Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Understanding the Times

"Are you doing 'The Job Thing?'"

I’ve been away speaking at a wonderful church in Medford, Oregon on the book of Job. I promised my wife some time ago that I’d stop speaking on Job for a while. I must have read this book more times than any other book in the Bible. And spoken on it more times than any other.

But, I reneged on my promise! Partly because I find myself drawn to the themes of providence and suffering. Partly because it never seems to grow old.

As I sat uncomfortably in the coach-section of the long over-night flight from Seattle to Atlanta (my wife tucked away in my upgraded seat in business class!), I wondered what it is about the book of Job that fascinates me. Two reasons came to mind among others:

First, I am reminded of John Calvin’s words about Job: “it is a blessed thing to be subject to the majesty of God.” Job’s iridescent response to the first wave of blows that beat him to the ground as all ten of his children are slain always knocks me sideways: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Surely no finer statement of submissive faith is found anywhere in the Bible than there. This is a response we all want to make if we ever find ourselves the object of such an excruciating trial. In the end, the book of Job is not about Job or his trial so much as it is about the sovereignty of God. When we read of the Lord, in the opening chapter of Job, saying to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 1:8; 2:3), the tension is ratcheted to breaking point. Bad things happen because they are part of God’s decree.

That is the cause of our trial of faith: how can God be good and decree evil things to happen to us? It is not simply that he permits them to happen because of some doctrine of free-will or human (or angelic) autonomy; nor is it because God is incapable of preventing certain things because we live in a dualistic universe where good and evil are more or less equal and opposing forces. The trial of Job's faith comes because God instigates his suffering. Philosophy may suggests a differentiation between primary and secondary causality, so that we may confidently assert that God is not the author of sin or evil, the reality is that even Satan is answerable to God and must (as the opening chapters of Job state with shocking clarity) give an account of himself (Job 1:7; 2:2). How can God be good and be the instigator behind Satan’s treatment of Job?

The only recourse we have other than cynicism is faith. We must trust that even though we may not understand why God does certain things, it is not important that we understand; it is only important that he understands. We will need faith for that.

Second, I am reminded of just how pastoral and relevant the book of Job is. I never fail to discover after such a conference that among the Lord’s people in any congregation (and Oregon was no different) are those who suffer unimaginable trials. They are all heart-breaking stories and I often hear about them after giving one of my “lectures” on Job. They involve the loss of loved ones, or the imprisonment of a son, or the ravages of cancer, or the “long-goodnight” of Alzheimer’s and those who care for them.

Some have come to terms with pain and bow in child-like trust before an incomprehensible majesty whom they trust without question. Some are angry and verge on the bitterness that unresolved resentment brings. Some are just weary and wish the trial would end. And some have given up on waiting for the trial to end and contemplate bringing it to an end themselves.

I listen to these tales of woe, offering the comfort that we do not have a Savior who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He too was tempted in every point just like us and it should encourage us to draw near the throne where he now sits and draw strength to face the difficulties that surround us (Heb.4:15). He knows the frailty of the human frame.

But mostly, I just listen. Having pointed out that the book of Job doesn’t really answer the questions we ask of suffering, questions that begin with Why? or Why me?, it would be hypocritical of me to then suggest why this might be so in their case. So I just listen, recalling that the best thing Job’s friends did was to say nothing for seven days. And in listening, there is often the silent agreement that peace can only come as we give ourselves to trusting that the Lord “does not willingly afflict” (Lam. 3:33), and that when he does, it always for a reason. Even when that reason is known only to him and not to us.

Next time my wife says, “Are you doing ‘The Job Thing?’” I will answer, “Perhaps!”


Anonymous said...

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. It is not a sin to question God, to demand answers from God. There is a time and a place for such things. 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

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