Seems like whenever you bring up the story of Job, everyone is quick to criticize his wife and his friends. Maybe it’s because the whole story is so disturbing to us, and it’s kind of a relief to be able to assign blame somewhere. The question of human suffering and how God is involved in it has plagued us since the beginning– the very fact that the book of Job was recorded attests to that, and the story does not come to the tidy conclusions we might wish for. And we all struggle with knowing what to say when someone we care about is going through a hard time. So yeah, maybe we tend to single out the less complicated characters for their faults, so we don’t have to think about Job sitting in the ash heap.
The one woman who speaks in the story rarely even gets a vote of sympathy, despite the fact that she is the one who brought those seven sons and three daughters into the world (the ones that were tragically crushed in hurricane winds– what mother can stand such devastation?). Not to mention that she is suffering the loss of possessions and her husband’s health, right alongside him. She can be forgiven for being a little out of her mind. When she tells Job to “curse God and die” she is doing what the Enemy predicted they would do– and he was probably rubbing his hands together gleefully at the prospect of winning his wager. The Enemy felt sure that humans only worship God for what they can get out of Him, and when the blessings stop flowing, so does the sacrifice and praise. She kind of felt the same way. She wasn’t wishing her husband were dead, or abandoning him…only stating the obvious horror, that if God is displeased with you, you’re beyond help, so you may as well give up on serving Him and make a quick and merciful end to it at least.
But Job hangs on stubborn to his convictions, and chides her for losing faith: God is either worthy of praise or He is not, regardless of the circumstances. (To her credit, she sticks around through the whole miserable affair and then goes on to bear another ten children– sturdy woman that she is.) Enter Job’s friends, who are coming to sit with him in mourning, according to middle-eastern custom. We point to them as poor friends because they failed to comfort him. After all, we know what it feels like to have friends let us down when we are hurting and in need…and we often feel so awkward ourselves, in knowing how to comfort others. These guys believe in tough love, and take it as their duty to help get their failing friend back on track. In their theology, you reap what you sow, and it’s somewhere between naivety and arrogance to protest that you planted something different when the crops are standing right there in full bloom. They have no idea that they are promoting a religious variation on the Enemy’s theme. Their intentions are good, at least.
And here’s the interesting thing: we judge these people as lacking in sympathy and practical help, in a situation of horrendous loss, and end up missing the point as much as they do. Job’s grief is heart-rending, but it is God’s glory that is on trial, and Job is His chief witness. God criticizes the men not because they failed to comfort, but because they did not know Him the way Job did. Job was wrestling honestly with his experience; he was awash with raw emotion, and the God he served seemed distant… but he was not giving up. He still believed that God was ruling over all things, and worthy of worship, regardless of his experiences. Rightly then, God’s answer to Job’s suffering has nothing to do with explanations or comfort–He shows up personally to this wreck of a man sitting in the ashes with his neighbors.
And that is what we need to see in times of great pain, when our focus tends to narrow down, to channel all our energy into coping with our circumstances and feelings; what we really need is a bigger perspective. As much as we look for answers to all the why? questions, realistically speaking there is nothing that will take away the pain of our loss…not even replacing what was taken away. And as valuable as the comfort and sympathy of others is to us in those times, there is still no short-cut or remedy for grief except to go through it one day at a time.
God’s answer to suffering is to reveal His own power and wisdom and authority. If you can’t manage the entire created universe in all of its intricacy and splendor, then you simply are not qualified to handle the lives of men. And if you don’t understand God’s ways and thoughts and plans, then what makes you think you can judge His affairs? What we tend to lose sight of in the midst of life’s circumstances is that God and His glory are at the center of all things, and it is His business to rule all things well. If we worship Him, and love and serve one another through the temporary joys and sorrows of this world, that is plenty to keep us busy.
The book of Job is Theology 101: He is God and we are not. There is more to the world than what we can see. There are forces at work which we don’t understand. Our emotions and thoughts do not define what is true…or even real. The Creator’s care for all that He has made is sheer Grace. It was an answer big enough to make Job repent and worship, while the friends realized their presumption in deciding who was worthy of God’s blessing. And God Himself suggested that Job show them what grace looked like. “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.” (Job 42:8)
God’s answer to human suffering remains the same– that He is intimately and powerfully involved in His creation, and He is with us in our pain, redeeming all things for our good and His glory. It’s what our hurting hearts most desperately need to know. And if we have any doubts, we can look to the cross where He laid bare His heart and suffered for all of us….where He silenced the accusations of the Enemy once and for all with the illogic of grace.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
“There’s a place where mercy reigns
And never dies;
There’s a place where streams of grace
Flow deep and wide;
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood,
Comes flowing down…
At the cross, at the cross,
I surrender my life–
I’m in awe of You.”
(At The Cross, Chris Tomlin)