in that they seem to actually speak well of God the entire time, since they ostensibly uphold his justice. In the face of Job’s protestations of righteousness, they don’t buy it, insisting that Job has brought his suffering on himself. Naturally, the reader understands the problem, for their insistence of Job’s sinfulnesses is misplaced as Job has not actually sinned, nor is his suffering the result of that punishment. Their neat theodicy has no room for redemptive suffering, which is precisely why it is lacking.

I had never really noticed it before, but the attempt to absolve God from bringing suffering into our lives takes the very failing of Job’s friends’ theodicy and inverts it, and therefore stumbles in a similar if opposite error. Job’s friends cannot see suffering as anything but God’s punishment, and thus there must be a 1:1 correlation between the two for it to remain intact. In this error suffering is a complete illustration of God’s relationship to the subject of suffering.

In a like manner, when we absolve God as the source of any suffering we make a similar if inverted error by completely detaching any relationship between God and suffering, again constructing a 1:1 correspondence, albeit in the opposite relation. Just as Job’s friends insist that suffering is always indicative of God’s punishment or displeasure, so here we must always insist that suffering is never indicative of God’s relation to us, since God is systematically removed as the cause of suffering en toto.

While there may be ostensibly noble reasons for wishing to wash God’s hands clean of all the evil we experience in this world, at root the consternation induced by suffering is the root of evil which prompted the fall of our race and all other beings into the bargain:

We don’t really believe that God is good.

In the garden narrative Eve comes face to face with the serpent and is tempted to disobey God by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus- so the serpent promises- to become like God. There is tragedy laden in irony here, for the defining characteristic- as proclaimed by God at the creation of man- is that man is made in God’s image, and thus by virtue of that quality already like God as much as any created being could be. The crux of the serpent’s deception is thus not primarily in the falsehood that man will not die if he partakes of the fruit, but is rather far more subtle and thus far more insidious.

The serpent fundamentally calls into question God’s goodness, for God- as the source of all goodness and thus Goodness itself- has defined the good for man, but the serpent raises the doubt in Eve’s mind that God is actually good. After all, he says, God is really keeping something from them, and thus being unjust; God knows that if they eat of the tree they will know good and evil and thus be like God. The insinuation here is that since God is threatening them so as to keep them from their true potential, God’s definition of what is good must truly be suspect, for man can have the ability within himself (if only he will reach out and grab it!) to know the good from the evil by his own lights and under his own definitions.

In the end, God’s goodness is not only suspect, but actually quite superfluous.

The power of the deception lies in the suffering it entails, for if the serpent is correct then God’s goodness is bogus and his ‘justice’ is actually the greatest injustice. For how can it be just, the serpent implies, for God to keep man from what should rightfully be his? Is not the likeness of God something possible for humanity? And if so, what kind of moral monster would inflict the suffering of this stifled potential on his creation? Is God even worthy of that designation, since he would create something so imperfect and keep it from its perfection, even though that perfection is within its grasp? What sort of goodness is that?

The tragedy, of course, is that since man is a finite creature, he cannot contain the definition of goodness within himself nor understand it by his own lights, for goodness, as a transcendental, must be infinite if it is to be at all. And since to fully contemplate infinite goodness one must be not only infinite but that goodness itself, by no means could a finite and contingent being possibly hope to fathom the infinite depth of the good.

But since- like Eve- we don’t really believe that God is good, this is ultimately what we pretend to accomplish when we take on the mantle of Job’s friends or the more modern garb of absolving God from all suffering. Our questions of “why” fundamentally betray our lack of trust in God’s goodness, for even though deep down we perhaps know we could never understand the answer to that question, the question itself is the hiss of the serpent’s kiss in our ears.

Suffering is truly a crucible, which can bring forth the purest faith or burn it all away in the fires of doubt and disbelief. Man believed the serpent’s lie and lost all faith in God’s goodness, believing that he instead must be the one to understand and define the good. Job’s friends believed the same lie, thinking their theodicy could lay bare the mystery of suffering.

Job, however, came to understand that God’s ways are not his ways nor his friends’ ways. His final conversion was accomplished through his suffering, in which he was made perfect because he finally realized that his righteousness was not his own, was not something he could cling to as his possession in the face of an irrational universe, but ultimately must be identical to the righteousness of God. His dressing down from God out of the storm was actually the final answer to his suffering, for he realized that the mystery of it all was too far beyond him, and that in the final analysis he must trust completely and fully in God’s goodness, despite what his limited understanding of the good might entail.

Trusting in God’s goodness is thus finally about submitting one’s own understanding of the good to the one who is goodness itself. The mystery of suffering is that we can never understand the mystery, and our attempts to do so only end in disaster, for we are simply not ontologically capable of the understanding required to reconcile it to God’s goodness. This is a frustrating place to be, to be sure, a place that finds us back in the garden as the serpent whispers into our ears, calling us to wonder if God really is good all the way down.

But it is not a place that God himself is aloof from, for in the Incarnation Jesus reenacts the same drama that all humans must face in the garden, the unfathomably crucial choice to trust in God’s goodness in spite of what might seem rational or even good, or to go one’s own way and discover and define the good by one’s own power. The inscrutable mystery in the garden- as Jesus sweated blood facing an agonizing death- is that as God Jesus was Goodness itself, yet in the human balance had to face the same decision we all must in the face of suffering. The human nature cringes from pain and from death, but the divine nature understood the plan and purpose and goodness of God (which are identical) from all eternity. In the ineffable oneness of Jesus’ person the drama concluded by turning aside from the decision of Adam and Eve, which is why Jesus is the New Adam. The old Adam renounced his trust in God’s goodness, but the new Adam would be the firstfruits of the new human race which trusted in God’s goodness.

The cry of “not my will, but yours be done” gives the lie to all of the theodicies which try to make suffering always the result of sin or which attempt to absolve God from it all. For Jesus had not sinned and thus was not suffering because of what he had done, but neither was his suffering completely out of God’s hands, since he declares that it is ultimately God’s will for him to suffer. The author of Hebrews tells us that he was made perfect through suffering, which is the promissory note for all of those who are given new birth, as suffering becomes the purifying fire which leads us deeper into the mystery of communion with God.

Our human nature will always ask why and want a way out, as Jesus did, but in the end suffering can become the moment in which we can fully realize our trust that God really is good. And even though we can never understand nor reconcile what we perceive to be evil in our lives and in our suffering, the faith that Job prefigured and which Jesus perfected is the ultimate answer to our suffering, for it seeks the answer not in a rational alignment of good and suffering nor in a fatalistic embrace of meaninglessness, but rather in the one who is Goodness itself and from whom infinite goodness flows.

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