Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Suffering: The story of Job

Job was "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil." That's how he is introduced. We are also told that he is richly blessed with possessions, family and has a genuine love for his children (as shown by his willingness to do the equivalent of praying for them every morning: vs. 5).

To Job's surprise, everything (except his own life and his wife) are taken away: his children, his possessions, his servants and even his good health. What happened?

Unknown to Job, God and Satan have a bet going on between them (interestingly enough, it was egged on by God, not by Satan). God brags about Job's faithfulness and righteousness to Satan and Satan says Job's faith is only based on how God has blessed him. He bets that if everything is taken away he would curse God to His face. So God lets Satan take everything away from him and Job still worships God. Then Satan approaches God a second time and bets God that if he strikes Job physically that Job will curse him to his face. So again, Satan makes his move and puts Job's body through hell (so much so that job scrapes off painful sores with broken pottery). Job still doesn't curse God. At this point the narrator focuses in on a series of conversations between Job and his friends. The story concludes with God speaking to Job, Job being humbled and God once again blessing Job.

One interesting part that I have to highlight is after the second bet, Job's wife has had enough and her advice to him is to "curse God and die." Job's response? "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" Not exactly a Proverbs 31 wife. Then the narrator says that "in all this, Job did not sin in what he said."

How does Job respond to all of this? Well, even though he doesn't curse God, he does go through deep depression, questions God about why its happening and persistently communicates his innocence.

I want to correct something. "The patience of Job" is a terrible cliche' because Job isn't patient! He doesn't curse God, but at times he does have some demanding requests of God that aren't exactly descriptions of waiting in patience. Also, Job never asks for his family and possessions back, what He asks for is actually fair, he asks to hear from God.

So, what does all this have to do with the question of theodicy (see previous post for definition)?

First, I think one of the major points God intended for us to get out of Job is that it is too simple and limiting to conclude that sin causes suffering. Job is an example of an innocent man who still experiences terrible suffering. I believe God wants us all to know that there is more to suffering than just a cause and effect relationship with sin.

Second, I believe Job is a pre-Jesus example of how to suffer well. He grieves. He suffers deep situational depression. He's honest with God about his frustration, anger and sadness. He boldly questions God about why it happened. He asks to hear from God. He shows integrity by maintaining his innocence before his friends that are incessantly unwavering in their assessment that he has an unconfessed sin that brought this suffering upon him. Once he hears from God, he is humble and repentant about his attitude. Job shows us how someone mature in their faith can and should handle suffering.

Third, we see that Satan has limited power on earth. The only way Satan can touch Job is with God's permission. I'm still not exactly sure what that means, but its interesting to think about. I understand it by thinking of it this way: God lets Satan borrow power for a specific purpose. The question then becomes, does that make God out to be manipulative? If so, then it doesn't fit a perfectly loving God, because manipulation would not behaviorally fit a God who loves perfectly. (See the comments section at the bottom of the post for more on this).

Fourth, God teaches us both how to be with someone who is suffering and how not to be with someone who is suffering. Job's friends show up at the end of chapter 2 and do a great job of comforting him just by their presence. They weep, tear their robes and sprinkle dust on their heads; all three are Hebrew ways to show someone you are with them in their suffering. Then, they just sit with him for seven days. That's how to be with someone in suffering. As soon as they open their mouth and try to teach Job pop theology, they become an unhelpful nuisance to Job. They're common cliche's and bland platitudes do no favors for Job during his suffering. That's how not to be with someone in suffering.

Fifth and last, God uses Job to remind us that He is God, which means he does not have to answer our questions, but we have to answer His. When God does speak, He puts Job in his place (chapters 38-41)and Job is humble enough to declare his lack of knowledge before the almighty. God uses several examples of creation to remind Job that He is much bigger than one persons suffering. I think it is also intended to remind Job that there are things going on that he can't understand, that only God can understand.

I would encourage you to read Job for yourself, its just before Psalms. Its probably my favorite book in the Bible. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments either about the post or about the book of Job in general.


Sam I Am said...

In point 3 you wonder if the story makes God seem manipulative. I think this gives a lot of folks trouble. I tend to see the book of Job more as fiction than history (maybe based on something that happened) and maybe the author is using creative "license" to tell the story. Still, you'd think the author would have been more careful there. It's hard to imagine God making this kind of a deal with Satan, but then, God's purposes are so mysterious what do we really know anyway? Job sure found out.

Do you see Job as more fact or fiction?

Rich Tuttle said...

Good Question.

I see Job as I do much of the stories in the Hebrew Bible: a poetic narrative based in historical fact.

Its similar to an author today writing a non-fiction memoir that includes quite a bit of creative license.

Based on what I believe about God from the scope of all of scripture, I want to be clear that I do not believe that God is manipulative. A perfectly just and perfectly loving God could not act manipulatively towards those who are the objects of his love and justice. Perhaps the irony of the story is that in the end, its Satan whose manipulated, not Job. Perhaps God wants the reader to see how one faithful man can be a part of God's redemptive work by remaining faithful in the midst of terrible suffering. God is so confident in Job that Satan's manipulative tactic against God and man is turned back him. Maybe that's why God egged him on...if so, then I love God even more for his shrewdness towards evil!

Bill C said...

A very ‘on point’ question and a very responsive answer.

Rich, I appreciate the point that Satan is the ‘loser’ in the story and that God has confidence that men/mankind's ‘love’ of God can transcends physical/material circumstances, i.e., 'in suffering'.

To your comment: Perhaps God wants the reader to see how one faithful man can be a part of God's redemptive work by remaining faithful in the midst of terrible suffering. I would respectfully suggest adding: especially when the man's understanding of ‘how things work under God’ is truly challenged.

Perhaps we are to grasp the idea that, in the end, Job’s world-view of ‘how it all works under God’ changed/expanded/grew [to wit: if his ‘bad fortune’ is not caused by his sin; it is reasonable to conclude that his prior and subsequent ‘good fortune’ can not be attributed to his ‘innocence’; but rather to God's Grace]. At the same time his trust in God as good and loving also changed/expanded/grew because of the understanding that God is not limited to ‘cause and effect’!

JMS said...

I've always thought that the most interesting aspect of the book of Job (and there are MANY!) is that once the three friends have spoken, a kid named Elihu ("He is my God") comes on the scene and rebukes all of them...

Yet when God appears and reprimands Job's friends, He does not mention Elihu.

There are various interpretations as to why Elihu was not rebuked by God (including critical scholars suggesting his dialogue is a later insertion...which doesn't explain why his name wasn't also inserted in God's rebuke!), but the one I'm most drawn to is that Elihu speaks correctly. Perhaps even functioning as the voice of God to Job, i.e. as someone who gets it right in his response. In that case, "he" would be ("is"), to Job "my God" in his speech.

It's not clear and I haven't settled on it (or many other things in Job), but it does offer an interesting way to read the text in light of this possibility...


stacey said...

I agree with you points about Job and his suffering. Even about the Lord. To me, Job 29 , states he had a intimate and personal friendship with the Lord; and he is "christ-like" example of that time in that town. GOd again, only proves that He can do whatever He wants and to whom! God is much bigger and more than we can ever comprehend. Thank you for posting your blog about Job because this is what I have just learned and experiencing the same suffering as Job in my own life.