The Book of Job and The Smoking Stigma–An Object Lesson

AKA–Myth #3:  Smoker’s Bring Lung Cancer on Themselves

So…. the book of Job.  I realized yesterday that it may be my favorite book of the Bible, which, if you know anything about the book of Job makes me sound like a pretty depressing person.

But here’s why I like it:  It was written to turn conventional wisdom on it’s head.  Conventional wisdom that is still spewed forth in everyday life, churches, workplaces, etc. all the time.

The conventional wisdom goes something like this:  Lead blameless life, reap blessings.  If blessings aren’t coming.  You screwed up.  What did you do wrong?

Nowhere is this thinking more prevalent than in the world of Lung Cancer.  I’ve said time and again that the most common (and most insensitive) comment I get after people find out my Mom had Lung Cancer is, “Did she smoke?”  As I have said elsewhere , it is undeniable that smoking increases one’s risk of Lung Cancer, but to say that it always causes it is foolishness.

So let me tell you my Jobian story of the week.

Yesterday at Bible Study, we were waiting for the pastor of our church to arrive so that we could begin our study of the most depressing book of the Bible.  We’ve come to expect that on days when a memorial service is held, our Pastor will arrive wearing his ministerial looking garb:  not exactly a suit…  kind of the pastoral version of one.  As such, it was noted that our pastor had a funeral that day and it was noted that the service was for a congregant who was 49, had two teen-aged sons, and had died this last weekend after battling cancer.

Someone asked what kind of cancer she had.  Now, I didn’t know this woman, but I knew what kind of cancer it had been.  I keep tabs on these things now.  She had battled Lung Cancer.

And then it came–in a roomful of people who barely knew this poor woman the question came–“Does anyone know if she was a smoker?”

I piped up with my usual ‘trying to educate the public’ answer saying that it didn’t really matter.  Her smoking status wouldn’t make her death any more or less tragic.  I mentioned that the incidence of Lung Cancer in non-smokers is on the rise, and really anyone is at risk:  non-smokers, former smokers, and current smokers alike.

This was met with the explanation of, “It’s just something you try to make some sense out of.  To find out if there was a reason.”

I nodded and sighed and got quiet, feeling as I always do in these situations that I had failed horribly at handling “The Question” appropriately.

And then the pastor came in and the study of the Book of Job began.

The story of Job, in case you’re not familiar with it goes something like this.  Job is a righteous man.  Satan (actually in this case hah-satan or ‘the accuser’) approaches God and says–that guy Job wouldn’t be so great at this righteousness business if everything was taken away from him.  God says–“Try him.”  And the story begins (note–I know this doesn’t paint God in the greatest light.  Something else we contemplated yesterday was the use of dramatic devices to move the story….  and I think this was an example of that).  First all of Job’s possessions are destroyed.  Then all of his children die when the house they are throwing a bash at gets blown in by a windstorm.  Finally, Job is afflicted with a terrible disease leaving him to mourn in ashes and scrape at his skin with a broken piece of broken pottery.

Enter Job’s friends.  They start out ok.  They show up and just sit with Job for a while.  But then they get tired of just watching him suffer and they start trying to ‘comfort him.’ Read ‘provide answers for his suffering.’ 

Job very insightfully sums up the dreadful attempts of his friends this way:  “Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.”  (Job 6:21 NIV)

And what are they saying?  What is their explanation meant for separation borne out of their fear of suffering?  “You must be being punished for sinning, Job!  Repent!  Repent and your blessings will be restored!  You must have done something to make God mad at you.  You have sinned.  You have done something.  You are responsible for this tragedy overtaking you.” 

They sing this same refrain for something like 28 chapters with Job insisting that he *is* a righteous man.  They won’t listen.  Their paradigm will not be changed.  Suffering occurs only because we ask for it, they insist.  Suffering is righteous judgement.

Job isn’t as patient as everyone always says he is.  He gets mad.  He gets pretty darned angry at God, and on top of that, he’s angry that these three ‘friends’ of his won’t stop riding his back about his great ‘sinfulness.’  The whole book is a pretty dramatic account of how we deal when we’re approached with suffering.  And Job isn’t all that different from the rest of us.  He feels sorry for himself.  He wishes he would die.  Then he gets mad.  He demands an audience with God to air his feelings and demand an explanation.  But through the whole book the friends continue to insist that Job has brought this on himself.

So I sit there in this Bible Study and marvel.  It had been set up for me in the most fitting of ways.  Our very own Job story was presented to us right before our own study began, and most everyone in the room reacted just as Job’s friends did.  They placed blame for the suffering on the victim.

“She must have been a smoker.”  “If she was a smoker we could make some sense of this.”

Cancer is senseless.  The suffering that it causes–or that the treatment causes in the best case scenarios–is senseless.  It ravages lives.  Sometimes temporarily, and sometimes permanently.  It’s ravaged mine by taking from me one of the most important people in my life.  It is tragic and devastating whether it happens to a smoker or a non-smoker.  All cancer is.

And still I hear it when Lung Cancer comes u:  “Well….  what did they expect?  They smoked, right?  That’s what you get for making stupid choices!”

The book of Job serves a tremendous purpose in the Bible.  The story has perhaps been around since prehistory.  And it’s no mistake that it’s in our canon.  It has a very clear message to give to everyone, but especially to those of us who call ourselves ‘people of God.’

The message is this:  Bad things happen.  Senseless things happen.  And it’s not always explainable.  Most often it just is.  It sucks.  It hurts.  It does ravage lives.

But they don’t always happen to the people who ‘deserve’ them.  Really good people get sick and and lose everything and suffer immeasurable grief.  Suffering is not always a divine punishment or judgement.  Sometimes suffering just happens.  Like shit does.

And here’s the crux of it:  The keeping of God’s commands–the honing of our hearts’ desire for him–doesn’t come out of the ‘stick and the carrot’ philosophy where we do good and get a treat, do bad and get a spanking.  That’s a pretty shallow kind of love.

God wants the love of His people, and He doesn’t work that way.   He wants those who call themselves “His” to go deeper.   God wants us to love Him because He’s God.  Not because He gives us stuff.  Not just to avoid His wrath.

(And I am going to add my own belief here:  I don’t think God causes terrible things to happen to people capriciously….  I really don’t believe there always is “a reason” for everything.  But this is Val editorializing)

I’m not always very good at that…..  I’m not saying that I am.  I’m not saying that before my Mom got sick that I wasn’t someone who wouldn’t have asked, “Did she smoke?” trying to make sense of it all.

But I’m starting to understand that some things are senseless.  And that our best bet isn’t always to try to make sense of them.

The best thing Job did was to long for an audience with God.  When he finally got to have his heart-to-heart with God, God let him know that he spoke of things he didn’t understand.  But he also rebuked his three friends, and as I learned from the study yesterday, in the end Job’s questions were deemed more ‘right’ than any of Job’s friends’ ‘answers.’

Most of all, it was reinforced to me yesterday that we are still afraid of suffering.  We still long to separate ourselves from it.  We still try to find loopholes so that we can believe it can’t happen to us.  We’re Job’s friends–All of us.  Trying to make sense of senselessness. 

It’s a shame that we do that so often by blaming victims of the utterly tragic.

I think we could all use a lesson from the book of Job.   We could all stand to be turned on our heads now and again to remember that sometimes bad things are just bad things.  And nobody asks for them.

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7 thoughts on “The Book of Job and The Smoking Stigma–An Object Lesson

  1. Doesn’t it just grate on your skin when you actually hear those “Did *whoever* smoke?” questions? You can see it coming a mile away and you hope that, just once, people would not do the obvious thing. And then they go and do it anyway. Aaaarrrrggghhh!

    You are so correct in saying that they are looking for a sense of control and/or superiority. “If I can just keep my nose clean, I should be okay.”

  2. Trying to make sense of lung cancer is like trying rationalize breast cancer (or any other for that matter). People don’t say “Did she flaunt her boobs?” It really doesn’t make sense to target one type of cancer.

    This is weird because I am reading Job now and wanted to talk to you about it. I’ve been looking at the friends, who think they are comforting him, and wondering how I would react. Would I do any better at comforting Job? I wouldn’t know what to say either. I think I would only try to put little band-aids on him…bake him some brownies or try to make him laugh.

  3. I hope that is true because I am definitely not good at the words thing when it comes to comfort.

    I think I may have to start reading Job. One thing that is interesting (and something I remember from my OT class) is that, when it was all said and done, there weren’t really any answers.

  4. Thank you, I needed this. I have been trying to make sense of my daughter’s bone cancer… What could I have done differently, did I eat something wrong when I was pregnant with her to cause her to grow these tumors within her bones? (She is only 10)

    Thank you for reminding me of the book of Job. Sometimes, things just happen and they happen for a reason… whatever that reason may be.

  5. Yes. this article was well written. your understanding of the scriptures and it’s application in real life is expressed very clearly.

    This had a nice, personal, real-life experience that let’s this hit home to all of us.

    Once we understand our true relationship to our Father in Heaven, we realize he is more kind, loving and willing to bless than we realize. When we suffer, we grasp the meaning of true empathy and compassion. And when we are totally depending upon God for what is needed, only then are we able to finally express pure trust in Him–which I feel is one of the grand purposes in life.

    The sooner we learn to trust and to submit to God, and quit seeking blame (due to fear), the happier we will be.

    Keep these coming!
    -M

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