Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me…”
-from Job 38
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there lived a man named Job. Job was a good man. He worshiped God, followed the rules, and rejected all forms of evil.
Job was also a wealthy man. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
Where in the East, you ask? He was from the land of Uz. And don’t ask where Uz was, because really, this isn’t that kind of story. The book of Job is one the world’s great examinations of the question of suffering, not some story you’re reading in the newspaper, so don’t tie it down with piddly little questions like when and where, okay?
Job was a great man. He was so pious that when his children threw parties (as trust fund kids will do) he would pray for them the morning after, making a burnt offering for each of them, just in case they had sinned. He also had lots and lots of stuff, so he was pretty happy.
That doesn’t make for much of a story, though, so here in the first chapter the author starts to make things more interesting:
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.
Don’t think of the red guy with the pitchfork that Dante wrote about. In this book, satan just refers to an adversary. So, God has pulled the whole divine court together, and the satan is sort of like a prosecuting attorney. It’s his job to make accusations.
So. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
God is pretty proud of this Job guy, and with good reason! Job’s a great example of piety and holiness. It’s the satan’s job to make accusations, though, so he gives it a shot:
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Now, this is where it’s really important to remember that this is just a story. No one here is really suggesting that God runs the universe by placing bets with upstart members of the heavenly court whose only explanation for their recent actions is that they’ve been “roaming throughout the earth.”
This is all just setup. It’s a way of getting us to a point in the story where we can start considering the question of suffering.
So. The satan does his work, and Job loses his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his camels – all of his worldly wealth – and all of his children, and his own health. Job finds himself sitting on an ashheap in ruins, being advised by even his own wife to curse God and die.
Virginia Woolf wrote this, once: “I read the book of Job last night, I don’t think God comes out well in it.” That’s a fair analysis, in a sense. It’s hard to ignore the fact that within the story, God could just have said that the satan wasn’t allowed to touch Job, and that would be the end of it.
All of Job’s suffering, though, is really just meant to get us out of our competitive approach to suffering so we can contemplate the question properly.
Let me ask you a question: have you ever had the misfortune of being in a difficult situation and having someone try to one-up you? Like, “oh, you broke your leg, that’s awful, did I ever tell you about the time that I had leg cancer?” Or, “your dog is sick, that’s nothing, let me tell you about the time my five hamsters all died on the same day, and also I had leg cancer.”
Suffering shouldn’t be a competitive sport, but we make it that way anyhow. It’s like we think that only the person with the worst possible story is allowed to complain.
The setup to Job is meant to shake us out of that habit. Who reads all of that and thinks, “sure, all your kids died and all your wealth was stolen and your spouse told you to curse God and die and you had boils all over your body, but let me tell you about the time…” I mean, the time that what? What could you possibly offer in response?
Job’s fictional ability to suffer absurdly more than any of the rest of us frees us from the need to compare. Job is suffering. Job has done nothing to deserve this. Why? It’s a perfect case study.
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.
For a week, as you probably know, Job’s friends do quite well at providing a comforting presence- because they don’t say a word. Everything goes downhill, though, when they start opening their mouths.
That’s not because the friends have any sort of ill-intentions, or because they don’t know their stuff. In a series of dialogues, Job’s friends present the absolute best of the theological reasoning of their time. “Look,” they say, “God is just. God rewards the pious and punishes the faithless. Therefore, Job, you must have done something wrong to deserve all of this.”
Good people are rewarded with good lives. Bad people are punished for their sin. This is a remarkably persistent theme in ethical thought. You can trace this thread in this ancient story, in the story of Jesus’ disciples encountering a man born blind and asking whether the blindness was caused by his own sin or his parents, and on through to Facebook posts probably written just this morning about karma and how what goes around comes around.
Job blows these theories out of the water. His friends beg him to repent, to let go of whatever sin has brought God’s judgment. They want him to stop denying God’s righteousness so that he can go back to being happy and blessed.
Job won’t put on a show, though. He won’t repent of a sin that he didn’t commit. Instead, he demands to know what this wisdom tradition has to offer him as he faces pain and suffering while innocent.
Why would God make him suffer?
In the narrative setup, we had the satan, the accuser or the adversary. But having heard everything that his friends have to say, and having determined that it’s all worthless mumbo-jumbo that isn’t helping one bit, Job identifies God as the actual accuser.
Job defiantly says in response: I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing. Surely I would wear it on my shoulder, I would put it on like a crown. I would give him an account of my every step; I would present it to him as to a ruler.
In spite of all his suffering, Job is unwilling to admit guilt. He knows that he doesn’t deserve the suffering that he’s experiencing. He’s still stuck, though, in this paradigm in which there’s a one-to-one correspondence between sins committed and punishments borne.
As bad as Job’s theology is, he has this wild idea that should offer hope to all of us: he thinks that God might show up to answer him.
Just imagine this, for a second. That’s like Tony Stark deciding that he wasn’t represented well in the last Marvel movie and asserting that the Russo brothers, who directed the movie, were going to listen to his defense of his actions.
God has been a character in this book, but only as an observer from the court of heaven. Frankly, it’s kind of absurd to think that God is going to enter into Job’s world and personally become a part of his story.
So, of course, that’s exactly what happens. God shows up to answer Job.
Job, over the course of thirty-some chapters of complaining and arguing, has said some pretty terrible things about God. He’s been wrestling hard with what has happened to him. He’s been praying honestly and speaking plainly. It hasn’t always been pretty.
God, at the end of the story, calls all of Job’s wrestling “righteous.” He commends Job for his faithfulness, even though Job said some awful things, and he tells Job’s friends to apologize even though they were saying things that you could flip a few pages over and find right in the book of Proverbs.
Job demands to be in relationship with God, demands a reply of some sort, and God answers. Job doesn’t get the answer that he was looking for, but it’s hard not to see that what he gets is much better.
Here’s the thing, though: Job assumes that bad things do not happen to good people. He defends his own innocence, saying that he does not deserve any of this.
God says that Job’s innocence isn’t the point. God points to the vast untamed creation, all of which is under divine oversight, and asks Job how he would go about managing all of this.
See, Job and his friends were assuming that God was in the business of tallying human sin and providing a corresponding consequence. God says in response that the world is in fact nothing at all like that. It’s not geared toward preventing suffering at all, and God provides no reason why this is so. It’s just wild and glorious and ultimately beyond human comprehension.
The question we always want to ask is “why do good people suffer.” The book of Job invites us to ask totally different questions: How do we suffer faithfully? Can we be honest and plain in our speech, when our world caves in? Do we expect God to respond to our grief and despair?
The book of Job is 42 chapters long, and the final chapter provides some resolution to Job’s story. He says to God, my ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you, and he remembers that he (like all of us) is but dust and ashes.
The book ends with this: The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.
After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. And so Job died, an old man and full of years.
It must have been a tremendous act of courage, for Job to consider having more children in the first place. (I mean, I know it’s a story, not a history, but still.) This man lost ten children. He knows that love opens him up to pain, and he loves on anyhow.
He knows that all of this can be gone in an afternoon, but he doesn’t let that realization make him crumple inward. He doesn’t avoid pain by avoiding the chance to love. Job is completely devastated by suffering, but having met God in his pain, he chooses to live again.
There’s no good answer, in the end, to the question of why good people suffer. Suffering just is, and while we bear the responsibility to mitigate it for one another when we can, it’s simply a part of the world as we know it.
Instead of an escape from suffering, here is the Gospel wisdom that the book of Job offers us: suffer faithfully, pray honestly, expect God’s presence in the most unlikely of moments, and choose love and life anyway.