If a man could ask God one single question, I think it is a statistical probability that his question would be regarding the ‘why’ of human suffering. How a supposedly good and almighty God could allow such suffering as we see in the world has puzzled and baffled even the greatest minds of history. The Old Testament is not afraid, however, to tackle this question in a rather unconventional manner. Where we Greek-minded Westerners would most likely have written a discourse that deals directly with the question and gives a clear answer, the Bible does not do so. In good Hebrew tradition, it tells us the story of Job.
The book of Job starts out by informing us of the kind of man we are dealing with in this story:
1 There was a man in the country of Uz named Job. He was a man of perfect integrity, who feared God and turned away from evil. 2 He had seven sons and three daughters. 3 His estate included 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and a very large number of servants. Job was the greatest man among all the people of the east.
Here we have the greatest man of the East. I am impressed by the testimony given of him – he was a man of perfect integrity. What an amazing man Job must have been to have such a thing said of him and to have such wealth as a testimony to his integrity and the favor of God on his life. People that the Bible says those kinds of things of inspire me; what kind of testimony would God give of me?
All the more shocking, then, is what happens to Job: in one day, he loses his camels, his sheep, his oxen and and his donkeys. Every single one of his children are killed in a tragic accident, leaving his wealth destroyed and his soul undoubtedly in deep sorrow. If these disasters were not enough, terrible boils break out all over his body, leaving Job sitting in the dust with a piece of broken pottery to scratch himself. When his wife tells him to curse God, his misery must have been complete. How despondent, dejected, and depressed Job must have been! Within moments this upright and righteous man went from riches to rags, leaving him to curse his day of birth and plead his case with God.
What I find particularly interesting is the theological discourse that ensues. His three friends decide that theological arguments are the best way to approach the situation. Conform the theological thought of those days, they conclude that Job must be wicked and needs to repent. Job counters that he is righteous and pleads his case with God, asking how God could have treated him like this. Thoughout all the theological arguments that take up the vast majority of this book, however, I find it intriguing how they all miss the greater spiritual reality. Such a chasm exists between the endless arguing of Job and his friends and the reality of why his suffering actually occurred. The theological debates so utterly missed every purpose and point – as if their theology provided a simple, cookie-cutter answer to Job’s intense misery and suffering. And while Job himself did not approach the situation much better, I am more inclined to excuse his empty words because of the unthinkable suffering he underwent.
The book of Job could not have illustrated more poignantly the extent to which our understanding, our reasonings, and our theologies fall short of truly explaining the spiritual reality behind natural events. Job does not provide an answer to the question of suffering, but it does provide an answer in terms of perspective. God confronts Job in a way that is unparalleled in the Bible, asking a number of questions that expose Job’s utter lack of knowledge and real understanding:
2 Who is this who obscures [My] counsel
with ignorant words?
3 Get ready to answer Me like a man;
when I question you, you will inform Me.
4 Where were you when I established the earth?
Tell [Me], if you have understanding.
5 Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 What supports its foundations?
Or who laid its cornerstone
I identify with this book in that I love theology, I love putting reality into a Biblical framework that makes sense. The question is what happens when something happens that shakes that framework to the core. Do I question God? Do I argue my case with him and wonder whether he really sees my righteousness? Do I curse God because of my misery? Job challenges me to remember that no amount of theology or reasoning can take the place of knowing God and accepting that we cannot understand everything. We see but a glimpse of who He is; in many cases, we can only trust in His power, sovereignty, love, and goodness. What do I know and understand compared to the infinite God? Who am I to question Him or argue with Him?
As poignant as God’s interrogation is, so stunningly beautiful I find Job’s response to God:
2 I know that You can do anything
and no plan of Yours can be thwarted.
3 [You asked,] “Who is this who conceals [My] counsel with ignorance?”
Surely I spoke about things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
4 [You said,] “Listen now, and I will speak.
When I question you, you will inform Me.”
5 I had heard rumors about You,
but now my eyes have seen You.
When confronted with the greatness of God and your own puny humanity, how else can you respond? Every time I read these final chapters, I am inclined to echo Job’s words: I have heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You. How ultimately futile are my flimsy attempts at interpreting the reality as I see it; what a cold comforter my theology can sometimes be. And how great is this God I serve, how awesome, how unfathomable are His ways. What do I know?
Such a painfully beautiful book is the book of Job.