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So here you are. You’ve made way through over half of the Old Testament! You’ve seen an entire nation of people grow from one old man and woman, survive forty years in the desert, be led mightily into the Promised Land, only to lose it all when they couldn’t remain faithful to the God who had led them there. You read about how they were brought back to this land and how they recommitted themselves to fidelity and obedience to God. And if you’re like me, you’ve begun to put one and two together.
From what we’ve read so far, it seems fair to say that good behavior = good rewards, bad behaviors = bad punishment. That’s the way it worked for Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, David, Solomon, Ahab, and Hezekiah, right?
So you think you’ve got it all figured out and then you get to the book of Job. And everything falls apart. Here’s this guy, whom the Bible says is “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” According to our formula, Job should be rolling in the blessings. And yet, as we read on, we are somewhat horrified to discover that this “contract faith” assumed in the earlier books of the Old Testament doesn’t hold up. Job suffers, seemingly undeservedly, and we are left to wonder what in the world is going on.
As we begin to think about what the book of Job has to teach us, let us first start out by saying that it is quite possible that Job is a work of fiction. We have no historical record of this man “Job,” or his friends, ever existing. The book itself seems totally unconcerned with matters of history. There are no dates or markers of time and place. That’s not the point.
Whether or not this exact story happened in this exact way matters not, for the truth is variations of Job’s story are happening all the time. Though there may not have been a specific man named Job who underwent inordinate suffering, there are men and women who are suffering today, who need to hear the truth a book like Job has to offer.
So what is it that Job teaches us? Three things…
1. The one on trial here is not Job, but God.
Satan (Hebrew for “the adversary”) comes to God and claims that God’s policy of bringing blessing on righteous people is flawed because they will then be motivated by prosperity rather than simply the desire to be righteous. Satan is claiming the humans really only love the gifts, not the Giver, that we try to be good only for the sake of God’s benefits, that we are “religious” and “good” only because it pays.
If that’s true, if Satan is right, that means that human beings aren’t truly free. Sure, we are free to descend- to rebel against God. But are we free to ascend- to believe in God for no other reason than, well… no reason at all? Satan’s accusation is that human beings only love God because we are bribed to do so and therefore not truly free at all. And God cannot allow that accusation to stand. And therefore, God allows this test.
2. “Right” answers are not always right
Job’s friends have all the “right” answers. 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. Therefore, Job must have some unknown, unconfessed sin in his life. If he would just confess and repent, God would surely forgive and restore him.
Theologically, they are right. The problem is… they’re wrong. Job is sure of two things: God is just and he is righteous. How those two truths fit together in this situation, he does not yet understand.
3. God’s wisdom is far beyond human understanding
When God finally appears in chapter 38, God does not spend any time explaining why Job had to undergo this time of trial. Nor does God try to defend his justice because no one is in a position to assess his justice. To assess God’s justice in running the world, someone would have to know exactly how world is run. And only God knows that. We simply do not have enough information to be able to affirm that God is just. We do have enough, however, to affirm that God is wise. If we believe that God is wise, then we can believe that God is just.
So what are we to take away from our reading of Job? Quite simply, faith in God is never as simple as good and bad, reward and punishment. Unfortunately, we know all too well that good people undergo immeasurable, incomprehensible suffering for which there are no easy answers.
When it is we, or the people we love, who are suffering, we can take courage from Job…
- Despite our circumstances, whether or not we are actively receiving blessing from God’s hand, we can know, we can believe that God is GOOD, ALL the time. We can ask God for the faith to love and follow Him, despite our circumstances. When we are in the darkness, we can hold on to what we have learned in the light.
- “Right” answers don’t help. Job’s friends weren’t a comfort to him, and neither will we be to our friends in pain if all we can offer are trite religious sentiments. As it turned out, the most compassionate things the friends did for Job took place at the very beginning, when they sat in silence with him for seven days. Simply being with person in pain speaks volumes more than any words you could ever say.
- It is in the moments that seem most impossible that we need to hold on to our faith the most. Though we do not understand what God is up to when we suffer, how we respond matters. Though God clearly is not upset by our true expression of our feelings (Job had some pretty choice words for God), what God asks is that we continue to hold on. To believe even when it seems impossible. We don’t have all the answers to why suffering happens. The best thing we can do is hold on to one another and to the God who promises, one day, to work all things for good.