Suffering Job

 ‘Job Rebuked by his Friends’, William Blake.

‘Job Rebuked by his Friends’, William Blake.

For those who don’t know the story of Job, I’ll tell it briefly. Once there was a man called Job. He was a wealthy man, he had several sons and daughters, and he loved God, and served God. He was someone wholly good and wholly just, and his piety was unmatched across all the globe. He was so righteous that not only God took notice of him, but Satan also. And so, Satan came into the presence of God. They debate together Job’s goodness. Is he truly good? Or only responding favourably to the blessings he has received? Only one way to find out. And so, God and Satan have a bet together, a little wager. Will he remain good, even when all he has is taken from him? All his money is lost? His whole family is murdered, apart from his wife, who turns on him, and his skin is afflicted with boils. Not only is everything taken from him, he is also in constant pain. But despite this, he continues to praise God. Three of his friends come, and in turn try to explain to Job what he must have done wrong to merit such ill-fortune. His suffering must be on account of some bad thing that he has done. After all, don’t we reap what we sow? The injustice of his own circumstances causes Job to appeal to God’s mercy. If God is a merciful God, a just God, surely, he would hear Job’s plea. And indeed, he does respond. But not as you might expect.

God begins by explaining to Job that he is superior, and magnificent, and that his greatness is beyond anything the puny Job could possibly fathom. Then he shows Job a vision of the extreme complexity of the universe; he shows him enormous creatures like the leviathan and the behemoth. God then asks Job if in his messily mortal state he could ever understand how all this works. And as the answer is ‘no’, God chastises Job that he would dare to question the all-powerful and all-knowing God. In response, Job says “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” And then, quite inexplicably, without any explanation or apparent cause, in the final chapter of the book of Job, God decides to give everything back to Job. All his money, he has more children, and he is blessed more than he was before, and lives happily ever after. This story then raises a lot of questions. It’s a very unusual piece of literature, dealing with issues of the lament, dealing with the recurring question, ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and more fundamentally asking questions about morality – the nature of justice, what is just, and what is good.

To begin by stating the obvious, this story does not put God in a good light at all. The context of the whole thing, the bet between God and Satan, is incredibly odd. Why would Satan even be in heaven in the first place? Satan is the embodiment of evil, the great adversary, and yet here he is in the book of Job conversing with God like they’re old friends. Of course, God displaying immoral behaviour is nothing new. The Old Testament is littered with examples of God’s incalculable moods wreaking havoc upon the innocent, his devastating attacks. I wouldn’t be the first point out that he often mirrors the characteristics of a despot (in the Hebrew Bible), more than an all-loving God. But, nonetheless here they are in heaven talking about the righteous Job. Talking about if his righteousness is just simply an outcome of how blessed his life has been, or not. God apparently agrees with Satan that this is a worthwhile test to run, which is again very odd in itself. One of the classic characteristics of God is that he’s omniscient, therefore he should just know the outcome of any experiment without needing to run it. But apparently God forgets in this instance that he’s omniscient, and so they proceed. Thus, God is made guilty of conspiracy to murder Job’s family, and conspiracy of theft, taking as Satan does all that Job possesses. In so doing then, God clearly breaks two of his own Ten Commandments. Is God above his own commandments?

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Then, after all the suffering, and the visit of the three friends etc., God demonstrates to Job his immeasurable power, his omnipotence. “With God all things are possible.” And he uses this immense power to scare Job, to terrify him for daring to question whether his own circumstances are justified before the eyes of God. So, perhaps this would suggest that Yahweh actually has some problem specifically with Job. What else could account for all this? This theory as to Yahweh’s secret resistance against Job specifically, is not my own, but rather was proposed by the thinker most occupying my thoughts - Carl Jung. After all, who is inflicting all this injustice and violence against Job? Satan is merely acting as the agent, but it is God doing it. God has a grudge against Job. Job is somehow so dangerous to God that he must be battered down and put into his place. So, what’s God’s problem then?

I know when we use the word ‘God’ in this community, we have a plethora of ideas and concepts in mind. Some of us tend towards a more poetic conception of what God is, or how we are to utilise that word, and some of us tend towards the more classical, supreme being type idea of God. And there’s obviously a spectrum there as wide as there are individuals in this room. When we’re thinking about the context in which Job is written, however, they are presumably conceptualising God in the more classic sense. As a supreme being, as the creator deity. And in this more classic sense there has traditionally been certain characteristics attributable to God. We’ve named two of them already: God is ‘omniscient’ – he knows everything, he knows every possible outcome of every possible decision any of us would or wouldn’t ever make. Literally ‘omni’ = all, ‘scient’ = knowing. The all-knowing one. And God is ‘omnipotent’: possesses unlimited power. ‘Omni’ = all, ‘potent’ = power. Also, we can add that God is immortal, which is to say ‘timeless’: the same yesterday, today, and forever.

So, if creation, everything that is, sprang forth from God, everything that is, is part of God. He is the totality of everything that is. He has never known the constraints of mortality, he has never known, like we all know, that one day we will die. So that is one thing that Job has that God does not have, the knowledge of his own mortality. As we grow up in this world, we push against the world and discern the right course of action, in a large part discerning this in the way the world pushed back against us. But we all know that there is an upper limit to how much push-back from the world we can handle – we have a non-negotiable line in the sand, and that line is death. This is how we become self-reflective, conscientious individuals, reflecting on the bad actions which poetically threaten one’s own survival. God does not possess this non-negotiable line in the sand. As such, we, or Job, in our littleness, puniness, and defencelessness, possess a somewhat keener consciousness based on self-reflection, given our mortality. That may seem like an odd conclusion to come to, but isn’t that how we feel when we hear Job’s story?

He’s suffering, he loses his possessions, his family are killed. Our sympathies are not with God, he comes across badly, our sympathies are with the suffering Job and his unfair plight. In this narrow way then, is Job not better than God? This is seemingly why God, in his jealousy, flaunts his power in the way that he does. For if God does encompass the totality of everything, is it that surprising that there would be elements of his personality that contradict each other? Would we not expect that to be the case? Expect paradox to be integral to who God is? We so naturally assume that God is all-good, but clearly, if the Book of Job is anything to go by, there is a darker aspect to the character of God. And it’s when Job confronts God, and shows him the stark reality of his own divine character, that God relents. Job has the moral upper hand. And so, God, without explanation, or any attempt to justify himself, restores to Job all his blessings.

The Book of Job, if you like, represents the time in our cosmic history when human beings recognised for the first time that morality was not something that could be handed down from on high, from a great moral arbitrator in the sky. It had to be embodied and lived. Morality was a human business. Morality and Mortality go hand-in-hand. And so therein lies the fearsome power of our freedom. There is no invisible hand to guide our moral way. We are the possessors of morality, we are the ones who decide what is good and what is wicked.

Amen.

Lewis Connolly