Job in the Gulags

Last Updated on October 30, 2022 by GMC

Icon of Old Testament Patriarch Job, Northern Russia, late 17th century. 

26th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year II)

Job 38:1, 12-21; 40:3-5


This infuriating question had Job and his friends entangled like a Gordian knot. Word after word and argument after argument submerged them deeper and deeper into the quicksand of “Why?”

When we think we have the answers to life’s riddles, words gush forth like a geyser as in Elihu’s speech:

For I am full of words;
the spirit within me compels me.
My belly is like unopened wine,
like wineskins ready to burst. (Job 32:18-19)

Philosophical debates and syllogisms have their place, but can they actually console the suffering or bring back the dead?

In chapter 38, Job’s wish is fulfilled. God breaks his long silence, but the fanciful scene of plaintiff and defendant sparring on equal footing is transformed into a one-way interrogation.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm and said:
Who is this who darkens counsel
with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth? (Job 38:1-4a)


Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk,
and who laid its cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb,
When I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves stop? (Job 38:4a-11)


Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning
and shown the dawn its place
For taking hold of the ends of the earth,
till the wicked are shaken from it?
The earth is changed as clay by the seal,
and dyed like a garment;
But from the wicked their light is withheld,
and the arm of pride is shattered.
Have you entered into the sources of the sea,
or walked about on the bottom of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you,
or have you seen the gates of darkness?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell me, if you know it all…
You know, because you were born then,
and the number of your days is great! (Job 38:12-21)


Will one who argues with the Almighty be corrected?
Let him who would instruct God give answer! (Job 40:2)

Then Job answered the Lord and said:
Look, I am of little account; what can I answer you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I have spoken once, I will not reply;
twice, but I will do so no more. (Job 40:3-5)

Job’s perspective is corrected in the face of the unfathomable marvels of the universe beyond human manipulation. The six sides boxing in “Why?” collapse into infinity. How can a finite “Why?” ever hope to encompass an infinity beyond all speech and thought? Indivisibility has no slit for even a question mark to pass through.

Trying to answer the “Why?” of evil and suffering is like running in quicksand. How can a part of a whole grasp the whole? 

In the face of real suffering, not “Why?” but “How?” must be addressed moment to moment. Suffering has been the crucible for some of the most creative responses to evil, such as that of the martyrs and survivors of Soviet gulags, concentration camps, and genocides. 

St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa, Immaculee Ilibagiza and many other saintly men and women have demonstrated with their lives that the human spirit has the capacity to rise above evil and suffering by an otherworldly faith, hope, and love. 

Like Christ, these brethren forgave their torturers and oppressors and became whole persons transcending their individuality. A part cannot grasp the whole, but self-emptying persons embody the whole by living out of their personal centers in communion with all other persons. “Each of us is the center of the universe,” wrote Solzhenitsyn.

Saints give proof of the human capacity to rise above the most diabolical circumstances, silencing the “Why” to embrace the “How” of creative suffering in the absence of rational answers. The saints of the gulags and concentration camps, and all who suffer heroically with divine love, are Job’s true friends—they lost everything and found the pearl of infinite value.

The Almighty God who overwhelmed Job out of a whirlwind would eventually send his Son into the inexplicable world of evil and suffering as a helpless, babbling infant in the arms of a young Virgin. Can a world assumed by divinity be a wasteland of doom, destruction and despair?

Job (humankind) sitting in the dust and ashes of mourning received a greater gift than any  answer to his “Why?” in Jesus Christ. We received a heavenly and divine friend who sits in the ashes with us, and who assumed our dust as his own body. 

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

3 Replies to “Job in the Gulags”

  1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn used to do the sign of the cross with his tongue and his mouth closed. Yet another post for stopping everything to ponder and thank God. Thank you.

  2. “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
    Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

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