Last Sunday, we meet Job. He’s a blameless and upright man, who worshipped God faithfully, ran his household well and wisely, and lived with justice and generosity. And he is wealthy and prosperous – as our story begins, he owns 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and more. He was known as “the greatest of all the people of the east.”
Now, Satan, the Accuser, has been strolling around taking a look at humanity. And God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” And Satan says, Well, yeah! Look how good he has it. How long would his piety last if he lost all these good things? And God says, You’re on. But don’t hurt Job himself.
Satan does his worst. On one terrible day, one messenger after another comes to Job. His slaves and oxen are lost to raiders. His camels are seized by an enemy army. His sheep are struck by lighting. And a great wind shakes the house where his sons and daughters are gathered – the roof falls upon them, and all are killed instantly. Job says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” God is very proud of Job’s pious stoicism, and brags about it to Satan. And Satan says, “Skin for skin! People will tolerate a lot as long as they remain unharmed. Let me afflict Job’s body too, and we’ll see how his piety stands up.” And God says, You’re on. So Satan covers Job’s body with oozing sores.
The book of Job was probably written roughly 500 years before the life of Jesus, by one dominant voice, perhaps weaving together older sources. The author starts with this set-up of a sort of pissing context between Satan and God, then launches into 35 chapters of a profound theological exploration of suffering in the context of faithfulness. It’s an amazing book.
How do I, personally, read the Book of Job as Scripture? I don’t know if there was ever a Job. If there was, this chronicle of his suffering was written long after he lived and died. I do believe, very much, in the wisdom and divine inspiration of this author, this text. Every time I revisit Job, I find inspiration and delight in the many passages that describe God’s power in the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Some of the loveliest nature poetry in the Bible is found in Job. And every time I revisit Job, I am reminded of the wisdom it carries about what to do, and what not to do, in the presence of suffering. Job is a master treatise on that topic.
One way to read the Book of Job is as an extended poetic debate over the idea that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.
We know better, just like the Biblical tradition knew better. But still, so easily, we fall into that way of thinking, when we’re not paying attention, or when we’re anxious or sad or uncomfortable or struggling to make sense of something difficult. Our inner six-year-old wants order and justice and reason. We slip into the Bad Things Happen To Bad People mindset when we blame victims. When we worship and justify the successful. When we feel unworthy of good things that come our way, or try to figure out what we did to deserve the bad stuff. When we tell the person staring tragedy in the face that everything happens for a reason – which when you scrape it down a layer, either means that you had it coming, or that this tragedy is just a blessing you haven’t recognized yet. Because you are a good person, and bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. We KNOW that’s not the deal – that, rather than an ordered, balanced, cause-and-effect world, we live in a world that is messy, confused, broken. And yet.
Job stubbornly, angrily, faithfully, refuses this logic, the logic of good following good, bad following bad. He says, again and again: I am a good person, and bad things happened to me. He says, again and again: God is God, God is great, all-powerful and transcendent. I won’t quit God, I’m not abandoning my faith; but I’m also not just going to accept this crap. I have the right to cry out to God in my anger and dismay, even though I don’t expect God to answer.
So all this terrible stuff happens to Job. And some friends hear of his misfortunes, and they travel to come and visit with him, in his time of need. At first they just sit silently with him for seven days. They should have stuck with that approach… because once they start talking, their presence is less helpful.
His friend Eliphaz starts off: Job, you must have sinned in some way that you didn’t realize, because bad things don’t happen to good people. So these misfortunes are God’s punishment, to set you right again. He says, “How happy is the one whom God corrects! Therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (5:17) Later in the book his friend Bildad tries another tack: if Job isn’t particularly sinful, then some universal human sinfulness must be to blame. “How can a mortal be righteous before God? If even the stars are not pure in God’s sight, how much less a mortal, who is a maggot, and a human being, who is a worm!…” (Job 25:5-6)
And Job says, You guys are really crappy friends, and you’re speaking from your own fear and discomfort. “You see my calamity, and are afraid” (6:21). And also, if God is watching us that closely and judgmentally, and won’t even “let me alone so that I may swallow my spittle,” then I’d rather be dead, thanks. (Job 7:16-19)
Bildad has another explanation to try out: Okay, Job, so you say that YOU’RE righteous. Maybe it was your children who sinned, then, and that’s why God killed them. So your kids were the problem. And since you are a pure and upright person, you’ll be fine. God will restore you. “See, God will not reject the blameless person… he will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy.” (Job 8:20-21)
Now, it’s not necessarily wrong to tell someone that there may be healing and joy beyond their current suffering. But it’s a matter of timing and tone. Bildad is speaking to Job in the absolute depth of his suffering and grief, so his words come across as dismissive. Also Bildad has seriously missed the boat on Job’s grief about his lost children. “They probably weren’t very good children anyway.” Seriously…
Job says, You’re trying so hard to make human sense of this situation, but look, we’re talking about GOD, here. God who alone stretched out the heavens; who made the Great Bear, Orion and the Pleiades; who does magnificent things beyond understanding. Your human moral logic doesn’t apply to God. (chapter 9)
So then Job’s friend Zophar chimes in: SHAME ON YOU for talking about God like this! God knows best. If you weren’t guilty before, you are now, for being so demanding and presumptuous towards God the Almighty. Eliphaz chimes in on the same note – he accuses Job of doing away with the fear of God. “Your own lips testify against you!” (15:1-6) Both friends are saying, You shouldn’t be talking back to God like this. You’re just a human. Forget your grievance, and repent. “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you… [Then] you will pray to him, and he will hear you.” (22:21) “[Then] You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away.” (11:13-16) If you just accept your suffering, everything will be fine. It’s your anger that’s keeping you away from God. Also, says Zophar, WHY ARE YOU SO MAD? (15:12-13) – “Why does your heart carry you away, and why do your eyes flash?” We’re just trying to help. Jeez, Job, we’re your friends!…
Job is getting PISSED now. “Look, my eye has seen all this; my ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I also know. I am not inferior to you. But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God. As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless doctors! If you would only keep silence, that would be your wisdom!…” (chapter 13) “Miserable comforters are you all! Have windy words no limit? or what provokes you to keep on talking? I also could talk as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you.” (16:2-3)
Job sees very clearly that his friends – his “friends” – are struggling to make sense of his suffering in ways that will let them hold it at arm’s length. That will let them reassure themselves that Job somehow brought all this upon himself, meaning they don’t have to accept the fear and uncertainty of disordered moral universe. He nails their lack of empathy with one pithy remark: “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune.” (12:5) Yeah. That rings true, doesn’t it? Job sees it in his friends’ words and behavior. I see it in all the heartless words words we say and policies we put in place directed at most vulnerable among us. Those at ease have contempt for misfortune.
And Job accuses his so-called friends of misrepresenting God in their efforts to defend God from Job’s anger: “Will you speak falsely for God?… Do you think God is going to appreciate that? … Your platitudes are proverbs of ashes.” (13:7-9, 12)
Your platitudes are proverbs of ashes. Everything happens for a reason. God doesn’t send us anything we can’t handle. How happy is the one whom God punishes. Humans are maggots; shit happens; just accept it. Don’t let it bother you so much. Everybody has their cross to bear. It’ll make you stronger in the end. Just look on the bright side, shake it off, move on.
Proverbs. Of. Ashes. Empty of compassion or comfort.
Also, says Job, your Good Things Happen To Good People logic is crap because the wicked prosper ALL THE TIME. “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their houses are safe from fear, and their children dance around.”(21:7, 9, 11). Job says, Look, what happened to me is not a fluke. Your whole premise is flawed. All you have to do is look around to see that the idea that good things happen to good people, and bad to bad, is intellectually and morally untenable.
In the course of arguing with his friends’ wrongheaded assurances, Job has a few unshakeable convictions of his own.
First: there is a God. And God is good, even though God’s goodness may sometimes be too big and slow and mysterious for us to understand. Job is honest about feeling alone, abandoned, unheard by God: “I cry to you, and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me.” (30:20; see also 21:8-9; 9:11) But Job is certain that God is there, even in the darkness and emptiness.
Second: Job won’t accept the idea that he somehow had this coming – because of secret sins, or unconscious sins, or just general human wormyness. Job says, I’m a good man. I have lived a righteous, generous life. “My heart does not reproach me for any of my days” (27:6). I don’t deserve this, and I’m not going to make what happened to my family OK by fitting it into somebody’s comfortable moral scheme.
Third: Job insists that his relationship with God is strong enough that he can cry out to God, protest, and demand an answer. He says, “I will NOT restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (7:11; 10:2 & elsewhere)
Job wishes for a third party mediator – an umpire, in one verse! – who might help him take his case to God. But there isn’t anyone who can take that role and hold God accountable: “Who can say to God, ‘What are you doing?’” (9:12)
But despite the massive asymmetry of the relationship, Job keeps asking, seeking, demanding an answer. He says, “Would God, in the greatness of divine power, come down and argue a case with me? No. But he would give heed to me.” (ch 23) He would hear me. That’s all I need. I just want to know that God hears.
The debate between Job and his who-needs-enemies friends rages on until it is suddenly and dramatically ended when God appears, and answers Job. God’s answer is … complicated. It’s full of images of nature and vivid descriptions of monsters. That’s another whole sermon – maybe in another three years.
But God does address Job’s friends and all their “good advice.” God makes Job’s friends apologize for being such jerks and for speaking wrongly about God. God says, Job was right. Job was right to cry out to God in grief and anger. Job was right to insist that God was all-powerful, but – and – that divine order doesn’t conform to our human understandings. Job was right to hold fast to righteousness, even when everything fell apart.
What can we carry away from the Book of Job? For one thing, lots of good advice on how NOT to talk to your friends in hard times. Avoid those platitudes of ashes! In chapter 30 Job talks about what he did in such situations: “Did I not weep for those whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor?” (30:25) So simple: Just be present to the suffering. Stop trying to distance it or make sense of it, and share the pain.
For another thing, the book has a clear message on how to to talk to God, in your own hard times. The text stresses that Job was right, all along. He blames God, rages at God for the unfairness and bitter pain of his situation; and his pious friends condemn him for it, but God does not.
He speaks of feeling distant from God, abandoned; he wishes he had never been born, or that he would fall over dead on the spot; and his pious friends condemn him for it, but God does not.
He expresses a confidence in his own righteousness that borders on arrogance, and questions God’s righteousness – I mean, look at the world! – and his pious friends condemn him for speaking in this way, but God does not. God justifies Job.
I think there’s a strange and profound comfort here. There are no easy answers to the why of human suffering. But there is a God who hears. A God who lets us weep and rage and throw things, when that’s what we need to do. A God who, like a loving parent, when we have finally wept ourselves quiet, can gently remind us of the big picture beyond our current distress.
Job trusted in that God, even in grief, even in despair, even in bitter anger. May we, too, be sustained by such a paradoxical and unshakable trust, in our days of loss and struggle.