Extremity

Posted on August 16, 2010

5


I love to read, and to write, and best to talk about what I read when I write. Sometimes I write chapters of books. I have five books going right now; I don’t care if I finish them. There’s something magical about forming a thought and building it and garnishing it and painting it, with unedited metaphors tangled up and competing for attention while you let it grow organically until it’s finished bleeding, and then you stop, out of breath, and look at what it is. It’s a frenzy, and probably less than interesting to read. I don’t mind editing, and rather enjoy polishing, but there’s something pure about the way things come out raw.

One of my books is on the Book of Job. I have five chapters written. I love it. I’m aware that that sounds a bit macabre, or at the very least masochistic or perhaps just eccentric. I stand with Hugo and Tennyson and Webster and extol this poem as one of the greatest pieces ever written, even with its rather odd and clunky bookend additions. It’s psychological essay on par with Shakespeare. It’s moral introspection on par with Calvin. It’s Hebrew Tennyson. It’s as brutally honest and free of commentary as Genesis, with just as much playful depth. It’s as polished as one could require, and as raw as one could experience.

I have 40 minutes to teach about it next week. You would think I’d be elated. I have no idea what to say.

It’s troubling that so many people think it’s about being gracious in suffering. That’s the child’s version, the nursery rhyme morality play, the prologue. It’s so much more to grown ups. It’s about fear and drawing the very experiences to us that we’re afraid of, so that we can be inoculated, and then be free. It’s about counseling, and not; righteousness, and its impersonations; and the surgeries we’re offered in life so that the true wounds can be exposed and really heal. Mostly, it’s about our relationship to God, what it is, and what it isn’t, who we are, and aren’t, and who He is, and … is.

A rusty pioneer defending the decision to cross the plains too late in the season once said, “It is in our extremity that we come to know God.” There is every truth to this. The lesson goes as deeply as it needs to in order to expose the wound that separates us from the love of God. The extremity is no more God than is the whirlwind or the tempest or the fire, but it serves as surgeon. After the cut, God is the healer.

I’ve had my extremity, that moment where I knew that I could “curse God and die,” where one stands on the precipice and decides who God is and who one is and what we can demand of one another. I think we all have it, whether it’s an event or a process, whether we can identify it as cleanly as Job (or I) can, or whether it’s a long, quiet struggle with gentle skirmishes and silent battles. And I think we all have an Elihu who interprets and reminds, clarifies and reprimands.

And that is the gift, not the pat promise at the end, the added epilogue that reduces the entire experience to hanging on by one’s fingernails for the eventual doubling. That reduction is the very thing that brought Job to his trial in the first place … hanging on, waiting to be blessed outwardly, unsure … really … inwardly.

This is faith, as described by Joseph Smith, a restorer of truths. First, to be sure that God exists. Second, to have a correct knowledge of His attributes. Third, to have confidence that the course of one’s life is acceptable to Him. Job emerged from his trial with divine knowledge, clarity, and confidence … things more valuable than camels or sheep or gold earrings. Or mansions or six-figure incomes or fame.

This is exactly the sort of thing that strengthened the Savior when Satan came tempting after his fast … resisting the urge to see just how far he could count on the Father in the fulfillment of his mission. He already knew. It’s exactly the sort of thing that strengthens us when Satan comes tempting.

Timeless. True. I have to argue with Bruce R. that “the Book of Job is for people who like the Book of Job.” It’s wisdom literature, polished and treasured for millennia. And as it has been for readers over the eons, it is Elihu to my faith.

Well. Which part of the elephant do we eat on Sunday?

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