Friday, January 27, 2006
The word metanoia is a Greek word, which we often translate as repentance. It comes from two root words, meta – beyond/change/transformation and noia – soul/intellect. Probably more accurate is the notion of metanoia which describes what we do as a kind of turning around, or – more accurately – "the shifting of minds", a new way of looking at a situation or a new understanding of an issue.
The study of metanoia makes an interesting study of repentance because we often think of repentance as guilt, when instead we might think of it as purpose. Remember the words of 1 John “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What’s funny is that we get the “forgiveness” part, but all too often forget the “cleansing” part and as a result we have churches full of people who know they’re forgiven but still feel dirty.
So now, when I think of being a Christ follower, I try to think of a daily metanoia rather than a simple conversion experience. I try and think of a daily process of being cleansed and shifting my mind, more than just my own guilt as an accomplice of corruption. I think following Jesus means actually daily changing my mind about something to conform a little more into a mind like God’s - a mind of peace, or justice, a mind of charity and generosity, a mind of gladness and gentleness, a mind of reward instead of requirement.
I’ve recently come to experience a little metanoia about life – specifically, the construction of life and the way in which we build our lives. To this end I’ve been looking, in broad strokes, at the plot of the biblical story of Job. It would be a great exercise for you all, by the way, just to read Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Job [5 pages] at the beginning of the Message rendering of the text, as a category creator for all that that book holds for god-followers.
Job is the oldest book in the bible, with the exception of the creation account, and invites us into a world absent of religion. It takes place in a mystical/poetic setting where the only thing that governs human interaction with God is God himself, where there are no rules and obvious liturgies and expectations, just gifts offered to God and a heart that seeks to pleasure Him.
It’s in this context where I’ve felt most truly impressed with notions of success and establishment, ambition and investment.
Job is a servant of God, not a priest or holy man just someone with a heart like God’s who seeks to keep the divine communication romantic, and we enter the story of Job when Job is already an older man with a complete set of adult children, incredible personal wealth and fortune, and every earthly desire. But through the events of the story all of these things are taken away from Job in what the author perceives to be a kind of celestial gamble, a heavenly wager. It’s during Job’s many crises that his worth as a servant is truly revealed and the story concludes with Job being rewarded for faithfulness and having everything restored to him even beyond what he lost.
The potshard is a powerful image in the story, because – at his lowest point – Job is forced to scratch his itching boils with scraps of pottery in an effort to find some momentary relief from his suffering. But the image is all the more powerful because of the other pieces of pottery were also used in ancient Sumerian contexts. Poor people wrote their family letters on broken pieces of pottery and then discarded them.
Now, this is merely conjecture, but I find it a wonderful kind of poetry to think of Job finding relief in the misapplication of family letters, that he would get a piece of peace from a family letter someone else has thrown away.
There are several poignant themes that I’d like to chit, themes that I’ll only flirt with but some other time will explore more fully and it’s these themes that I believe are meaningful for us today and meaningful for me at this moment and we might enjoy some peace together by pulling them apart.
First is the idea of salvation; salvation being a derivative of the root word “salve.” Salvation, by the way, is not the way we initially translated the early versions of the New Testament. Interestingly, Tyndale’s first translation of the Greek word was translated as health. The idea of health is, of course, closely connected with the notion of a “salve”, but even more so when we see that Jesus understood “health” or “salvation” as something much more fully integrated into our lives than just a spiritual attuning.
Health, for Jesus, was a body/mind/spirit that was fully integrated, a life led full throttle, embodied in everything that we do or are. Shalom, or “peace”, is a word wishing the best of health to another in ever circumstance of life.
I wonder if Job, who began in health and had it taken away, understood salvation differently at the end of his story than at the beginning.
I wonder if he understood life differently.
You’ve heard about the amazing change of perspective that people undergo once they’ve encountered trauma, that people who’ve come through the fire, so to speak, have a new way of seeing and living. One fellow remarked casually that it seemed a pity that all roses have thorns and that beauty must be marred in that way; while his companion remarked the obverse that even thorns have roses and that such beauty is only born as the companion of suffering.
Job found a very New Testament salvation – one of health and a full life - in a time that predates even the first covenant, and he – much like us – lived out a new life because of it.
Many theologians have often lobbied for us to change what we call our two sections of the bible, from “old and new testaments” to “first and second testaments”, their reasoning is that there is now a “third testament”, a relationship with God that is more vibrant than the one we have recorded – Yours.
In the middle of all that Job struggles through he experiences some failed attempts at comfort by some of his friends. These friends stink, by the way, they’re the kind of friends who say stuff like “you don’t look that fat” or “not everybody hates you, stupid.” What I find most interesting about these friends is that they don’t seem particularly concerned with Job being comforted, rather – they are concerned that they comfort Job.
Do you see the difference?
If I am concerned that my wife is unhappy, then I want to do what I can to make her more comfortable because I love her and am most concerned with her. If, however, I feel the need to make her happy then I’m not really concerned with her happiness as much as I am concerned with my own selfish need to be the solution to her problems.
I need to feel like I’ve fixed it. I need to have the satisfaction that I’ve made things better. If I do everything I can, and she’s not better, then I get angry with her because she is prohibiting me from accomplishing my goal of helping her - it’s a backwards approach – one that Job’s friends take, and ultimately – one that many of us take more frequently than we’d like to admit.
It’s also an approach that prioritizes answers over relationship.
Putting answers over relationships is always dangerous. The first time your kids make you breakfast and ask you how it tastes you’re left with a quandary of answers and relationships. If you’re honest, the will be hurt because their food tastes bad. If you grin and bear it you’re more likely to encourage your kids.
The same kind of thing is true in times of suffering. You may have a piece of advice or wisdom to share, but unless you share out of a loving relationship your advice will be destructive and counterproductive instead of helpful. It will seem scolding and critical instead of loving.
Relationship contextualizes everything – without relationship advice is never welcome, nor helpful. In the case of Job’s friends, they dispense advice without any thought for their relationship with Job, or God, or the relationship of their advice to God. The advice itself isn’t necessarily all bad, it’s just that it’s been divorced from the living God – it has become secularized wisdom; they are answers without intimacy. And that’s why Job rejects them, and why everyone who has ever read the account of Job has rejected them – because it is obvious to us that we don’t want these friends, nor are we interested in these characters and what they might tell us about how to live. They are only useful as examples of how not to foster friendships.
Remember, too, that there is little correlation between how much we suffer and how close we are to God. It’s very easy for us to make the mistake of thinking that if we are somehow more spiritual, life will be void of suffering, but Jesus never promised that.
God never promised that.
Quite the opposite – Jesus said we would have troubles because of him, that our sufferings would actually increase because of following God, which brings a wonderful dignity to suffering, and allows us to take strength from those brave soul who have endured much, instead of pitying them with a kind of condescension too common in churches.
Real faith, then, should not be about avoiding suffering, but about entering sufffering with those who suffer and allowing them to teach us. More than anything else, suffering produces wisdom, and everytime we let Job – or someone just like Job – give voice to our questions, our suffering gains in dignity and we are brought a step closer to the threshold of the voice and mystery of God.
I think this is where the mystery of regeneration occurs – when we let God’s mystery restore us, and that’s what happened to Job: he built a life, had it taken away, and allowed God to teach and restore him through his pain. At the end of Job’s story, remember, he has ten times what he began with because of his faithfulness to God in the midst of his suffering, but his faithfulness wasn’t tested by his wealth, his faithfulness was tested when he took the broken piece of pot and scraped his boils, when he lamented and called out to God for justification.
His faithfulness was tested in dialogue – and this is where we so often fail, in the dialogue.
The prophet Jeremiah gives us a powerful picture of God’s requirement for us to be in communication with him. God tells Jeremiah in chapter 19 to buy a pot and smash it into so many pieces it can never be put back together again because they’ve walked off and left God.
And this is what we cannot do – despair, abandon God, because in the middle of our sorrow he participates with us, taking our pain upon himself and carrying our burdens.