A few weeks ago, I gave a teaching overviewing the book of Job at Lexington Christian Fellowship. You can find the audio for the teaching here, but I thought I would make the text available as well.
The Suffering of Job
Many people think that Job is a book about the problem of evil, but I believe it is more about the problem of suffering. The problem of evil confronts the believer with the paradox of a world that is supposed to be created by a good, wise, powerful God but that nevertheless contains evil. “Wouldn’t it be more rational,” the problem of evil asks, “to simply stop believing in such a God when confronted with the evidence of evil?” The problem of suffering, by contrast, confronts the believer with an existential rather than a merely rational paradox. This new paradox displays a world full of suffering, and forces the believer to decide how he is going to relate to the creator of that world. Such a paradox, like Job’s wife, asks, “Wouldn’t it be better to simply curse God and die?”
To respond to this challenge, we need to understand that suffering is not evil. Animals cause other animals to suffer, but they commit no moral evil. Evil requires a willful rejection of the Good, a spitting in the face of God. Suffering, by contrast, is simply the opposite of pleasure, whether this be physical or psychological or both. Suffering is connected with evil because delighting in the suffering of others is a particularly ripe form of evil, but suffering itself is morally neutral. Under certain circumstances, suffering can even be morally good. Although the righteous man will never delight in the suffering of others, he may sometimes will it, as when a doctor decides to cause pain to his patient in order to set a broken bone or a father assigns difficult labor to his son in order to teach certain virtues.
Job presents us with three theses about suffering and God that we are meant to consider but ultimately reject by the end:
- Satan’s Thesis
- People only love God when they are protected from suffering.
- The Friends’ Thesis
- All suffering is punishment.
- Job’s Thesis
- It would be better not to be.
The set-up for the whole book takes place in the first two chapters and revolves around a debate between Satan and God. In this debate, God points to Job as concrete evidence that Satan is wrong. Human beings can cling to God even when blessing is stripped away and their lives are filled with suffering. The middle section of the book, which takes up most of the book’s chapters, revolves around a conversation between Job and his friends who are trying to comfort him. In this conversation, Job’s friends maintain that Job must have sinned for him to be suffering. This is supposed to be comforting because, if all suffering is punishment, then all one needs to do is repent or learn one’s lesson to get things over with. During this conversation, Job switches back and forth between addressing his friends and addressing God, who remains completely silent until the very end. In responding to his friends, Job maintains his innocence and by the end of the book, we still see no evidence that he is being punished for some transgression. In addressing God, however, he comes awfully close to the very thing Satan says he will do. He never quite curses God, but he does curse the day of his own birth, repeatedly. This amounts to rejecting existence, and rejecting existence amounts to rejecting the author of existence. The book culminates when God himself enters the conversation and humbles Job. In his rebuke, God never answers Job’s questions nor does he accuse Job of sin. Instead, he brings Job to a point of revelation. In meeting God face to face and beholding the wonder of God’s power and the majesty of God’s creation, Job comes to see that being is good. It is better to be than not to be, even when all that we can see of being is suffering.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1:6–12)
Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (Job 2:1–6)
This whole scenario certainly raises more questions than the book ever answers, but the point is clear. Job is the subject of a conversation in heaven, which takes place over his head, so to speak, because by the end of the book Job never learns about it and he is never told why he is made to suffer. Lest we think this is mere fairy-tale trappings, Paul mentions something similar in Ephesians: “…so that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). In both these places, then, God apparently uses human beings as object lessons to the angels and demons without our ever knowing quite what is going on.
What, then, is Satan’s accusation precisely? Satan first claims that Job is only blameless because God has put up a “hedge” around him. God has protected Job so far from suffering and made him “the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:3). “Lift that hedge,” says Satan, “and Job will curse you to your face.” Once Job has lost his wealth and his children, God points to Job again and says, “See, he maintains his integrity,” but Satan ups the ante, maintaining that human beings really only care about the kind of suffering they can feel in their own bodies. This should give us a little window into the demonic mindset. To the devil, the only reason to love someone is for what he can get out of it, and what he can get out of it has only to do with himself. As far as he is concerned, the weeping and sorrow that human beings display when they loose a child is mere sham and outward show. There is no real suffering for the devil until one’s own self is pricked. Nevertheless, Job apparently passes even this second test for we learn that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). In this respect, Job is but a type of Christ. We learn in the gospels, that Jesus too is tested by Satan and Jesus too faces terrible suffering that is not punishment. While Job clings to God in spite of his wife’s urge to curse him, Jesus fully submits to the will of the Father and willingly embraces the suffering that submission means.
These first two chapters force us to ask whether we too would pass Satan’s test. How much has the devil’s way of thinking about love infiltrated our own psychology? How much of our love for God is grounded in the blessings we receive from him? We can glimpse how far we are down the road of discipleship when we either loose a blessing that we once had or do not receive a blessing that we expect. I have seen people fall away from God because they did not get a job they prayed for or because they are still not married after several years. But if we find ourselves with this urge we have to ask ourselves: “Have I been following God all along for a pay check? Did I commit my life to Christ because I noticed that Christian girls were cute?” If we are tempted to fall away when we simply do not receive a blessing, how much more trouble are we in when God sends positive suffering our way? What happens when we become seriously sick or loose someone that we love? What happens when God calls us to love someone in a way that God we know will hurt and we suspect God knows this too? Look back on your own life and I can guarantee that you have faced these kinds of trials at some point, big and small. Ask yourself right now how well you have done. Are you the kind of person like Job and ultimately like Jesus that God can point to when Satan mocks true love?
The Friends’ Thesis
Remember, who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
If your children have sinned against him,
he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.
Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.
It is always dangerous to read Job. We have a tendency to apply what the book says about Job’s suffering to our own suffering, but few if any of us are righteous like Job. Overwhelmingly, when I suffer, my suffering is the foreseeable consequence of my own foolish or sinful actions. Most of the time, Job’s friends are right. Much suffering really is punishment, or at least consequence. Don’t go to the book of Job for comfort, then, when you loose your job after showing up late. Don’t go to the book of Job when your relationship with your children is in shambles because you have lived in selfishness towards them for twenty years. What you need is repentance and forgiveness and for that the Gospels are better fare than Job.
Instead, the lesson when it comes to Job’s friends addresses us not primarily as those who suffer but rather as friends of those who suffer. When we see disaster fall upon someone, there is a part of us that wants to believe that this disaster is simply that person’s just deserts. In our own, life, we can make excuses all day long, but when it comes to other people—well, they simply had it coming. The lesson of Job, however, is that God in his wisdom and sovereignty permits suffering sometimes for reasons that we simply do not see. What if Andrew was fired last week because God had an argument with the devil? How would you even know? Before you go counseling him, pause to consider.
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. And Job said… (Job 3:1)
Although Job never quite crosses the line and curses God himself, his bitterness toward his situation is apparent and he does curse his own existence. Over and over again, in powerful poetic imagery, Job faces Hamlet’s question, “To be or not to be?” and chooses the latter. Job’s repeated complaint is an indictment against being and indirectly, therefore, an indictment against being’s author. “If being includes suffering, if this is how it’s going to be,” he says, “Wouldn’t it be better not to be?” Why should God create anything at all, if he is going to include cancer? What is more, Job also demands an explanation. It is as though he says, “If I’m forced to be in such a world, with my cup full to the brim of suffering—an existence, by the way, that I did not ask for, that was simply thrown upon me at birth—the least you could do, God, is justify my being. Itemize for me the precise reasons why each of my seven sons and each of my three daughters had to die. Explain to me precisely why I am covered with boils. Detail for me why you would create this world.” Here we reach the heart of this books meditation upon suffering. Satan’s Thesis and the Friends’ Thesis are both introductions to this foundational indictment against being itself that falls just one step short of cursing God.
Perhaps the most profound detail of the whole book is that God never does answer these charges. Throughout the conversation with Job’s friends, God is conspicuously silent even though Job repeatedly addresses him directly. One imagines Job bitterly crying out with wild eyes to an empty gray sky. God does show up in the end, but when he shows up he does not answer a single one of Job’s questions or respond directly to a single accusation. Instead:
The the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
God’s response to Job centers around two points: First God puts Job in his place by asking “Where were you when I…” By asking Job this God pointedly reminds him that Job is a man and not God, that he is but dust. In setting himself up as judge over being, Job set himself in a place that only God can rightfully occupy. God does not need to ask our permission before he makes the world—even a world where our children die. Second, God brings before Job’s eyes example after example of the beauty, majesty, and goodness of the world, examples that have nothing to do with Job and his suffering. This pulls the camera of Job’s consciousness back from focusing on his own boils to take in all of reality and from this angle Job can see that reality is a κόσμος, an ordered whole carefully put together by an almighty and all-wise Father. This does not even begin to explain Job’s own particular suffering, since God never does mention his little bet with the devil, but it does forcefully answer Hamlet’s question the other way: to be is better than not to be.
We may be surprised to learn that Job is satisfied by this response:
Then Job answered the LORD and said:
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed not further.”
Then Job answered the LORD and said:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard to you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Something about meeting God brings Job to a point of humble acceptance. The encounter with God never does grant Job philosophical understanding, but it does bring him to repentance. What do you need, then, if you find yourself like Job shouting at the blank gray winter sky? You need to meet God. Explanations for why you lost your mother will never really satisfy you even if you could have them. You need to meet God. An end to your illness or the restoration of a relationship will never really answer Hamlet’s question even though you would certainly appreciate them. You need to meet God. Only in that encounter will you yield to God his rightful place as Judge over being. Although it is easy to say so with the lips, no human being really acknowledges that he is not God until he falls to his knees before the awful presence in the whirlwind and never truly loves the beauty of creation until he beholds the beauty of its Creator.