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What do We Do with Job?

April 30, 2012
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What do we do with the book of Job? It’s forty-two chapters long and took me four articles to cover but it’s not clear what one would do with all that length. This is especially true since I’ve argued that Job is not a book that answers the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” At least if it did that then its length (and poetry) would be understandable.

I believe that Job actually does have some clear and direct uses. While Job does not answer the question of why bad things happen to good people, it does affirm that bad things do happen to good people and denounces those in the story who claim otherwise. Job’s three friends have some ideological siblings in modern life, especially among certain groups of charismatics and Pentecostals who claim that any bad event or ill health is the result of a lack of faith. Since Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar made this same claim when confronted with Job’s troubles and were rebuked by God, it would seem that the book of Job has something to say about this.

Of course, one needn’t believe that God will prevent any and every ill from befalling a faithful person to follow in the spirit of Eliphaz. People who appear sad are not always treated well in Christianity, at least within the evangelical Protestant flavor. Shouldn’t Jesus make you cheerful? Well, perhaps he does make some people cheerful. But Job isn’t a cheerful guy. Treating cheerfulness as a required duty and sadness as a moral failing seems very much like the error of Job’s friends. (Tangentially, this failing may be aided by the common tendency of modern Protestantism to focus on Jesus dealing with the criminal aspect of our sin and an equal lack of attention to the ways in which Jesus heals us of the disease-like aspects of our sin. It’s a little too easy to blame people when the only category one has for someone who is failing at something is “criminal”.)

Just as Job’s friends offer useful examples of what is wrong, Job offers examples of both what is wrong and what is right. Job incorrectly accuses God of not caring about evil and failing to act as a proper judge and fix injustices. This is why Job also has to apologize towards the end of the book. However, Job has previously won praise for his steadfast faithfulness to God in the midst of trial. In this manner Job serves as an example to those who suffer.

A slight digression may be needed here. At one point I believe it was fairly common to think carefully about how one went about suffering. In some circles it is still fashionable to be suffering for God or (there’s a whole string of Catholic jokes about this) simply suffering because the world is evil. However, this strand of thought has always existed alongside a much more escapist one, one that has been easily exploited by the health and wealth gospel. In this strand of thought (also present, I believe, in the thoughts of a lot of those obsessed with the end of the world), one doesn’t suffer well, the only suffering well is the suffering that doesn’t exist. The real world does not always allow for this. Sometimes suffering simply arrives at one’s doorstep and must be born. Many of my friends are at the age where they are having children. Inevitably, this has meant that I’ve had friends who have miscarried or who have had children who have spent their first days or weeks or months in intensive care. Last week I walked past a blood drive table and remembered that not too many years ago I needed multiple blood transfusions to stay alive, along with several bone marrow biopsies and a number of spinal taps. None of this suffering has been chosen or was avoidable by right living or good conduct. So, how do we suffer? Job provides some answers, some do’s and some don’ts.

However, this brings us to our final application point. We could break Job down to a list of main points. When your friends suffer, comfort them but don’t accuse them. When you suffer, remain faithful. Don’t fall into the temptation to rail at God. This is very much in the style of a lot of Bible studies and is the sort of thing a question like “What do we do with Job?” asks for. However, if this were all there were to Job then we wouldn’t need forty-two chapters and we certainly wouldn’t need any poetry. When we start asking real questions like “What is the character of Job that we should emulate?”, we do need all this. This means that these are better questions. When your questions don’t need the Bible but, rather, some reduced version of the Bible then there are better questions.

Job isn’t written so that we can say, “Yeah, don’t be mean to those who are suffering. Got it.” Job is written so that we will read it and think that Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are making some good arguments, but then realize that they aren’t – that they are callous liars – and be warned against our own desire to make an argument that sounds powerful but is used to harm those we are trying to help. We’re supposed to do the same for Job’s great laments, read them, feel their power, and then see what they are worth. Job isn’t a text padded with lots of extra words, Job is a narrative that walks us through an experience and helps us think about it.

So, what do we do with Job? Read it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 30, 2012 3:28 pm

    You might be interested in this take on the Book of Job http://www.bookofjob.org. For further details, send me an email and I will email you the manuscript.

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