Saturday, November 1, 2008

The book of Job: Suffering and God's Sovereignty

This post comes in response to a question posted on AskScripture.com where anonymous writes: "Why did Job suffer? What examples of suffering were given in the book? Is Job's behavior questionable at times?"

I could spend years studying and writing on the book of Job and never totally unpack all that can be found entwined in it's passages. One of the most insightful studies is to read the seemingly logical observations about God and His righteousness that Job's three friends offer, consider how they are subtly flawed, and realize how commonly we make the same mistakes in our own theological judgements. But, anonymous has asked some very specific questions about the suffering we see in the book, so let's take a look.

Allow me to answer these questions a bit out of sequence. First, what examples do we see? Job lost pretty much everything but his own life, and even that he began to wish would end. In the first test, 1:13-19, raiders from nearby tribes destroyed his farm implements (donkeys and oxen) and his merchant vessels (camels). Meanwhile, it was natural disaster that destroyed his inventory (sheep) and even his own family. Now, I do not wish to downplay the value of human life lost, but I want to make sure we understand the economic meaning that a large family had in Job's day. While we can personally relate to his loss of loved ones, we might not directly relate to what this meant for Job's social status at the time. In essence, the first test was a stripping of all material blessing. The second test, 2:3-8, is where Job loses even his own health, the last shred of status that he could have. In his culture, to suffer skin boils was the curse of people on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

So what kind of suffering is this? It's tangible. It's something we can all comprehend, and some can even empathize. Some argue, however, that this is not related to the suffering of the New Testament, which was religious persecution and warranted endurance for a greater pragmatic significance than just the unfortunate dealings of so-called fate. However, was Job's suffering not a religious persecution? Who instigated it and why? It was Satan (literally the Accuser) who sought to oppose God by accusing a the ultimate character of Godliness in his day, Job, of disingenuous faith. It is clear by the narrative that none of this calamity would have befallen Job had he not been so "blameless and upright" (1:8; 2:3).

So, with that said, let's consider the first question posed by anonymous. Why did Job suffer? If we carry my last statement to the logical conclusion, it can be said that Job suffered as a result of his righteousness. How unjust is that! What an atrocious and wrong outcome of Job's obvious devotion to God. To deepen the mystery, no matter how you slice it we cannot absolve God of the ultimate responsibility for Job's suffering. God permitted Satan to implement the torment, but when he was petitioned "why" by Job, He did not skirt the responsibility by pointing blame on Satan. God, in essence, responded, "Sure I did, and what are you going to say about it. I'm God. Period."

In order to understand the book of Job without becoming inflamed with anger towards God, it is imperative that we accept by faith a truly Biblical view of God. In studying this story, you must understand that the original writer and original readers, monotheistic Hebrews, viewed God as unquestionably righteous. Therefore, Job would have been in utter sin to call the character of God into question. It simply wasn't an option. We look at these accounts through our Westernized lenses to the world and ask "why would God do this" as though we have the right to ask. Job, his friends, and the Israelites that studied this text did not share the same outlook. (See the "BSL - Righteous" download for a deeper understanding).

In fact, the book of Job carried the Hebrew doctrine of God's righteousness into a new level of understanding. Most of Israel's wisdom books (the Pentetuch, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) presented the theme of blessing from God as a just outcome of one's righteousness, and likewise curses were for those who lived unrighteous lives. This was the crux of Job's friends' advice as they thought surely he must have sinned to deserve this. The book of Job, however, does not allow the Hebrew to predict and influence God's judgements in a pattern of justice that WE as mere humans deem appropriate. The conclusion is that He is God, He will do what He pleases, and we dare not question. God is sovereign.

This is not an easy conclusion. In fact, it is precisely what frustrates most readers of Job. It's so unsatisfactory to us in our Westernized minds that we continue looking and thinking "surely there is more." I am reading "Come Next Spring" by Jim Welter, and while we obviously share differing theological views and hermeneutic methods, his treatise of Job is worth the read for anyone struggling with the unquestionable sovereignty of God.

So, to the third question, was Job out of line in his response? In one subtle way, yes, and God shamed him for it. Job, like his friends, understood God's justice to be tit-for-tat just as many people today demand that He be. In 42:4-6, Job finally understood how incomprehensible God really is, and therefor how incomprehensible His judgements, and therefore repented for presuming that he could comprehend how God should and would honor Job's righteousness.

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2 Comments:

  • You might be interested in this online commentary "Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job" (http://www.bookofjob.org) as supplementary or background material for your study of the Book of Job. God is sovereign but it is not a sin to question God, to demand answers from God. There is a time and a place for such things. Questioning is an expression of the God-given duty to seek the truth. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

    Robert Sutherland

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 2, 2008 at 5:48 AM  

  • Robert,

    Thanks for your comment. I will look into your book. One quick reply, though...

    1) Questioning God in the sense of "who are you..." is natural for unbelievers, but for His children to constantly come back to that would be unhealthy.

    2) Questioning God in the sense of "why did you..." is natural for believers, and you are correct that this is how we come to know Him deeper.

    3) Questioning God in the sense of "how could you..." is not a God-honoring attitude. It assumes there could be a conclusion drawn that God is unjust, cruel, or plain wrong. This sort of questioning is not advocated in the scriptures. Paul responds in Romans 9:19-20 with strong words for the doubter of God's justice.

    By Blogger Nick Carter, At November 3, 2008 at 12:06 PM  

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