What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
There are sea creatures that would strike terror in us if we encountered them in the deep. Hence the director James Cameron, famous for science-fiction films like Aliens and Avatar, made a documentary on deep sea life called Aliens of the Deep. These beings are the closest thing to our imagination of aliens in outer space we could ever find.
After the tsunami that swept through the Indian ocean in 2004, there were all sorts of freakish looking sea creatures captured on photos and on film. These really were the sort of beings we have only envisioned in fantasies about life on Mars. But they were not the product of Hollywood special effects. All of our strangest, most beautiful, exotic life forms live deep beneath the surface, and God knows how many human beings have yet to see. Some are so deep into the shadows, perhaps they will never be discovered.
In antiquity, images of dragons were drawn on the far end of sea maps. The places off the edge of the world we knew were where the sea monsters lived. People have always been afraid of what creatures may lurk in the deep, which is why so many of us choose a life where we stay on the surface of things. The problem with this is that whatever we fear, we empower. The monsters we repress are the ones that control us.
Repressing that which lives in the chaos beneath us is a perfectly good way to live an ordered life, but not a way to live a full one. We cannot simply always do what we feel, but on some level, we can only do what we truly want — at least if we want to live as whole, integrated people. We have to come to terms with the desires that live in the depths of us, and not just ignore them. The monsters can’t be eliminated — only tamed (by something beyond ourselves) and integrated. When we attempt to live as if the sea monsters do not exist, the dive into the depths is a dive into uncharted waters. Yet to not acknowledge the truth of their existence is to not ignore the truth of ourselves, which is the greatest form of deception. Counter intuitively, the monsters are most likely to eat us if we attempt to ignore them. Simply put — sea monsters need loving too.
God’s rubber ducky
There are monsters in the depths of the ocean, and there are monsters in the depths of us. Any religion that fails to take into account the reality of sea monsters should never be taken seriously. Thankfully, ancient Judaism takes sea monsters very seriously. There are many references through our Old Testament to the ancient sea monster Leviathan. Some have contended that these descriptions were intended to be chronicle the existence of alligators, but I find that unlikely. Leviathan in the ancient world generally had a mythic quality, like our Loch Ness monster.
My favorite description of God in the Scriptures involves this mythic being. In Psalm 104.26, He is celebrated in this way: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. 26 There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” I am not sure which is more fascinating here — the depiction of Leviathan, or the depiction of God. We are talking about the mysterious, primordial sea creature that terrorized the depths. Leviathan represented everything about the world that is disordered, disorienting and frightening to human sensibilities. In a word, Leviathan represented chaos — the primal forces at work in the cosmos that we cannot know nor understand, much less domesticate or control.
We can imagine the dominant role such a being played in the consciousness of an ancient seaman, a strange being that summed up the volatile nature of the sea itself — unfathomably large, powerful, and utterly indifferent to human expectations or demands. The Leviathan then has a long and prestigious history in world literature. When Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, the aweful, terrifying descriptions of the fearsome whale are peppered with biblical allusions to Leviathan — the whale seems to somehow personify this ancient terror.
And yet in the Psalmist’s powerful imagination, this being is for God a household pet. If God were Sesame Street’s Ernie, the sea is his bathtub, and Leviathan his rubber ducky. People say our choice in pets says something about us, whether or not you are a dog person, a cat person, a bird person, whatever. But what exactly does it say about God that He has the chaos monster for his pet?
Sea monsters are too big and too powerful to be caged. The mysteries we attempt to cage are the ones most likely to eat us. We can first only invite God into our depths, knowing that He is more comfortable in these depths than we are, and begin to see these creatures through His light. We cannot be captivated by a murderous desire to destroy them. This is the blasphemous plight of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — he is obsessed with conquering and killing the mystery, a pursuit always tantamount to madness. We cannot kill the monsters, only behold them in ways we once refused to, and allow them to be exposed before the only One with the credentials to handle them. Killing monsters is above our pay grade, no matter who you are.
I had read the Bible all of my life, and desperately needed some guide to help me name the monsters. I found an unlikely map in the book of Job, one of the most enigmatic and poetically gorgeous entries of Scripture. It is not a place I would have previously thought to look, because Job is famously a tale about a blameless man. Suffice it to say for now that we are by no means blameless, and in my case I had never been more cognizant of just how non-blameless I really was. I had longed blamed myself for various global crises most of my life, of the “I didn’t share my faith with this person who was going to become a missionary, therefore entire tribes did not hear the gospel” variety. You can also see how large of an ego there was in me to deconstruct, even if it was a self-flagellating, monstrous one. So now how was I going to manage actual blame rather than the artificial kind I had always been so proficient at generating within myself?
Thankfully, blamelessness is not necessary for Job to come to life within us. In fact, there is nothing particularly moralistic about this ancient poem, at least not as we have come to think of such things. Job is the book of the Bible perhaps most chock full of all the big mysteries, of all the depth questions. It is the book most articulate in teaching us how to wrestle (or in some cases again just reverently behold) the monsters that come from the deep.
Here are the basic contours of the story: Job is the book that introduces the idea of a satan to us. Later traditions will collapse different images into a patchwork theology of this figure, including the serpent in the garden of Eden, for example. But of course Genesis never comes close to using language of “satan” or a “devil,” the identity of the serpent is shadowy at best. Even in Job, this Satan is not introduced with some kind of proper name, much less a backstory. The personification of evil in Job is translated from Hebrew as “the satan.” He occupies an office, rather than being say, a guy named satan. The word simply means “the accuser.” This figure is literally the embodiment of accusation. And if Job’s account is taken seriously, accusation is not just what this figure does, but who he is. Accusation is as intrinsic to what this being is as love is intrinsic to who God is. In the Hebrew imagination, accusation is the very essence of evil.
The accuser, the prosecuting attorney, comes to the courts of heaven doing his job — filing accusations. But in this case, he accuses God’s seeming pet human, Job. The accusation is a simple one — the satan says that this being does not have a “disinterested” love for God. In other words, he does not love God on his own terms — he only loves God because God had made him healthy, wealthy and wise. Take all these things away from him, the accuser says, and this man you love so much will curse you.
Through the epic poetry of the book of Job, we see the trial take place. Job is afflicted beyond measure. Within days, he loses his children, his land, his livestock, his health. Everything about his external world was shattered. The figure of the satan is not mentioned again in the book —there is not a great deal of speculation or interest in how evil may be personified. He exits early, but the heavenly prosecutor is not needed to carry out the case against Job. He is not needed, because Job’s friends do such an excellent job of taking care of it for him.
Here Job is, the portrait of a man undone, and all he wants now is the consolation and empathy of his friends. But Job’s friends are precisely the kind of friends that we often are to others if we ourselves have not suffered — they are more interested in explaining Job’s plight to him than sitting with him in it long term. They cannot sit with him too long, because Job’s story had become a threat to them. These were rule-abiding men who did everything within their power to be upright according to the law. And the popular understanding of the law — even seemingly underwritten in say, a book like Proverbs — is that so long as you do the right thing, good things will happen to you as a reward for your obedience. Only the wicked suffer, and it is because of their misdeeds.
So when they give their long, in the Job character’s phrase, “windy speeches,” it is less a commentary Job’s plight than it is their own. These were men, who like so many of us, desperately needed the world to be ordered. And if the world did not operate according to a system of merit, then the chaos could touch them too. And that was unthinkable. Rather than entertaining the possibility that the kind of terror that befell Job could ever come upon them too, they do what religious communities often do when their sense of order and control is somehow threatened — they label the monster and cast him out. And for these men, the monster is unequivocally Job.
This is what we do when we do not understand someone else’s story. Their story disrupts our sense of order, so we have no choice but to accuse and blame them. Accusation is always an attempt to expel a threat by turning another human being into a monster. As Rene Girard puts it, Job was the “victim of his people,” the victim of the system of sacrifice and scapegoating that is almost universal both in mythology and in history. If we look to Job’s own words, the labeling and rejection he experienced from his religious community was even more painful to him than all that he actually lost. We want a sense of order and control, and we will gladly turn someone else into a monster in order to have it.
Unlike Job, I have been far from blameless in my life. But like Job, even while he refuted the charges against him, I began to internalize monstrous names. Job began to think perhaps he really was a monster. So often when we see something in us that frightens us, we think we are monstrous — and thus, outside the love of God.
The God who celebrates the chaos monster
If Job was in fact a monster, he assumed he was on the wrong side of God. Like his friends, he lived in a world where people thought of God as the karma police, the one who enforces “what goes around comes around.” So he presumed God’s job was to kill the monsters. He presumed that God and monsters have an adversarial relationship. Early on in his complaint, he decides to let the feelings in the depths of him go free in the form of his words. In Job 7.11–12: 11 ‘Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. 12 Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?” Note the movement: Job sees his own inarticulate feelings as the monster. Finally he decides he will not restrain these monstrous feelings any longer. So he calls out to God, “Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?” Do you see what lies behind Job’s petition here? He thinks it is God’s job to serve as Leviathan’s parole officer. He thinks God is the one who keeps Leviathan from getting off of his leash, that God is the one who keeps Leviathan from roaming free.
Job believes God is the one who crushes the monsters. And now that his life has gone all to pieces, he believes himself to be the monster. How could not God also crush him? From Job 9.16–19: 16 If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice. 17 For he crushes me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause; 18 he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness. 19 If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one! If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him? For Job, God is the one who uses the storm and the sea to crush the monsters. He is the one who will “not let me get my breath.” If we have a showdown, how could I ever overpower the dragon-slayer?
God is the one who, in Job 26.12–13, “12 By his power stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab (“the monster of the sea and purveyor of chaos”). 13 By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.” He stills the sea where the sea monster lives, he pierces the bizarre creatures as they slither away from him.
Job though, unlike most of us, has the courage to continue to stare into the abyss long enough until a voice calls out to him from the whirlwind. He stares into the storm until he finally finds the gaze staring back at him. The storm addresses him by name. The speeches of God are short in Job compared to the speeches of Job and his friends — another way we see the wisdom of Job, for in real life we proportionality do a lot more of the talking than God!
But finally God does speak. When He does, He doesn’t offer Job any explanations. Instead, He does a rather shocking thing: He begins to talk to Job about Leviathan, the sea monster. He begins by teasing Job, who has been pontificating so long, asking him whether or not Job was there when he actually shut in the doors to the sea of chaos and put boundaries around it, if Job was there when he put a boundary around the waves. And that’s when He really goes after it, celebrating the sea monster:
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook, or press down its tongue with a cord? 2 Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? 3 Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you? 4 Will it make a covenant with you to be taken as your servant for ever? 5 Will you play with it as with a bird, or will you put it on a leash for your girls? 6 Will traders bargain over it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? 7 Can you fill its skin with harpoons, or its head with fishing-spears? 8 Lay hands on it; think of the battle; you will not do it again! 9 Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed; were not even the gods overwhelmed at the sight of it? 10 No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up. Who can stand before it? 11 Who can confront it and be safe? — under the whole heaven, who?
12 ‘I will not keep silence concerning its limbs, or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame. 13 Who can strip off its outer garment? Who can penetrate its double coat of mail? 14 Who can open the doors of its face? There is terror all around its teeth. 15 Its back is made of shields in rows, shut up closely as with a seal. 16 One is so near to another that no air can come between them. 17 They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated. 18 Its sneezes flash forth light, and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. 19 From its mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap out. 20 Out of its nostrils comes smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. 21 Its breath kindles coals, and a flame comes out of its mouth. 22 In its neck abides strength, and terror dances before it. 23 The folds of its flesh cling together; it is firmly cast and immovable. 24 Its heart is as hard as stone, as hard as the lower millstone. 25 When it raises itself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves. 26 Though the sword reaches it, it does not avail, nor does the spear, the dart, or the javelin. 27 It counts iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. 28 The arrow cannot make it flee; slingstones, for it, are turned to chaff. 29 Clubs are counted as chaff; it laughs at the rattle of javelins. 30 Its underparts are like sharp potsherds; it spreads itself like a threshing-sledge on the mire. 31 It makes the deep boil like a pot; it makes the sea like a pot of ointment. 32 It leaves a shining wake behind it; one would think the deep to be white-haired. 33 On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear. 34 It surveys everything that is lofty; it is king over all that are proud.’
God’s speech is more playful than harsh. “Tell me Job, could you bring Leviathan home as a pet for your girls? Could you have Leviathan whisper sweet nothings in your ear?” And of course the right answer is, “NO.” But the implicit idea is that God absolutely could do those things. God is at home in the chaos — it is the place from which He started the universe. God is at home with the chaos monster. He does not threaten nor intimidate Him. For us to attempt to subdue and defeat Leviathan somehow would be madness, just as it was for Ahab to think he could kill Moby Dick.
The monster was not a threat to God. And while Job had become a threat to his friends, he wasn’t a threat to God either. The creature that the world called “monster,” God called “friend.” The beautiful part then is that thepeople the world calls “monster” (because their appearance, their story, their otherness feels monstrous to those around them) are the ones that God calls friend. All the things that made Leviathan so frightening to everyone else were what made Leviathan delightful to God. God celebrated all the wild things about Leviathan that made everyone else recoil in horror.
In fact, in an especially strange turn of the poem, in some translations God not only celebrates Leviathan — but identifies with Leviathan. Watch how God seems to casually move between how people respond to Leviathan and how they actually respond to Him in Job 41.9–11:
See! Any expectation of it will be disappointed.
One is overwhelmed even at the sight of it.
There is no one fierce enough to rouse it.
Who can take a stand before me?
Who will confront me? I will repay him!
Under all the heavens, it is mine.
God is at home with the wildness in Leviathan, because Leviathan is a product of the wildness in God. Genesis 1.21, “So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves…” Leviathan is not a dragon for God to slay, but a pet who reflects the unpredictability of her creator. Here we see “a spectacle not of a God who sits enthroned over chaos, not of a God who subdues chaos, but of a God who rouses it, who stirs it up, who revels in it.”
Bringing Leviathan into the light
What if God does not have the adversarial relationship with the monsters we once assumed? God is not scandalized, shocked, or frightened by anything within us. Properly speaking, the monsters are not nearly so dangerous to us as our fear of them, the fear which pushes us in hiding away from the safety of God and community.
Do you feel like you are monstrous? The good news is that God loves monsters. God is the only one who can tame them. A full frontal assault on the monsters, a la Captain Ahab, is only going to rile them up, and put us in over our head in a battle we cannot win with a flimsy harpoon in our hands. Since there is nothing we can do to tame the monster, the only recourse we have is to welcome God into the depths that are His natural habitat, inviting the beautiful Spirit back into the place where she has always belonged.
“Even the darkness is light to you,” David says. The first and largest step towards wholeness is always to invite the light of God into our depths, and invite a few friends along who we know we can trust to hold the light us when needed (preferably not friends like Job’s).
What we absolutely cannot do is attempt to wage a quiet war against Leviathan. That is inevitably going to be an unwinnable war against our very selves, a war that will cost our health, our sanity, our well-being. It is a life of quiet desperation.
I am too inexperienced in this business of inviting God into my depths to be an expert on any of this. I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all answer as to how God will deal with the monsters within. What I do know is that all true desire has its origin in God and can open us up to God. Even if the desire gets misplaced or misappropriated, even if we attempt to fulfill the desire where it cannot be fulfilled-the desire itself, the primal energy, originates in God Himself. Even the chaotic ones.
If there is any hope to harness their power, to put a hook through their noses, to do something constructive or hopeful with them — that is far above our very limited capacities. We cannot expect to master them, but to open them up to light and air, where God and others can help us to see them with a sense of scale and perspective. When we come to glimpse something of the transcendent love of God, that is when we realize we have nothing to fear from the monsters anymore. Because there is nothing in the universe that can outrun God’s love, nothing that will not get smaller underneath the heat of His burning affection.
I wish I could have known this earlier in my life, because I think there could have been less traumatic ways of dealing with my own monsters. But I’m grateful for the God I’ve come to know from navigating the waters of my own chaos. He doesn’t orchestrate the chaos to teach us a lesson. We don’t live in a tightly-ordered universe where God is moving us around in an intergalactic game of chess. Rather we live in a world where somehow far beyond our own limited capacity to understand the world or the way it works, God is always working to bring something beautiful in and through the chaos.
the descent of grace
But that is not the only thing I learned through my immersion in the world of Job, my immersion into the sea with the sea monsters. Walking around assuming God was angry with me, and that I could thus only expect dreadful things in whatever life I might eek out on the other side of the abyss, I assumed I was marked. I assumed I was cursed for getting on the wrong side of this God. I was still in so many ways still living in that primitive world of retribution, that sad land yet to be enchanted by grace. In the new world I was going to have to now inhabit, I was dead in the water if I tried to live by the religion of Job’s “friends.”
One of the things that makes the Book of Job so profound is that it shatters that world of merit and demerit altogether. It is the book in the Old Testament that most clearly paves the way for how Jesus would describe God His Father in the New Testament, as the One who “makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” As Gustavo J. Gutierrez brilliantly summarizes in On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Job criticizes the theology of temporal retribution expounded by his friends. And
“…He was right to do so. But his challenge stopped halfway and, as a result, except at moments when his deep faith and trust in God broke through, he could not escape the dilemma so cogently presented by his friends: if he was innocent, then God was guilty. God subsequently rebuked Job for remaining prisoner of this either-or mentality. What he should have done was to leap the fence set up around him by this sclerotic theology that is so dangerously close to idolatry, run free in the fields of God’s love, and breathe an unrestricted air like the animals described in God’s argument — animals that humans cannot domesticate. The world outside the fence is the world of gratuitousness; it is there that God dwells and there that God’s friends find a joyous welcome…The Lord is not prisoner of the “give to me and I will give to you” mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the book of Job.”
There is no escaping the fact that we will have to deal with the intrinsic consequences of our own actions — I have learned that all too well. But God is not the one who enforces the laws of gravity, of cause and effect, as some sort of extra punishment. God is the one who interrupts that natural cycle with grace. He is the One who “enables us to run free in the fields of God’s love, and breath an unrestricted air like the animals.” Whatever reasons we seem to have to fear ourselves or our monsters, God is decisively not the One we have to be afraid of. He brings the grace that can engineer beauty out of our chaos. He opens up new possibilities beyond simply living out the consequences of our choices. That may be part of our story, but it need not be the whole story — not in a universe where a God like that exists.
For if God is the One who brings creation out of chaos and turns chaos monsters into house pets, what do we ultimately have to be afraid of? It does not mean that we will not experience, or be the cause of, deep brokenness in the world. It does mean that there are no dead ends. We can behold the world in its beauty and ugliness, as well as ourselves — and as well as our monsters — without fear. “Here is the world,” Frederick Buechner writes, “beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
The message of Job is not just that “bad things happen to good people.” In a world of chaos, that is often the case. But the broader revelation is that none of us get what we deserve. There is grace and beauty extended to us all, even in the depths of whatever hell we might be currently occupying. The love of God, like the Son of God who “descends into hell” in the words of the apostles’ creed, is always bent downward. It is its nature to plumb the depths — of the earth, of our lives, of ourselves. It spirals downward into the very core of us.
In his story, “The Dead,” James Joyce depicts the reality of grace more poignantly and more beautifully than I have ever read anywhere else. It is the kind of beauty that haunts you, the kind of beauty that could only originate in God. It is the world that God makes possible, and that Job makes possible, for you and for me, for the guilty as well as the innocent:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Grace falls faintly. It descends on everything and everyone, no matter who we are or where we come from. Even on the monsters. What else could grace do, but like the snow and the Son of Love who created it, descend?