Years ago I decided I would never preach on Job and, so far I have always been able to avoid tackling him. I dont like Job. I dont like the idea of God letting him self be challenged by Satan into let some innocent righteous and pious man suffer just for the sake of seeing if his faith will hold. I dont like the thought of 10 children and a considerable amount of animals being sacrificed just to make a point in heaven. And I dont like the long winded and unsatisfactory answers Job gets from his friends and from God either. The whole gamut of answers human theology and philosophy have come up with in relation to the enigma of human suffering is presented in some 40 chapters and in the end, to my mind, we are left with no satisfactory answers.
Knowing Job is a story, a fable, a framework that is provided to tackle some very big questions about life and suffering, doesnt really help either. Of course it never happened! It is a story fashioned in the ways of the wisdom tradition, one of the oldest literary genres the world knows. It is drama, opera, magnifying reality and mixing it with mythical and fairy tale elements. God and Satan chatting in heaven, placing bets on the strength of someones faith doesnt only sound like a fable, it is. And where the events on earth are concerned: There is clearly no sense of proportion there. No way would all of that happen to one person in one day in that way. The whole set up, the whole start of the story is totally absurd.
So should we perhaps discard the story straight away and not even bother reading any further than the first two chapters? Because God is portrayed in a way that is contrary to all we believe about him and because the situation it pictures is totally unreal? Cant happen, doesnt ring true, this is not our God, so this is not our story
Unfortunately that would not be satisfactory. Once the subject is raised it is hard to ignore it: Why do the just suffer? What comfort is there for them? And what role does God play in the whole scheme of things?
And: Maybe to loose ten children on one day and all other possessions as well stretches our imagination a bit much, but most of us will know of people like Job, that seem to be suffering overwhelming hardship and difficulty, and leave us with questions we find it hard to answer. Questions like: Why? And: why me? To what end? Is there any sense, an reason to this? Did I go wrong somewhere that this happens to me? Or is life really absurd? Has God abandoned me?
Valid questions which are even asked by Jesus. In Gethsemane: Cant you take this cup away from me? Cant this be done another way? And later on the Cross: Why have you abandoned me?
They are questions that go to the core of our existence, confronting the depth of human suffering and asking for it to make sense, for meaning, for something that will make it worth while, redeem it, make up for it, explain it.
As far as I can see no answer, in the end, is given in the book of Job. The questions are asked, sharply and painfully sketched against a background that has magnified some of what everyman encounters in life to mythic proportions. But none of the answers are, in the end, satisfactory.
At the end of the book the questioning itself is deemed proper and just by God. Jobs refusal to comply, his insistence on an answer meets with approval. But he still does not get one.
One by one the answers his friends come up with will be discarded and revealed as unsatisfactory. They are the answers we all know:
You have always been good, surely God will not leave you now.
You may suffer now but in the end Gods love will make it all worth it somehow. You will see, some years from now it will all have been for the best.
Or: Youll grow from this, youll be able to be a better human being, be able to help others, be more mature because of what youve been through ..
Or: Think! Perhaps there was something you did that warranted this calamity. Maybe you went wrong somewhere without realising it and perhaps this is a way to bring you back on the right track.
Or: It could have been worse!
Dont call God to account, you are too small and insignificant to understand how this all fits in the larger scheme of things. Cursing God will only make things worse for you. Trust and accept!
Or: You cant be serious about blaming God for this. God is love, he doesnt do things like this. There must be another reason! Dont blame God, that is blasphemy and you may be punished even more if you engage in it.
Job does not accept any of those answers. He straightens his back and gives God and his friends all he is got.
Because even if he ends up with double of what he got in the first place that wont take the suffering away. Even if he grows into the wisest, loveliest, most pastoral guy ever, it wont take the suffering away, he knows he hasnt done anything wrong and he cant understand why God would let these things happen to him and he demands an answer! Trust and Accept! He started with that, numbed and shocked just after it happened we hear him say: The Lord has given, the Lord has taken, praise be to the Lord. But now he is woken up from the shock he cant hold that any longer. WHY?
The answers of his friends try to protect God from the terrible questions Job asks. Jobs answer to that is that they dont do God justice with their answers. Because they put a barrier between Job and the rawness of his questioning. Why God, tell me why!
And all that time that horrible suggestion is there in the background. That God could have had a hand in all this suffering. That it is possible that Satan was given free reign, just for a while, to prove God was right about Job and about his righteousness. It doesnt bear thinking about!
Mrs. Jobs suggestion to Job may be a very sensible one, she says: Curse God and be done with it! It would have saved Job a lot of agony had he followed her suggestion!
How on earth is it that Job has the courage and the persistence to keep asking questions for 40 chapters? Is it perhaps because he is righteous and wont settle for anything but the stark, terrible truth of the senselessness of his suffering and the fact that in the end he, as the righteous one, is the only one left standing before God while all the others have capitulated before an enigma that is beyond their understanding? Wouldnt he have been better off if he had stayed with that first, pious statement: The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, praise be to God?
Only he cant. Because Job is the righteous man he is and God bets on. He cant let go of God, he cant let go of Gods righteousness, he has to fight, till the end, for a God that will be with him in his suffering and stand by him. Even in his anger and bitterness.
And perhaps that is just what happens eventually when God gives back twofold to Job of all he has lost. The law says: anybody that has unjustly taken from another has to give back double of what he took.
God gave back double. Job was right. He was wronged.
It is great but at the same time terrifying to think that could be true. Outside the context of the fable, in your and my lives. That some of us are wronged in life and that God would be prepared to acknowledge that.
Does that answer take away the suffering? No. But it does make God the only one that does not leave Job alone in his suffering.
Someone I was involved with pastorally who had one of the most horrific stories to tell I have ever heard told me that the one thing that helped her, after years of everybody and anybody trying to comfort her, come up with answers, provide her with reasons, was someone who looked at her and simply said: "I am so sorry" and left it at that. That was the only person, for her, that had understood what she was really asking for, for somebody to admit and acknowledge that she had been wronged and that somehow nothing could be done about that apart from at least somebody saying "I am sorry".
In the beginning of the story the three friends come and sit with Job. 7 Days and 7 nights. And perhaps they should have left it at that. Perhaps they should have said sorry and cried. But no, all 40 chapters are probably necessary, all the answers we can come up with, all the meaning we can think up, all the sense we think we can make off it, probably have to be worked through before we can confront the stark and relentless truth that for real, deep suffering there arent any answers, isnt any meaning, and that there is nothing left than to sit down and say: even if life gets a lot better after this there is nothing to say but "you have been wronged", and I am sorry.