Image: Job and His Three Friends, by James Tissot
Human beings are matter and spirit. We are called to love and care for the things of the earth, but we are also called to love the things of spirit, the things of heaven. Today we will explore how a human soul moves from a rootedness in the natural order to a love that is grounded in the supernatural order.
An Impossible Command?
One day a Pharisee comes up to Jesus and asks him a question we might all like to ask: “What is the first of all the commandments in the law?”
There are, in fact, 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Jewish law, but Jesus does not hesitate to name the first and greatest of all of them. Citing Deuteronomy 6:4-5, he states:
“The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mk.12:29-30)
Jesus was not asked to add a second commandment, but he does so anyway. Because the two are hinged together. Turning to Leviticus 19:18, he adds:
“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12: 31)
In other words, the love of God cannot be separated from the love of those who are in our life.
There is much that could be said about this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisee. But I want to focus on one aspect. The difficulty of actually observing this commandment.
Who among us – I who write, you who read – who of us can say: “I love God with all my heart, all my soul, all my intelligence and all my strength?” Who of us can say: “I love every person who crosses my path, with the same attentive love with which I love myself?”
It’s hard to love like this. It is the task of a lifetime. It is something to strive for.
But Jesus commands it. The Torah commands it.
So here are my questions: Why does God command a whole-hearted, whole-souled, whole-minded, wholly devoted love of God? Why does He command the selfless love of those in our life? Is it an unrealistic command? Is it meant to make us feel culpable? To put us under God’s thumb as those who do not measure up?
Impossible for Men but Possible for God
Well, yes, the commandment is lofty; yes, it demands great nobility of soul. Yes, I believe it is humanly impossible to perfectly fulfill it. We simply cannot leap over the height at which this bar is set.
Jesus himself said as much. He once said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19:24). The rich man he’s talking about is us. We who have a great many natural goods – possession, houses, cars, club memberships, vacation plans, our health – goods which can (if we aren’t careful) rise higher in our affections than the goods of the kingdom. Goods which can make it hard to love God in an unalloyed way – with all our heart, all our soul, all our minds, all our strength.
When the disciples hear Jesus say it will be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle they lament, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replies to their concern – and what he says gives us hope.
“For men it is impossible but for God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:23-26)
Here’s the point I want to make: I do think it’s impossible to ascend to the kind of love of God and neighbor to which we are called. We can’t do it by our own power. But we do not proceed to the kingdom of God by our own power. That which is impossible to us, is possible for us because God acts in us. God’s power, his dunamism, makes all things possible. To use the language of the previous blog posts: that which is impossible to us, is possible for us – because God fathers his own life in us.
The Suffering of Job
Let’s consider these concepts through a story with which you may be familiar. It’s a story that takes up the themes of natural goods, the loss of those goods, the mystery of suffering, the mystery of evil, the primacy of spiritual goods, and the mysterious fathering of God. I’m talking about the story of Job.
We will be looking at two aspects of this story over the next two weeks.
First, we turn our gaze to the first chapter of this book. We want to ask: how does God move Job from love at the level of natural goods to love at the level of spirit? This is not just the story of the loss of natural goods. It is the story of an encounter with God and growth in the knowledge and love of God.
Job lived in Uz, a land that was outside of Israel. He was a just man; he was greatly blessed in terms of natural goods. He had 10 children, abundant lands and livestock, a large house, and he faithfully looked to God and prayed to God for himself and his family. He is said to have been a blameless man.
In chapter 1, Job runs into severe hardship. As the story goes, God allows Satan, the personification of evil in the story, to visit Job with his evil designs. Yes, God allows evil to fall upon Job.
It hits hard. A series of cataclysmic events hits Job. First, hostile foreign forces raid and attack a gathering of some of his children; the servants are killed; the children are taken captive. Next, fire falls from heaven, killing his sheep and other servants. In a third event, camels are stolen by a marauding tribe; more servants are killed. Lastly, one of the houses where his remaining children are gathered falls under a kind of hurricane wind; all the children in the house are killed.
It is devastating series of events. It causes the demolition of nearly all of Job’s natural goods and the loss of those whome he loves.
But it’s his response I want to consider and admire:
Job hears all these reports, in succession, by servants who witnessed the events. Then we read:
“Job arose and tore his cloak and cut off his hair. He fell to the ground and worshiped.” (Job 1:20)
Suffering and the Ascent of the Soul
Dear reader, I wonder if you have noticed that Scripture is often like a locked chest containing a kind of radioactive energy. On the outside, there is a but a chest. Simple, unadorned, locked and secure. But inside, there pulses an energy that can bronze the face and heart of those who look directly at it.
So it is with this verse. It is loaded with meaning. Let’s unpack it.
Job mourns, as we would expect. He tears his cloak, he cuts off his hair. He is devastated; but in his devastation, he does something remarkable. He falls to the ground and worships God. He prays to God with the same love and faith he showed each evening in the days of his blessings and abundance. Faced with the devastation and denudation of his natural goods, the loss of his children, he persists in an attitude of worship toward God.
This is the picture of a soul that loves God above all natural things. Job, in his prosperity, may not have ever touched the depth of this love before. But now, in this dark valley, the love of God that stirs in his heart shines brightly. It burns like a candle in the night of human suffering.
I believe this moment is important because it shows a soul in the act of becoming capable of whole-hearted, whole-souled, whole-minded love of God. A love that is not diminished by the loss of natural goods.
Such a love is one of the highest goods – if not the highest – that can exist on earth. A love like this that turns toward God – and also toward one’s neighbor – is a love that makes the kingdom of God present here on earth.
It’s a horrible thing Job went through. The mystery of evil, loss and suffering is a night from which we will always recoil. But there is a sense in which – and that’s what we learn from Job – a sense in which evil occasions the manifestation of something rare and exquisite: a soul that loves God above all natural goods. In Job’s suffering we are seeing, in a human heart, in real time, the love of God take possession of a human heart – all his soul, all his intelligence, all his strength.
This is a remarkable revelation. It is, in a way, the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, quoted above. It is a foreshadowing of what Jesus will live through, a prophetic sign in the Old Testament of what Jesus will accomplish even more perfectly in the New – in the garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross.
Job, in other words, is being called upon the way of the Cross, even though he doesn’t fully understand what it means. Because it hasn’t been revealed yet.
Embers of Divine Love
Job is not finished. He doesn’t just fall to his face in worship. He cries out:
‘Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!’
We alluded earlier to the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew 19. This man wants to be perfect, asks Jesus what he must do to become perfect. Jesus does not speak this way to every disciple, but to this man, with his ardent desire to follow Jesus, he gives this command:
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mt. 19:21)
I put these two passages next to each other because the rich young man could not abide the loss of his natural goods. He went away sad from Jesus that day because the summons to love God above his natural goods was too tall an ask. He loved his natural goods more than he loved God.
Yet Job, here, gives the opposite response. In the face of the sudden loss of livestock, property and children, Job remains wholeheartedly turned toward God in faith. He needs nothing on earth in the way of natural goods. He is willing to be stripped of all natural goods and still, he will proclaim the blessings of God. Still, he will love God. Naked he will exit this world, if such is his fate, with the praise of God ever on his lips.
The love of God burns in his heart in such a way that is not diminished by the things he loves on earth. You might say he loves the things of earth with the same love, with a consubstantial love as the love with which he loves God. Because the one does not diminish the other. The loss of one does not lessen the other.
In other words, Job, in his suffering and loss, has ascended to a place where he loves God with all his heart, all his soul, all his intelligence, all his strength. The fire of divine love has gripped his heart and it burns, like a candle, bright before the altar of God. Burns on earth as the embers of divine love burn in heaven – those that touched the lips of Isaiah as he stood before the throne of God (Is. 6:6).
From Sense to Spirit
I think, in Job, we are seeing what Edith Stein calls the movement of a soul from sense to spirit. This passage of the soul that John of the Cross labels “the night of the senses.”
What do I mean? Well, we all naturally aspire to goods we can see and touch, natural goods. Goods that appear to us at the level of our senses. Stein describes this process as “the entirely comfortable [state of] being-at-home in the world, the satiety of pleasures that it offers, the demand for these pleasures, and the matter-of-course consent to these demands – all of this the human nature considers bright daily life.” This is the level of sense.
But the divine light in the soul is something different, says Stein, following St. John of the Cross. The world of sensory goods, the world of natural goods “has to be totally uprooted if room for God is to be made in the soul.”
That is what I believe is happening in Job’s experience. He is moving from sense to spirit.
In this way, he is a revelation for us. Job is a light for us. If it is possible for Job, a pagan man who was faithful to God, to move from sense to spirit, to ascend to a whole-hearted love of God, then it is possible for us.
We are called to this same love, in times of blessing and in times of loss. Indeed it is often through times of suffering and loss that our spirits grow most. We may not encounter the kind of cataclysmic loss Job faced. But we will face losses: losses of jobs, losses of loved ones, loss of property, loss of our personal health, loss of things greatly hope for, the loss, one day, of our life.
The question is: when that day comes, will the muscle of divine love be sufficiently exercised in us that our hearts can ascend toward the Father in heaven even while we mourn the loss of natural goods on earth? Or will we allow our love for natural goods to burn in such a way that they weaken the flame of divine love in us?
These are the questions Job’s story should awaken in us.
“Job arose and tore his cloak and cut off his hair. He fell to the ground and worshiped. He said “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!” Job 1:20-21
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, through the mystery of suffering, the mystery of the Cross, you lead me to love the Trinity with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind and with all my strength. Amen. In each of my dark valleys, I abandon myself into your hands. Lead me from sense into spirit. Have mercy on me, a sinner.