The Trouble With Job

I read Job again recently, in hope of gaining more insight. I found it disappointing. Job is supposed to cover, more or less, why bad things happen to good people, but it lacks a really satisfactory answer.

The story is well known. God turns over Job’s family and possessions to Satan on a bet. When that doesn’t get the result Satan was hoping for, he goes back and asks for Job’s person, and God allows Satan to do anything but kill him. Why God does this so easily is an important point I will talk about more later. Job’s reaction to the loss of his family and possessions is way more than one would normally expect. He mourns the loss, but understands all of this really belongs to God and not him, and he worships God and does not blame him.

Satan tells God Job is happy to have escaped with his life, so he still shouldn’t get any credit for being good. So God lets him go further, and Satan afflicts Job with a painful skin disease. (Skin diseases figure prominently in the Bible. I think partly because they were more common then, people lacking soap and disinfectants, and because people thought they had moral significance.

Job still doesn’t blame God, and rebukes his wife when she says he should. The trouble starts when his friends show up, and begin a long discussion about what Job did to offend God.

The friends are a real puzzle. Job was rich and probably had rich friends, but they don’t offer him food, shelter, or medical help. A little sympathy would have been nice as well. I guess you find out who your real friends are in a situation like this, and on top of everything else Job finds he has crappy friends.

The dialogue with the friends is inconclusive. The more they say he must have done something wrong the more he protests his innocence, and the more he protests his innocence the more they take that as proof he must have done something wrong.

The figure of Elihu then comes in. Elihu seems to be regarded by many as the true voice of righteousness, but he doesn’t really say anything the friends didn’t say and goes further by saying Job said things he didn’t, such as that he should behave badly since God had not rewarded his goodness. Elihu starts out by saying he’s young and didn’t want to interrupt his elders, but having waited he goes into full young punk mode.

Elihu to me is the face of organized religion. Let’s say you are the victim of some horrible crime and go to a religious person for spiritual advice. A Catholic, conservative Protestant and liberal Protestant will all tell you pretty much the same thing, even though they secretly regard each other as filthy heretics. They will tell you the most important thing you must do is forgive the perpetrator, because God demands this and you are no better than the criminal because of your original sin.

Job was on solid existential and spiritual ground until his friends showed up. His friends created the entire problem. God rebukes his friends, but not Elihu, God doesn’t even acknowledge Elihu so I’m not sure how he fits in. One can assume because God does not rebuke Elihu that Elihu was right, but since God doesn’t say anything you might also conclude that God did not think Elihu worthy of mentioning.

The trouble comes from assuming that prosperity and health are the normal human condition, and loss and suffering are abnormal and must be explained somehow. But we live in a fallen world. I think for that reason God doesn’t place much importance on Job’s material condition, and Job understands this as well.

Job just wants to know why, and he doesn’t even want to know this until his friends say he is guilty. Job asserts the innocent suffer. He is right. Elihu asserts suffering is not only punishment, but to force sinners to admit their wrong. But Job didn’t do anything wrong.

God’s answer that, “I’m God, you’re not, so don’t ask stupid questions” is correct as far as it goes, but is not a real answer. The Book of Job provides no real answers, not even God’s.

However, expecting it to is wrong, because the only answer to Job is Jesus. The Son of God did not come as a rich, powerful man, did not have riches, acclaim, or ease, and was not honored in his lifetime, but quite the opposite in every respect. The life of Jesus reflected the real human condition, which is to be born with nothing under difficult circumstances, be oppressed and pursued by evil tyrants, live under a crushing and abusive government, be harassed and condemned by wealthy religious hypocrites, have your wisdom responded to with witless sophistry and have your love responded to with hate. That’s normal life, and anything better is a swell bonus but unlikely to have and unlikely to last long if you do have it.

Any kind of suffering you have experienced Jesus also experienced, so he can sympathize with your situation. Poor? Hungry? Homeless? No spouse or children? Family thinks you’re crazy? Relatives murdered? Oppressive government supported by cossetted “good” people? Constant attempts to live well and be good thwarted? Physically abused, tortured, murdered? Friends bug out on you? You’re in good company.

The good and bad things in life are apportioned in ways we don’t understand. The evil really do prosper and the innocent really do suffer. Logically in an evil world the evil will be most in tune with the way things work and in a position to benefit from it, while the innocent will have a hard time understanding what’s going on. In a good world we could see enjoyment as the end of things, but in a bad world we can’t and in pursuing the good can’t assume we will be any better off than Jesus. Which is pretty depressing, as far as his life before his death is concerned. People who tell you you should be like Jesus are never anything like Jesus and would scream bloody murder if they had to experience anything like he did.

I don’t have any answer to human suffering except the tiny amount of sympathy and love one marginal human being can generate, and hope in the resurrection and the redeeming power of Jesus. If that’s real it’s far more than enough.

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