January - February 2015

The Question that won't go away. 

God, Suffering, and the Book of Job.
The American pastor and theologian John Piper started a series on Job with the words: 

“One of my duties as your pastor is to preach and pray in such a way that you are prepared in mind and heart not to curse God on the day of your calamity.  But even more – that instead of cursing you might worship God and bless him as your free and sovereign Father no matter how intense the grief or deep the pain that is brought into your life.”

These words give a good introduction to one of the primary pastoral reasons for the series. 

For 5 weeks we are going to explore what is one of the most complex of all biblical books – Job.  We will take a walk through 5 particular sections of the book as we try to wrestle on a personal, corporate, theological and missional level with the question of where God is in times of suffering.

The temptation in any such series is to focus completely on the suffering individual, and ask the questions from the position of the sufferer.  Although I want to touch on this, I don’t want this to be the only perspective from which we approach this matter as facing difficulties is not only an individual thing, but involves the response of the whole church community.  So we will aim to:
  • Engage with facing difficulty from a personal perspective (where is God in my suffering)
  • Engage with facing difficulty from a pastoral perspective (how do I walk alongside someone who is suffering)
  • Engage with facing difficulty from a missional perspective (what does the church have to say and do about suffering as it demonstrates Christ in the world)
  • Engage with facing difficulty from a theological perspective (what do we think about suffering, Gods sovereignty, Theodicy etc)
Job faces us with some big questions: personal and pastoral.  The fact of suffering in the world touches our lives in many different ways.  It may press on us as we suffer physical or emotional pain that we have to somehow endure.  It might make its force known as we walk alongside others who suffer profoundly and alongside whom we feel powerless to help. Maybe it reaches into the depths of our relationship with God, where is God in the face of such horror and how do we reconcile our belief in God as good with the reality of suffering?  Can these things be reconciled?

In the book of Job we meet a man who poses all these questions and more as he suffers physically and emotionally.  As Job tries to work out his plight with the input of his companions he struggles to make sense of what he experiences in the light of what he believes and knows about God. 

It’s worth noting at the start that we’re thinking primarily in this series about the sort of seemingly unmerited or unexpected suffering that Job experienced as opposed to the suffering for the Gospel to which we are called as Christians.  One of these ways of suffering is to a degree voluntary, the other is not.
The series is as follows:
Week 1 – When life falls apart where is God?                Job 1:1-22, John 11:17-44
Week 2 – Where can I go but the Lord?                           Job 5:1-27, John 3: 22-36
Week 3 – Walking through the tough times                    Job 22:1-30, John 15: 1-17
Week 4 – Accepting what we can’t understand       Job 38:16-38, John 9:1-12
Week 5 – Clinging, growing, and restoring                     Job 42:1-17, John 16:16-33
Some background to the book of Job

Studying the book of Job is a notoriously difficult thing to do well, all sorts of challenges emerge from the text and there is a particular danger of mis-representing and mis-reading the text due to its complexity. 

The book itself contains a variety of literary forms including lament and complaint, hymns, the language of the law court, poetry, speeches from the wisdom traditions and more.  It is a complex mixture and defies any clear categorisation. 

The book is full of poetic imagery, Indeed chapters 3-42 are an extended poetic discourse.  It’s important to keep this in mind as we explore the meaning of the text and guards us against a detailed literal reading of the book which is un-intended by the author.

Additionally irony features heavily in the book – primarily this functions through the reader seeing the ‘bigger picture’ of which the characters are unaware.  In the light of this greater knowledge much of what is said is to be read as ironic and even at times comedic. 

As with any of the Old Testament book it is important to have a proper understanding of the relationship of the book to the New Testament.  It is easy to unwittingly use New Testament concepts as tools to hammer and chisel the book of Job into New Testament shape.  It’s important that it is interpreted in light of its own cultural context before we consider how the message of the New Testament impacts it and our interpretation of it.

For example ‘Satan’ appears in the prologue to Job, and it would be easy to read into this an understanding of Satan developed from the New Testament.  In Job Satan is not presented as the fallen angel who personifies evil and rebellion against God as he is in the New Testament.  In the book of Job ‘Satan’ is prefixed with ‘the’, and the meaning of ‘the satan’ is that of ‘the adversary’ in a legal context, the one whose job it is to make out the case for opposition – he might be thought of as the chief prosecutor who is tasked with finding evidence of disloyalty among those who claim to worship God.  Likewise as Job speaks about his ‘redeemer’ it is natural to read into the text a well developed NT understanding of God incarnate in Christ as the redeemer that Job speaks of, but it is certain that Job did not conceive of his redeemer as being God himself revealed in Christ, but rather his ‘go-el’ – his kinsman redeemer. 

That is not to say that we forget what we know from the NT.   Indeed we should allow our NT understanding to help us interpret the OT in the light of Christ, but we must be alert to the ways in which ‘reading back’ subconsciously can lead us to miss some of what the text has to say and lead us to put words in the mouths of the characters in question. 
So what is it all about? 

It is of course always important to interpret passages in the light of the overall literary structure and main purpose of the book, perhaps even more so in a book like Job. 

Most sermons on Job present the man as being a model for modern day believers to ‘be patient’ in times of real challenge and difficulty.  We often idealise Jobs faith and patience and suggest this as a pattern to be emulated.  But to do so is probably a distortion of the story that is presented in the book of Job.  Doing this often ignores the many hard questions that are raised by Job in facing the mystery of suffering and Gods place and relationship to it and tends towards a superficial and simplistic reading.

The book is largely a dialogue between Job and his friends, and as the dialogue goes on all sorts of advice is given, some wrong, some right, good conclusions, bad conclusions, good theology, bad theology.  All of this is woven into the strands of the poetic conversation, and all of this emanates from the lips of each character in the narrative at different points in their speaking.  It is a mistake to assume that one character always speaks what is right and true and another what is wrong and false.
Likewise it is important not to see the characters as rigid and frozen, with no sense of their thinking and feeling developing as the narrative goes on.  It would be easy to take Job’s statement of faith in ch19 as summarising his attitude all the way through the book, yet in reality his confidence in vindication develops into an overconfident self-righteousness later on in the narrative.  Perhaps it is helpful to think of the flow of the story as being like a stage show in which the characters develop as the story goes on.

Not just about answers

It’s also worth remembering that the book of Job is not necessarily about finding answers to problems.  Leslie Newbigin once said:
“…our normal procedure is to list a series of problems, identify their causes, and then propose solutions based on an analysis of the situation…We normally work on the assumption that there must in principle be a solution which proper research can identify and proper techniques deliver…”

However, as he goes on to say “…we are becoming sceptical about this approach.  We are coming to see that there are problems in human life for which there are no solutions.  The question needs to be asked whether we do not need new models for understanding our human situation.”

These sentiments help us to release some of the value of the book of Job.  There are many problems listed, many questions posed, but very little is given as answer as we usually understand the term.   We come face to face with a godly man who suffers horribly and seemingly endlessly.  He catches us up into his pain and anguish and misery and into the injustice of the whole situation.  We feel his heart felt plea to God to tell him what on earth is going on.  We share in his sense of abandonment by friends, family, and even God himself, and there is nothing that can be said, no answer given, to ease his plight and make things better. 

And so this book brings us to the edge and confronts some of our deepest fears and worries. It faces us in the words of David Atkinson with “with inadequacy of ministry, the inappropriateness of some forms of preaching, with a God who seems very quiet, unfair and remote.  And we’re forced to rethink our prejudices, our theology, and how we offer pastoral care to one another in the most difficult of times. And then ultimately, but only at the very end, we are returned once more to the sufficiency of divine grace.

The book of Job clearly confronts the theme of innocent suffering, an inscrutable mystery which stares us in the face every time we read the newspapers, watch TV, or talk to others.  As we explore this theme we need to be prepared to be confronted by with the full horror of human pain and suffering, we must be open to developing a deeper sensitivity to the human situation, we may need to let our defences down so that we can hear the intense questioning that Job gives God about the way in which he runs the world, we may need to be open to the idea that God does not work within our ‘safe’ boundaries – he is not tame.  

Some practical ideas for groups:
Create space to share - Housegroups will benefit hugely if members are able to talk openly and freely about their own experience of suffering and the questions and encounters with God that have emerged from these times.  Therefore it might be helpful to leave time in meetings for open sharing.  It might be worthwhile asking one or two members to share from their own experience if you know there is something of particular relevance in it.  Testimony is powerful.
Be sensitive – For some the topic of suffering may well open past hurts or be something with which they currently struggle.  It will be important to ensure that past and current pastoral needs are dealt with carefully and sensitively. 
Pray together – In the book we see Job come before God in the midst of his suffering in prayers of complaint, vindication, anger, and hope.  The full range of emotions is present.  It would be good to leave time to pray for housegroup members and others if appropriate, and to take the opportunity to encourage deep and honest prayer that gives voice to anger and hurt as well as hope and trust.

Keep looking out as well as in - How we engage with the suffering in the world, what we say about it, and about God, how we support those who suffer is a key part of our mission and outreach.  It would be worth making sure that as the group studies the story of Job, we think not just about caring for other members of the church, but also about how we draw alongside those who have not grounded thier hope in Jesus.  This is out-reach as well as in-reach!

Practical Tips for Reading and Understanding Job:
1 – Read the whole book and get to grips with the big picture

Understanding both the flow of the narrative and the structure of the book are essential in interpreting it well.
            Ch 1-2:  Prologue
            Ch 3-42:6:  Poetic Body of the book       
                        Ch 3:               Jobs monologue
                        Ch4-27:           Dialogue with his ‘friends’
                        Ch 28:             Poem on wisdom
                        Ch29-31:         Jobs concluding monologues
                        Ch32-37:         Elihu’s speeches
                        Ch38-42:6:      Yahwehs speeches and Jobs replies
            Ch 42:7-17:  Epilogue
2 – Understand each passage as part of the whole story of the book

No matter what section of the book we are reading we must not divorce it from its wider context and the flow and story of the whole book – otherwise we’re likely to end up ‘proof texting’ and drawing wrong conclusions.
3 – Remember that the message is presented in counterpoint

The book consistently presents opposing views in a delicate balance and so the preacher walks a tightrope of opposing views about Job, God, and the reasons for human suffering, with different characters speaking across the whole spectrum of right-wrong, good-bad, wise-foolish.  Be aware of this repeated pattern of point and response. 
4 – Look for the universal aspects of the message of Job and draw these out

The book has a wide range of universally interesting and helpful subjects and thoughts, emotions of serenity and terror, hope and despair, doubts about justice, questions of Gods role in unwarranted suffering etc.  So many universal and timeless questions emerge, is life really worth living?  Why do seemingly good people suffer such terrible things?  These questions are as pressing today as they were in the pre-Abrahamic period in which Job is set.
5 – Reflect carefully on our own context and culture as applications are drawn out

As we read the book with knowledge and experience of our own culture we look for applications that are relevant and helpful for the age in which we live. 
I hope that this series will help us to confront the question that never goes away, that of God and suffering, and that as we do so we’ll find opportunity to share with one another, testify to God’s grace, and be built up and strengthened in faith so that on the day of our trial, we’ll not curse God, but find the strength to praise him still. 

I also hope that we would all grow in our ministry of support and care to one another through times of trial as we look at the way in which Jobs friends supported, or at times didn’t support him. 
Simon Butler – March 2015

Simon Butler, 31/03/2015