Job and the Wisdom of Suffering

grayscale photo of man standing beside car

The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

-Job 38:1-7

 

In my opinion, the book of Job is often misunderstood, underappreciated, and too often ignored altogether. It is a beautiful theological treatise on the nature of suffering and the human condition.

I would like to give you a very brief overview of the events in Job leading up to where our scripture started. The book starts with some information that we as the readers have, but Job and the other characters in the story do not. This a common literary device used in ancient Hebrew story telling – and we need to remember it as we go through Job, otherwise we can get lost in what the characters are saying and lose sight of what the book is telling us.

The opening scene shows us a glimpse of Job, he is a man without fault, one who has committed no sins, who loves and supports the people around him, and who worships God sincerely and regularly. God himself attests to the fact that Job is blameless and without sin.

One day, God’s heavenly court assembles with all the angels – and Satan is among them. All throughout the story, God is portrayed as a judge and heaven is understood as a court of divine law which distributes justice upon mortals.

God asks Satan what he has been doing, and Satan replies that he has been wandering over the earth exploring every part of it. Based on God’s reply we can assume he was checking up on people to see if they were righteous or not – for God asks Satan immediately what he thinks about Job.

God thinks Job is the best thing since sliced bread and Satan admits that Job is a great man – but suggests that it is only because God has given him such a good life. Satan argues that if God were to take away all the pleasures he has given Job that Job would curse him to his face.

Now I’m going to interject here for a moment – there are a couple essential pieces that we need to recognize in what just happened. One is how God and Satan interact and relate to one another. We have a tendency to think of Satan as God’s enemy, one who desires evil in the world.

We often have an image of a heavenly battle being waged between Jesus and Satan as if one was Darth Vader and the other was Luke Skywalker. And I will admit that there are parts of the Bible where one could get ideas like that.

But not in the book of Job. In this story Satan acts more like a prosecuting attorney in God’s court, in fact the name Satan means adversary, or one who opposes – that’s why Jesus called Peter Satan in the Gospel reading we heard today, because Peter was opposing what Jesus said and trying to lead him astray from what God wanted him to do.

In this story, God and the angel Satan are colleagues discussing the case of Job – judge and prosecuting attorney – and Satan does nothing without God’s permission.

The other important note to be made in this prologue to the story is the casual way a deep theological issue is introduced. That is – the question of the relationship between suffering and righteousness.

We all have experienced the fact that when we are suffering it is harder to be good. If you’re sick and had a long day at work you are more likely to grump at your partner when they leave their clothes on the bedroom floor.

But – If you’ve had a great day and you’re feeling well, you are more likely to be generous and clean up after them.  Our righteousness is completely tied up with our happiness. And this is the first piece of evidence Satan uses against Job.

“Of course Job is righteous, you’ve given him everything he could ever want, make his life hard and then we will see how righteous he truly is.”

These important pieces from the first chapter are information that we have, but Job and his friends do not. They do not know that God has declared Job to be righteous, they do not know that Satan and God are working together to test Job’s righteousness, and the do not know why God would allow any of the terrible things that are about to happen Job.

And terrible things do happen to Job. Satan and God together destroy Job’s life. His family is killed, his fortune in stolen, his body is covered in rotten scabs and disease. He goes from having the perfect life to a life of physical and emotional turmoil, poverty, and depression.

Job contemplates suicide, he wishes he had never been born, and he questions God’s goodness. In short, he has a very human reaction to a terrible turn of events. Eventually he finds himself sitting in a pile of dust on the ground, he’d torn his own clothing, and he’d covered himself in ashes and he had cut himself many times with a shard of broken pottery.

He was in the midst of a depressive and self destructive episode.

This is how his friends found him when they came to check up on him and most of the book consists of the conversation they all had together, Job and his three friends. I wish we had time this morning to go into detail about the conversation they had, but our time together is short.

So I’m going to skim over most of it and summarize the main points. His friends try to console him. First they join him in his pit. They cover themselves with ashes too and they sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights. They wait with him there until finally Job is willing to talk.

Their conversation starts out with good intentions, they want to help Job get out of his depression and the advice they give him is meant to do just that. Unfortunately, they are completely wrong in just about everything they say to him.

The main theological point they use is one we often hear today – it is one I’m sure you’ve heard your friends and family use and one you may believe yourself. In our modern culture we’ve taken the word karma from the Eastern traditions and Westernized it to mean – what goes around comes around.

If we see someone cheating and stealing their way through life and then one day someone cheats them and they are left with nothing – we might say “well that’s karma for you”.

Or if you know someone who is kind and humble and hard working all their life you might have this unshakable feeling that all their goodness will one day pay off and they will get their reward.

While this is actually not even remotely what the ancient Indian yogis taught as karma, it is still a belief so inherent in the human psyche that people as far removed in time and space as Eliphaz the Temanite in the book of Job and Oprah Winfrey have claimed it to be true.

But that’s not real life – bad things happen to good people and God makes the sun shine on the righteous and the wicked alike. We all know it, and Job knew it, and that’s what this book addresses.

But all Job’s friends were convinced that he must have done some great awful thing in order for God to punish him this much. There must be a reason that Job suffers so greatly, he must have accumulated some bad karma somewhere because he is really getting hit hard.

Even though Job insists that he has done nothing wrong they come at him with more and more theological arguments to prove that he is a sinful man deserving of his punishment. They even use a common Christian belief as well, they say that all people are sinful and worthy of God’s wrath, they say that simply being human may be enough to justify God’s judgement and subsequent punishment of Job.

But Job refuses to accept these answers. He continually laments that God’s court is unjust, that it is not fair that he has no attorney to represent him in God’s court. And then God himself comes to speak to Job, after all his friends fail to bring him any wisdom.

As one of his friends was discussing the power of God to control the thunder and lightning an actual thunderstorm appeared where they were sitting and out of this storm God spoke to Job. And this where our lectionary reading began. Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?”

God accuses Job not only of speaking words with no knowledge to back them up – but more importantly he says Job has obscured his plans. As the readers of this story we are thrown back to the beginning, we remember that God has already declared Job to be righteous, his goodness is not in question.

It is the underlying cause of his goodness which God is testing. All of this has not been a punishment for sin, it has been a test to see if Job can maintain his righteousness in the face of great suffering.

Anyone here who has ever been a teacher knows that when you tell a room full of kids you’re giving them a test they groan and complain and say that you are trying to punish them. That’s certainly the kind of kid I was.

But every good teacher, and every wise student, knows that tests are not meant to punish, they are meant to help us grow. Teachers give us tests so that we can learn where our weaknesses are, so that we can allow our strengths to come to the surface.

God says Job has obscured his plans because he has been asking the wrong question all along. All their theological debates about why God was punishing Job were built on a faulty premise – Job, and all his friends, were working with the assumption that God was punishing Job and so their theologizing had come to nothing.

God asks Job if he was there when he laid the Earth’s foundation, if he understands who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb, if he has seen the gates of the deepest darkness, if he knows the way to where light itself resides.

And Job is faced with a stark realization. He is just a creature and God is the creator. All of their discussions searching for wisdom were lacking one essential quality – they presumed to approach the wisdom of God.

The same God who binds the chains of the Pleiades, who watches as the doe bears her young and counts the days until it’s birth, who makes the laws of the heavens, and by who’s wisdom the eagle takes flight.

Job is dumbfounded when God asks him by what authority he questions the dictates of Heaven. And so Job responds with the only reasonable response one could give. He says “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

He admitted that all his theologizing, all his well thought out arguments that he wanted to present as his case in the court of the Lord, all his complaints that he knew were justified were all chasing after the wind – they amounted to nothing.

Then he realized that he was understanding God based on the words others had spoken about him instead of basing his opinions on an actual experience of God.

In the comfort of his peaceful life he had never bothered to demand an appearance in God’s court, he had never felt the need to seek God in the midst of the storm, he had never felt the need to see God.

But once he left behind that life of comfort, he was forced to take a long hard look at the understanding of the Lord he and his friends grew up with and accepted. Job’s friends were speaking back to him his own assumptions, assumptions they inherited from their culture and not from a real experience of God.

Up until this incident his ears had heard of God and that was enough for him, but now, through the chaos of the storm, he had seen God with his own eyes and understood his place in the natural world. So, sisters and brothers, must we allow the suffering of life to open our eyes.

They say that which does not kill you makes you stronger – but sometimes it can just leave you crippled. The choice is yours, you can argue with the Lord of Heaven and Earth or you can look around you at the trees and the lakes, the night sky and the rising sun, the changing leaves and the crocuses in the spring, and you can accept your place within God’s beautiful creation.

Let the hardships of life refine your love. Thank God for the opportunity to deepen your faith. And welcome, with heart sincere, the cross your saviour bids you take. And know that God is not punishing you, the trials of life are not the vengeance of a cruel God but the mercy of a loving God.

They are a gift which leads from the cross to the resurrection. They are the means by which we are saved and, if you choose to open your eyes and see God, they lead us into a life we never dreamed possible. After Job had his encounter with God he prayed for his friends, even though they had blamed him for his ruin.

He prospered and had a long life with many children. The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. And, if you can humble yourself before the God of all creation, you will come out of your hardships more blessed than you were before.

The correct response to great suffering is an appreciation for the beauty of creation and the majesty of God’s handiwork. Through suffering we join in solidarity the condition of all creation, just as Christ joined, in solidarity, with our condition. In suffering our eyes are opened to the immensity of life and we are taken out of ourselves and into something greater.

I saw a great little meme on Facebook the other day which read “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” Now, I’m not suggesting we should enjoy pain and seek it out like masochists…but we can definitely find meaning in it because if we don’t our lives will have less meaning but the same amount of suffering.

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3 thoughts on “Job and the Wisdom of Suffering

  1. Wow. Thank you. I feel like I have lots of new understandings about the Book of Job. And it strikes me that I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of suffering. Understanding this better is probably a key for me, and I wouldn’t be looking at this if I hadn’t read your sermon!

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    1. I’m glad you were able to find some meaning in it Daniel! I imagine we’re all afraid of suffering – I know I certainly am. But I do my best to find meaning in it when I can.

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  2. Thank you. Your ability to bring understanding of the Holy Word is amazing. You have given me MUCH to think about in my past, present and future with respect to trials and tribulations that I personally have faced. It’s not hard to see the beauty of creation if you simply LOOK. Thank your for this and I look forward to your next sermon. You Justin are a true inspiration and your calling could not be more clear.

    Your friend in faith
    Cathy

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