Virginia Woolf once wrote to a friend: “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” What do we do with such a book, in which God seems to allow Job’s life to be destroyed so he can win a bet? What do we do with such a book, in which a purported man of faith curses the day of his birth (Job 3:1) and basically calls God a jerk, accusing God of laughing at the death of the innocent (Job 9:23)? What do we do with such a book, which questions the basic assumptions underlying most of the rest of the Bible? Job’s friend Eliphaz says, “God does great things too marvelous to understand. He performs countless miracles. He gives rain for the earth and water for the fields. He gives prosperity to the poor and protects those who suffer.” Couldn’t those words be in any other book of the Bible, and we would accept them without question, embroider them on pillows?
But the book of Job questions the idea that God does care for the earth, or protect His people. God does not reward the righteous and punish the wicked; not always.
In the book of Job, God actually allows the exact opposite to happen; we know from the very first verse that Job is blameless, a man of complete integrity (Job 1:1), and yet God allows him to go through the most terrible suffering imaginable. The book of Job is so interesting because it’s timeless; you can’t really position the book of Job in any one time or even place. Job was from the land of Uz, a city mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. There’s a hint that Job might have been written around the time of the Exile—Job 12:18-19 speaks of how kings are “led away with ropes around their waist” and “priests are stripped of their status,” but there are also indications that the story of Job is much, much older than that. At any rate, Job presents an extreme example of a man who was “blameless” whose riches, health, wife, and children are taken from him; and then, as though that were not enough, he experiences a terrible and painful disease and ends up on an ash heap, scratching at his sores with a broken piece of pottery. The Bible gives us this story to present to us the most difficult question ever asked of people of faith: how could a good God allow the suffering of the innocent?
And the book of Job is quite clear that God does allow the suffering of the innocent. As the story begins, God is sitting comfortably in heaven when his court comes in for their weekly staff meeting. Among God’s apparent vice-presidents is Ha-Satan. Most translations call him Satan, but the book of Job always uses the article; Satan in Hebrew means Accuser, and Ha means “The.” So Satan here is simply “the accuser.” His “job” appears to be to walk around the earth and accuse people of sin. What’s disturbing about this exchange is that God and Satan appear to be working together. They kind of make a bet together! And it’s God who brings up Job in the first place, bragging, “have you seen my servant Job? He’s a pretty good guy.” I mean, God, if you were in the mood for that sort of thing, couldn’t you have just gone to the casino? (Not if he were a good Calvinist, I guess!) There’s a movie called Constantine starring Keanu Reeves with a great line: “God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady.” This is, seemingly, the God of Job 1-2; God is a kid with an ant farm, willing to play around with human beings, allow them to experience great suffering, just to see what happens.
The book of Job, like Job himself, presents this disturbing picture of God, and I believe Job asks the hardest questions, without giving us clear answers, so that we have the opportunity to form our own responses as people of faith. The person of faith reads these chapters and cannot accept that God is playing around with Job; God’s not a kid with an ant farm. There’s something more going on here. God is not just placing a bet in fun, or playing around with humans like toys. God deeply cares about how we respond to situations of suffering.
If there’s one theme we have seen developing throughout Scripture, it’s that God cares about us; God desires a relationship with us. God wants our love. And one way to understand what happens to Job is this: a relationship that’s just built on transactions is not love. God wants more than a business relationship. Up til now, Job has had a strong faith in God; but maybe that’s because God has always given him exactly what he wants.
This weekend I performed a wedding, and I thought, yet again, about the beauty of the traditional wedding vows. Today, many people want to write their own vows, and there’s a certain value to thinking through your relationship and why you are choosing to marry. But, as Rick Warren points out, many of these self-written vows come out sounding like a middle-school love note. I love you because of your pretty hair and I promise to make you mango smoothies every day. The traditional vows don’t focus on loving people when they are pretty and nice and everything is going well; instead, we promise to love and be faithful for richer or for poorer, in joy and in sorrow, for better or for worse. That’s the kind of relationship God wants; a faith for better or for worse, a faith that does not depend on circumstances. God does not want fair-weather friends; God does not want a fair-weather faith.
God wants to find out who his friends are. The book of Job is a little like a country song—after all he’s been through, we wouldn’t be surprised if his truck broke down and his dog ran away—and there’s a great old country song that goes, when you need a couch, need a floor, need a bus fare, “You find out who your friends are, Somebody’s gonna drop everything, Run out and crank up their car, Hit the gas get there fast, Never stop to think ‘what’s in it for me?’ or ‘it’s way too far.’ They just show on up with their big old heart, You find out who you’re friends are.” God uses Satan, the accuser, and his weapons of illness, disaster, and death to learn whether Job is really his friend, whether Job really cares. It’s easy enough to love God when all our prayers are answered. But God is not a vending machine. As Job says, “shall we accept the good from God, without the bad?” If we love God because we think we can get whatever we want out of him, that kind of one-sided relationship isn’t what God is looking for. He’s not looking for a fair-weather faith.
Every morning, my daughter asks Dan, “Daddy, what’s the weather going to be like?” Dan is the designated news-watcher in our house; he keeps everybody else informed of when it’s going to rain or the latest political scandals. Diana wants to know the weather so she can pick out her clothes for the day, but she also likes to know, I think, what to expect. But even though the weather guy can make a prediction, I keep telling her, we never really know what to expect from the weather, just like we never really know what to expect from life. Recently, it felt like July in May, and, being seven months pregnant, I have a newfound respect for every mother of a summer baby everywhere. Because I’m weaker overall, the weather is harder for me. It’s like that with our faith, too; when our faith is weak, a small thing can damage it, cause us to live in fear and despair and stop trusting in God. But the more storms we have weathered in the past, the stronger our faith will become, the more honest, the more realistic, the more real. Faith is really faith in the storm, in the trials, in the tribulations of life, when we can’t just spout off the easy answers. Like Job’s first response: (Job 1:21) “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away.”
Job, however, never lets God off easy. As we will see, Job’s faith is one that asks the hard questions, puts God on trial, challenges God, wrestles with doubt. He doesn’t blame Satan, but instead lays the blame directly on God; the Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Job is honest about who is in charge, and it’s God. Job also doesn’t discount the blessings he has had in this life. He does not take them for granted. I think of people whose marriage ends through a horrible divorce, but they are still able to look back and see the good years they had and the value of the marriage. Or the people who have lost a child, but still give thanks for the few brief years they were able to enjoy that beautiful life. This is the well-weathered faith. It’s the ability to see life as a gift rather than an allowance. Job does not see his blessings as a reward, something he deserved, nor does he see his punishment as the just desserts of sin. Rather, he simply accepts both blessing and loss as coming from the hand of God, and, although he appears to have no real reason to do so, he says, “blessed be the name of the Lord.” He doesn’t bless God’s name because God has done what he wants, or even because God has been fair or just. Job simply decides, through it all, to continue to have faith.
In my times of suffering, faith has been like that for me; a decision. Not a feeling I have, not an emotional choice, not even a fully rational choice. At the worst points in my life, I’ve clung to God, for no other reason than because I can see no other way. He’s all I have. Having faith is the only way I can see to keep going.
A wonderful singer I know sings this song: “The anchor holds, Though the ship is battered, The anchor holds, Though the sails are torn; I have fallen on my knees as I face the raging seas; The anchor holds in spite of the storm.” During the storms of my life, I hold on because I know that if I let go, the rains will drown me, the winds will carry me away; so I cling tighter, and when I do, I feel an odd sense of peace amid the storm. I’m still young, but my faith has gotten more weathered than it once was; now, rather than taking the calm for granted, I use that time to prepare for storms yet to come. There’s a saying that “wrinkles mean you laughed, gray hair means you learned, and scars mean you lived.” And that’s what I want. I want gray hair!
I want a weathered faith. I want a wrinkled face. I want to bear the scars that show I lived. I want a real faith, a real relationship with God, and real relationships weather the storms, real faith holds on when it’s hard, real love gives you scars. As His real love bore the scars for us. Real love stands firm even through the pain, and treachery, and brokenness, and suffering of life; and holds on through it all. When Christ rose from the dead, His hands still bore the scars, because they showed His love, and that love was beautiful. Your scars, your wrinkles, are the evidence of your well-weathered faith, the evidence that you held fast to God through all of the storms of life. And in His eyes, they make you all the more beautiful.
So don’t give up. When life hurts, when the waves crash around, when the Lord gives and takes away, when there is no justice to be found, and you are accused on every side, cling tighter to God, if for no other reason than because He’s all you’ve got. Have the faith to say, “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.