Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When a Righteous Man Suffers

We are told at the beginning of the Book of Job, and told by God Himself, that Job is a righteous man. However, for reasons known only to God, God allows Satan to afflict him.

Job's suffering is told in the first two chapters in terms of what he loses outwardly. In chapters three through thirty-three, Job tells of his inner suffering. Job suffers inwardly because God, the God whom he has devoted himself to, is not acting in the world as Job believed he would. This inner suffering is the worse of the two. Terribly disappointed and angry with God, Job does not turn from God, but rather pursues Him.

Job pursues God in the way Job has come to understand God: as a judge and in legal terms. This understanding of God as the great Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the bad is expressed most clearly by Job's three "comforters." Job's friends speak to him with condescending moralisms about how God rewards the good and punishes the bad. Job quickly becomes frustrated with his friends because they do not seem to get that they are telling Job what he already believes: "I truly know this is so" Job says after Bildad's first speech; and "Who doesn't know such things?" he says after Zophar's first speech; and a little later, "What you know I know."

The problem for Job is that he does believe that God rewards the Good and punishes the Bad. This is a problem because, as far as it is possible for a man to be righteous, Job has been a righteous man, yet he is now suffering terribly. He's done what he was supposed to do--even God tells us that. So why, Job asks, "do You [God] not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?" Job acknowledges that no man is completely righteous before God, that all human righteousness is relative; yet in as far as God had revealed Himself to him, Job was righteous. Job did what he was supposed to do to be forgiven (offered sacrifices), yet his sufferings were to him evidence that he was not forgiven--at least according to how Job and his friends understood the universe.

In Job's frustration, he accuses God of injustice and challenges God to justify Himself. God remains silent. Job rails against God, but Job will not deny God. He will not "curse God and die," as his wife suggest. Job is all over the map. At one moment he is lamenting his suffering; then suddenly he is accusing or challenging God; and suddenly again he acknowledges his dependence on God to defend him. "I know that my Redeemer [Defender] lives," and "though He slay me, yet will I trust Him": such expressions of Job's confidence in God sprinkle his complaint. As I read it, Job's complaint seems to be: God, why aren't You what I thought You were? And God still remains silent.

Maybe many of us have had this same complaint: God will not stay in the box we've built for Him.

I remember how my daughter teased me when she declared to me that she could prove that one plus one does not always equal two. She was doing a math major at the university, and with glee she began to scribble before me to prove her case. When she was done, I told her what someone else told me (I wish I could say that I was bright enough to come up with this one). I said, "Yes, one plus one often equals three or seven or twelve." She looked at me quizzically. "One chicken plus one rooster will produce many chickens."

My daughter got it, although she had to remonstrate for a while that my proof wasn't fair.

One plus one equals two. That's good enough for most of us for most of life's applications, so long as we don't look too closely, so long as we don't get hung up on specifics. But our lives are about specifics, and simple formulas about who God is and what God does are bound to fail in the specifics, in the details of our lives, in the painful realities where we live.

God can be known, but God cannot be boxed. This is one of the great lessons of the Book of Job. At the end of the book, God does indeed speak to Job--as an overwhelming Presence, out of a "tornado." In a series of unanswerable questions God silences Job. Yet God does not condemn Job for a moral failure, merely that he spoke of things he did not understand, "things too wonderful for me, which I did not know," Job says. And in the end, the fruit of Job's suffering, of Job's patient though vociferous endurance, is a deeper knowledge of God: "I had heard of You with the hearing of my ears, but now my eyes see You."

Job did not run away, even when it hurt, even when he didn't understand, even when it seemed so unfair. Job argued; Job complained; Job even accused God; but Job never turned away from his Accuser, his Judge, and his Redeemer.

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