From a post originally published on Heirs In Hope.
“God was unjust to Job. His faithfulness and piety deserved better treatment,” proclaimed the professor of a course I was taking in literary depictions of justice. I was shocked and totally disagreed but at seventeen I had no words to help me express my dissent only the absolute conviction that God is never unjust and that the professor was missing something of vital importance. Of course most people would agree with my professor. Job suffered terribly. God gives Satan permission to harm Job and even admits that Satan “moved [God] against him, to destroy him without cause.” So it should all be very simple. On this occasion, God must be unjust.
I first read the book of Job when I was five and was chiefly struck by the image of a dirty old man, clothed in rags, smelly, probably drunk (I’d already read about Noah), perched atop a pile of ashes scraping giant boils. A gruesome image. Over the next ten or twelve years, I read Job again, two or three times, and while the gruesome image remained, by nine, I realized his ‘friends’ were blaming him and wondered fearfully if they were right. By fourteen I was impressed but puzzled by God’s response – he never answers Job’s demands and accusations. Then there was the course when I was a sophomore in college which signaled the start of another eight years of pondering Job, of trying to understand God’s justice. On perhaps the twelfth reading I noticed for the first time a phrase I’d missed in the past. Sitting on his ashes after a seven day silent watch, Job curses his very existence in frustration and rage ending, “…the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.” But what had Job feared? He had had everything. I went back to the beginning and paid very close attention. As I walked alongside Job in my imagination, I saw him making continual sacrifices just in case. His was the behaviour of a frightened man, of appeasement – Job seeks to avoid God. In his speeches, Job expresses his feelings about God in language that is at first reminiscent of Psalm 8 but quickly moves to a place of terror and darkness: “What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment? How long wilt thou not look away from me …thou watcher of men?”
For Job, God is cruel and exacting, lying in wait for him to err, lying in wait to punish him with His terrible glance. This had not been discussed in that course on justice. In fact, no one – not my foster-father (a Southern-Baptist minister), not the priests and nuns who had catechized me, not even my old Testament professor – ever mentioned how Job feels about God. They focused on Job’s sufferings but failed to look at his actual relationship with God, a relationship in which he seeks to remain safely in one corner and to keep God safely in another. They did not see that Job’s sufferings begin long before Satan “move[s] [God] …to destroy him without cause.” To worship God in an attempt to keep him far away is to suffer horribly.
And it’s not that Job has done anything wrong. “There is none like him on the earth.” He is “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” In the midst of his fear, Job has done something very right. We would reward him. God does. He takes Job from an existence of anxious watching and waiting and sets his path through true suffering.
Before Satan is allowed to touch him, Job’s sufferings are of his own devising, they are the product of his convictions about God. But true suffering, increasing suffering, and in particular, suffering through his friends’ ‘consoling’ speeches, causes a gradual change in Job who at first speaks in platitudes about God, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Eventually though, he begins to speak to God: demanding that God look away, insisting he is right even though God prove him wrong, proclaiming his conviction that he has an Redeemer, an advocate, someone who will take his part and that no matter what, he himself will see God face to face. And finally, the man who intensely desired God to stop looking at him recalls the time before he lost everything: “Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me” and demands: “let the Almighty answer me!” Suffering has stripped Job down to his intense need for God to respond, to hear God’s voice.
And God speaks saying, This is what I have done, Job, where were you? Without answering any of the demands and accusations on Job’s list, God answers everything. His presence, his voice, his attention, his self revelation – God himself is Job’s answer. I imagine the anxious man filled with awe and wonder, laughing at himself and capering for joy as he says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” He must have flung the dust and ashes on which he had sat in the air for joy: how could he have known that God was really like this, that God would really answer him?
We are often like Job. We look on suffering as if it is the worse thing that can happen to us but fail to see that sometimes there is nothing else that will break down the stony walls we erect around our hearts, the adamant convictions that separate us from God. He made us to fit into and participate in the love that has always flowed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we are such terribly wounded people that we run from him as though he really is a hateful, cruel enemy. Yet we always run with hunger in our hearts, wanting him to see us, starving to know that he is watching. We will always be young children longing to call out, “Watch me! Watch me!” as we pedal our tricycles around the yard for the twentieth time in half an hour. God knows the hunger in our hearts whether or not we declare it. He sees us, not from high up in heaven, not from a far corner, not even through the kitchen window as he finishes the washing up, but right here, right now – we always have God’s undivided attention.
And sometimes that hurts – horribly. But the alternative is to have our way. And our way is filled with precise tallies of what we have lost and what we are owed, with minute detail of exactly how God is supposed to be. How tragic it would be if He gave in to us. Thank goodness God is not as we want him to be. Even when it means excruciating suffering, he knows how to give us the ability to relinquish our ash heaps and give up the bittersweet agony of being victims of his wrath; God always has far more for us than we can include on our lists. He has freedom and victory for each one of us – which is another thing that is so often missed, the end of the story, the victory.
Something radical happens to Job. He is given restoration and then some. His family and friends return: his community is restored. When Job prays for the three friends who came to “console” him he becomes the instrument of their restorations; sacrificing just in case another sinned becomes prayer for the real transgressions of his friends, prayer that accomplishes the mission God has given him. Job even becomes frivolous: at a time when daughters inherited only if there were no sons, Job shares his wealth among his sons and his beautiful daughters. Where once he was frightened and constrained, he is free to act outside the social boundaries, free to delight in the gifts God has given him.
Ultimately, we don’t understand God’s justice. It’s not at all like ours. It doesn’t give us what we deserve. His justice gives extravagance, an abundance. And to call God unjust because he leads us through suffering is always to miss something vital. Often it is to miss that God has chosen to be not only a “watcher of men” but a participant in our lives so that real suffering will lead us to real joy.