The last time I studied Job, Hurricane Katrina blew through town creating “Job experiences” for many. I recently studied Job again, and I’m hoping disaster will not follow. My goal is to understand why God allows suffering in the lives of people trying to obey him. Jesus’ life is a testimony of the good that can come from God ordained suffering. For the record, while I believe God can bring good from evil, I don’t believe all suffering is ordained by God. There is a pattern in God’s dealings with humanity to forewarn those called to suffer, e.g., Jeremiah, Jesus and the Apostle Paul were all warned in advance. Their suffering was God ordained as was Job’s.
In conjunction with studying Job, I reread Where is God When it Hurts by Philip Yancey. In the revised 2002 edition, Yancey acknowledges he was too young to tackle the problem of pain when he wrote the original manuscript while in his twenties. In this edition, he exercises greater caution in addressing the cause of suffering and quickly moved from the unexplainable cause to how we should respond. He also made a statement that set up a permanent residence in my consciousness. “We are not put on earth merely to satisfy our desires, to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. We are here to be changed…”
Unfortunately, Yancey discusses Job’s experience without addressing how undeserved suffering changed Job. He portrays Job as the unwitting victim in a cosmic contest between God and Satan. God wanted to prove he has given humanity true freedom. Therefore, Yancey argues those who truly love God do so without incentive. He then suggests Job clung to God’s justice without reason, making Job the stellar example of human perfection who suffered at the hands of a deity attempting to prove something to an unreasonable, wicked being. Why would God need to prove anything to the devil? Considering the price Job paid, the thought that God needed to prove something to himself is even less appealing.
Yancey is one of my favorite authors. His books, including Where is God When it Hurts, helped me navigate some dark seasons of life. My recent studies in Job have me convinced Yancey missed the boat where Job is concerned. “…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” is the last thing Job said after God confronted him (Job 42:6, NIV). Yancey didn’t explain why the “innocent one” who unjustly suffered repented.
The first time I studied Job, the word “servant” came to my attention. God called Job his servant, not his son. A relationship with a servant would be different from a relationship with a son. If we believe God created us, we are his property giving him the right to do with us whatever he desires. The thought that God allowed an innocent servant to suffer remained distasteful, but it was slightly easier to swallow. It also cast God as a bit of a tyrant. Why would he allow a lowly servant to suffer without reason? If God is good and he cannot sin, then everything he does is good including allowing the innocent to suffer. But how does suffering benefit us? What good does it produce?
This time my study brought Job’s character into greater focus. God said about Job, “he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Job’s stellar life shines even brighter with the commendation “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:10). Yet at the end of the book, Job despises himself for saying too much (Job 40:3-5).
Can you be a good man living a life even God would commend and still need to repent? Saul of Tarsus comes to mind. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, zealous for God, perfect in every way. After an encounter with God, Saul becomes the Apostle Paul and called himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Job did not sin in what he “said”, but neither did Balaam. To the exasperation of King Balak, who hired Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam only spoke the words of blessing God gave him. Yet, his heart was not right with God. He did not curse God’s people, but he did tell Balak how to incite God to destroy them. Balaam knew God and obeyed God, but his heart was not pure. He betrayed both God and God’s people for earthly wealth. (Numbers 2:24)
Balaam may not have been concerned about inward purity, but Job was obsessed with having a pure heart. Whenever his children gathered to celebrate, Job offered burnt offerings for each of them concerned they may have “sinned and cursed God in their hearts”. Job was so obsessed with perfection he either declined to attend the celebrations or his sons left him off the guest list because Daddy was impossible to please. We are given a clue to the source of Job’s obsession when Job says, “What I feared has come upon me, what I dreaded has happened to me” (Job 3:25). Fear motivated Job to perfect his life, not love. His concern was for himself, not others. How can I say that Job didn’t love God? When you love someone, you believe the best about them. Job’s suffering brought his “true” thoughts about the “God” he was obsessed with pleasing to light.
Here is a sample of Job’s comments about God from The Message, a Bible written in today’s vernacular:
Job 7:17-21 “don’t you [God] have better things to do than pick on me? Why make a federal case out of me? Why don’t you just forgive my sins and start me off with a clean slate?”
Job 9:14-20 “As it is, he [God] knocks me about from pillar to post, beating me up, black-and-blue, for no good reason. He won’t even let me catch my breath, piles bitterness upon bitterness.
Job 9:25-31 “Even if I scrub myself all over and wash myself with the strongest soap I can find, it wouldn’t last – you’d [God] push me into a pigpen, or worse, so nobody could stand me for the stink.
Job 10:13-17 “…if I so much as missed a step, you’d notice and pounce, wouldn’t let me get by with a thing. If I’m truly guilty, I’m doomed. But if I’m innocent, it’s no better – I’m still doomed.
Job 13:20-27 “You [God] compile a long list of mean things about me, even hold me accountable for the sins of my youth. You hobble me so I can’t move about. You watch every move I make, and brand me as a dangerous character.”
Job 19:7-12 “God threw a barricade across my path – I’m stymied; he turned out all the lights – I’m stuck in the dark. He destroyed my reputation, robbed me of all self-respect. He tore me apart piece by piece – I’m ruined! Then he yanked out hope by the roots.”
Job 27:1-6 “God-Alive! He’s denied me justice! God Almighty! He’s ruined my life!”
Job’s God picks on him, refuses to forgive his sins and then beats him up for no reason. He keeps a list of mistakes Job has made from his youth, destroys Job and his family then leaves Job without hope by denying him justice. I have a question for Job. Why did you alienate your family to worship an unreasonable tyrant?
Job’s three friends could not convince Job he was less than perfect, so how could God convince blameless Job he had a serious problem and Job believe him. We can’t change what we can’t see. It is possible that suffering is the only way for people blameless in their own eyes to see the truth about themselves. Therefore, God allows them to suffer.
Can you live a blameless perfect life in God’s eyes and have no love in your heart for God? Job did. He built his life and his worship on the shifting sands of a lie. He worshiped a God crafted by human imaginations making his quest for perfection vain. Job said to God, “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand- from my own eyes and ears! I’m sorry – forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise! I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor” (Job 42:1-6, The Message Bible)