Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The book of Job

The book of Job is not answering a theoretical question about why good people suffer. It is answering a practical question: When good people suffer, what does God want from them? The answer is, he wants our trust.

The book is driven by tensions. One, Job really was a good man (1:1, 8). He didn't deserve what he got. Two, neither Job nor his friends ever saw the conflict going on between God and Satan, but his friends made the mistake of thinking they were competent to judge. Three, his friends interpreted his sufferings in moralistic, accusing terms (4:7-8). Thus they intensified his sufferings. Four, Job refused to give in either to his own despair or to their insinuations. He looked to God, and God showed up (38:1-42:17).

Two observations. One, even personal suffering has a social dimension, as others look on. Suffering brings temptation both to the sufferer and to the observer. The sufferer is tempted to give up on God. The observer is tempted to point his finger at the sufferer with smug, self-serving explanations: "This is all your own fault, of course. If you'll own up, everything will start getting better." The fallacy here is to assume that we live in a universe ruled by the simple laws of crime and punishment. Our minds dredge up these thoughts because we are so uneasy about ourselves and therefore threatened by the suffering of another: "If it's happening to Job, it might catch up to me too." So we cling to the illusory feeling of control by reinforcing our own self-image of moral superiority. The book of Job teaches a better, humbler way. When we observe someone else suffering, we too should trust God and sympathize with the sufferer rather than off-load our own guilty fears by dumping on the sufferer.

Two, when we ourselves suffer in ways we cannot explain, God wants us to trust him more than we ever have before. Job eventually settles into a deeper place where, without answers to his questions, he trusts in the omni-competence of God: "I know that you can do all things" (42:2). What God can do is more important than how God explains himself. What if he did tell us every mystery right now? Would we be satisfied? I doubt it. It would only pander to our pride. Far better to leave it all with God, as our faith deepens from questioning to admiring. We don't live by explanations; we live by faith.

"I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able." 2 Timothy 1:12