Hard Truth and Hope in the Story of Job
Ever since I first read the story of Job decades ago, it has bothered me. The oldest story in the Bible, it addresses head-on the question that plagues anyone who takes God seriously: How can a loving God stand by while a good person suffers?
The story begins with a description of Job as a truly good, righteous man blessed with wealth in all respects: seven sons and daughters, lots of servants and camels, universal respect. Satan approaches God with a bet: take away everything Job has, and this good man will curse you. God agrees but tells Satan not to kill him or his wife. Disaster ensues in all aspects of Job’s life: his children die; he loses all his possessions; he is afflicted with terrible physical suffering with the added indignity that he stinks and is repellent to anyone who looks at him.
Job’s friends try to comfort him, essentially arguing that a good God would not permit such a heinous injustice. Job must have done something to deserve his suffering. Job says he wishes he hadn’t been born, but he refuses to curse God and refuses to say he has done anything wrong. He can’t understand why he, a blameless man, is sorely afflicted while evildoers get a pass. Job calls on God, but his pleas are met with silence. We all can relate to how Job felt.
Finally, God speaks out of a whirlwind. His message is not reassuring. Contra Job’s “comforters”, God agrees that Job did not deserve the horrible suffering he was enduring. But God not only does not say he is sorry for Job’s loss, He reminds Job of his unimaginable power and chides Job for confronting Him. His message to Job is, “Who are you, a puny, ignorant mortal, to rebuke me? You can’t know my purposes”
“Where were you when I laid the foundations? Tell me if you understand.” (Job 38:4)
“Would you discredit my injustice. Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8-9)
Instead of replying, “thanks for nothing,” as many of us would, Job acknowledges God’s power and meekly says he spoke of “things [he] did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42: 3). Job accepts unconditionally God’s sovereignty and wisdom. Job then prays for his friends. The Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before.
What are we rational, skeptical moderns to make of all this?
- Anybody reading this story or just observing everyday life should be forever disabused of the idea that being a “good, blameless” person offers protection from tragedy and loss.
- We are not going to get an answer to “Why me?” or why bad things happen to good people and the reverse. It’s not worth trying.
- It does not follow that God is responsible for suffering. God does not cause or intend suffering, but he does permit It is Satan who devastates Job, not God.
- What happens in the universe, and the role of each of us, is completely beyond our understanding. Our intellects can never tell us whether to believe Macbeth or Wordsworth.
Macbeth: “Life’s but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more.”
Wordsworth: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home.”
- Most important, the Book of Job, written somewhere between seven and four centuries before Christ, foreshadows what I deem to be His core message: Believe in my Father and Me, and trust in us. That’s it. No one is promised a rose garden, but when troubles bring you or someone you love down, God will give you strength and comfort.
There is no intellectually satisfying answer to the problem of pain; any effort to explain it away trivializes the experience of someone in fear and suffering. But I believe there are hints from rational inquiry that might offer a little solace. Suppose God had said to Satan, “this is outrageous. I will not stand by and let you torment my good and faithful servant.” Job doubtless would have been pleased and relieved. But neither he nor God would know what the basis of their relationship really was. Does Job love and honor God only for what God can do for him? In that case, the relationship is purely instrumental, rather like my relationship with my car. Maybe the book of Job is saying that God above all wants a relationship with his conscious creatures based on freely given love, and that requires trust and belief. The surmise brings to mind Einstein’s stunning question, “Could God have created the world in a different way?” Maybe not. I don’t know.