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Job and the Riddles of Suffering
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “The Bible Jesus Read” published in 1999.
Because I began my career as a magazine journalist telling other people’s stories, early in my twenties I ran smack into the problem of suffering. While tracking down various article leads, I would find myself by the bed of someone blindsided by tragedy. A teenager mauled by a grizzly bear as he tried to rescue his girlfriend, a father who died while sheltering his children with his body during a blizzard on Mount Rainier, a man who lived out a life of crime in angry rebellion against the abuse he had suffered in childhood—--I wrote these and other Stories for the Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” series.
Every single person I interviewed told me that the tragedy they had undergone pushed them to the wall with God. Sadly, each person also gave a devastating indictment of the church: Christians, they said, made matters worse. One by one, Christians visited their hospital rooms with pet theories: God is punishing you; No, not God, it’s Satan!; No, it’s God, who handpicked you to give him glory; It’s neither God nor Satan, you just happened to get in the way of an angry mother bear.
As one survivor told me, “The theories about pain confused me and none of them helped. Mainly, I wanted assurance and comfort, from God and from God’s people. In almost every case the Christians brought more pain and little comfort.”
I wrote Where Is God When It Hurts in direct response to this problem. The pain of those I interviewed had become my pain; their questions became my questions. Later, in response to hundreds of letters that raised many more issues about God and suffering, I wrote a kind of sequel, Disappointment with God. Although my writing has since moved on to other topics, I have never stopped thinking about the questions that haunted me in my earlier years as a journalist.
The problem of pain is not one you can neatly solve, then file away. It roars to life every time a tornado touches down, every time a neighbor learns bad news about a disabled child, every time someone in my family hears the ugly diagnosis of cancer, every time a physical symptom forces me to the doctor. We are born slathered in blood and bodily fluids, amid tears and cries of pain; we die in like manner; and in between birth and death we ask, Why?
For this reason I find myself returning again and again to the book of Job, the Bible’s fullest treatment of the problem of suffering. That, at least, is what I used to think. If you had asked me a decade ago what the book of Job was about, I would have replied without hesitation: Job? Everybody knows what Job is about. Its the Bible’s most comprehensive look at the problem of pain and suffering.
I still refer to Job whenever I write about suffering, and without doubt the bulk of the book (chapters 3—37) revolves around the theme. Those chapters render no action to speak of, just five prickly men—--Job, his three friends, and the mostly silent Elihu—--sitting around discussing theories about pain. Much like the hospital visitors described by my interview subjects, Job’s friends were trying to account for the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that fell upon poor Job. They achieved about the same result as the hospital visitors, making Job even more miserable.
In the Old Testament, faithful believers such as Job and his friends acted shocked when suffering came their way, for they quite reasonably expected God to reward them with prosperity and health. The book of Job represents a step beyond the “contract faith” assumed in most of the Old Testament: Do good and get blessed, do bad and get punished. Indeed, many scholars believe the book of Job crucially helped Israel come to terms with the series of calamities that crashed down upon the nation. This classic story of one person gave voice to questions that plagued the entire nation: How can God’s “chosen people” suffer so many disasters?
Job does in fact focus on the problem of suffering, but in a most unexpected way. It brilliantly asks the questions we most urgently want answered, then turns aside to propose another way of looking at the problem entirely. Like most of the Old Testament, Job at first frustrates, by refusing the simple answers we think we want, and then oddly satisfies, by pointing us in a new direction marked by flagrant realism and a tantalizing glimpse of hope.
A Timeless Story
The book of Job so fascinated John Calvin that 159 of his 700 sermons centered on it. History since Calvin has only increased the urgency of these issues, and we moderns cannot get enough of Job’s story. Its motif of undeserved suffering seems peculiarly suited to our own pain-wracked century, an era that has included two world wars, two atom bomb attacks, and more than its share of genocide campaigns. As a result, the portrait of genial old Job, moaning mournfully while life caves in around him, seems to fit a favorite modern stereotype.
Neil Simon borrowed the Job setting for a play, God’s Favorite, as did Archibald MacLeish (J.B.) and Robert Frost (The Masque of Reason). More recently, novelist Muriel Spark updated the plot of Job in a modern setting (The Only Problem). Even the play Amadeus owes much of its plot twist to Job, for its playwright put a reverse spin on the very same issue. Job wondered why he, an innocent man, was suffering God’s judgment; the composer Salieri questioned how Mozart, a genius-brat, had earned divine favor.
All the recent take-offs explore the conundrum posed by the original Old Testament book. Job’s friends insisted that a just, loving, and powerful God ought to follow certain rules on earth, mainly by rewarding those who do good and punishing those who do evil. Virtually every statement by those loquacious friends reduces down to this basic contention: since Job was suffering, he must have sinned.
For Job, who knew his own soul, the facts did not add up. He had done nothing to deserve such an outbreak of calamities. And for us too the facts do not add up. We see the face of unexplained suffering wherever we look: Jews in the Holocaust, famine victims in Africa, Christians in Moslem prisons. Those who still subscribe to the neat formula of job’s friends—--and there are many, if religious broadcasts give any indication---would do well to consider one sobering fact: the most aggressively Christian continent on earth, Africa, is also the hungriest, while the most aggressively non-Christian region, around the Arabian Sea, is the wealthiest. (When Robert Schuller compiled The Possibility Thinker’s Bible, he found only fourteen verses to highlight in the book of Job.)
In truth, the questions asked so eloquently by Job have not faded away over the centuries, but have grown even louder and shriller. Spark’s novel The Only Problem gets its title from a phrase in a conversation about how a good God can allow suffering. “It’s the only problem, in fact, worth discussing,” concludes her protagonist. The problem of pain is a modern obsession, the theological kryptonite of our time, and the ancient man Job expressed it as well as it has ever been expressed.
Yet despite all the echoes in modern literature, despite my own reliance on Job as I write about pain, despite the fact that all but a few pages of Job focus on the problem of pain, I have concluded that Job is not about the problem of pain at all. Details of suffering serve as the ingredients of the story, the stuff of which it is made, not the central theme.
A cake is not “about” eggs, flour, milk and shortening; a chef merely uses those ingredients in the process of creating a cake. In the same way, Job is not “about” the vagaries of suffering but merely uses those ingredients in its author’s overall scheme. Seen as a whole, the book of Job is about faith, the story of one man selected to undergo a staggering ordeal by trial. His response presents a message that applies not just to suffering people, but to every person who lives on planet Earth.
Chapters 3—37 of Job, which center on the issue of suffering, are preceded by the “plot” of the book as reported in chapters 1—2, and that plot affects the context of everything that follows. Most of the time, our visual faculties admit a narrow spectrum of “natural” light; we have no certain knowledge of what might be going on behind the scenes. Job temporarily lifts our blinders. Somewhat like Elisha’s servant, who suddenly saw the “chariots of fire” that had been surrounding him, we gain through this book a glimpse of supernatural activity normally hidden from view.
It helps to think of Job as a mystery play, a “whodunit” detective story. We in the audience have showed up early for a press conference in which the director explains his work (chapters 1—2) We learn in advance who did what in the play, and we understand that the personal drama on earth has its origin in a cosmic drama in heaven—--the contest over Job’s faith. Will Job believe in God or deny God?
The author of Job is a born playwright: dispensing with the action in two chapters, he gravitates quickly to his more natural form of dialogue. The curtains lower, and when they go up again we see only the actors on stage who, confined within the play, have no knowledge of the omniscient point of view enjoyed by us in the audience. Although we know the answer to the “whodunit” questions, the star detective does not. From the outset Job, unaware of the scenario that went on in the heavens, is trapped in the ingredients of the drama. Obsessed with suffering, he spends his time on stage trying to discover what we viewers already know. He scratches himself with shards of pottery and asks trenchant questions, the same questions asked by nearly everyone in great pain, Why me? What did I do wrong? What is God trying to tell me?
For the audience, Job’s whodunit questions should be moot, for we already know the answers. What has Job done wrong? Nothing. God himself called Job “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (2:3). Why is job suffering? We know in advance that he is not being punished. Far from it, he has been selected as the principal subject in a great contest of the heavens. Job represents the very best of the species, and God is using him to prove to Satan that a human being’s faith can be genuine and selfless, not dependent on God’s good gifts. Such a cosmic contest poses its own problems, of course, but these are different problems than most people grapple with when unexpected suffering hits.
By allowing us the glimpse behind the curtain in chapters 1 and 2, the author of Job forfeits all elements of narrative tension but one: the mystery of how Job will respond. In short, only the question of his faith remains unanswered. It is a testament to the genius of the book, and a clue as to why it endures as a work of literature, that we can forget chapters 1 and 2 and get swept up in Job’s personal anguish. He struggles with the imponderables of suffering with such force that, for the duration of the book, his questions become our questions.
In his speeches Job marshals every example of unfairness in the world that he can find. Those of us who know the full story, especially the ending, can miss the impact of those words of anguish. One does not expect to discover the arguments of God’s greatest adversaries—--say, Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth or Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian---bound into the center of the Bible. Such, however, is characteristic of the Old Testament. As William Safire put it, “The Book of Job delights the irreverent, satisfies the blasphemous, and offers at least some comfort to the heretical.”
Many readers move quickly from the befuddling scene in chapters 1—2 to the friends’ lofty discourses. God’s grand nature poetry, and the few---shocking few, for all the attention they receive—--rays of hope in Job’s speeches. Yet behind all that follows, we must constantly remind ourselves, looms the background setting of those first two chapters. The director has explained in advance the nature of the contest.
Some commentators treat chapters 1 and 2 with a tone of mild embarrassment, giving the distinct impression they would prefer it if Job began with chapter 3. Novelist Virginia Woolf wrote a friend, “I read the book of Job last night---I don’t think God comes well out of it.” The prologue shows God and Satan involved in---and you can almost see blush marks on the commentary pages---well, something resembling a wager. The two have a kind of bet going, in which God has stacked the odds against himself. Poor Job must undergo a terrible ordeal in order to determine the winner between the two heavyweights. In a sense, Job must replay the original test of the garden of Eden, with the bar raised higher. Living in paradise, Adam and Eve faced a best-case scenario for trusting God, who asked so little of them and showered down blessings. In a living hell, Job faces the worst-case scenario: God asks so much, while curses rain down on him.
The contest posed between Satan and God is no trivial exercise. Satan’s accusation that Job loves God only because “you have put a hedge around him,” stands as an attack on God’s character, It implies that God is not worthy of love in himself, that people follow God only because they get something out of it or are “bribed” to do so. In Satan’s view, God resembles a politician who can win only by rigging the election, or a mafioso with a “kept woman” and not a devoted wife. People love God, said one priest, “the way a peasant loves his cow, for the butter and cheese it produces.” Job’s response, after all the props of faith have been removed, will prove or disprove Satan’s challenge. A wealthy man, Job has much to lose if God stops blessing him. Will he continue to trust God even after he forfeits it all?
The book hinges on the issue of integrity. Job acts as if God’s integrity is on trial: How can a loving God treat him so unjustly? All of Job’s legal briefs, however, surface within the setting of the larger trial set up in chapters 1—2, the test of Job’s faith. God seeks, as a line from Handel tells it, “love unsought by price or fear.” From our omniscient readers’ viewpoint, we watch for cracks in Job’s own integrity as he loses, one by one, everything he values.
The story of Job strikes a sympathetic chord with us moderns because we too have put God on trial over the issue of suffering. Eloquently, powerfully, we demand answers from God, and God’s treatment of Job is one of those issues we shake our heads over. We retell Job’s story, quote him, take comfort in his words of protest. Job gives voice to some of our most deeply felt complaints. “We cry into the night and there is no reply,” said Bertrand Russell.
That we find such sympathy for Job’s predicament reveals much about our modern attitude toward God. Significantly, all the modern retellings of the ancient story cast Job as a tragically heroic figure. Elie Wiesel goes so far as to scold Job for giving in to God. After surviving the Holocaust, Wiesel has no sympathy for a character who would surrender to God so abjectly. He prefers to believe that the true ending of the book was lost, and that “Job died without having humiliated himself; that he succumbed to his grief an uncompromising and whole man.”
C. S. Lewis put his finger on the reason behind our empathetic response in his essay “God in the Dock”:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.
Although Job may help us form our questions about unjust suffering, it fails to give many answers for a very simple reason: chapters 1—2 have clearly shown that, regardless of what Job thinks, God is not on trial in this book. Job is on trial. The book does not provide answers to the problem of pain—--“Where is God when it hurts?”—--for the prologue has already dispensed with that issue. The point is faith: Where is Job? How is he responding?
The more I studied Job, the more I realized I had always read the book from the perspective of chapter 3 on. I needed to go back and reconsider the message of Job from the very first chapter. There, I located the core plot: the best man on earth suffers the worst calamities, which poses a test of faith in its most extreme form.
Are human beings truly free? Satan challenged God on that count. We have freedom to descend, of course—--Satan himself, Adam, and everyone who has ever lived has proved that. But do we have the freedom and ability to ascend, to believe God for no other reason than, well ... for no reason at all? Can a person believe even when God appears to him as an enemy? Or is faith, like everything else, a product of environment and circumstances?
The modern behaviorist Edward 0. Wilson explains Mother Teresa’s good deeds by pointing out she was secure in the service of Christ and in her belief in immortality; in other words, believing she would get her reward she acted on that ‘selfish” basis. There is no pure altruism, say Wilson and other evolutionary psychologists. We have faith in God in hopes that we will get something out of it.
In the opening chapters of Job, Satan reveals himself as the first great behaviorist. Job is conditioned to love God, he claims. Take away the positive rewards, and watch faith crumble. Job, oblivious and effectively blindfolded, ranks as the main protagonist in a single-warrior combat test of the ages.
Satan does not make an appearance after chapter 2 of Job, nor does he need to, since Job’s friends ably represent his point of view. In a splendid stroke of dramatic irony, most of the book’s high-sounding (but false) theology comes from the mouths of pious, devout men, who, at the end, get leveled by a withering blast from God.
Job’s three friends, and to a lesser extent Elihu, follow the behaviorist party line. Common sense and all reason tell us, they argue, that a just God will treat people fairly. Those who obey and remain faithful, God rewards. Those who sin, God punishes. Who could refute that? They then take the next logical step of concluding that Job’s extreme suffering must betray some serious, unconfessed sin. If Job only stopped being so stubborn and repented, God would surely pardon and restore him.
Job’s friends get bad press, and rightly so since God summarily dismisses them in the end. Nonetheless, they are not men of straw. They argue forcefully, and their calm reasoning contrasts with Job’s uncontrolled outbursts. I would suggest that if today we had only Job 3—37, we would judge the three friends as the true heroes of the book. Why do I say that? Simply because their arguments are still being sounded in Christian churches.
To truly grasp the prescience and timelessness of the book, consider the arguments of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar in light of contemporary thinking. Does God send suffering as punishment for sins? Ask any hospitalized Christian whether he or she has heard that suggestion. The most vigorous assertion of Job’s friends—--that God makes good men prosper and evil men stumble—--I hear virtually every time I watch religious television. Those programs say little about Job’s kind of faith, which perseveres even when nothing works out the way it should. Christians today may also claim a “word of knowledge” to back up their beliefs, as did Eliphaz. He appeals to a cryptic vision of a “spirit” who restates Eliphaz’s own line of argument and even implies that Job should turn to God for a miracle (4:12—17, 5:8—10).
In short, Job’s friends emerge as self-righteous dogmatists who defend the mysterious ways of God. Confident of their proper doctrine and sound arguments, they cast judgment on Job. To them the issue seems clear-cut: given a choice between a man who claims to be just and a God they know to be just, what possible defense could Job have? George MacDonald compares their attitude to that of the Pharisees, who care more about paying court to God and following the rules than coming into God’s presence as children. Job, like any wounded child, insisted on his right to demand some explanation.
True to their piety, Job’s friends are scandalized by his outbursts. The very idea of his questioning God, even demanding an audience with the Almighty! A modern-day bumper sticker succinctly captures their condescending tone: “If you feel far from God, guess who moved.”
Trapped in the “ingredients” of the drama, Job concerns himself exclusively with the issue of suffering. Of course, he knows nothing about the cosmic contest of faith—--being privy to such inside information would keep his trial from being fair. Thus he feels betrayed by God.
Job faces an impossible dilemma. To reject God would shatter his bedrock faith in a loving God, the most important value in his life. However, to admit that suffering is deserved would also compromise his integrity, for he believes himself innocent of anything that might merit such an extreme penalty. His friends describe a terrible battle between good and evil; Job is fighting an even more terrible moral battle, between good and good. God’s justice has collided head-on with Job’s innocence. Nothing makes sense any more.
In the face of his friends’ verbal assaults, Job wavers, contradicts himself, and sometimes even agrees with them. He has no theological refutations and acknowledges that what they say sounds true. Yet in his particular case, he believes deeply that they are wrong, that he does not deserve his fate. He has sinned, yes, but not in a way to “deserve” such punishment from God, losing his family, his health, and all his possessions in short order. Toward the end of the book, Job lays out a formal legal defense of his relative innocence.
Job’s speeches contain profound expressions of pain, despair, and outrage. Barely able to restrain the satire, he vents angry protests against God, wandering just to the edge of blasphemy. The first words he gets out of his mouth are these: “May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, ‘A boy is born!’”
Listen to a sampling of quotations from this “patient” saint:
[To God] Will you never look away from me,
or let me alone even for an instant? (7:19)
Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy
before I go to the place of no return. (10:20—21)
But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
and as a rock is moved from its place,
as water, wears away stones
and torrents wash away the soil,
so you destroy man’s hope. (14:18—19)
God assails me and tears me in his anger
and gnashes his teeth at me. (16:9)
Though I cry, “I’ve been wronged!” I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice. (19:7)
I cry out to you, 0 God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.
You turn on me ruthlessly;
with the might of your hand you attack me....
Yet when I hoped for good, evil came;
when I looked for light, then came darkness.
The churning inside me never stops. (30:20—21, 26—7)
To Job in his misery, God seems a villain who “destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (9:22)—--the reverse image of Jesus’ concept of a merciful Father whose sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous. As C. S. Lewis said in his journal of grief after his wife’s death, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.” Is God a Cosmic Sadist? asked Lewis with characteristic bluntness, echoing Job’s doubts.
None of Job’s near-blasphemies slip past his friends. Eliphaz indignantly retorts, “But you even undermine piety and hinder devotion to God” (15:4). He likens Job to a wicked man who “shakes his fist at God and vaunts himself against the Almighty” (15:2 5).
Yet the tale of Job has an ironic twist. As Søren Kierkegaar put it, “The secret in Job, the vital force, the nerve, the idea, is that Job, despite everything, is in the right.”
A Slim Victory
In spite of Job’s state of high dudgeon, he ultimately triumphs. God concludes, “I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” In view of Job’s fierce words, how could God honor him over his friends? To put it crudely, how does God “win the wager” over Job’s faith?
First, in an overall sense, Job never does follow his wife’s advice to “Curse God and die.” He questions God’s fairness and goodness and love, and despairs of his own life, yet he refuses to turn his back on God. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him,” he defiantly insists (13:15). Job may have given up on God’s justice, but he steadfastly refuses to give up on God. At the most unlikely moments of despair, he comes up with brilliant flashes of hope and faith.
Job prefers to live with an agonizing paradox, that God still loves him even though all evidence points against it. His friends laid out the logic: Suffering comes from God. God is just. Therefore you, Job, are guilty. After examining his own life, and toying with the notion of an unjust God, Job arrives at a different formula that on the surface makes no sense: Suffering comes from God, God is just. I am innocent. In the best Hebrew tradition, Job clings to all three of those truths no matter how contradictory they seem.
Job instinctively believes he is better off casting his lot with God, regardless of how remote or even sadistic God appears at the moment, rather than abandoning all hope. He keeps alive a vision of a personal universe. In an impersonal universe, by what standard could we judge pain worse than pleasure or Job’s happy life superior to his tragic life? Job holds tight to a belief in justice and a personal God in spite of the mountainous evidence against that belief, because to him the alternatives look far worse.
In addition, what Job asks from God reveals much about his character (I know what I would have demanded: Take away the sores, God! First restore my health and then we can discuss what lesson I should learn from these disasters.) Job has other requests. As despair sinks down on him, and he feels his own faith leaking away, he asks for a quick death. Why? “Then I would still have this consolation—--my joy in unrelenting pain—--that I had not denied the words of the Holy One” (6:10).
When death does not come, and Job senses his prayers to be hopeless cries hurled into the void, he asks for a mediator, or arbitrator, “to lay his hand upon us both.” His pleas (9:33, 16:19—21) will later find poignant fulfillment as prophecies of Jesus, the mediator between God and man, but Job himself receives no answer at the time. He has no arbitrator.
Finally, in desperation, Job reduces his demands to one request, which he sticks to until the end. He asks for a personal explanation from God himself (13:3, 31:35). He wants a day in court, a chance to hear God testify on his own behalf against what looms as a gross injustice.
This last request arouses Job’s friends to fury. What right has he, an insignificant human being, to call God into account? How could a “man, who is but a maggot—--a son of man, who is only a worm” (25:6) oppose the God of the universe? As Mark Twain cynically calculated, “I could as easily injure a planet by throwing mud at it.” Job will not back down. To the end, he insists on his right to question God, to demand an explanation. That request, God honors.
Viktor Frankl, survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, concluded that the worst despair is suffering without meaning, and Job’s experience bears that out. He demands an explanation of his trauma, a meaning to his suffering, and only God can provide that answer.
Job ultimately passes the test of faith by clinging to belief in God even though he has no evidence in support of that belief and much against it. And he insists on his own human dignity even as it is being assailed on all sides. One might call Job the first Protestant, in the fullest sense of the word. He takes his stand upon individual faith rather than yielding to pious dogma, thus paving the way for others to follow: the apostle Paul taking on the Sanhedrin, Martin Luther standing against the full authority of the church. Job refuses to let dogma overwhelm his personal rights.
William Safire summarized the legacy of Job in his book The First Dissident:
If the Book of Job reaches across two and a half millennia to teach anything to men and women who consider themselves normal, decent human beings, it is this: Human beings are sure to wander in ignorance and to fall into error, and it is better--—more righteous in the eyes of God—--for them to react by questioning rather than accepting. Confronted with inexplicable injustice, it is better to be irate than resigned.
Safire says about Job, “I started my journey into this book with doubt in my faith and have come out with faith in my doubt.”
Ironically, God enters the scene in a swirling, disruptive storm just as Elihu is explaining why puny Job has no right to ask for divine intervention. I like to envision this scene as a kind of cartoon: two tiny figures are arguing passionately about what God will and won’t do just as a massive thunderhead—--God himself—--races across the horizon to engulf them. God stuns everyone, both by showing up and by what he says. God’s magnificent speech in Job 38—42 has attracted much attention, especially from environmentalists who cite it as an example of the Creator’s pride in the natural world. I too marvel at the wonderful images from nature—--ostriches, mountain sheep, wild donkeys, crocodiles—--and yet along with my marvel comes a nagging sense of bewilderment. God’s speech seems most striking in what it does not say. In fact, the speech avoids the issue of suffering entirely, astonishing after 35 chapters full of nothing else. Why does God sidestep the very questions that have been tormenting poor job?
God’s choice of content leads back to chapters 1—2, the origin of Job’s drama as seen “behind the curtain.” Job and his friends have been discussing suffering because, trapped in the “ingredients” of the drama, they can see nothing else. God, of course, has known all along that the real question traces back to the original challenge of Job’s faith. Will a human being trust a sovereign, invisible God even when everything around him confutes that trust?
God does not enlighten Job on the cosmic struggle he has unwittingly been involved in, because letting Job see behind the curtain would change the rules of the contest still being determined. Nor does God show the slightest bit of sympathy for Job’s physical or emotional condition. To the contrary, God turns the tables on Job, rushing in fiercely,
Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me, (38:2—3)
and proceeding from there to sweep Job off his feet. In other Words, God abruptly puts Job back in the dock.
God’s message, expressed in gorgeous poetry, boils down to something like this: Until you know a little more about running the physical universe, Job, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe. By describing the wonders of nature, relishing especially its wildness, God hints at some of the inherent limitations of natural law and of his preference not to intervene. God criticizes Job for only one thing, his limited point of view. Job has based his judgments on incomplete evidence—--an insight that those of us in the “audience” have seen all along. To correct that misconception, God expands Job’s range of vision from his own miserable circumstances to the entire universe.
I have a hunch that God could have read a page from the phone book and Job would have meekly consented. His doubts melt before a revelation of the power and glow of God. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3), Job says. And with that repentance, and reconciliation with God, the tension from chapter 1 finally resolves.
The contest has dealt with Job’s faith: Will a man cling to faith when every self-interested reason for doing so is yanked away? “He will curse you to your face,” Satan gambled. And he loses. Job’s character holds up.
His lecture delivered, God lavishes rewards on Job, making him twice as prosperous as he was before—--a resolution that even fits Job’s friends’ flawed idea of God’s justice. Pain? God can fix that easily. More camels and oxen? No problem. Some people like to dwell on the good-news account of Job’s restored fortunes, emphasizing that Job underwent trials only for a season before receiving compensation. The overall thrust of the book, however, convinces me that faith, not rewards, is the book’s main emphasis. I say this carefully, but from God’s view point Job’s material prosperity and even his health paled in significance when compared to the cosmic issues involved.
Because of the unique angle of vision afforded in chapters 1—2, the saga of Job illuminates far more than the exaggerated trials of a sad old man. I began this chapter by saying I once thought I knew what Job was about: the problem of suffering. Now I realize that what many readers do to the book of Job is a paradigm of what we do to life in general. We take a story about a battleground of faith and testing and turn it into a story about suffering.
At root, Job faced a crisis of faith, not of suffering. And so do we. All of us at times find ourselves in a Job-like state. We may not face the extreme disasters that befell Job, but a tragic accident, a terminal illness, or the loss of a job may have us shaking our heads and asking, “Why me? What does God have against me? Why does God seem so distant?”
At such times we focus too easily on circumstances—ill ness, our looks, poverty, bad luck—as the enemy. We pray for God to change those circumstances. If only I were beautiful or handsome, we think, then everything would work out. If only I had more money, or at least a good job; if only my sexual desires would somehow change, or at least diminish—--then I could easily believe God. Job teaches, though, that we need faith most at the precise moment when it seems impossible.
When tragedy strikes, we too will be trapped in a limited point of view. Like Job, we will be tempted to blame God and see him as the enemy. Job asked God poignantly, “Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands?” (10:3). The view behind the curtain in chapters 1—2 reveals that Job was being exalted, not spurned. God was letting his own reputation ride on the response of a single human being. At the time when Job felt most abandoned, at that very time God was giving him personal, almost microscopic scrutiny. God seemed absent; in one sense God had never been more present.
I hesitate to write this because it is a hard truth, one I do not want to acknowledge: Job convinces me that God cares more about our faith than our pleasure. That statement does not fit with the cloying, teddy-bear image of God often presented by Christians. I may not arrive at such a conclusion if Job stood alone, but think back to the trials some of God’s favorite people have undergone.
In a message to Ezekiel (14:14) God includes Job in a list of three giants of righteousness. The other two mentioned, Noah and Daniel, learned faith in the midst of a massive flood and a den of lions. Abraham had a test of faith surely as severe as Job’s: he was called upon (he thought at the time) to commit the tragedy himself by sacrificing the son he had awaited many decades. David? One need only read Psalm 22 to learn of his experience with the silence of God. A comment from Deuteronomy about the Israelites in the wilderness defines the biblical pattern: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart” (8:2).
Søren Kierkegaard, who lived a Job-like existence of inner torment, ultimately concluded that the purest faith, refined as gold, emerges from just such a state of paradox, or suspension of what we might expect from God. He kept the book of Job in bed with him at night, like a child who puts his schoolbook under his pillow to make sure he has not forgotten his lesson when he wakes up in the morning. To him, people like Job and Abraham shone as Knights of Faith. Through their harrowing ordeals of faith, they achieved a level of fidelity obtainable in no other way. Said Kierkegaard, “With the help of the thorn in my foot, I spring higher than anyone with sound feet.”
Even the Son of God on earth felt a sense of being abandoned by God. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus went through a trial by ordeal to “know what was in his heart.” Later, in a far more severe trial, Jesus cried out on the cross (quoting Psalm 221), “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Like Job, he continued to trust God despite the God-forsaken feeling: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” For him too, at the very moment when God seemed most absent, at that moment the Father had never been more present. Paul tells us that on the cross God was “in Christ ... reconciling the world to himself.”
Why does God permit, even encourage such tests of faith? Could it possibly matter to God whether one man or one woman accepts or rejects him? Elihu, the last and most mysterious of Job’s comforters, scorned the very notion of God caring about Job’s predicament. He scoffed at Job,
If you sin, how does that affect him?
If your sins are many, what does that do to him?
If you are righteous, what do you give to him,
or what does he receive from your hand?
Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself,
and your righteousness only the sons of men. (35:6—8)
The opening chapters of Job, however, reveal that God staked a lot on one man’s wickedness or righteousness. Somehow, in a way the book only suggests and does not explain, one person’s faith made a difference. That, to me, is the most powerful and enduring lesson from the book of Job.
Like Job, we live in ignorance of what is going on “behind the curtains.” Job reminds us that the small history of mankind on this earth—and, in fact, my own small history of faith—takes place within the large drama of the history of the universe. We are foot soldiers in a spiritual battle with cosmic significance. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”
For Job, the battleground of faith involved lost possessions, lost family members, lost health. We may face a different struggle: a career failure, a floundering marriage, sexual orientation. a face or body shape that turns people off, not on. Our own trials may not be the outgrowth of a cosmic contest waged in heaven. Regardless, the message of this book calls for the tough, hard-edged faith that believes, against the odds, that one person’s response does indeed make a difference.
Job presents the astounding truth that our choices of faith matter not just to us and our own destiny but, amazingly, to God himself. Eliphaz taunted Job, “Can a man be of benefit to God?... What would he gain if your ways were blameless?” (22:1—3). At the end, Eliphaz may have chewed on those words as he offered sacrifices through Job and asked forgiveness. Job’s faith gained for God a great victory over Satan, who had questioned the entire human experiment.
A piece of the history of the universe was at stake in Job and is still at stake in our own responses. The Bible gives hints, only hints, into the mystery behind that truth:
• A statement by Jesus in Luke 10 that while his followers were out announcing the kingdom of God, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.
• An intriguing whisper in Romans 8 that we on earth will be agents for redeeming nature. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (8:19). Or, as Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles translates it, “In fact, the fondest dream of the universe is to catch a glimpse of real live sons and daughters of God.”
• This phrase from Ephesians: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (3:10).
• A sweeping assertion from the apostle Peter that “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12).
Such veiled hints reiterate the central message of Job: How we respond matters. By hanging onto the thinnest thread of faith, Job won a crucial victory in God’s grand plan to redeem the earth. In his grace, God has given ordinary men and women the dignity of participating in the redemption of the cosmos. He is allowing us, through our obedience to him, to help reverse the pain and unfairness of this world that Job described so eloquently. We might even say that God agrees with Job’s complaints against the fallen world; God’s plan to reverse the Fall depends on the faith of those who follow him.
You and I, in our mundane, personal struggles, serve as soldiers in that campaign. As William James put it in The Will to Believe, “Our present life feels like a real fight—--as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.”
I have mentioned that Job represents a step beyond the reward/punishment “contract faith” assumed by the Israelites. The New Testament takes an even further step: its authors seem to expect suffering as a matter of course. “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Peter and ten others of Jesus’ disciples went on to martyrs’ deaths—--hardly the “happy ending” suggested in the book of Job. Clearly, something changed in believers’ expectations about suffering, and that change centered on the cross on which Jesus died.
Other passages explore this mystery, using phrases I will not attempt to explain. Paul speaks of “sharing in [Christ] sufferings” and says he hopes to “fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” In context, such passages show that suffering can gain meaning if we consider it as part of the “cross” we take up in following Jesus. We become co-participants with Christ in the battle to expel evil from this planet, helping to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes in the world.
We will never know, in this life, the full significance of our actions here for, as Job demonstrates, much takes place invisible to us. Jesus’ cross offers a pattern for that too: what seemed very ordinary, one more dreary feat of colonial “justice” in a Roman outpost, made possible the salvation of the entire world.
In exaggerated form, Job affirms the mystery that, for whatever reason, God has given individual human beings a significant role to play in remaking a spoiled planet. When a pastor goes to prison for his peaceful protest against injustice, when a social worker moves into an urban ghetto in order to rebuild community from the ground up, when a couple refuses to give up on a difficult marriage, when a parent waits with undying hope and forgiveness for the return of an estranged child, when a son or daughter chooses to care for a terminally ill parent rather than investigate euthanasia, when a young professional resists mounting temptations toward wealth and success—--in all these sufferings, large and small, there is the assurance of a deeper level of meaning, of a sharing in Christ’s own redemptive victory. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19).
No one has expressed the pain and unfairness of this world any better than Job. Yet behind those words of anguish lies a darkly shining truth: Job—--and you and I—--can through obedience join the struggle to reverse that suffering. Job paints the drama of faith in its starkest form: the best man on earth suffering the worst, with no sign of encouragement or comfort from God. The fact that Job continued to trust God, against all odds, mattered—--for him, for us, and for God. In his speech, God described the wonder of natural creation, yet clearly the wonder of creation that impressed God most was Job himself—--hence this book in the Bible.
Thousands of years later, Job’s questions have not gone away. People who suffer still find themselves borrowing Job’s words as they cry out against God’s apparent lack of concern. The book of Job affirms that God is not deaf to our cries and is in control of this world no matter how it appears. God did not answer all Job’s questions, but God’s very presence caused his doubts to melt away. Job learned that God cared about him intimately, and that God rules the world. That seemed enough.
Job and Riddles of Suffering
“But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (Job 36:15).
As I have said, Job raises more questions about suffering than it answers. Although the conclusion of the book, with its dramatic personal appearance by God himself, seems perfectly stage-managed for an enlightening monologue, God shuns the question. To complicate matters, various theories about the origin of suffering, fine-sounding theories proposed by Job’s friends, God dismisses with a scowl.
The book of Job, an amazing account of very bad things happening to a very good man, thus contains no compact theory of why good people suffer. Nevertheless, it does offer many “over-the-shoulder” insights into the problem of pain. My own study has led me to the conclusions that follow. Although they do not answer the problem of pain—--something not even God attempted—--these principles may shed light on misconceptions that are as widespread today as in Job’s time.
1. Chapters 1 and 2 make the subtle but important distinction that God did not directly cause Job’s problems. He permitted them, but Satan actually caused the suffering.
2. Nowhere does the book of Job suggest that God lacks power or goodness. Some people (including Rabbi Kushner in his best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People) claim that a weak God lacks the power to prevent human suffering. Others deistically assume that God runs the world at a distance, without personal involvement. In contrast, the book of Job does not call into question God’s power—--only his fairness. Indeed, in the final summation speech God uses magnificent illustrations from nature to demonstrate his power.
3. Job decisively refutes one theory that suffering always comes as a result of sin. The Bible supports the general principle that “a man reaps what he sows,” even in this life. But other people have no right to apply that general principle to a particular person. Job’s friends persuasively argued that Job deserved such catastrophic punishment. When God rendered the final verdict, however, he said to them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Later, Jesus would also speak out against the notion that suffering automatically implies sin (see John 9:1—5 and Luke 13:1—5).
4. Having no clearly formed belief in an afterlife, Job’s friends wrongly assumed that God’s fairness—--his approval or disapproval of people--—had to be shown in this life only. Other parts of the Bible teach that God will mete out justice after death.
The pleasure that Job enjoyed in his old age is a mere foretaste of what is to come. The author of Job 42 includes one poignant detail. All of Job’s material possessions are doubled in his old age. Once owner of 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 donkeys, he now possesses 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys. Significantly, though, his family does not double. The father of seven sons and three daughters becomes father of seven new sons and three new daughters—not fourteen sons and six daughters. Even in the middle of the Old Testament, which has a shadowy concept of the afterlife at best, the book of Job clearly intimates that Job will one day get his original family back. The ten children he tragically lost will be restored to him, to live in glorious eternity in a redeemed and recreated world.
5. God did not condemn Job’s doubt and despair, only his ignorance. The phrase “the patience of Job” hardly fits the stream of invective that poured from Job’s mouth. Job did not take his pain meekly; he cried out in protest to God. His strong remarks scandalized his friends but not God. Need we worry about somehow insulting God with an outburst triggered by stress or pain? Not according to this book. In a touch of supreme irony, God ordered Job’s friends to seek repentance from Job himself, the object of their pious condescension.
6. No one has all the facts about suffering. Job concluded he was righteous and God was being unfair. His friends insisted on the opposite: God was righteous and Job was being rightfully punished. Ultimately, all of them learned they had been viewing the situation from a limited perspective, blind to the real struggle being waged in heaven.
7. God is never totally silent. Elihu made that point convincingly, reminding Job of dreams, visions, past blessings, even the daily works of God in nature (chapter 33). God also appealed to nature as giving evidence of his wisdom and power. Although God may seem silent, some sign of him can still be found. Author Joseph Bayly expressed the truth this way:
“Remember in the darkness what you have learned in the light.”
8. Well-intentioned advice may sometimes do more harm than good. The behavior of Job’s friends gives a classic example of how pride and a sense of being right can stifle true compassion. The friends repeated pious phrases and argued theology with Job, insisting on their wrong-headed notions about suffering (notions that still abound). Job’s response: “If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom” (13:4, 5). As it turned out, the most compassionate thing the friends did for Job took place at the very beginning, when they sat in silence with him for seven days.
9. God re-focused the central issue from the cause of Job’s suffering to his response. Mysteriously, God never gave his own explanation of the problem of suffering, nor did he inform Job of the contest recorded in chapters 1 and 2. The real issue at stake was Job’s faith: whether he would continue to trust God even when everything went wrong. By instinct we tend to focus on the “Why?” question; God seems more interested in “To what end?” Once suffering has happened, bad as it is, can it some how be used for good?
10. Suffering, in God’s plan, can he redeemed, or serve a higher good. In Job’s case, a period of great travail was used by God to win an important, even cosmic, victory. Looking backward—--but only looking backward—--we can see the “advantage” Job gained by continuing to trust God. Through his undeserved suffering, the righteous man Job gave an “advance echo” of Jesus Christ, who would live a perfect life, yet endure pain and death in order to win a great victory.
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