Job 3:1-7, 10-11, 20-22
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2Job said: 3“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ 4Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. 5Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. 6That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. 7Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it… 10because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.
11“Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?... 20“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, 21who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; 22who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave?
Job 4:1-11, 5:12-19
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: 2“If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? 3See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. 4Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. 5But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. 6Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?
7“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? 8As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. 9By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. 14They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope at noonday as in the night. 15But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth, from the hand of the mighty. 16So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.
17“How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. 18For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal. 19He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no harm shall touch you.
Then Job answered: 2“Listen carefully to my words, and let this be your consolation. 3Bear with me, and I will speak; then after I have spoken, mock on. 4As for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals? Why should I not be impatient? 5Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. 6When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.
7Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? 8Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes. 9Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. 10Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries. 11They send out their little ones like a flock, and their children dance around. 12They sing to the tambourine and the lyre, and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. 13They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.
14They say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways. 15What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’ 16Is not their prosperity indeed their own achievement? The plans of the wicked are repugnant to me.
Job is a challenging and wonderful book. It’s got a beginning and an end to tell the story and the rest of the book is basically poetry. The different characters argue with each other, or rather, Job’s friends argue with him. They come to comfort him, but they can’t take the raw emotion of Job’s grief and they worry that his claims of injustice go against God.
Religion taught that good people were rewarded and bad people were punished. We still generally think that in some way. We may call it Karma or say “what goes around, comes around,” but some part of us wants to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It’s not just a religious belief, but a cultural one as well. We know it’s not true all the time, but we still want to believe it will all get sorted out correctly in the end.
Job and his friends all make good points. They all make good points that echo other parts of the Bible and resonate with our own experience. I remember the first time I really read Job was in college. I wrote down a quote from almost every page. There’s some really wise stuff being said in this book and powerful poetry to go with it.
That’s the irony of the book: each speaker makes good points, but they never come to an understanding. That’s the irony of suffering in general and why it’s so difficult for us to deal with. It just doesn’t make sense. We can’t understand it; we feel like serious, innocent suffering makes a mockery of everything holy we want to believe in.
People of every religious background and level of commitment get hung up on this question. How can God be all-powerful and loving and still allow such terrible suffering? It doesn’t make sense; we can’t wrap our heads around it.
So we try to figure it out. We come up with explanations like Job’s friends. Maybe your kids sinned, so God punished them. Maybe God is using this experience to lead you away from sin and make you even better. Maybe it’s a test of your faith. Maybe you’re not as innocent as you claim to be, after all, everyone sins. Everything happens for a reason.
There’s truth in all the discussion. Scripture often talks about how God’s correction and discipline leads us to greater faithfulness. And we know the best of us still fall short sometimes. Job’s friends have their heart in the right place. The first seven days they spent with him they simply sat with him in silence to comfort him. Even in our second passage, when Eliphaz responds to Job for the first time, we can see that he wants to be encouraging and comforting. He tries to be gentle, but he’s also afraid.
He’s afraid because grief as powerful as Job’s is hard to face. Job is in such despair he not only wishes he were dead, he wishes he had never been born and wants to erase his birthday from the universe. It’s hard to face raw emotion like that. More than that, Job’s deep suffering threatens the theological order of the universe. There are a few questions like that, questions that have the potential to shatter our understanding of the world or God or faith. Questions like why is there suffering? Is God real? Is the Bible true? These questions shake the foundations of our world, so we turn away from them.
It’s much easier to face the world with certainty. It’s much easier to get up in the morning if we understand the basic rules. For Job’s friends one important rule of the world was that living a righteous life led to success. And that rule had been working really well for Job too; he was very righteous and very successful. He was someone a parent could point to and tell their children, “If you follow God’s commandments and treat other people with justice, God will take care of you like he takes care of Job.”
So when all that falls apart; when Job’s world collapses, what is the parent supposed to tell the child? What are the friends supposed to tell themselves? It’s much easier to look for a reason for Job’s suffering; so Job’s friends keep looking for a fault in Job with increasing desperation. Without a reason for Job’s suffering they are faced with a world that doesn’t make sense.
Job refuses to accept those answers. He says, “Look at me and be appalled.” He is exhibit A. As much as his friends want Job’s suffering to make sense, he hasn’t gone off the path of God’s commandments. The narrator confirms it too; right from the beginning we’re told that there was no one as righteous as Job. Even God lifts up Job as an example of what a human should be.
Now, of course, in real life Job’s claim is dangerous because none of us is perfect. And Job’s friends are on to something: the first thing we should take a look at when things go wrong for us is how we might be contributing to the problem. But the truth of Job’s complaint is inescapable too; sometimes terrible things happen to people for no good reason. Sometimes suffering is simply unfair, unjust and incomprehensible.
Too often the wicked do prosper. We see so many examples of people getting ahead by cutting corners or taking advantage of other people that it doesn’t even surprise us anymore. We see companies profit by destroying the environment. We see corrupt leaders who live out a comfortable retirement even when they are removed from power.
Too often the innocent suffer. Ask the mother whose two year old was killed by a random bullet through the window. Ask the children starving in the mountains of Syria or the toddlers growing weak from malaria in South Sudan. Too often the innocent suffer, and too often the wicked thrive. The easy answers don’t do justice to the heartrending facts.
So what are we supposed to do with all that? Honestly, I don’t have a great answer, at least as far as airtight logic goes. We can sympathize with Job’s friends who try so desperately to uphold the rules of religion as they have been taught. They are afraid of offending God, so they argue on God’s behalf, defending God’s justice. They are also afraid of the possibility Job’s suffering represents, afraid that if the rules they trust of reward and punishment aren’t really true, then maybe the whole foundation of their life is false too.
That fear leads to rigid faith. It leads to a fear that if we allow any questioning of our core beliefs, we will lose everything. It’s a fear of looking closely at the world because we’re afraid what we will see is not what our religion tells us should be there.
On the other hand, we can imagine a universe ruled only by the laws of physics and biology but no moral law. We can imagine a universe where evil goes unpunished and good goes unrewarded. There’s a logical appeal to that too because then what we see is what we get. There are no mysterious forces at work and no ruler at all; we’re on our own. That view can easily lead to cynicism, resigning ourselves to the worst possible view of the world to protect ourselves from disappointment. We can give up our sense that the world should be better.
The trouble is those theories don’t do justice to the moral light we know is in us. We can’t prove it, but we feel deep down the desire to do good. We feel better when we help each other than when we hurt each other. We have a sense of right and wrong at our core, and our instinct tells us that moral intelligence reflects our creator. When we read in scripture that God is love, it strikes a chord in our soul; it makes sense to us. We long for it to be true and it is. We see that love in the goodness of creation at the beginning, and in the full redemption of the world promised at the end. We see God’s love especially in the amazing, grace-filled ministry of Jesus and in his courageous, innocent death on the cross.
Instead of being rigid in his faith and refusing the evidence or being cynical about the world and giving up faith’s power, Job takes a brave middle way. He sees the world as it is, but also as it should be. He proclaims that what is happening isn’t right. He calls out for justice and refuses to be silenced even by his friends telling him he is wrong.
Job wrestles with the painful uncertainty of not understanding. He doesn’t resolve the tension by letting go of his faith or his grasp of the truth. He doesn’t understand why these terrible things have happened to him, but he knows they are. He refuses to adjust his sense of reality to religious teaching to make things clearer. Instead he demands truth and justice from God.
He holds on to his faith and to his sense of right and wrong. Even as voices his rage about the wicked at peace, he goes on to say that the way of the wicked is repugnant to him. Even if it does work, even if evil isn’t punished and good doesn’t profit Job, he holds on to good and turns away from evil. Whatever happens, he knows God calls him to be righteous. That’s who he is; that’s the character he has build on a foundation of faith. It’s not the rigid foundation that needs to be right and fit reality to it’s vision. It’s not a soft foundation that goes along with whatever is going on, right or wrong. Instead it’s a firm foundation flexible enough to absorb that the world is not always what it should be, but solid enough to push away from cynicism or relativism.
Job’s courage is a model we need now. It’s the courage to face the world without having all the answers. It’s the courage to hold on to faith and to hold on to truth. It’s the courage to speak out against injustice even without having all the answers. Job’s courage doesn’t free him from trouble, and our courage won’t either, but it will allow us to face trouble with integrity and to stay faithful even when the way isn’t clear. That’s a courage we need today and always.
Thanks be to God.