The Gift of Life: Suffering, Worth, and the Self

We often Intuit that It Isn’t Our Faith but Our Very Selfhood that is Under Assault

Ian Olson / 1.28.21

The pressures that exert themselves across the whole of our lives do more than simply nudge us towards forgetting Christ or abandoning our walk with him. Many times they seem less focused in their destructive intent; we often intuit that it isn’t our faith but our very selfhood that is under assault. We choose badly, we ignore wisdom, we spurn the Law, trying to prove to the world and ourselves how free we are and instead only prove our desperate need of guidance and lack of freedom. And in the wake of these decisions, we feel judgment scorching not only our misdeeds but our very selves. Is it me? Is it something I did?

Of course, such self-examination or humility are not the distinguishing cultural virtues of our time — quite the opposite. In the face of judgments and opposition, persistence is the byword. Be true to yourself and resolutely holding fast to your identity, regardless of the costs (to you or others). Scripture abounds in stories of those who try to stay true to the faith amid the crushing assaults of the world, but examples of people who stay true to themselves and their righteousness? Not so much.

In his book We Find Ourselves Put to the Test: A Reading of the Book of Job, James Crooks finds a patron saint for modern conceptions of the self and morality. Against the insistence of his friends, wife, and near undeniable life evidence, Job clings to his integrity in the face of tragedy, insisting that the moral logic of punishment and reward cannot make sense of his calamity. Job, in Crooks’ reading, is the archetypal human doing conceptual battle with a world hostile towards all, whether righteous or unrighteous, or of whatever degree between the two.

Within Job’s stubborn clinging to his integrity, Crooks concludes, is the innate drive to persist. Not simply to exist, but to endure as that which and who he is. What a Leviathan and a Behemoth and a leaf or a grain of sand have in common with the patient suffering of Job is a unique created glory which belongs to them by virtue of their being what they are. This is what being is and does, Crooks tells us: it follows its “natural impulse to find and preserve shelter precisely in being the being” each thing is (17). This reading of Job is a subtle protest against many of the themes found elsewhere in scripture: repentance, self-denial, and the paradox of life-giving death.

Job’s persistence in the face of opposition is for Crooks a model for our own moral quest to maintain our innate selves. Job petitions for an audience with his Creator because what has occurred is out of proportion to his own existence. Exhausted and desperate, Job endures his ordeal with patience and wants some answers from the God he does not believe to be a villain. The voice from the whirlwind is a metaphor for Job’s epiphany that “the divine substance of all nature is pressed into the finite modes of its expression […] It is to apprehend God in everything.” By the end of the book Job recognizes that his holding fast to himself amid suffering is something he shares with the rest of creation. All things created by God are unique manifestations of God’s being that is love.

As Crooks notes, the Book of Job seeks to overturn an all-too-tidy view of the world, where suffering finds its origin in godlessness and prosperity flows from wisdom, but the basis of this protest does not arise from what Crooks’ discerns to be a unified field theory of divine being. Job suffers because of a wager between God and the devil, an event which is never revealed to Job. The calamities of Job’s life appear arbitrary precisely because they arise from the inaccessible proceedings of the divine court.

Neither virtue nor vice give rise to suffering, and this agnosticism pushes God further into the recesses of unknowability. Perched on his lofty throne, the activity of God in everyday life is more remote than either Job or his accusers imagine.

Job’s long-awaited answer to his questions does not come from the whirlwind. Instead, it arrives in a manger — the kind of answer that turns the maxim “be true to yourself” on its head. Only a suffering God can give ultimate meaning to the splinters of a universe that is averse to our existence. Only a God who enters our world and experiences our suffering as one of us can provide us the counter-testimony that we are objects of God’s love and craftsmanship.

Such love is not to be confused with self-abnegation or self-loathing. The kind of humility Jesus models does not have its end in death, but gift. Our identity is not a stagnant, inherent quality of our chromosomes, nor is it accrued through personal triumphs, but is received when the “I” becomes a “me” through the miracle of the gospel. The word of blessing despite sin, of righteousness for the ungodly, refashions the recipient into the image of Christ. Jesus reveals that our truest self is not one that persists against the assaults of the world, but is realized precisely in giving itself over to the world in sacrificial love, come what may.

Job’s life is a gift, and his suffering is not evidence of that gift having been revoked. Peter’s life is a gift he does not give to himself, and that gift is perfected in Jesus’s conferring on him the name that encapsulates him as he is and as he will yet be (Mt 16:18, Jn 1:42).

Your life, likewise, is a gift. None of us are happy with our misuse of that gift. We are urged to repent but not to resign ourselves to dereliction. Despite the need for repentance, you are worth being. Some of the ways we have put our selfhood to use haven’t been — will never be — worthwhile. The mistakes others have had to pay for and the wounds you’ve intended to land do not negate the gift of your life. 

You are worth being in spite of the difficulties which have hindered and hurt you, for they are not evidence that will be brought to trial or that your existence is a mistake. You are worth being in spite of the temptations which arise and beckon you towards things which simultaneously entice you and repel you in the depths of your soul. Look to Christ and flee what would weigh you down from seeking him. 

You are meant to be here; you are meant to see Jesus Christ. You are addressed as yourself and no other to find who you are meant to be given as a gift from the one who calls you by name and gives you a secret name no one else knows (Rev 2:17). There is a continuity between what we are and what we will be, but it is not a perfect identity. “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20) names the paradox by which we take up our cross to find our truest selves.

“What we will be has not been revealed,” John testifies. “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). We will see him and be seen by him as ourselves: the truest expressions of the selves we have yearned for and were created to be.