The Book of Job has long been one of my favorite biblical texts. J. Gerald Janzen admires the book even more: he published a commentary on Job in the Interpretation series in 1985, but didn’t stop studying and contemplating the book. Not long ago, he published a masterful overview of the central issues in Job, At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Eerdmanns, 2009).
In reading the book, Janzen introduced me to a Robert Frost poem that I’d forgotten, if I ever read it. As an introduction to the difficulty of holding together some of the disparate concepts in Job, Janzen cites “The Armful,” one of Frost’s shorter poems. Imagine someone weighed down with groceries, trying to balance the load:
For every parcel I stoop down to seize,
I lose some other stuff off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,
Extremes to hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, hand and mind,
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.
Perhaps you have tried to balance competing or contrary ideas, like the infamous “impossible triangle” of three statements: (1) God is all-powerful, (2) God is all-good, (3) Innocent people suffer through no fault of their own. It’s like trying to balance bottles you can squeeze and buns that you can’t, along with heavy bags of who knows what else.
Can it be done? Can all three corners of the triangle be true? Can God be completely good and completely powerful while allowing Job to suffer though completely innocent? Harold Kushner, in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, grudgingly gives up number one. Carl Jung, in Answer to Job, gave up number two. Job’s friends could not accept number three. You’ll have to read the book to learn Janzen’s conclusion.
In the meantime, take a moment to contemplate Frost’s observation that there may be things or people or ideas that can’t be held together with hands and mind alone. When those things are beyond description or understanding, the heart has an amazing capacity to trustfully encompass even those “extremes too hard to comprehend at once.”
If you can’t hold that thought, hold that hope.
[“The Armful,” from Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (New York: Library of America, 1995), 245]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.