Text: Job 1:1, 2:1-10
The book of Job raises some of the most perplexing theological questions in the Bible. Possibly the most obvious is: “Why do good, blameless and upright people suffer?” Stated even more directly: “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The book of Job also brings clearly into focus the problem of evil and all the unanswerable questions that go with that theological quandary. But underneath those more apparent questions lies queries about God’s character and integrity as well as the purpose of humanity’s willingness to serve and trust God. Indeed, Job’s story raises the question: “Do we serve God for nothing?”
Perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, Job raises questions more than provides answers, especially to these big-ticket theological inquiries that I have mentioned. Given this fact, it’s only natural, then, that we turn to questions that may have answers like, “What do we know about this book? Who was the author? When was it written? And why?” Unfortunately, we don’t really know the answer to any of those questions either. We are given little or no data within the book itself to locate it time wise or author wise. Without these details, ultimately we are left to ask what might be a less interesting question but a more relevant one: “With all its problems and promises, how are we to read the book of Job?” Is it a history book that tells us pretty exactly what happened when “a man whose name was Job” lived “in the land of Uz?” Or, is it a kind of novella, a piece of pious fiction or a folk tale?
Most likely the book is meant to be read more as a kind of parable, a story whose significance lies not in it being literal history but in the ways in which the story itself challenges us to think and, especially, to reflect on God and our relationship with God. Our focus probably should not be on how at some point in history God and Satan had the kind of conversation recorded here. But rather, we are better served to think about the meaning of what Satan and God are talking about, and, more importantly later on, what Job and God are talking about. Nothing within the book itself requires us to think of it as history. The story unfolds as we would expect of wisdom literature that challenges our imaginations. And if we are going to use our imaginations and consider the meaning of the story, this understanding of how we are to read the book of Job is critical.
So let me get to what I want to say first and foremost. God didn’t hand Job over to Satan. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen to good people. The people at the top with all the wealth and power are not there because God is showering blessings on them because they somehow deserve God’s favor. And the people who are struggling and desperate for a place to sleep or their next meal or who are dying of some dreaded disease are not doing so because God is punishing them or because they have sinned and deserve God’s wrath. While this type of theology exerted strong influence among the Israelites following the destruction of their nation-state and their time of exile, it falls far short of the original blessing that God pronounced at the very beginning of creation. Much like we do today, Israel sought to work hard at creating the kind of community that would deserve God’s blessing, forgetting, like us, that we already have God’s blessings, even before we say a word or do anything. This reward-punishment theology is NOT what Job’s story is about. The book of Job presents things in a more complicated scenario.
Without over-simplifying the complexities of Job’s story or making the mistake of offering answers that really don’t exist to Job’s suffering and the problems of the book of Job, I simply want to name several lessons that Job’s narrative invites us to consider—lessons that hold the promise of hope and comfort.
Job’s story teaches us that suffering is a real part of life and that there are no easy answers to our suffering. The fact that the book of Job appears in the bible at all is a testimony to the fact that humankind has been grappling with suffering from our beginnings. We may not be able to boil it down to easy answers, but because of Job we can know that suffering is not simply a personal burden, it is a universal and timeless reality, and our experience of suffering connects us more deeply to humanity.
This next lesson is tricky, because of the way the story is framed, but no matter how you make sense of the Job narrative, it is clear that Job is never separated from God. Yes, the story reads that there is a period of time when God “hands Job over.” I read that as the human mind making sense of those times when we feel we have walked alone. But the meta-narrative shows us that God is always present, even when not felt. Job is in relationship with God throughout his success and throughout his suffering. Because of Job, we can know that God is with us, even when we cannot feel God’s comfort, God’s love, or God’s presence.
Job’s story also gives us the courage and freedom to challenge God. God should be our best hope for justice, and often is presented in the Bible as such. But what if we find God to be the source of injustice? Where do we turn then? Job challenges God on this point, and he does not easily give up his challenge. At one point, in chapter 13, he asks God to “stop frightening me with your terrors,” so that I may be allowed to speak. And when he speaks, he will claim he has not committed “wrongs and sins.” It is shocking and unprecedented in the Bible for God to be challenged in this way. Even more shocking, though, is the strong evidence Job has on his side to support his challenge.
Job is famous for his patience. However, the book of Job actually portrays Job’s persistence in what may be a surprising way. Certainly we see his persistence in chapter two, where Job refuses to curse God even after devastating loss upon devastating loss. Job persists in trusting in God even as he suffers profoundly. But I wonder if it isn’t more accurate to think of that patience as faithfulness, a more active stance that invokes relationship, and expectation. What we see in chapters 27 and 31 is that Job persists not only in believing God, but in challenging God. His story reminds us that it is not beyond the bounds to have an angry conversation with God. Listen to some of what he says to God.
“Does it please you [God] to oppress me,
to spurn the work of your hands,
while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” Job 10:3
“Surely, O God, you have worn me out;
you have devastated my entire household.” Job 16:7
“As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice,
the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul…” Job 27:1
“…then know that God has wronged me
and drawn his net around me.
Though I cry, ‘I’ve been wronged!’ I get no response;
though I call for help, there is no justice.” Job 19:6-7
Job holds nothing back. He cries out in all his vulnerability and suffering what is deepest in his heart. Maybe this is why Job is not simply known for his patience but also for his integrity. There cannot be wholeness in our relationship with God if we are not willing to be honest with what’s really in our hearts. We cannot be afraid to curse God. We can’t be afraid to speak to God with the integrity of our experiences—when we feel cared for and when we feel abandoned. Job teaches us that God is big enough to handle our anger.
Last but not finally, Job’s experience pushes us to define for ourselves just how deep our trust in God goes. Do we trust God to be always with us? Do we trust that God is with us even when we are devastated? Can we trust a God that allows that devastation? What do we expect of God? If God does not, for whatever reason, ensure our good health, or our prosperity, or even our comfort, are we willing to be faithful? If so, why?
I will offer, in response to those overwhelming questions, my personal, if unsatisfactory answers. God does not promise to keep us safe, or to keep us happy, or to keep us fortunate beyond the fortunes of God’s other children. God promises to love us. God does not abandon us, or punish us, or leave us. God is with us in our deepest shadows. God is always with us.
“Perhaps God’s lack of clear answers to all of Job’s challenges leaves us in a position where we have to struggle all the more with those questions, recognizing that they do not have simple and easy answers. Because bad things do continue to happen to good people (and good things to bad people), because any one of us may face sudden and life-transforming traumas that defy explanation, we do well to read Job as a call to keep asking and struggling.” (Ted Grimsrud)
The Book of Job is, indeed, one of the most perplexing and profound pieces of literature ever to grace human existence. Possibly that is why renowned novelist Victor Hugo once suggested that if all the world’s literary efforts were to be destroyed, and he could save but a solitary sample, it would be “Job.”
In the end, Job feels that if God is truly just and truly the master of the universe, God would not have allowed a person such as himself to suffer as he has. And yet, when suffering is heaped on suffering, Job stays in a faithful position and leans on patience to wait for understanding. May we have the wisdom to do the same.