Last Sunday I wrote about ways in which The Book of Job can console those who are suffering. A couple of readers responded, including Kelsey, a recent convert to Christianity. She noted that she has always had difficulty with Job and wondered whether she could continue to say that “to live is Christ, to die is gain” if she were confronted with Job’s adversity. It’s a tough question.
I think of novelist Anne Lamott’s query, “What is the opposite of faith?” The answer is not “doubt,” she says, but rather “certainty.” Of course we would like to banish all doubt, but certainty is denied us because we are not robots but humans. Even Jesus had moments of doubt, in Gethsemane and on the cross. Faith, as I see it, is a framework through which we look for meaning in the world, including meaning in our suffering. We may have different words for this faith—in her response to the Job post novelist Rachel Kranz used the word “integrity, which is to say being true to your best self—but I think that it all comes down to the same thing. ”God” is the label we attach to our inner divinity or higher self.
My favorite religious poet tackles the questions of faith and doubt head on. George Herbert’s “Affliction (I)” was recently brought to my attention by Erica Wharry, a student who used it to wrestle with her own roller coaster relationship with faith. As always, Herbert is never afraid to challenge God. The truth is so important to him that he will not settle for answers meant only to placate.
In the first three and a half stanzas, he talks about how easy it was to believe in God when times were good. Herbert may have in mind the figure of Satan in Job, who notes that of course Job is faithful when he has family, friends, health and wealth. As Herbert describes it, all was well for a while in his life also. However, you will see a “but” intruding in the fourth stanza as his fortunes start to turn:
By George Herbert
WHEN first Thou didst entice to Thee my heart,
I thought the service brave :
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with Thy gracious benefits.
I lookèd on Thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me ;
Thy glorious household stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto Thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heaven and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.
What pleasures could I want, whose King I served,
Where joys my fellows were ?
Thus argued into hopes, my thoughts reserved
No place for grief or fear;
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fierceness seek Thy face:
At first thou gavest me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were strewed with flowers and happiness:
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe.
The sorrows that Herbert now goes on to describe involve first his own sickness and then, when he recovers, the death of friends. Feeling like a blunted knife, he loses his “mirth and edge” and is “blown through” with harsh mood swings:
My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses clave my bones,
Consuming agues dwell in every vein,
And tune my breath to groans,
Sorrow was all my soul ; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.
When I got health, Thou took’st away my life—
And more ; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost: a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus, thin and lean, without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with every storm and wind.
Herbert also wrestles with career disappointments. By birth and spirit he should be a figure of some renown in London, but instead he is cooped up in a university, betrayed to a “lingering book” and wrapped in an academic gown. (Hey, it sounds good to me—but then I’m not the genius that Herbert was.) And when he is tempted to leave (“the siege to raise”), the academic world lures him back with praise:
Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town,
Thou didst betray me to a lingering book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.
Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise,
Not simpering all mine age,
Thou often didst with academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill, till I came near;
I could nor go away, nor persevere.
And then, when it looks as though he will adjust to this life (“too happy be in my unhappiness”), God makes him sick again:
Yet, lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, Thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth Thy power cross-bias me, not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.
Herbert doesn’t know where he stands now and complains that his books won’t show him. He dreams of being a tree—if one could mindlessly follow God’s plan, one would know for certain that one was of some use to the world and all doubts would be banished. He longs for certainty:
Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree—
For sure, then, I should grow
To fruit or shade; at least, some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.
But because he is human—like Kelsey and Rachel and me and all of us—he beats against the big questions. He knows he should be meek in the face of trouble and strong when he is weak, but he chafes at his situation. Maybe, he defiantly tells God, he will go serve another master. The conclusion of his poem is powerful but ambiguous:
Yet, though Thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout:
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah, my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love Thee, if I love Thee not.
In some ways, he sounds like a five-year-old threatening to run away from his mother. As I read the last two lines, he is acknowledging that, deep down, he has no choice but to love God. Or to put the situation in Rachel’s terms, he has no choice but to live a life of integrity. “I am complaining about you so doesn’t that mean I don’t love you?” I hear him desperately asking God. But in fact he does love God. He is grounded in his highest self.
None of this makes his life easy. But as with all of us who care, it makes his life worthwhile.
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