By Dan Clendenin
After I finished grad school, I moonlighted at a Presbyterian church as a pastor for home visitation. The very first person I visited that July in 1985 was a widow named Jan. I could barely comprehend her story as I sat in her living room.
Jan had just lost her husband, her two sons, her father, an uncle, and a nephew in a single boating accident on a lake in Minnesota. Six loved ones had perished in a freak storm on their annual fishing trip.
Jan was a modern day Job. And as the four images for this week show, the suffering of Job has captured the human imagination for millennia.
Even people who are ignorant of the Bible speak about the “patience of Job” as a complimentary proverb, but I’ve never understood why. Job is anything but patient.
Between the prologue (1:1–2:13) and the epilogue (42:7–17), most of the story is a tedious and acrimonious debate between Job and his phony friends — Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (3:1–31:40). They insist that Job deserves his misfortune; it’s obviously a punishment for his sins. He therefore needs to repent.
But from start to finish Job protests his innocence. He complains, despairs, doubts, questions, anguishes, and, finally, resigns himself to his mysterious fate.
Nor does the story of Job deal directly with important questions — like why the wicked prosper, why God sometimes feels silent and hidden, or why the moral calculus in our world sometimes does not add up. Those matters are peripheral to a more narrow question.
Job explores a specific question about the relationship between piety and prosperity. Although Job never learns the origin or purpose of his ordeal, the writer-narrator informs us as readers. We know some things that he doesn’t.
Satan comes before God with a provocative accusation: “does Job fear God for nothing?” (1:9). He says that Job’s faith has ulterior motives. Doesn’t Job expect a quid pro quo of some sort, divine blessings for human faith?
The accuser-adversary (the literal meaning of his name in Hebrew) then makes a wager with God. He bets that he can prove that for Job, an immensely wealthy man with a wonderful family, God is nothing more than a Cosmic Sugar Daddy. His faith in Yahweh is fueled by its benefits. God, Satan charges, is really no more than a rabbit’s foot or good luck charm. Test him and try him, squeeze him, Satan wagers, and you’ll see that Job’s faith is opportunistic and egocentric rather than gratuitous and theocentric.
God accepts the bet. He permits Job to be “ruined without reason” (2:3). A first wave of disasters decimates Job’s extravagant wealth and kills his ten children. Then Satan ravages Job himself with festering boils from head to foot. To say that life hands him a dramatic reversal would be a gross understatement.
But despite his impatience, his agonizing questions, and emotional outbursts, Job passes the tests with flying colors at each stage of the drama. A close reading of the story makes this crystal clear.
Before his fiasco began, we read that Job was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (1:1).
During the crisis, the narrator says that “in all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing;” “he did not sin in what he said” (1:22; 2:10). Though “ruined without reason,” God tells Satan that Job “maintained his integrity” (2:3).
And then, the epilogue ends with another reversal, but of a different sort. Whereas at the beginning of the story Job sought the help of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, at the end God commands them to seek Job’s prayers and intercession. They had wrongly charged Job with impiety, but God rightly charged them with “folly” — they “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7).
The story of Job contains several important lessons. In the New Testament, James commends Job for his perseverance (James 5:11).
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar warn us of trying to “help” or “fix” our friends with pious cliches when they suffer, despite our good intentions. Sometimes it’s best to sit with our friends in silence. I still remember sitting in Jan’s living room and telling myself to keep my mouth shut.
Even though he wore his heart on his sleeve and vented his emotions, God affirmed that Job “spoke rightly,” which is a reminder that we never have to sanitize our feelings before God.
Job also teaches that we should not make a direct connection between rewards and punishments in this life with a person’s sin or righteousness.
Encountering the majesty and mystery of God, Job confessed that he “surely spoke of things I did not understand” (42:3), and it was precisely his admission of ignorance and embrace of modesty that led him from second hand knowledge about God to a direct and personal experience with God: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (42:5).
In addition to all of these, though, the central lesson of this ancient story includes a most contemporary application. Many television preachers and books teach that God wants us healthy, wealthy, and wise (if you send them your money). Job exposes that lie. In his book Forty Acres and a Goat, Will Campbell derides such teachers as “electronic soul molesters.”
Genuine faith doesn’t manipulate God for material gain, fear of punishment, or avoidance of unjust suffering. The British novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861–1907) captures such authentic faith in her poem After Saint Augustine:
Sunshine let it be or frost, Storm or calm, as Thou shalt choose; Though Thine every gift were lost, Thee Thyself we could not lose.
I’ve always appreciated how the Lutherans of the Reformation distinguished between earthly “security” (securitas) and divine “certainty” (certitudo). Security, they said, depends on human guarantees. Certainty depends on God’s promises.
Job reminds us that while life doesn’t offer us any guarantees, we do have the certainty that nothing can separate us from God’s love.