The Question that won't go away.
God, Suffering, and the Book of Job.
Housegroup Leaders Weekly Session Notes
I hope these notes are helpful in helping to set out some of the flow of the book of Job. You’ll notice that I’ve not produced a detailed structure for groups to follow. This is mainly because our 60 or so groups all work in slightly different ways and follow different structures. So, please use the following in whatever way best suits your group and the way in which it works.
For each of the 5 weeks I’ve laid out a short intro which gives some suggestions as to the main aims of the session. Following that I’ve written a brief commentary on the passage that we’re studying. The commentary doesn’t only deal with the passage that is set for the week but attempts to locate the passage in the broader flow of the book and so extends beyond the set reading.
Dotted around in the commentary for each week are a number of thoughts and questions which might be helpful for groups to consider, discuss and use as prayer prompts.
I hope that this series will be profoundly practical in so far as it deals with something that we all face in one form or another. I hope that it will build our faith, help us to see God’s grace at work, and also help us to be intentionally missional as we proclaim a message of grace and hope in a world of suffering.
Week 1 – When life falls apart where is God?
This week it may be helpful to set the scene for dealing with suffering. Perhaps drawing on experiences of our own or others, and to talk about how we live with suffering – do we see suffering as coming from the hand of God? Do we see it as tied to a cause and effect process whereby sin always leads to suffering and doing good always leads to blessing? How do we think our relationship with God works, is that too mechanistic? What if any purpose does suffering serve? How have we, do we, are we, responding to unexpected and seemingly random suffering? Are we even able to answer questions such as these?
The first thing we learn about this gentleman named Job (scholars differ in opinion over whether such a man existed – the answer to this doesn’t affect the value or message of the book in any meaningful way) is to do with his character. He is described ‘blameless’ which we tend to interpret as meaning a lack of negative qualities, but perhaps it’s more accurate to call him ‘upright’. With Job the implication is ‘what you see is what you get’, that he was a truthful man with a strong moral compass. Additionally Job is a ‘straight’ man drawing on the OT imagery of life as a walk along a path, Job has walked ‘straight’ along the good path and hasn’t deviated or fallen off it. Next we learn that he tries to live in submission to God – no doubt this is behind his being an upright man who walks a straight path. We’re told he ‘fears’ God. It’s worth noting at this point as we’re introduced to Jobs life with God, that the story in which he is the major character is set in the pre-Abrahamic era. He’s not got the benefit of the covenant revelations that Abraham enjoyed, nor has he seen the Exodus and the giving of the law. He is also a man who deliberately avoids evil.
His family are deeply important to him, as are his social duties and responsibilities. Within his extended family he (like other heads of households of the time) exercised a role as a father, business leader, and priest, over and for the benefit of his entire household.
As well as being introduced to Job, we’re also introduced to what may seem like an unusual scene in the heavenly realms – certainly one that is likely to be outside of our own imaginings. The scene is depicted as follows:
Yahweh has called a meeting of his ‘cabinet’, and the ‘room’ is a crowded place. Rather than presenting God as sitting in divine splendour he’s portrayed as keeping company with all sorts of helpers and divine assistants, who congregate with God to transact the divine business. The way the meeting is described employs legal language, almost as though it’s a court of the King. In this meeting ‘the adversary’ speaks out. The Hebrew word for ‘adversary’ is satan and it can be used to refer to a human adversary too. So the author doesn’t have in mind our developed NT understanding of Satan as the personification of evil and rebellion against God. Job is not talking here about ‘the devil’. He’s presented as being a prosecuting attorney who isn’t the opponent of the judge (God) and his role is, like the defending attorney, to ensure that justice is done. In this case it seems the adversary’s job is to ensure that no-one ‘gets away with what they shouldn’t’ amongst the people who profess to trust the ways of Yahweh.
Yahweh himself raises the subject of Job – ‘take a look at my servant Job…’, the adversary responds to him and so the foundations for Jobs trials are set. At the heart of the adversary’s claims is that Job doesn’t have a real covenant relationship with God – the sort of relationships that endures – but rather he has a contractual relationship with God – the sort of relationship that immediately breaks down if the contract is broken. The suggestion is that from Jobs perspective the contract is ‘If I’m good God will bless me and protect me’ – and therefore Job is only obedient because it benefits him to be so.
And so the scene is set for the devastating series of blows that will turn Jobs life upside down and shake him to the very core of his being. In quick succession he receives the news that all he holds dear, all the ‘blessings’ of his life have been taken from him.
When life falls apart…
The first question this narrative poses is to do with how we respond to the fullness of human life. In particular how we respond to situations of unexpected suffering or tragedy, either experienced directly by ourselves or by others.
Having been informed of the various tragedies Job the righteous man tears his clothes and cuts off his hair – there no sense of glib denial here, Job is crushed and he demonstrates it. Then he falls flat on the ground in the same way that he might have done before a King or social superior. It’s an attitude of submission, in this case before Yahweh, it is a posture of worship. With clothes ripped and head shaved, as he lays on the ground he is almost fully exposed before God in his humanity. God has given, and God has taken away says Job.
This too raises important questions about where we attribute the source of suffering and hardship. Do we naturally assume that anything ‘bad’ comes from the devil and that only ‘good’ things come from God? What about the involvement of human agency? Even if Job sees the hand of God behind the disasters that have hit him, human agency is still involved. The Sabeans and Chaldeans were the ones who caused so much damage and destruction and they remain morally responsible agents with freedom to choose. Likewise the reverse is true, all that Job had accumulated, although he attributes it to God’s blessing, none the less required an awful lot of his own effort too – the work of God and the work of man are difficult to separate. And so the phrase ‘God has given and God has taken away’ requires careful unpacking before it can be applied or understood meaningfully.
As we read the narrative it’s interesting to note that Job attributes the disasters to God. Job is not willing to let a sovereign and responsible God off the hook. This raises questions about how Christians respond when people accuse God of things that we might consider misfortune or sufferings – Stephen Fry’s recent interview comes to mind – do we too quickly try to absolve God of anything that seems unpleasant, and instead immediately attribute it to human free will or ‘the devil’?
Jobs predicament also challenges the notion that the world works in a purely mechanistic way. Likewise Job also challenges the notion that God works in a mechanistic way. As will emerge later in the book Jobs friends tend to have a view of Gods interaction with mankind as being somewhat automated – do good and God will bless, do bad and God will curse – clearly this no longer works in Jobs case where the equation seems to be do good and God curses. That this easy, predictable, and mechanistic view of Gods relating to mankind is undermined may make us think carefully and challenge our assumptions about God and his interaction with us. This goes back to the heart of the taunt by the adversary who suggests that Job is only faithful to God because of the ‘pay-backs’ he gets, as though God were some sort of celestial vending machine, put the right money in and you get the product you want out.
Jobs terrible suffering eventually leads him to curse the day that he was born in moving and powerful terms (ch3). He expresses the wish that he’d died during birth. This gives us a window into the world of someone whose suffering is so great, and we are required to we make time to connect emotionally with what Job is experiencing, to understand the questions from his perspective and to ask them with the same longing and intensity.
Week 2 – Where can I go but the Lord?
This week you might want to explore Jobs experience of turning to God in the midst of suffering. Perhaps drawing on our own experience in similar times? You may want to explore the difficult reality that sometimes as we go to the Lord in suffering he seems at his most distant, and at other times he seems to draw close.
In ch4 Eliphaz, one of Jobs friends begins to speak to Job, and his monologue continues into ch5 which we pick up in our reading.
Eliphaz is one of the three friends of Job who “when [they] heard about all the troubles that had come upon [Job] they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathise with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No-one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was”
As the narrative progresses we’re aware that the friends get a number of things very wrong, but at this stage we simply see 3 people standing in solidarity with someone that they care for deeply – and this is good.
Interestingly we read that the friends ministry to Job begins with a prolonged period of silence. They don’t rush in with answers or thoughts or even prayers. To begin with they sit with Job in silence and identify with his suffering, sitting in solidarity with him, walking where he walks as it were. Although this doesn’t fall into the reading for today’s talk it’s worth just noting that we see in this sitting in silence a deep and real ministry being worked out. Perhaps it challenges us to think about how quickly we rush in with words or ideas or thoughts, when in actual fact what is required is identify with the person who is suffering, stand in solidarity with them, and be open to suffering alongside them. Bishop John Taylor describes this as ‘the powerful ministry of silent compassion.’
As Eliphaz begins his monologue in Ch4 the narrative changes form. Up to this point it has been prose, but now with the first of Jobs friends beginning to speak a long section of poetry begins. From this point until Ch42 infact we are reading poetry, we need to bear this in mind as we attempt to interpret and apply it. The truth here is being communicated through image and sense, not through technical description.
Eliphaz starts off in Ch4 by recognising Jobs goodness and that he is an upright man. Given this he encourages Job to be confident and live in hope because according to Eliphaz, ultimately the good and upright are not destroyed. This is based on the theological conviction that we ‘reap what we sow’, behind which stands the assumption that the world is part of an ordered and predictable moral universe, controlled by a good and just God who rewards virtue and punishes evil.
Whilst the above is true, it’s also not the whole picture and this stands at the heart of the blind alleys down which Eliphaz wanders as he extends the ‘reaping and sowing’ principle. Eliphaz makes the jump from ‘you reap what you sow’ to ‘whatever you reap must come from what you sow’ and here lies the fundamental error. It may be a logical conclusion to come to, but its not the right conclusion. Eliphaz has taken a right theological principle and turned it on its head in a way that is wrong and unfair.
Eliphaz sees Jobs immediate situation and from what he can see he attempts to summarise the thinking / mind of God, but this too is a mistake. The mind and will of God is not so easily discerned and often the things that we see and interpret do not lead us to correctly identify the mind of God, but rather the opposite. Hence we hear in Eliphaz’s speech the notion of ‘Job you are experiencing suffering, therefore God must want to punish you, therefore you must have sinned, and so to stop the suffering, stop sinning!’ Ultimately living faith in a gracious God has no room for the cold dead orthodoxy of logic.
Added to this Eliphaz’s speech develops a rather striking insensitivity. To a man who has just lost his home and his family Eliphaz says Job will know security and be blessed by family (5:24-27) – he may well be right, and it turns out that he is, but perhaps not the most helpful thing to say to someone in Job’s position!
In Ch5, at least in the second half of it, Eliphaz begins to speak a more positive message to Job, albeit one that must have been rather difficult to hear, especially given its somewhat patronising nature. I wonder if we have ever found ourselves in this place – seeing a Christian brother or sister deep in suffering, unsure of what to say, perhaps feeling awkward, we blurt out the ridiculous line ‘have you tried praying about it’…during a particular season of suffering a well meaning church member asked me this very thing, I nearly punched them. Of course I have, I wanted to shout, do you think I’m stupid..! It’s a piece of advice that we can often be tempted to give when we don’t know what else to say.
Eliphaz makes this suggestion, ironically it seems, maybe even sarcastically. If Job is reaping what he is sown, why should going running to God help, seems to be the point he’s making. But of course the reader knows what Eliphaz doesn’t. That Jobs suffering is nothing to do with what he has sown, and that the door to God remains open, and indeed even in the midst of unwarranted suffering Jobs comfort might be found in the God whom he has served so diligently.
All of this brings us into contact with what we might call the ‘dark side of God’ – the troubling and unfathomable reality that there are times and seasons in which even though we earnestly seek God out, he seems to turn his face from good and godly people.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones recounts a story:
“I remember the case of a lady who had been passing through a period of dryness and aridity and who was in great trouble. It was partly physical, and many of her friends had gone to her, and they had all spoken in the same way. They were all trying to make her rouse herself, all talking in a theoretical manner to her and saying that feelings do not matter, that indeed nothing matters other than that we are justified by faith! She knew that as well as they did, but it didn’t help her because her problem was that she didn’t know the blessedness she had once known. Eventually she was helped when someone said to her ‘ah yes, there are periods like that in the lives of the saints. Sometimes God for his own reasons withholds his face from us’…”
In the midst of suffering, at the very time that we most need to ‘go to the Lord’, we can find his face seems turned from us. Sometimes it seems that God allows us to go through experiences such as this so that we might learn lessons of faith that we could not have learned in any other way.
But before Job can go to the Lord and present his case, and begin to revive a sense of hope, there is an awful lot more to come from the poetic conversation.
Week 3 - Walking through the tough times
There are two ways in which we may experience walking through tough times, either personally as we experience them, or alongside another as we walk with them through their tough times.
This week we move the focus away from our individual and personal response to the suffering and difficulties that we face, and think about how we walk alongside others who are suffering.
If we take seriously the call to love others and to each play our part in the building up of the body of Christ, what do we learn from the story of Job about how we might do this and how we perhaps should not do this? What does good care for each other look like? The poetic conversations between Job and his friends give us a number of things to imitate and things to avoid...
As we continue to read through the book of Job we come to an interesting point in the poetic conversation between Job and his friends. Up to this point an awful lot of advice has been given, some good and some bad. In Ch22 we’re going to see a picture of how not to walk alongside someone who is suffering. How not to resolve a clash between theology and experience.
Ch22 is the third of Eliphaz’s speeches. In it he attempts to draw Jobs attention to the almightiness of God. Eliphaz goes so far with this that he ends up saying that God is so high above, so lofty, so transcendent, that he has no direct concern for Job at all. He poses the question ‘do you think that God cares one way or another about your protestations of innocence or your current suffering?’ As far as Eliphaz is concerned Gods disinterest in Job is due to the severity of his sin. Because Eliphaz believes that Job can only reap what he has sown, he then goes on to try to imagine what Job must have done to experience such awfulness. He suggests that even though Job has appeared to be a righteous man, there must be hidden sin in his life – injustice towards his family (v6) disdain for the hungry and impoverished (v7) lack of charity towards widows and orphans (v9). So where does this tirade come from, at times Eliphaz has seemed to be a just and Godly man.
Perhaps the problem is two fold.
In the first instance perhaps having spent a great deal of time with Job, he’s become frustrated by the situation, by his own lack of ability in finding a clear answer, and so in desperation at getting nowhere he speaks out inappropriately. Perhaps we know this all too well. As we walk alongside someone who is suffering we want to help, we summons all our wisdom and insight, and yet nothing seems to be quite enough. We look for answers and explanations and ways of making sense of sufferings…but we get nowhere. And sometimes in our frustration and desire for an answer or a solution we fail in our duty of genuine pastoral care. As the words pour out of Jobs three friends maybe our minds are drawn back to the opening chapters in which the friends simply sat alongside Job, not looking for short-cuts or solutions, but weeping with him and offering a ministry of solidarity and comfort.
In the second instance Eliphaz’s theology is just not right, even though it was relatively mainstream in his day (the idea that we only reap what we sow) – Eliphaz struggles to reconcile his theology with the situation, and rather than being prepared to accept that his theology may be misapplied or mistaken, he attempts to force Job and his situation to fit his assumptions. We might say that Eliphaz is attempting to rewrite Jobs life rather than revise his own theology. How often do we do this very thing as we attempt to walk alongside others in their suffering?
Good pastoral care
Eliphaz tries to handle Jobs suffering in terms of his own rationalisations about God and life and in doing so minimises Jobs situation. Job wants to know why God seems so unconcerned with him and his plight, Eliphaz dismisses the question and says that God cannot be troubled by such things, just repent for the imagined sin and everything will be ok again. At this point in the narrative Eliphaz certainly seems pompous and insensitive, and a long way from being a helper on the journey through suffering. At this point the interesting and in some ways strange scene in the heavenly court at the start of the story springs to mind. Eliphaz says God is not interested in the trivia of Jobs life, and yet in the opening scenes not only is God aware of Job, but he sets the parameters for his sufferings in some detail. Eliphaz, without knowledge of this behind the scenes action, is wrong, God is portrayed as being concerned.
So what can we say at this point? Elpihaz’s approach is partly right in recognising a need for restored communion between Job and God and advocating Gods utter sovereignty, but he misses entirely Gods grace – his message is simply ‘pull your socks up’ as though the entire responsibility for the relationship between Job and God rests on Jobs shoulders. Jobs relationship with God does not only depend upon him, in the same way this is true for us – God was and is a dynamic partner in relationship.
Eliphaz seems to struggle to allow God to work in any way other than a straightforward reward-punishment priniciple and he seems to insist on interpreting whatever he sees in front of him in this light. Perhaps here too there is a lesson for us, that we must be conscious of our own interpretative lens through which we view the lives and situations of others, so that we might avoid falling into the same pit as Eliphaz.
Eliphaz like Jobs two other friends has been doing his best to help him. Each of them has tried to proclaim some of the truth about God, but each of them has pressed their claims inappropriately. Eliphaz fails to truly hear what Job is saying, Bildad’s view of the moral order is too narrow to take into account Jobs personal needs, and Zophar is guilty of thinking he sees with far greater clarity than he actually does. At the end of the narrative the Lord says to them “my wrath is kindled against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right” (42:7) – This is worth reflecting on as a great deal of our responsibility in caring for one another is to:
1 – hear what the other is saying
2 – help to relate theology and faith to the personal situation that faces us
3 – remember that we seldom see as clearly as we think we do
For Eliphaz, just like the other two friends, faith was a rational system of belief detached from a living relationship with God. But the scriptures remind us that faith is not just a system of logic or creedal statements or truths. It is a dynamic encounter with the living God. In the words of one commentator:
“The error of Jobs friends has implications for our… pastoral care. Ministry [to each other] is not only about the all-important task of proclaiming the truth of the gospel; it is also about paying attention to the particular and the concrete. It is not only proclaiming the transcendence of God; it is affirming the sanctity of the ordinariness and the apparently trivial in people’s lives. It is not only pointing another person to God from afar, it is also sitting with them on the ash heap to listen to real feelings and struggles, and to let our theology and our counselling engage with them there.”
Our ministry with each other is incarnational, as we believe that in Christ God assumes our frame of reference and sits with us on the Ash heap.
Pastoral care beyond our walls
All of us have relationships that extend outside of the church community (I hope) and we’re just as likely to exercise a pastoral ministry to someone who would not call themselves a disciple of Jesus as we are those who would. In a society conditioned by desire for immediate answers, for solutions to problems, for rationalised understanding, and for management, the church has a prophetic voice. We know that suffering will not cease because it is somehow rationalised or ‘answered’. We know that management and control will not restore a broken heart or spirit, or indeed answer any of life’s most profound questions. So what do we have to say?
Week 4 - Accepting what we can’t understand
One of the great challenges of the life of Christian discipleship is accepting that there is a great deal to God and life that even when viewed through the eyes of faith, we cannot and will not ever be able to understand. Somehow then in the midst of not being able to understand fully, of being able to see only in part, we attempt to live faithfully.
We naturally seek out reasons and answers, and this is good, but what happens when there simply are no answers? Where do we go and on what reserves do we draw?
In what situations is it ok to say simply – I don’t understand but I accept what I see. I cannot explain it, but my faith remains strong and rooted in the grace of God.
Our lives of Christian discipleship must be lived out within the world in which we are. They must be at the same time firmly rooted in the earthly reality of which we are a part, and yet also able to see beyond it, to a reality that underpins what we see and experience. If we believe that Gods kingdom has come in Christ and that God is working all things towards the fulfilment of his plans of redemption and restoration, then our minds and hearts are renewed in the light of the reality beyond (the reality of the Kingdom) and we have a renewed perspective on the here and the now. And so we find ourselves attempting to understand the reality in which we live, life ‘here and now’ in the context of the outworking of the Kingdom of God. Our faith in the reality beyond helps us to understand the lives we lead and the world of which we are a part.
Our faith helps us understand, and faith which seeks understanding is an aspect of prayer.
And this is what we begin to see in Jobs lament. We see faith at work, he comes to God, he pours out his soul and heart and as he searches out God he searches out answers. It is a pattern of prayer that is familiar to all of us I’m sure. Even more than that, it seems that Job at times assumes answers.
And so as we draw towards the end of the book of Job, finally God talks back in a meaningful sense. We’ve heard from Jobs friends, we’ve heard from the youngster Elihu. Jobs friends assumed that it was his sin that caused his suffering, but this we know was not so. They have pointed to majesty and power of God, but said little of his loving presence. They, like Elihu have pointed Job to the fear of God as the place where understanding can be found. And Job has wept and raged and defended his innocence. He’s been broken in body and mind and soul, and he’s called out to God, and been met with silence.
I wonder if the response surprises us? In the face of Jobs persistent prayer seeking reasons and understanding for his suffering, God takes Job on a heavenly guided tour. God’s seems akin to saying to someone who’s lost all his money, his house, his family and is sitting desperately ill in hospital ‘look at the hippopotamus’! The response seems to be lacking in some ways…
In his response to Jobs ongoing prayer of faith, seeking understanding, God gives Job a tour of the majesty of the natural world, but he doesn’t address the question of why. One commentator puts it like this: “God doesn’t explain, he explodes. He ask Job who he thinks he is?” God seems to be saying in effect that to try to explain the kind of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a sea urchin.
Finally, after trusting in the darkness and silence, Job ‘hears’ the voice of God again. At least he’s listening! And yet the prayer of faith seeking understanding seems to go unanswered. Even as God speaks, reasons are not given, and Job is none-the-wiser.
So what can we say at this point? There are several things worth reflecting on I think.
Firstly we note that after a prolonged period of silence God does indeed speak. From the storm the voice of God is heard and God is revealed, but as God reveals himself he shows himself as an ‘inviting yet terrifying divine mystery’ – in his self revelation, God remains wild, untamed, and beyond explanation and understanding. With our New Testament eyes, seeing as we do the self revelation of the Father in the Son, we obtain a glimpse of God that transcends that of those who lived before Christ was incarnate. We see God more fully and in a way which we understand, and we thank God for this. In this there is joy and intimacy, but as well as being near and ‘seeable’ God also remains majestic and far beyond, the God who shows himself in the whirlwind and storm. There is a great deal of sloppy devotional literature out there, geared towards those who find themselves in the midst of suffering, that seems to forget this!
As God speaks to Job he doesn’t reveal his reasons, he reveals himself.
To do this God announces that he will question Job, perhaps in the same sort of way a good teacher asks questions of their pupils – questions that will help the pupil to learn by exposing what they don’t understand and inviting them to think more about it.
God gives Job a whistle-stop tour of creation taking in the skies, the animals, and more.
On this tour God seems to be taking Job beyond his immediate situation, inviting him to look up from the ash heap and take a wider look at the world around him. A world that although at times impossible to make sense of, testifies none-the-less to the glory and majesty of God.
Perhaps there is a simple pastoral application here? Either for ourselves in times of suffering, or for us as we support others in times of suffering? We may well suffer and retire to the ash heap, it may be appropriate to sit there is we find ourselves in mourning and grief, but if we want to continue on in life, we must at some point look up from the ash and take in the wider world, which despite our suffering and grief, is still a world filled with wonder and the creative agency of God. We may not be able to help another to understand reasons for their suffering, but we can show them that they still belong within the wonderful place that is God’s creation, we can help them to see a world beyond their immediate state. Likewise for ourselves.
The reading picks up this theme of our ignorance remaining in the midst of God’s self revelation. God reveals himself and not reasons. God is revealed as wise, powerful, and just, the one in whose hands lay the mysteries of creation. We do not, and cannot understand the reality of suffering, what happens to whom and why, Job tried, failed, and God was seemingly not willing to explain!
This often presents us with a problem – we want to understand. After-all it is far easier to have a degree of trust in God if we understand what is going on and why. But we must be able to accept who God shows himself to be, even when we cannot understand the situations in which we find ourselves or how the two are consistent.
Job discovered that the world of God is not simply logical. God shows himself to Job to be far more than the end of a logical syllogism, he is the living, powerful, wise and just creator whose ways and thoughts are beyond our own.
In a culture obsessed with finding answers and understanding, of detailed post-mortems of every event and process in the quest for knowledge, this can be difficult to accept. It’s not that human reason and logic has no place in the life of discipleship, nor that God is anti-rational or illogical, just that our reason and logic is not enough to fully understand God, our situations, and the world. As we seek to live each day, including the days that we’d rather avoid, with God it is perhaps important that we grasp God is primarily encountered rather than debated, met rather than rationalised. In the midst of really difficult times, as we naturally search for answers, we perhaps need to be encouraged to search for Gods person instead. As God speaks to Job we’re reminded that there are numerous questions which, no matter how eloquently put or heartfelt, do not have answers, and that there are problems within the life of discipleship which logic cannot solve.
In this sense the seasons of suffering can be profoundly helpful and instructive in the life of faith. We like things to be neat, tidy, and secure, but we’re often confronted by life and faith being anything but this. We have a need of ‘being sure’ which is manifest particularly in the times of suffering, but in reality is probably always present, which is unhelpful and defensive. As we walk with Job through his sufferings, and eventually hear from God we are brought face to face with the living God and invited to live in his light and grace with all of its logical gaps, untidy edges, and unanswered questions.
Jobs questions are not answered, but he has met with God. Job does not understand any more than he did previously, but his faith in YHWH is nourished by Gods self-revelation and tour of creation. Job is learning to accept what he cannot understand, and be ok with that.
Clinging, growing, and restoring
And so we come to the end of the book of Job. In this final section we read of Jobs restoration, the climax of his time of suffering. It’s easy to read it in a distanced and cold sort of way: ‘oh well everything is ok, he’s got more children than he had before now…’ sort of manner. But of course if we read it more sensitively we’re conscious that no number of additional children would ever replace the children who were lost to him…this reasoning may work for cattle, but not for kids! And so, we have to work through and think about being restored in a way that isn’t triumphalist, naïve, or experience denying, but in a way that is real, and takes seriously the ways in which God deals with our past, present, and future.
Job is blessed with abundance once again, and a new dawn broke in his life. The sufferings of the past remained, and if he were indeed a real man, no doubt haunted him and caused him pain to his dying day. But alongside this grief, he once again knew blessing.
For all who have experienced significant sorrow or pain there will be a powerful point of empathy here I think, as God works in our present, he helps us to live well with our past, and with hope for the future.
In this final chapter Job responds to God’s revelation with a statement of humility and submission. His response leads us to believe that during the course of his ordeals he has moved from a place of belief to a place of faith. From knowing about God, to knowing God. In and through his suffering Job has finally been overwhelmed by the gracious divine presence, and he now bows his head, even admitting that some of what he said as he ranted against God may have overstepped the mark! At the end of his suffering, as Job has clung and grown, the process of restoration begins.
Some fascinating things emerge as the poetic writing of that began in Ch 3 has drawn to an end and the prose that started the book makes a return in v7 of Ch42.
Firstly we notice that God blasts Job’s friends for not speaking about him in a way that is accurate or fair or right. God is angry with them for misrepresenting him and by doing so increasing Jobs anguish. This perhaps should send chills down our spines and make us cautious and careful as we counsel others and speak of God to them!
God tells the friends that Job will now mediate for their sin – the irony is clear – having accused Job of sin, it is the three friends who stand guilty as the one who they accused sacrifices and prays for them, that God might deal graciously with them. Job, the man who at the very start of the book was called ‘the servant of God’, at the books end, fulfils this role to the benefit of his friends. Quite naturally our minds are drawn to Christ at this point as the ‘servant of the Lord’ who makes atonement for us.
Having prayed to God that he would restore his friends, Job is then also restored by God.
We read in the very last verses that Job was restored in every sense, being blessed even more richly than before. God’s restoration happens in the here and now (although we’d want to be careful to distance ourselves from anything that links restoration and wealth inseparably) and Job receives an abundance of stuff and family. Interestingly we read that after Job was restored, his friends and family still came to comfort and console him. Even in the midst of renewed blessing the hurt and anguish of the past didn’t magically disappear, Job still had to learn to live with the memory of the tragedies that he’d experienced. Speaking to a friend who lost a child to illness I was struck by her observation that her journey of faith had brought her to a point where she could live well with what had happened, not that it could ever be forgotten or left alone, but that she was released to live fully with God, enjoy the blessings of her life, and deal well with the events of the past. I’m sure we’ve all known someone who’s testified to something like this, and perhaps we too know this first hand. In this restoration the reality beyond meets us in the present reality as the grace of God works healing in our lives.
For some the ending of the story will be difficult to digest and accept. Job may have enjoyed a happy conclusion to his story (we may have to accept that in this ending there is a bit of middle-eastern hyperbole to make the point) but many don’t close out their suffering in this way. We may be aware of those for whom a happy ending was never forthcoming. And so this closing section demands a degree of care as we read it so that we avoid the trite ‘it will all be ok in the end’ sentiment which is so at odds with the experience of many.
So in closing what have we seen?
Firstly – that we must accept we will not always understand. The book of Job reminds us that there is more to heaven and earth and the ways of God than we can ever understand and that we must allow God to ‘have his secrets’, as well as accepting that at times we will live in the dark. Logic and reason do not allow us to explain fully the reality of suffering, creation, God, and ourselves.
Secondly - that as we seek to counsel and minister to others we must be careful with what we claim about God and the situation. Even in speaking the truth we can draw wrong conclusions, speak inappropriately, and try to force the experience and situations of others into our predetermined theoretical framework. All of which is damaging and wrong.
Thirdly – We must understand that suffering will come, that the righteous suffer in the same way as the unrighteous, and that this suffering affects the whole person; body, mind, soul, relationships, emotions – we suffer as whole people.
Fourthly – We see that God reveals himself and his gracious presence rather than answers to our problems and this addresses our deepest need in suffering.
Fifthly – We’ve seen a man who perseveres under extreme pain and under the mis-direction of his friends. He listens to his conscious and he listens to what he’s known and experienced of God, and he clings to faith in the face of terrible suffering. In his clinging there is space for the whole range of emotions, sadness, anger, raging, and contrition.
Sixthly – What matters most is not theology or right reasoning or understanding, but rather deep fellowship and encounter with the living Lord in which his grace is mediated and poured out upon us. We know that we will face suffering, we may have the privilege of walking with others in their suffering, we do not know when it will end, but we are given grace in the times of darkness as well as the times of Joy.
I hope these notes have been helpful in prompting some thoughts and setting the scene a little. As ever they are offered in humility, and with an acceptance that you probably have far more wisdom, experience and insight to offer than I do! My hope is that in and through this series we might do as John Piper said in our introcudtion…
Simon Butler – March 2015
Simon Butler, 31/03/2015