Faced with suffering (especially our own or that of our loved ones), we want x-ray vision. We want clarity, to get to the center of and reason for our suffering. We grapple with the impenetrable problem of “theodicy,” the question of how a just and good God allows suffering. Theodicy is a sophomore dorm-room debate question — until cancer or AIDS; until a child with heroin or a parent with dementia; until the business fails or the marriage rots.
If we had it, though, x-ray vision would destroy us and our relation with God. Only God sees, and only he sees us in our suffering.
That is one of the threads running through Job (portions of which are among the weirdest parts of the Bible) and also through director Roger Corman’s 1963 classic The Man with the X-ray Eyes (starring Ray Milland):
Job’s unhelpful friends, including the theologically correct and somewhat odious Bildad the Shuhite, ignore theodicy. They refuse to meet Job where he is in his suffering. Rather, they remind him of God’s goodness and perfection, which Job already knows full well. They try to get Job to either pull himself up by his bootstraps or to admit, finally, that he was not so righteous as he was earlier cracked up to be, and that he needs to mend his sinful ways pronto.
He can do neither. He cannot pull himself up by his bootstraps because, in his brokenness, he has no bootstraps on which to pull. He has no sinful ways to mend because he was a righteous man. Indeed, that righteousness is why Satan nominates him for testing, a test allowed only by God’s permission.
Job points out that only God can actually see earth, heaven, and hell: “The dead tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering” (Job 26: 5-6). As for wisdom — which is the subject of lots of verses in Job — only “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens” (28: 23-24).
Critically, the simple knowledge that God understands does not actually comfort me when I am in extremis. That is why friends and family so often blow it with the sympathetic gesture; that is why pastoral counseling often misses the mark. Too often, both are outside the suffering-place, offering advice or positive thinking, rather than engaging with the sufferer at his darkest root. We are dying, and people talk like Joel Osteen.
Indeed, when we remain like Job’s friends outside the suffering and try to remedy its pain out of our own resources, disaster results — as we see in the closing tent-revival scene from Corman’s film. The Hollywood theology is off, and Ray Milland is no Job, but the former would recognize the latter: