Have you experienced pain and suffering? Then you have shared Job’s anguish and perhaps his wonderment. Like Job, you also may find God much closer than you thought.
The book of Job in the Bible is the story of a devout man who lived thousands of years ago. But tragedy hovers over this righteous man. When the book opens, we notice Job is about to lose everything — children, property and wealth, good name and even his health.
Why will Job suffer such tragedies? Because God is about to challenge the devil with Job’s obedience and faith.
The big dare
The introduction to the book of Job tells us the background of God’s challenge and Job’s suffering. Scene I invites us behind the curtain to the universe-ruling throne of God. In this drama, angelic beings are delivering reports on their activities. Satan is among them. The Evil One has been roaming the earth, surveying his domain (Job 1:6-7; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 12:9).
Job’s troubles begin after God presents him to Satan as shining example of virtue. “Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks Satan. “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).
God will soon allow Satan to afflict Job, but God is not punishing Job for sin. God himself says Job is “blameless and upright.”Job suffers because he is among the best, not because he is the worst.
Satan rejects God’s view of Job’s good character. He implies that Job has a selfish motive, a cynical reason for obeying and trusting God (verses 9-22). “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan asks. Satan insinuates that Job is simply out for what he can get from God. Job is only a fair-weather friend, Satan insists. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” Satan argues. “You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.”
Satan sneers at the good example. Job doesn’t love you, Satan implies. Take away Job’s many blessings and you’ll find that he’s no friend of yours. Satan tries to make a bet with God. “Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has,” Satan dares God, “and he will surely curse you to your face.”
Really? Does Job love God only for selfish reasons? Do we? “Well — let’s see,” is God’s reply. He tells Satan, “Everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
With God’s permission, Satan grabs a handful of dirty tricks from his bag of suffering. He flings them at Job, and the world caves in on this innocent man. Job’s herds and property are either carried off by raiders or destroyed by natural disasters.
But Satan is proven wrong. After these terrible tragedies strike Job, he tears his robe and shaves his head. He falls to the ground in worship, saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” The author of the book of Job is careful to point out, “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
The second dare
Time elapses. One day, another angelic report takes place in heaven. God reaffirms to Satan his contention that Job truly loves God and his ways (Job 2:1-7). Satan again scoffs at Job’s faith in God. “A man will give all he has for his own life,” jibes Satan. “But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
God again expresses confidence in Job. “Well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
The devil immediately strikes poor Job with horrible sores over his entire body. The fall of the house of Job is complete. It appears he has become — without his knowledge or permission — the guinea pig in one of history’s greatest tests.
Job is now on trial. He must answer a vital question. How will he, who had faithfully trusted God for help and protection, react to suffering that seems senseless and unjust? Will righteous Job reject God, or maintain his faith?
So far, Satan has lost every round. He has been proven wrong about Job’s faithful relationship with God. But can Job endure? Will he continue to trust in God as the seemingly endless suffering rolls on, with only pain and death in sight? Will Job persevere even though God seems to have forsaken him? That is the issue at stake.
Job can be seen as a metaphor of the suffering believer. How Job reacts to God’s test says something about how we should react to trials. The book asks us to consider our faith. Would we continue to trust God, to love God with all our heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37-38) — even while suffering for reasons we don’t understand?
On the ash heap
Scene 2 of this great drama takes place on an ash heap in the land of Uz, here on earth (Job 2:8). Job is suffering pain and anxiety. He is emotionally alone, tormented, confused, angry. His three friends who came to comfort him are instead emotionally and verbally persecuting him.
The human actors in the drama do not know that God is deeply involved in Job’s life at this precise moment. They have no understanding of what God is trying to accomplish nor why Job is suffering so terribly. Nor do they grasp that a cosmic issue is at stake.
Job himself does not understand why this evil is happening to someone who has faith in God. Why has a good God allowed such terrible things to happen to a decent, God-fearing human being? Job, in short, is asking, “Why me, Lord?”
On the ash heap, the issues are very human, confused and not completely understood. The principal human characters all have incomplete and distorted knowledge. They make partial or even incorrect judgments about God’s activities. Or they misapply general observations to Job’s specific situation.
The introduction has given us a sneak preview of the heavenly perspective on Job. We know God is much pleased with and concerned about him. No matter that God has temporarily suspended Job’s protected condition. There is a reason.
Job is not a victim of time and chance, but a part of God’s orchestrated purpose. Job has no inkling he is the star actor in a God-directed morality play on earth. As far as Job knows, God has disappeared from his life.
Job’s primal scream
Job desperately tries to solve the mystery behind his suffering. He struggles on his own, looking for clues. None appear. Job prays expectantly. God will surely speedily intervene in his life — heal him of his disease, explain to him what in the world is going on. But nothing happens. The horribly painful disease reduces Job’s strength. He grows weaker and weaker. He becomes more confused.
Job’s language sometimes borders on the irrational and incoherent. At times he appears almost delirious. Opposing attitudes clash in his speeches. Job appeals to God to act before it is too late. At times he even challenges God. Please help me, he cries. Come to me quickly. “I will soon lie down in the dust,” Job cries out, “you will search for me, but I will be no more” (Job 7:21).
Through his agony Job becomes increasingly confused, perplexed, discouraged, without hope. In his worst nightmare, Job sees death coming around the corner of his life, ready to run him down. Job knows he is finished — through. He sees himself doomed to die a broken, lonely, hated and despised person. Job’s hopelessness is painted throughout the book. In one place he moans, “My spirit is broken, my days are cut short, the grave awaits me” (Job 17:1).
Even though Job has done nothing wrong and pleads desperately for help, God still chooses to stay hidden. “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” Job wails (Job 30:20). Job’s tragic circumstances challenge and contradict everything he has always believed about God as a rewarder of the good. Life has gone crazy for Job, and he has been locked up in the padded cell of his own mind.
Wrestling with God
Job can only assume God is persecuting him, hiding from him. He lashes out at God in pain and anguish. “If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target?” Job complains (Job 7:20).
We should not mistake Job’s terrible discouragement, his lashing out at God, for disbelief. God’s existence is not in question. Job knows that somewhere in the universe God must be alive. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him,” Job cries out in despairing belief (Job 13:15). Still trusting in God as his Advocate, Job insists, “I know that my Redeemer lives”(Job 19:25).
Meanwhile, Job’s friends are shocked at his outbursts. Surely, the comforters think, the fire of God is about to burn up this man. They are afraid to admit that no cause-and-effect reason exists for Job’s painful trial. That would imply they live in a senseless world. How could God be just and strike Job unjustly?
Blame the victim
Their answer? Job obviously must have sinned terribly against God. Yes, that’s it — Job’s sins are the cause of his suffering. God is off the hook. The friends put forth the old “if you are suffering you must be sinning” answer to suffering. It is blame-the-victim time. Although at first they came to console Job, they end up attacking him as a hideous sinner.
Eliphaz accuses: “Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless?” (Job 22:5). He and the other two friends completely misread Job’s spiritual condition and God’s purpose. They, too, try to find the perpetrator of the crime — the cause of Job’s terrible suffering. But they accuse the wrong person — innocent Job.
Part of what the friends say about the relationship of sin and cursing, virtue and reward is true. Sin does have consequences — we do reap what we sow (Psalm 1; Galatians 6:7). But Job’s friends misapply their remarks in Job’s case. They take a general principle and nail it to a specific person —Job — and the specific trial he is undergoing. They will soon be shocked to discover how wrong they are (Job 42:7-8). Sometimes people suffer from the sins of others.
On the ash heap, all the drama’s actors, Job especially, have been asking questions of God and imputing motives to him. Job has already prosecuted God. The friends have been, let us say, mistaken witnesses against Job.
From the storm
Throughout the dialogues between Job and his friends, Job especially had claimed vast knowledge of the way things work — or should work— in this world. Job said of a hoped-for encounter with God, “I have prepared my case, I know I will be vindicated” (Job 13:18).
In scene 3, God storms into Job’s presence. Now, it’s my turn, he says. I will cross-examine you. Out of the raging storm, God begins to challenge Job’s claim to understanding: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). Who is ignorantly accusing me of doing wrong?
From the whirlwind, God demands of Job, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” (Job 40:2). God tells Job he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he questions God’s fairness. He isn’t going to answer any of Job’s “Why?” questions. God has come to cross-examine. “I will question you, and you shall answer me,” he tells Job twice (Job 38:3; 40:7).
How does God answer Job? He sidesteps every question Job had. Instead, God gives Job a wilderness appreciation tour, recounting the majesties of nature from hail to horses (Job 38:22; 39:19). Is this relevant? Indeed, it is.
God’s point to Job, Philip Yancey wrote in Disappointment With God, is this: “Until you know a little more about running the physical universe, Job, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe.”
Aaagh! How stupid I was, thinks Job. He smacks his brow and puts his hand to his mouth. Job finally understands the error of his hasty conclusion (Job 40:4). He grasps that his position is built on ignorance. He realizes God is quite capable of running the universe correctly.
A bigger God
Job now knows that whatever has happened to him — in some way he can’t fully understand — will work out for his benefit, for everyone’s benefit (see Romans 8:28). Job can say to God, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
Job is now convinced of God’s infinite wisdom in dealing with him as he sees fit. Job now knows there is a purpose for his suffering — God’s purpose. That is quite enough for him. The mighty voice of God thundering out of the whirlwind puts everything into perspective for Job. It says: God is alive; God is here; God cares; God is capable.
Job has been given an answer, not the one he expected, but one much more important. It does not matter that he was not given a chance to present his own case. When God appears, Job’s questions melt away precisely because God has now revealed himself.
Surprisingly, God does not condemn Job for railing against him and accusing him. God only corrects Job’s misconception about his ability to rule the creation. God does reprimand Job because Job condemned him for injustice. Out of the storm, God batters Job with these questions: “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8). But God does not accuse Job of sin. God neither calls him self-righteous nor a blasphemer.
God won’t condemn
Does this mean that we might also dare express our frustration, our anger — even call God to account in our ignorance and confusion — without being condemned by God? Shocking though it may be — yes, we can. In Yancey’s words: “One bold message in the Book of Job is that you can say anything to God. Throw at him your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment — he can absorb them all.” God is much bigger than we are.
Job also recognizes how big and how great God is. After hearing God’s argument, Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). But repent of what? Of some specific sin? Not quite. Job explains, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (verse 3).
It wasn’t that Job had to overcome a specific sin, but rather that he had to grow in understanding. Job had been too hasty in concluding God was unjust or unable to rule in the right way.
Job now had a deeper, clearer perception of his Creator. But this new awareness was only a by-product of the real purpose of Job’s suffering— the testing of his faith and love. In this case, God needed to know something about Job, and Job needed to know something about himself and about God.
The why of suffering
The book of Job teaches us that suffering may occur for reasons that we don’t understand unless or until God reveals them to us (see John 9:1-7, for example). Trials may come because God needs to know something about a faithful servant (Genesis 22:1-12). Job’s suffering had such an intent — to prove whether he would love God in spite of everything.
This message of Job has deep implications for our relationship with God. Trials and suffering provide spiritual enrichment and build a relationship between us and God (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Hebrews 12:4-12; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 4:12-19).
Job also tells us no ironclad relationship exists between suffering and sin. Just because Christians suffer trials or tragedies does not mean God is punishing them for some sin.
The book of Job is about much more than suffering or God’s justice. Job affirmed that God was still God — no matter what — and always worthy of our love, reverence and worship. That was the test on Job, and he passed it. He vindicated both himself and God by remaining faithful. Job proved it is possible for humans to love God unconditionally.
Suffering had been an expansive, faith-demonstrating opportunity for Job. God had grown much bigger; Job had become smaller in his own eyes.