The Book of Job is one of the greatest pieces of didactic literature to be found in the Hebrew Testament. Job is an ‘Everyman,’ caught in the crucible of suffering, who asks the question that has run through all of our minds in the midst of suffering: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’
The Book of Job is one of the greatest pieces of didactic literature to be found in the Hebrew Testament. Job is an ‘Everyman,’ caught in the crucible of suffering, who asks the question that has run through all of our minds in the midst of suffering: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Job takes a long look at this question, addressing it from every angle. He is challenged by his wife who has let herself become embittered by all of the trials that have come to them, the loss of their flocks to raiders and to the elements, and the loss of all of their children. She is angered by his response to all of this; ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ He, unlike his wife, never charges God with doing wrong to him. She says to him as he mourns, covered over with sores, sitting on a heap of ashes, ‘Curse God and die!’
We have two very distinct reactions to terrible suffering here. Of the two, we may be more familiar with Job’s wife’s reaction. When we are overwhelmed with our suffering, when it seems to be endless and without reason, we tend to react with anger. Our anger is multi-directional and all-encompassing. We are angry at everything, but especially at God. Why is he doing this to us? Why is he allowing such suffering to come our way? We cannot understand why such bad things happen to good people and why those that are bad ‘seem’ to go their merry ways unharmed. This challenges our natural sense of justice. And because we cannot understand it, we submit to our self-righteous anger. We will not believe in a God who would cause, or allow such things to happen to us. But this is a problem with our own faith rather than with God.
Job’s faith, on the other hand, seems incomprehensible to us. How can he say, ‘We accept good things from God; should we not accept evil?’ This thought, though, has its problems too. Can God be both good and evil? Christian theology would call that dualism. There have been movements in Christian history like Arianism, Manichaeism and gnosticism that have argued such things in the past and variations of them can be seen even into our own times, but they have been recognized as heresies, deviations from true Christianity. Job’s response here is rather more pedestrian, or stoic. There is some debate among Bible scholars regarding whether the events described in Job actually happened; it’s place in the Hebrew Scriptures among the “wisdom writings” tells us importantly that the story is written for the purpose of teaching us something. So, what is it that God wants us to learn from it?
The story becomes a means for looking at the various philosophical and theological arguments that have been used in the past and, in some cases, are still used today. Job’s friends argue that his suffering must be related to some sin that he must have committed, that he must have offended God in some way. God is punishing him for his sins. God is just, after all, they argue. He rewards those who are good and punishes those who are evil. They counsel Job to repent of his sins and he would be forgiven. But the problem is that Job is truly a just man. He knows himself to be so. He has not sinned, yet he humbly endures, believing that God must have his reasons. But even Job has his limits. He knows that God is our judge, but he begins to question God’s justice. He thinks that God treats us according to his own whims, not in terms of how much good or evil we do in our lives.
Finally, even Job begins to be tempted toward despair. ‘Job opened his mouth and cursed his day. Job spoke out and said: Perish the day on which I was born, the night when they said, ‘The child is a boy!’ Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Or why was I not buried away like an untimely birth, like babes that have never seen the light?’ He goes further: ‘Why is light given to the toilers, and life to the bitter in spirit? They wait for death and it comes not; they search for it rather than for hidden treasures, rejoice in it exultingly, and are glad when they reach the grave; those whose path is hidden from them, and whom God has hemmed in!
It is here that God enters the story and the debate. God describes all the wonders of creation, the mountains, the seas, the stars in the heavens, etc., and asks Job again and again, ‘Can you do such things?’ Do you understand these things? Job, finally, in hard won humility, can only answer God by saying, ‘What can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth.’ Here we are at the center of the didactic lesson of this book. His suffering has made him humble. He recognizes that all that he had heard about God was somehow insufficient, it was not complete. He still might not have found the answer to the problem of evil, but he has come to the humble conclusion that such things are beyond his comprehension, that all he can do is endure and rely on God to give him the strength to endure the incomprehensible.
The answer to the question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ is still a mystery to us today, but we have something to lean on that the writers of Job did not have. God did something centuries after the Book of Job was written that the character of Job could not know; he became a human being, one of us, in Jesus. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we have seen God with our own eyes. It is because of Jesus that we trust in God’s goodness and mercy, his love and his grace, despite the fact that we still have unanswered questions about suffering. He suffered, just like us. He died just as we will. But in his death and resurrection we believe that he conquered suffering and death and that we will one day know not just the release from all of our suffering, but we will also no longer have questions, or the need for them, when we stand in the Real Presence of God and see him face to face. In this life, instead of final answers to the mystery of suffering, we have the vision and the reason for hope that Job never knew. God is good and no evil can come from him. What we have learned from the life of Jesus is that God knows our suffering intimately and that he will be with us in our suffering, no matter how great. If we recognize his unconditional love and compassion and turn to it humbly, we will be given the graces we need to endure the unendurable, gracefully. We may not ‘know’ it until we are through it, but it is our faithful hope that counts more than the answers.
Lord, we believe, help our unbelief. Help us to deepen our faith and trust in you so that, even though we do not understand the sufferings that come our way, unasked for and unwanted, we may find the strength to endure them with hope. Help us to know and to feel your presence in the midst of our suffering. And Lord, help us, too, to be present to the suffering of others. Even though we do not have the answers to the problem of suffering, let us be your presence to those who are suffering with our support, our care, and our compassion. We ask this in your name, Jesus. Amen
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