Retribution Principle (RP) – the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper. Do you believe this is how the universe works? Maybe at least a little? Of course, we all know plenty of wicked who seem to prosper and plenty of righteous who seem to suffer. But is there a tiny little bit of us that thinks it’s unfair when good people have trials and suffer? Laura’s a good person who does so much for our church, it isn’t fair that she got cancer. Or maybe you know a family that is essentially a good family and it’s wrong that a car accident killed the father? Or some similar tragedy where it just isn’t fair that there is pain and illness and suffering. Just look at the prayer section of our bulletin for examples. Not that we go so far as the name it and claim it prosperity gospel. But it just seems people shouldn’t suffer so here on earth. Except, of course, that Jesus promised we would all suffer, so He seems to think the universe works differently.
Great Symbiosis – gods reap benefits from the labor of the humans and the humans reap benefits from the favor of the gods. A works based religion, with rules the humans may not even know about they can run afoul and incur wrath.
Have you ever struggled to understand the book of Job? I know I have. Somehow, I can’t make the 42 chapters cohere into a logical story. Partly because I don’t read all 42 chapters at once, partly because some of the bombastic speeches make my eyes glaze over, partly because I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Job is considered part of the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. I don’t usually see how Job is anything like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes so I struggle to get the wisdom out of it. I also used to think it was supposed to be a comforting book, and it isn’t really. Why does Job lose everything and God allows it, why are his friends so useless, why does Job complain so much, and why doesn’t God actually answer any of Job’s questions? It’s a confusing book in some ways. (I also learned that it is incredibly difficult to translate, so many of the words and phrases are guesses. There isn’t enough extant literature that uses those words to know for sure what they mean in these contexts.)
Recently I’ve been reading Job and the NIV Application Commentary and I want to share some of the insights I’ve gotten into how the book of Job may work. I’ll share some of the themes and progressions, the mistakes and the correct ideas about God. The author of the commentary also raised some challenging questions that I’ll bring up. Not questions with easy answers, but questions we should consider. Because I now understand why Job is called Wisdom Literature. It isn’t meant to comfort us, it’s meant to train us in how to think about God and how the universe runs. So that when we do run into suffering and trials, we have a better foundation to stand on so we aren’t rocked quite as hard.
The book starts with the Accuser (Satan?) coming into the courts of God and challenging Him with the fact that of course Job worships God, he gets immediate tangible rewards. Who wouldn’t worship God if they could get that kind of response. And notice that it is actually God who brings Job into the conversation. God is in control of all of it from the very beginning. He allows the Accuser to take all his wealth, his children, and even his health. He already has a challenging wife, who suggests he just curse his God and die to get it all over with. Remember, she lost all her wealth and children, too.
One of the first things we learn about Job himself is that he makes sacrifices to God just in case his children sinned. He believes in a God of justice, who runs the universe in a just way. He thinks Justice is the primary attribute of God when it cones to how the universe was set up to run. Not necessarily that the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper all the time, but that there is justice in God’s actions eventually.
Job’s friends believe in the Retribution Principle I mentioned above. They think God and the universe can be explained by the wicked suffering and the righteous prospering. This is why they are convinced Job must have sinned in some way to bring this all upon himself. And if he would just confess and repent, God would make it all right again. They also think the making right means getting back all the benefits. Unwittingly, they are agents for the Accuser trying to get Job to worship God just for the good things He does and gives. Their speeches reflect this misunderstanding of God over and over. Job knows better. He doesn’t think he’s perfect and holy, but he knows this suffering is not the result of sin. This is an important thing to remember. Not all suffering is the result of sin. When you see someone suffering, don’t assume they have some unconfessed sin. And unless you are a close mentor of that person, don’t even mention that as a possibility, Trust me, the person suffering has already examined that possibility and they don’t need well-meaning strangers accusing them of hiding some unconfessed sin.
So, we have the friends who are clinging to the RP, and we have Job who is clinging to Justice. But Job doesn’t seem to be getting much justice, so he laments and cries out. What he never does is ask for his stuff back. The Accuser is proven wrong because even at his lowest point, Job wants his relationship with God back, he wants justice, but he doesn’t want his wealth and cattle and donkeys back. The Accuser fails and God wins this argument.
But Job is still confused because God is not treating him justly. And his friends are so far off track he stops even trying to correct them. Job had experienced a hedge of protection from God. He now complains that there is a hedge preventing him from understanding God’s reasons. Like all of us, Job wants a reason for his suffering. Why is this happening to him. He would do better to ask what he should be learning or how God would want him to respond to this suffering. God doesn’t promise us reasons. In fact, the book of Job seems to tell us that God doesn’t always have a reason. He always has a purpose and He carries that out every time. But there may not be a reason like unconfessed sin or showing some big miracle to God’s glory, or to teach a lesson or stop a sin. These are all valid reasons that God sometimes indicates are part of the suffering. But not necessarily every single time. Our time and energy spent searching for a reason distracts us from the more important work of trusting God and turning to Him for strength to endure in a dignified manner, as a Christ follower. That trusting and obeying is hard, and even harder if you haven’t prepared yourself for the fact that there may be no reason and that suffering is part of life here in this fallen world.
Why does God allow it? Job seems to decide that God is capricious, with no reasons, and harsh because He allows this suffering of His faithful servants. But remember, if God didn’t allow for sin and the results of sin in this world but instead made it a holy perfect world, there would be no place for us sinners. We wouldn’t exist. He is gracious, and patient, that no one be lost. When there is suffering, instead of seeing it as evidence that God is heartless and mean, we should instead see it as evidence of God’s grace and mercy to all, saved and unsaved alike. There is still life and life is, in general, good.
One thing we know God wants from us is to depend on Him completely. No matter the reason, one consistent purpose of suffering and trials is to cause us to lean on God more and more for strength to endure, patience, faithfulness, and trust. While the friends remain mired in their convictions, Job is moving. Though immersed in pain, he is not stuck. What goads and guides him through his pain is simply the determination not to let God off the hook for a moment. This should be us. I’ve talked about lament before. How the Israelites were very much in God’s face with their complaints about perceived injustices and needs. The book of Ruth shows us lament and how to join someone in lament without heaping burning coals on their head. The week of silence in Job shows us a way to join with someone in lament. Many of the Psalms are lamentation Psalms. God can take it when we come to Him with our questions and doubts and fears and struggles. But we must do so with trust and a desire for increased faith and strength to endure. There is hope, because there is God. Not just hope in a world to come, but hope for comfort and love here and now. In the book of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth got their evidence of God’s love in the daily living of gathering food and finding family. Not just some far off hope of dying and going to another world of milk and honey.
Job continues to state reality, while his friends cling to the RP. But Job begins to make very wrong assumptions about God’s motives and methods based on these facts. Misinterpretation leads Job far away from the true God and for this God will bring him to account.
From the commentary, chapter 27:
Can we accept our (presumably) innocent suffering and the success of the wicked, based on the opportunity they provide us to learn godliness: forgiveness, humility, patience, joy in adversity, resilience to circumstances, understanding of sin, reliance on God’s strength, empathy with others, appreciation of simple joys, and any number of other character-building qualities? I would reply that they do not offer reasons for suffering, but they may give us some recompense for the fallen circumstances that we endure; bringing good out of evil does not redefine evil as being good. Suffering can produce personal growth like nothing else, but certainly there are times when suffering produces, not maturity, but loss of faith, loss of confidence in God, loss of resolve to pursue godliness, bitterness, and disposal of all virtue and values. In light of these two diverse responses, we might do well to ask, not “Will I suffer in life,” but “What kind of sufferer will I be?”
Chapter 28 is likely the narrator, not Job or one of his friends. It is where we turn from the question about whether Job’s righteousness is disinterested (he’s proven it is), to the question of whether there can be coherence when people suffer. Does it make sense to humans in this world? God focuses on causes, not effects. Chapter 28 seems to show, and the book of Proverbs and even the book of James seem to reinforce that God built the universe on wisdom. He says it is good when it reflects wisdom, not justice or a retribution principle.
While we can’t assume there is justice or a reason behind our suffering, we should assume there is wisdom. We can search for that wisdom, but we should recognize that God’s ways are not our ways and we are not capable of grasping all that He is and does. This is why trust is our primary function in suffering. We should give God the benefit of the doubt, because He has proven He is worthy of it. We know He has a purpose, even if it is not revealed to us. We know His universe runs on wisdom, even if it is beyond our comprehension. Another good quote:
What does this path look like when life is going terribly wrong?
Trust God rather than blame him or make demands of him for explanations.
Trust God for strength to endure.
Don’t expect it all to make sense.
Channel resentment toward the fallenness of the world, not the God who has given all to initiate its redemption.
Resist succumbing to the temptation to believe that you could run this world better than God does.
Above all, trust that he is wise.
Chapter 31 concludes Job’s speeches and he seems to decide His righteousness is more trustworthy than God. He would rather cling to his righteousness and impugn God’s character by accusing Him of injustice. This is another example of how this book is not an example of how to handle suffering, but provides many examples of how people in the midst of suffering can misconstrue God’s ways and intentions, and typically selfishly put themselves above God. If we can’t trust God, then we think we can do a better job than He is doing. Dangerous thinking there.
One of the issues raised by the commentary is whether suffering is God using a testimony at the expense of the sufferer. I clearly think a good testimony may be a by-product of suffering. But my testimony is not enough to justify the suffering of myself and those closest to me who have to watch me suffer and suffer with me. There must be more to it than that. Not that I demand an explanation or a reason, but I trust that the purpose to God’s wisdom in my suffering is more. And there is also less. Really, it’s a fallen world and stuff happens. Not always with a grandiose reason or purpose, although I trust God will bring good from it.
Elihu comes in now to remind Job that he is not God and cannot be God, so he is wrong to judge that God must be in the wrong to protect his own righteousness. Elihu seems a strange interruption in the book, not having been mentioned before at all. But he contributes greatly to the coherence of the book, so it is not likely that he was just an addition by some other scribe at a later time. He seems to have a pretty important and central role in transitioning from the friends with their old-fashioned retribution principle, to the response from God that everyone has it wrong because they think they know all there is to know and can understand how God designed the universe.
Elihu does a good job of pointing out God’s complete self-sufficiency, He doesn’t need us at all, and our complete dependency, we can do nothing without Him, not even breathe. But again, his inferences from these attributes go astray. More examples of how people can misunderstand God and why just a good head knowledge of God’s attributes isn’t enough. We need to seriously and carefully examine our opinions and beliefs that we build on those attributes and compare them to the God of the Bible. Likely, our God is too small, too graceless, and we struggle to trust Him. A right understanding of God would lead to complete and utter trust and a desire to imitate Him more and more, not just identify rules to follow. But we must work hard at it, we can’t get there just listening to a sermon once a week.
The commentary then raises another question about how much involvement we believe God has. Does He micro-manage every single moment or is He involved at a slightly higher level? The commentator claims those who believe God micro-manages are not consistent in applying that belief. I don’t have an answer, but I found his comments challenging since I tend toward the micro-managing view of God.
Elihu’s opinion was that when anyone thinks of God as paying close attention to the details of our lives and micromanaging our circumstances, we are giving ourselves too much importance and trivializing God’s role in the cosmos. Yet what is the alternative? Do we believe that God is not really involved in the details and is only engaged in the larger issues? Here lies mystery. While we can err on the deism extreme or on the micromanagement extreme, we can also err by thinking we can sort it all out and figure out how God works or does not work. The error of “God too small” is committed when we misrepresent at one extreme or the other, but it is also committed when we think we can fully describe the nature of his involvement. To believe that his work could so easily be defined is to reduce him to something manageable. We must be content with mystery.
God finally arrives, in a whirlwind that indicates His anger. He rebukes Job, then says he spoke rightly so Job had some misunderstandings but at least said some things right about God. God first challenges Job to try to be God for a day, to keep up with all the moving parts, pointing out there are a lot more moving parts than Job’s little world. God’s description of Himself as Creator focuses more on bring order to chaos than actual material creation. It harkens back to the Garden of Eden where God created the world and then engaged Adam and Even in working with Him to bring more order to the world through their dominion. The commentary suggests the world is not completely ordered yet, it is a work in progress and our role should be to increase the order found in the world, which may mean facing agents of chaos. Which leads to the next section where God challenges Job’s accusation that God is a creature of chaos with no control. God claims chaos has a role in the world so not to discredit it so fast.
The commentary has a great description of Behemoth and Leviathan. Not identifying them as specific material creatures or even ancestors of existing material creatures. Instead he proposes that.
Job is compared to Behemoth (40:15). Job, like Behemoth, is the first of God’s works (cf. 15:7) and withstands all turbulence. God brings his sword against Job (40:19) and by a snare he penetrates Job’s anger (40:24). Yahweh does not speak of Job doing anything to Behemoth, but when the discussion switches to Leviathan, the first eight verses use the second person. I therefore suggest that Leviathan is to be compared to Yahweh (41:3, 10-11, 34) – he won’t beg you for mercy and won’t speak with gentle words; you can’t put him on a leash, subdue him, or rouse him. These all discuss what Job can’t do to Leviathan, and they are also things that Job must learn he cannot do to Yahweh.
This quote seems to summarize the point to the book of Job:
God’s answer to Job’s contention is not to explain when or why righteous people suffer. The cosmos is not designed to protect righteous people from suffering. Suffering is inevitable in a world where order has not been finally and fully established. A complete state of order cannot exist in a world where sin (one manifestation of disorder) is present at any level. Like Job, we may think that it is bad policy for righteous people to suffer, but we would, I suggest, be equally dissatisfied with the alternatives. The divine policy that we need to understand is not how God’s justice is reflected in the operations of the cosmos, but that he has brought sufficient order into the cosmos for it to be functional for our existence as his creatures, and at the same time has allowed sufficient disorder to accommodate the continued existence of sinful humanity – one of the forms that disorder takes.
We should not be looking for supernatural remedies to suffering but supernatural uses of suffering. I suppose this is one reason I do not personally expect a miraculous healing. I know God does heal, He does perform miracles, and great glory and witness comes from that. But the one purpose I do cling to is that God is wise and I am to trust Him and turn to Hhim for strength and increased faith. He has been faithful to give me that in abundance and encourage me to ask for more. God restores Job’s wealth not because He is rewarding him for standing firm, but because God delights in giving us good things. Sometimes the good things match what the world thinks is good. Sometimes the good things are a little more subtle and therefore usually more meaningful. Faith, patience, strength, trust, wisdom, love of God – all of these are the gifts He has lavished upon me in this season of suffering.
I want to end with a quote from the book Getting Involved with God:
Those seven days of silence are surely one of the most influential acts of pastoral care ever performed.
Cultivating the habit of silence should be seen as one of the special responsibilities of Christian community in a noisy world. It is a powerful means of fostering mutual encouragement among us, God has entrusted to us one another in this wilderness of pain and doubt.
That week of shared silence is a period of transition for Job. In it he finds the words to speak his whole mind, to admit the pain of all that he has suffered.
First, it means opening up a place for pain to do its work in our lives and then subside. Second, it means speaking honestly of pain, admitting it not just to ourselves but also to God, speaking our suffering as part of the confession of faith. Silence allows pain to penetrate our heart, “deep calling to deep”
Silence comes to us in grief as the comforter of whom we are afraid, for it invites us more deeply into ourselves, into the dark places in which doubts emerge and pain becomes fully perceptible, where loss can no longer be denied.
Silence is the friend who challenges us to be healed when we wish simply to be soothed. It heals us first by making us more empty, carving a space within our hearts, challenging us to-what? Trust that God will use that space and fill it with new life?
No – Job’s story forces us to put the matter more sharply. Trusting God is often a central preoccupation of the biblical writers, but not in this book. Rather, silence pushes Job to challenge God.