Caitlin and Ms. Mary had been friends for as long as Caitlin could remember. Ms. Mary was her Sunday school teacher when she was a second grader, and was one of the first people who told her about who God was and how much God loved her. Ms. Mary was the first person that Caitlin told that she wanted to be baptized. Caitlin had always treasured the Bible the Ms. Mary had given her, sometimes opening it up and reading the note that she wrote on the dedication page: “God will never leave you or forsake you.”
Through her theological questions and struggles and doubts, Ms. Mary was there. Through their talks about boys and hormones through middle school. Through their talks about doubts and questions of faith through high school. Through their talks about vocation and calling through college. Ms. Mary was always there. Always willing to talk. And to listen. And to share a word of advice or hope or peace. She had always been her rock.
And now, barely a year after her college graduation, Caitlin found herself in Ms. Mary’s presence once more. In her home. At the side of the bed that the Hospice staff had set up. Ms. Mary was dying. And Caitlin came home to see her once more. To tell her about Kevin and show off her new engagement ring and talk about wedding plans. And to say goodbye.
After they had caught up and the small talk had died down, Ms. Mary began to share with Caitlin. More than she ever had before, Ms Mary started to talk with Caitlin honestly and vulnerably. Adult to adult. Ms. Mary told her that she was afraid to die. She told her that she had always doubted for sure if heaven was real, and now that she was near the end of life, her doubts were even deeper and more terrifying. Ms. Mary looked Caitlin in the eye and told her simply that she felt sometimes that God had abandoned her.
Caitlin gasped for a response. Hoping to encourage Ms. Mary, she started to repeat the phrases she had heard at every funeral she had ever been to. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window.” And from the front page of her Bible: “God won’t ever leave you or forsake you.” Ms. Mary opened her mouth to respond, but closed it in a smile. “Thank you so much for coming dear. It was so good to see you. You’ll be such a beautiful bride.”
Caitlin could barely unlock the door to her car, her hands were shaking so violently. As soon as she closed the door, she began weeping uncontrollably. She couldn’t believe she had heard what she heard. Ms. Mary was such a rock. For all of her life, she had listened to her doubts. She had held her hand through her struggles. Now, Caitlin felt rocked to the core of who she was. She felt she had failed Ms. Mary, not sure what to tell her, and even felt as though she had failed God, not defending him in the face of the weak faith of her mentor.
Caitlin’s story could easily be out of the pages of the book of Job. For Job is many things, but at its heart it is a story about friendships. The beginning of the book has a lot of action. We meet Job, a righteous man, who suddenly loses everything – his money, his house, his children, his health. And while he sits in the ashes, his friends come to join him and sit with him. And then the action stops. For the next thirty-some chapters, all we read is dialogue. Dialogue between Job and three of his friends who have come to help him make sense of his demise. Eliphaz. Bildad. And Zophar.
Their conversation takes place in three cycles, almost like three rounds of debate between Job and his friends. Eliphaz speaks, and then Job responds. Then Bildad, then Job. Then Zophar, then Job. Then they start the cycle over again. Job tells the story of their unfolding friendships.
- In Round One, everyone is pretty polite. Eliphaz, for example, patiently explains how God is a just God and suffering only comes in this world because of some sin that has been committed. Bildad and Zophar follow suit.
- Job politely disagrees with his friends, giving examples from his own life and the lives of others in contrast.
- In Round Two, the gloves come off. His friends are now angry. They defend God bitterly, explaining that everything they has ever known or ever been taught, and even the core of their very faith and religion are based on this clean presupposition that God is in control and only allows the unrighteous to suffer.
- Again, Job cannot agree with their theology. He blasts his friends, even more vehemently. Chapter 19 that I read earlier comes from this cycle. “You are miserable comforters.” “My close friends have failed me!” “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?”
- Finally, by the third cycle, Eliphaz gives up being polite and starts to point fingers. He goes back through Job’s life and gives him concrete examples of his sin and angrily attacks his character. Bildad does the same the third time through, even though he is starting to give up and offers only six verses in this cycle. And Zophar is too angry to say anything…he skips his final turn as he has thrown his hands up in disgust.
- Job tries once more to defend himself and attack God. But the friends have already turned a deaf ear. Not only has Job lost his money and house and children and health. Now, he has lost his friends.
For the story of Job is not just a story of friendships, but a story of what happens when a faith divide creates a friendship divide. For Job and his friends, their conflict was not simply personal or ideological. It was theological. They had come to fundamentally different places in their views of God and the way that God works and it created a significant challenge for their relationship. Job’s friends felt the need to defend and protect their view of God and faith, and it caused a rift between these long time friends. Thus the book of Job asks the question, “what happens when our differences and disagreements about faith cause conflict and divide between those who are important to us?
The case of Job might seem a little extreme, but we face similar stories, do we not?
- Your high school church buddy comes back from college and announces that he has become a Buddhist. What do you say?
- You choose to take a risk and share with your good friend that you are struggling with your sexuality, and he immediately responds that homosexuality is a sin, and your only option is to pray to change. How do you respond?
- Or Caitlin’s story. Your trusted Sunday school teacher nears the end of her life, and wonders aloud if God has abandoned her.
These are fundamental theological differences. What happens when your relationship with another is threatened by fundamental differences of opinion about faith? How do you define fundamental? At what level can you handle your friend’s changing faith? Or different faith? Or lack of faith? How far can we retain relationship when we disagree fundamentally about theology?
Friendships are easy in the beginning. We find someone who has something in common with us and we like to hang out with, and so we start to overlook the little things that annoy us or the disagreements that we have. Until we hit that first big conflict. And it shakes us. We cannot over look those differences anymore. Or at least not this big one. Of course, then we have to decide whether we are going to a) avoid and back down and ignore and pretend it’s not that big of a deal, or b) stick to our guns and stay in a place of open conflict or simply walk away (Job and his friends stay here throughout the book). Or c) we choose to work together and stay together, to commit to each other and work through this disagreement and conflict of faith.
This is more than a theoretical exercise. This is as practical as it gets. These questions reverberate through all of our relationships – parents, siblings, spouses, children, co-workers – even your pastor. At what level can you continue to stay in relationship with me once you realize that there is a theological difference between us? This happens all the time in churches. Sometimes we a) avoid the topic or pretend you didn’t hear what you thought you heard? Sometimes we b) walk away from the church or try to get rid of the pastor because the theological differences are too great? Or c) do you dig deeper into the relationship and enter into an honest and vulnerable conversation about our differences. Some of you who have disagreed with me have chosen option c, and for that I am deeply grateful. For the resulting conversations have been powerful and meaningful.
One of the questions that Job forces upon us is how to be a good friend. Job and his friends have lived their life with some basic theological presuppositions about suffering and those who suffer. Now, Job’s life experiences cause him to question those presuppositions and force a conversation about God and faith and doubt and justice. For them, he is different, dangerous, even heretical. They reach out to him because they care about him and want him to repent and be forgiven. But also, at a pretty deep place, they reach out to him from their need to protect God and preserve their own faith. By the end of these dialogues, it is clear that their friendship is on the ropes, if not already gone. After all that Job has lost, now he grieves the loss of his friends.
Do we have to fall into the same pattern?
Are there ways to retain relationship when we disagree fundamentally about theology?
How do we go about engaging in option “c”?
When you find yourself in this place of fundamental theological disagreement, I think there are three questions you have to ask yourself.
- Is the relationship worth it? Honestly. Maybe it’s not. How much do we want to put into it. With apologies to the hit song from the LEGO movie, everything is not awesome when you are part of a team. Being a part of the team takes work, and work is not always awesome. Sometimes it’s just work. Now, I think being in relationship, in community, on a team is more awesome than trying to do it in isolation, but it doesn’t mean everything is always awesome. Relationships and friendships take work, and sometimes we have to honestly say it’s not worth the work.
- Can I see the other for who they are and not for who I want them to be? Anthony DeMello writes: “(To see a person as they truly are) involves the enormous discipline of dropping your desires, your prejudices, your memories, your projections, your selective way of looking…the first ingredient is to really see the other.” How hard this is! When we have a theological disagreement with someone, are we willing to move past what we think someone should be and let them be who they are?
- And finally, a third question: Can I take an honest look at myself? DeMello continues: “The second ingredient is equally important to see yourself, to ruthlessly flash the light of your awareness on your motives, your emotions, your needs, your dishonesty, your self-seeking, and your tendency to control and manipulate?” Ouch. Why is it that I need to defend God? What does it say about my faith when I am so quickly offended and put on the defensive when someone’s faith is different than mine? It is saying more about them…or about me?
These are the ingredients of spiritual friendships. These questions guide us to a deeper relationship with others. And often a deeper faith in God. For in the conflict and the work, we are changed.
Caitlin barely slept all night. The next morning, she called Ms. Mary to see if she could come over again. She could hear the hesitation in her voice. She was undoubtedly tired, and perhaps unsure after the conversation the day before. But Caitlin pressed, and Mary invited her graciously. When Caitlin sat down, the small talk was brief this time. She got to the point. “I need to tell you some things, that I wasn’t ready to say yesterday. I need to thank you for your years of care and love and wisdom. I don’t know what my faith would be like if it weren’t for you. Not only that…I want to thank you for your words yesterday. Thank you for your trust in me to be honest and vulnerable. You are still teaching me, even in these last days. I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to say or how to help or how to talk to you about God. But know that I love you. And that I care for you. And that I will sit listen to you until you cannot speak. And even then, I will sit some more.”
And that morning, Ms. Mary began to be healed.