Life is full of trouble and heartache, and the long march of the years can make our souls heavy-laden with grief. We thus liken such adversity to storms, knowing full well that sometimes they are soft spring showers, and other times tornadoes that uproot all we might hold dear. We might see the clouds gathering far off on the horizon, or have them break upon us suddenly with nowhere to hide.
The problem of pain, while perhaps not the most intellectually taxing of all dilemmas, is nevertheless one of the more palpable, for a quandary can be safely tucked away in the recesses of the mind, but the aching of bones is more intimately bound, keeping watch through all hours of the night.
In the experience of a bad diagnosis or a future suddenly in doubt, often times that doubt becomes the closest of friends, an unexpected anchor against the maelstrom of existence. While our lips might wish to contain such despair, the cry leaps over the wall, a protest against the injustice of it all.
For justice, after all, is what has been denied. The subjective stance cannot help but orient all of reality around its orbit, for the dimensions of our perception seem an all too familiar boundary outside of which nothing else has claim. For anything to dare violate the sacred space of what is due us is fodder enough for all our doubts.
From time to time I am drawn back to the story of Job, for the inexplicable nature of suffering begs for some measure of solidarity. I confess a deep familiarity accompanied by a profound ignorance whenever I encounter this story.
Most of my experience with Job’s trial is filtered through my own modern prejudices and my own modern tantrums. Each exegesis tends to be primarily concerned with making Job right in everything he says, perhaps only as a means of justifying my own incessant whine about the obstacles I face or the sufferings I undergo or the disappointed loves that are ultimately only an expression of my own inebriation with myself.
But yet I am still fascinated, and therefore continually perplexed with Job. After all, he seems to start off so well, at least as far as my limited notions of piety are concerned. The loss of his livelihood, his property, his family and even his health is borne with the utmost poise and graceful aplomb. He even graciously provides us a soundbite for our modern worship songs:
“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But not content with writing worship songs, Job also waxes theologically:
“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
Up until now Job has faced six separate trials. Through all of them he did not sin, but accepted his suffering from the hand of God. But given that the scriptures are so fond of numbers, and especially of certain kinds of numbers, that he had already faced six trials should clue us in to one thing:
There is one more to come.
The Perfect Storm
The seventh trial takes up the rest of the book, in which Job and his friends wrestle with the suffering of the righteous, the punishment of the wicked, and ultimately the justice of God.
Much of what I have read about all these interactions is interesting, but much of it also tends to focus on which parts are right, which parts are wrong, who is correct about what, etc. And no doubt those are all fascinating topics for another time.
But the thing is this- we already know the whole story of why Job is going through what he is going through. The whole premise can even seem a bit sadistic; after all, does Job really need to face all this suffering to prove God right?
But we also know the ending, and that in some way Job spoke what was right about God, whereas his three friends did not. This can lead many to perceive everything that Job says as justified, which is often co-opted to justify the complaints we wish to lodge against heaven, naturally leavened with our own colorful contributions.
But tucked into the ending, God has something to say to Job. After all of the suffering he has experienced, after all of the pain he has undergone, after these seven trials one might be inclined to think that God would have something comforting to say to Job, some words to reassure him of his integrity, some reason for everything that happens.
Instead, Job gets ripped apart by God’s questions. So much so that all Job can do is shut up.
Shut Up, He Explained
That has always fascinated me, for the sequence of events is almost diametrically opposed to the way we talk about suffering in church most of the time. God is always with us. Definitely. God will never leave us nor forsake us. Check. He wants to gather us under his wings like a mother hen does her chicks. Yeah, that metaphor is a little weird, but yes.
In much of our modern talk about suffering we speaks as if God is at the other end waiting to coddle us, because too often in our weakness and in our pain that is all we want. And perhaps such an expectation is what our protests against the universe want to ultimately find.
(Or maybe it’s just me.)
But perhaps as righteous as Job was, and as blameless as he was in his words about God, maybe, just maybe, there was a need for a final conversion, some little hold-out in his heart that God wanted. It may be that this is what God’s allowance of his suffering was really all about.
The Last Stronghold
For while Job laments his pain and his loss, he seems rather disattached from his property and even his family, and perhaps even a little stoic about it all going away. With sincere piety, he no doubt really believed that God had given them to him, and could likewise take them away without consulting him. Even his health belonged firmly in God’s hands, for his response to his wife indicates that he recognized that God was truly master of his life, the giver of his existence. How could a creation tell its creator what he should or should not do?
Instead, Job had one thing that he seems to have considered his own: his righteousness. Much of his complaint ultimately revolves around justice not being dealt to him. Job’s discourse makes it clear that he does not consider the loss of his property or his family or even health to be unjust; rather, it is not until his friends start to accuse him of sin that he finally brings that one final possession out into the open.
It is important to note that Job does not necessarily call God unjust; rather, his faltering is much more subtle, but for that reason filled with more potential for disaster. In his final discourse he says:
As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice,
the Almighty, who has made my life bitter,
as long as I have life within me,
the breath of God in my nostrils,
my lips will not say anything wicked,
and my tongue will not utter lies.
I will never admit you are in the right;
till I die, I will not deny my integrity.
I will maintain my innocence and never let go of it;
my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.
(“Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.
I would give him an account of my every step;
I would present it to him as to a ruler.)
In Job’s defense of himself, he posits his justice against God’s justice, as if the two could ever exist separately. Thus, while God is not unjust, he can still inexplicably deny Job the justice he feels he is due, since he is innocent (which he actually is). Instead of finding his justice in the Almighty, as he does every other aspect of his existence and being, Job begins to see it as residing in himself, perhaps the only remaining shield against a world that has fallen apart around him.
In this way, Satan’s temptation is not a game that God decides to get in on, but rather Satan is the one getting played. Since God knows all things, God knows what is really deep down in Job’s heart, the secret places the serpentine enemy could never discover. Satan then becomes the foil for Job’s final conversion, the way in which Job can be brought into the full love and justice of God.
Speak Now, Or Forever Hold Your Peace
The seventh trial thus really doesn’t get going until God begins to speak, for Job is finally brought face to face with his deepest self and the sheer inadequacy of his understanding. This Job is made of stern stuff, but unless he is fully converted, that sternness may harden, never to bend again. To coddle him, to wrap the divine arms of love around him in the way that moderns croon about in their worship songs would actually be the worst thing for Job, since it would only vindicate his presumption and validate his self-posited justice.
Instead, God slaps Job in the face, which is what love actually does when it must.
Every question reveals to Job what he actually already knows, but has not yet fully applied to every aspect of his life. He believes and confesses that God can do whatever he wants and doesn’t need to ask Job, but he must learn that this is an all or nothing proposition. It has to include what is of deepest importance to Job- his integrity.
I am reminded of a scene from the ever-quotable film Becket where Becket is ready to return to England from exile. In his conversation with the King, he expresses his desire, and Henry asks him what he’s waiting for:
Becket: For the honor of God and the honor of the King to become one.
Henry: That may take long.
Becket: Yes, that may take long.
Job must learn that the justice he so desperately longs for and the righteousness he so desperately clings to cannot be something that stands over against that of his Creator, but must flow from and be identical to the justice of God. And since there are so many things in the world and the universe that he cannot possibly understand, justice will have to be one of them too.
The Final Conversion
In the final analysis Job’s seventh trial is the most crucial, and one gets the sense that it was what God was going to get to, with or without anything that came before. Will Job hold so fast to his integrity and his innocence that he shuts out the justice of God, or will he surrender this final fortress of himself, placing all of his life into God’s hands forever?
He has already lost everything, except that which was most important to him. In this consummating trial he will have to lose that too, with one overwhelming distinction: Everything else has been taken from him, wrenched out of his hands; this- this he must give up willingly. The core of who Job is, the one grounding trait of his existence must be surrendered, given up for lost, never to be found again in himself, but rather in his Lord.
Ultimately, Job comes face to face with the deepest part of himself, something known only to himself and God. Two final players left standing face to face.
Job recognizes the end of himself, both in the sense of his helplessness and inadequacy, but also in the sense of the point of his existence, the guiding arrow of his life. He will have the justice due to his innocence, and it will come from the lips of God himself. Surrender is no time for words, and Job learns to shut his mouth and trust his God.
It is in this act of surrender by which Job is vindicated, and in which he receives his justice from the Almighty. He finds the grace of total conversion, for now every part of him belongs to God.
Our suffering is often a means by which God wants to convert us, for the things we hold so dear are shown to be nothing, unless they are found in God. It may take long, but God is waiting until the day it happens, until we open up our hearts and close our mouths, when the justice we long for and the justice of God become one.