Friday, October 26, 2012

Suffering, and the Gospel of Job

In our next Bible study, my wife asked if we could look at suffering.

No problem, said I, and instantly regretted it.

How do you explore such a vast and important topic? So, I set about reading Job, who ought to know a thing or two about suffering. At least, I thought, he should know more than me.

I then regretted that, too.

Job is a complex book and a really fine example of Old Testament literature. It defies our ingrained instincts to explain suffering (and all human experience) within a simplistic moralistic framework. According to Proverbs, Job is the impossible man - he is righteous, and things ought to go well for him. But, his world abruptly falls apart without apparent cause or explanation.

Given that I'm inclined to join the dots (not always successfully), I could not help notice the parallels between Job and the Christian Gospel. That's why we might rightly refer to it as the Gospel of Job;

The beginning and the end

The story of Job starts and finishes with God. Our lives start and finish with God. All our experiences (in fact, the whole cosmos from the Big Bang to the End of Time) happens within the context of God. Rev 22:13 "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

It's not about you

The story of Job is about the vindication of God. It's not about me

This deserves some further thought.

When Paul rhetorically answers the objection that unbelievers somehow undermine the purposes of God, he writes ...

What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That You may be justified in Your words, And prevail when You are judged.”

Vindication might seem a daunting issue, but the message of Job and Paul is that whatever experiences and directions we creatures go through, the ultimate outcome is that everyone will say "The Creator was right in what He did in His creation"(e.g. Dan 4:7, Rev 4:11).  In fact, it's impossible for God to not be vindicated through His creation unless His designs were flawed in some way, whether we are blessed or suffer, whether we believe or not.

It's all about you

As God vindicates Himself through His creation, He also vindicates us. We're not just insignificant pawns in a vast, impersonal cosmic chess game. God has a purpose, though we may not see it. 

Your just deserts

Perhaps the most profound nuance of the book is that God does not restore Job's fortunes because Job is righteous - He does it to vindicate His name. Jobs friends/tormentors persistently regard God as an object or mechanism that should react appropriately to a person according to his or her merits. They think that God has afflicted Job because of some hidden sin, and they go about probing him to find it.

Even Job's understanding is far from perfect - his experience of suffering doesn't automatically grant him insight. His laments are filled with regret - not that he had brought his calamity on himself by some unknown sin, but that he didn't sin enough to warrant death.

“Oh that my request might come to pass,
And that God would grant my longing!
“Would that God were willing to crush me,
That He would loose His hand and cut me off!” (Job 6:8-9)

At least he appealed to God directly; his friends simply theorised about what God should do and how Job might manipulate God into granting him a favourable outcome.

Job's biggest gripe

Job never tries to justify himself, but he looks for an advocate in heaven. Essentially, he says "if I have sinned, tell me about it"; he never argues "I am a good guy, and I don't deserve this." His biggest complaint is his apparent inability to get the Almighty's attention. The irony is that he already has the Almighty's attention but he, like us, can't see it.

Job's advocate

The "big reveal" of the book is that the advocate that Job seeks appears in none other than God Himself. It is God who defends Job against the Adversary. Unaware of God's disposition, Job laments
For He is not a man as I am that I may answer Him,
That we may go to court together.
There is no umpire between us,
Who may lay his hand upon us both. (Job 9:32-33)

Later, New Testament theology will identify our advocate in Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1). As the New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ is fully and wholly God, it retains the idea that God is our defender.

A type of Christ

Job's journey is much like Christ's. He starts off in a position of wealth and privilege, is publicly humiliated and falsely accused, and gets raised up at the end to the glory of God (see Phil 2:5-11). 

Job is representative of us, as Christ is. Job shouts our greatest fears to the sky in our stead - that we are nothing, and everything that we say and do ultimately comes to nothing, and that the sky will continue to roll over us, unheeding. It is this fear, I believe, that cries out "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1, Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34).  Yet, in all his anger, Job cannot bring himself to curse God

The Gospel of Job

The Gospel of Job, like the Christian Gospel, tells us that God is our witness, and what we experience, say and do does matter, even if we find ourselves on the ash heap scraping boils off our skin with a piece of broken pottery.


  1. From Fred via FB 27/10/2012 ...
    Absolutely loved it! Thank you Martin.

  2. From Tonya via FB 27/10=2012 ...
    Thank you, I needed that. Humbling, to say the least.

  3. From Fred (again) via FB 27/10/2012 ...
    Highly recommended!

  4. From Simon via FB 28/10/2012 ...
    Very good Martin. Job's whole testing is a battle ground to authenticate that we can love God for who He is,not simply because of what He has done for us. His life silences Satan's accusation that ,effectively,'Job only serves you because of the blessing and increased possessions you have given him. Take that away and he will curse you to your face'..Job1v 9-11. Very challenging to see that God has confidence in His servant Job to pass that test! (Job 1v8,2v3).
    I like your emphasis on the 'gospel according to Job',and the way you see his life through the lens of the New Testament. I think it is a book that all of us who live in our Western Cultural comfort zones should be reading...a significant challenge to our misunderstanding that wealth and health are always an authentication that 'God is with us'. Keep up the reading and thinking Martin. Good to hear your thoughts.

    1. Simon,

      Thank you for your response. At the risk of rambling, however, I find that there is a great deal more to Job than your summary might suggest.

      If the story were simply about getting a pass/fail result from Job's testing, then it could have ended at Job 2:10

      He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

      What of the following 40 chapters of monologues, rebuttals, theologizing and God's response?

      Job's comforters tormentors apply all the right formula to Job's situation, and Job complains bitterly in no uncertain terms, frustrated at God's apparent policy of stonewalling him. Yet God's judgment is that they " ... have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has." (Job 42:10).

      Incidentally, a friend of mine commented that this was a story about how not to counsel people who are suffering, and how we often speak wrongly about God in these situations.

      But it's more than that. How is it that Job speaks rightly of God, but his friends don't? What's the difference? I suggest it's because they treat God as a system of punishments and rewards, whereas Job sees himself as a servant or creature of his Creator. I suggest also that this illuminates a path through suffering by shifting the focus of the story from me to my Creator, and the purpose He has in my creation.

      Finally, as you know, I'm very familiar with your emphasis on seeing scripture through the lens of Christ. I don't disagree, but the historical-critical reader in me questions whether the author had a future Christ in mind, or whether the New Testament authors mined Job and the other scriptures for a language to describe the Christ they encountered. Paradoxically, I don't think the two ideas are incompatible, especially if there is a Divine dimension to the human origins of scripture.

      Nonetheless, I am struck by the parallels between Job's story and Christ's. I am also struck by Job's humanity, which we share with him, and Christ shares with us. In other words, Job helps us understand Christ.

      There is no doubt that it is a complex book. That should not come as a surprise; it deals with a very complex subject. I think we would be well advised not to reduce our understanding of it (or, life and suffering in general) to a few tee-shirt slogans. Your concluding remarks about our presumption that health and wealth are an authentication of God's approval on us sum that up nicely.