Job’s Cop-Out

[A longer excerpt about the suffering of his Job and his confrontation with God]

The Story of Job

“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil:” (Job 1:1)  This was Job, deserving of good fortune if anyone was.  But then in the span of one day all his wealth was stolen or de­stroyed and all his children killed.  Soon after, he himself was afflicted with sores from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.

In the prose introduction of this book, this suffering is depicted as a test.  God, after bragging about Job, grants permission to Satan to do whatever he wants to to test Job’s faith.  (“Testing” is still a common explanation of suffering which we will consider later in this chapter.) However, the main body of the Book of Job does not try to explain suffering this way.  Instead, it gives us a poetic picture of the head-on collision between the facts of life and the belief that suffering is a punish­ment from God.  Job argues on behalf of reality while several of his friends take the side of this traditional belief.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to visit their suffering friend, as friends should.  They are good religious men who know that God is just and in control of what happens.  They are confident that they understand the workings of God’s justice:  the good are rewarded in this life and the wicked are punished.  So they are convinced that the suffering which afflicts Job can only be the deserved punishment for some evil he has done.  And, therefore, they demonstrate their concern for Job by urging him to repent of these sins he must have committed, for only if he re­pents do they see any hope for their friend.

Job also believes that God has control over what has happened to him, but he knows that he has done nothing to deserve it, as do we the readers.  He is innocent.  Therefore, unlike his well-meaning friends, he is unable to applaud God’s justice.  Not only does he suffer without being guilty of any significant sin but he also sees the wicked prospering around him.  He knows this is so, and knows it is not just.

Job’s friends are not persuaded.  They continue to insist that he does deserve this suffering — he must!  He has to be guilty, and he had better just quit protesting and repent.  Their well-meant admonitions have the look of cruel and callous torment in the light of what we know.

No matter how much we wish that God would ensure good fortune for the good and bad fortune for the wicked, it just doesn’t work this way.  This is a point of great importance made by the Book of Job.

But then how do we explain Job’s suffering?  This, of course, is the question that bothers Job himself.  He never doubts that his misfortune is under God’s control.  In fact, he still has enough faith in God’s justice that he appeals for a hearing, confident that God will recognize his innocence, and so the injustice of his suffering, and so will revoke it.

As a rule, if someone in a position of power is responsible for the suffering of an upright and innocent person this would seem to provide a reasonable ground for accusing that someone of injustice. In this case, however, by insisting that he is innocent, it is God whom Job is accusing of injustice.  So Job comes in for a stinging rebuke.

This is carried out by Elihu, a younger man who first vents his exas­peration at the three friends for failing to properly answer Job, and then condemns Job for justifying himself instead of God.  He doesn’t offer to explain how Job’s suffering could possibly be deserved, but simply as­serts, “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.  For according to the worth of a man he will requite him, and according to his ways he will make it befall him.  Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice:” (Job 34:10-12)

Elihu apparently feels that this assertion is not subject to challenge by mere facts.  Furthermore, he insists, whether or not Job may previously have been blameless, he is now guilty of rebellion and pride for challeng­ing God’s justice and placing his own wisdom on a par with the Al­mighty’s.  Job remains unconvinced, stubbornly holding to the fact of his own innocence and the logical implication that the God responsible for his suffering has acted unjustly.  Again he appeals to God, and at last God answers him.  But it is not the answer that Job had hoped for:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsels by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements?  Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swad­dling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’”  (Job 38:1-11)

God goes on in this vein for most of four chapters, describing the wonders of creation and the mighty power, infinite wisdom, and loving providence of the Almighty.  Confronted with this awesome display of the majesty and wisdom of God, and suddenly aware of his own insignifi­cance and ignorance, Job backs down:

“I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted … Therefore I have uttered what I did not under­stand … I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes:” (Job 42: 2, 3, 5-6)

 Job’s Cop-Out 

Yes, Job backs down and repents.  It does not matter that he is then blessed with wealth and children again.  This was wrong of him.  It is not what he ought to have done.  It is, in fact, a cop-out, a clear and certain cop-out.

Not that Job or anybody else could reply to God’s challenge or answer God’s questions.  The universe is indeed beyond our understanding.  We do not know the beginning and end of it, nor its foundations, nor the God of it all, nor even in any adequate way our own role in it.  We cannot presume to meet God’s challenge.  We can only, with Job, humbly confess our ignorance, our limited view, our failings.

But if Job does not have all the answers, he still knows one important fact, and it gives him a big question that he should not so easily drop.  God may know the depths of the universe, but Job knows he has suffered terribly and that he, a righteous man, did not deserve to suffer.  So if God can ask, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”, then Job can ask — and indeed if he is human he must ask — ”Where were you, O God, on that day when all my herds were taken and all my servants and even all my children were killed?  And where have you been since that day, while I suffered from heartbreak on the inside and a terrible disease on the outside, without aid or comfort?  No, I was not there when you laid the foundation of the earth, but where were you when I was hurt and afraid and desperate and cried to you in vain?”

This is what Job must ask if he is to be honest about his pain and his convictions.  I don’t like this question. It makes me feel uncomfortable and insecure.  It reminds me of things I would rather not be reminded of.  But the question is there, and if we are honest we must ask it: “If God is a loving and all-powerful God, then why does this God allow so much suffering to happen?”

What answer can God make to this?  Or rather, what answer can we make on God’s behalf?

If we insist on holding God responsible for fortune and misfortune, health and disease, life and death, and if we also believe that God is loving, then how is it possible to explain undeserved suffering? Whether or not we would claim that any particular suffering is deserved, it is obvious that there is a significant amount of suffering that simply cannot be called either deserved or just according to any reasonable standard of justice.  You cannot justify major suffering by pointing to minor moral failings, which all of us have, especially when many with equal or greater failings suffer less.

Is it possible to reconcile this undeserved suffering with a loving, “in charge” God?  It would be, if this suffering could be explained as being in one way or another for the good.  If suffering is not deserved, it still could be for the ultimate good, either of the individual or of the world.  Only if suffering is for the good can we maintain that a loving God is in control of worldly events.

Before we attempt to explain or justify suffering, we must realize just what it is and what it can do to people.  We must make sure that we have an adequate understanding of it.  Surely we have all learned something about suffering firsthand.  But we are also very good at repressing our memories of pain and agony, so we need to remind ourselves just what it can mean to live in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

This is the valley in which we all live.  The shadow cast by death into our lives gives us awareness of our own finitude, the knowledge that we will all die. I will die and you will die.  This is your one fling at this thing we call life.

We all have to live with this knowledge.  It means that when something happens to mar our one chance, when an accident or bad luck or illness or just circumstances determine that our one chance is to be twisted, or unusually painful, or abbreviated … well, that’s it. It’s once and for all. There is no re-deal of the deck, no court of appeal, no recourse to litigation.  That’s it.

. . .

Perhaps only the extreme cases are this bad.  If so, there are far, far too many extreme cases.  And there are very many more which, if not this extreme, are still undeniable instances of major undeserved suffering. . . .

If we are to be honest with ourselves we must remember just how dark the shadow is in some lives.  We must keep in mind just what this suffering is as we consider the explanations that can be offered to reconcile it with the existence of a loving God who controls worldly events.

The Justifications of Suffering

It is possible to reconcile the existence of undeserved suffering with the existence of a loving God who is responsible for life and death, fortune and misfortune, only if all such suffering can be adequately explained either (1) as a test, (2) as being for the sufferer’s own good, or (3) as being for the greatest good of the world, being ultimately for “the best”.  I will argue that these explanations are inadequate and untenable.  This is not to argue against God.  This is to argue for God, to free God from some human ideas that do injustice both to God and to us.

[Omitted text, and continued discussion, on pages 31-33 of Common Sense Christianity)

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