The book of Job used to keep me up at night. When I first read it carefully, it shattered many of my preconceived notions of who God is and what the Bible is.
Wasn’t the Bible supposed to offer consistent moral guidance for believers? Wasn’t God supposed to protect those who followed Him? That’s what I believed, so I was baffled that God allows the satan to torment the “blameless and upright” Job. He suffers terribly precisely because he followed God! Furthermore, this man who is supposed to be “blameless and upright” makes proclamations that would get him kicked out of Sunday school. He declares, “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (7:11). Complaining in bitterness didn’t strike me as a Christian value. More shockingly, Job references scripture not for moral guidance but to mock it: afflicted and bereaved he sardonically asks God, “What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? And that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?” (7:17), echoing Psalms 8: “what is man that you are mindful of him?” Also, aren’t we taught to long for God’s presence in our lives? But Job asks the Almighty, “How long wilt thou not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle?” (7:19). In the depths of his despair, he doesn’t call out to his heavenly Father for comfort. Instead, he says, “corruption, thou art my father” (17:14). In my conception of God and the Christian faith, Job was a man God should strike down with a thunderbolt. But God honors him.
I had a choice to make. Would I sweep all these questions under the rug in my mind and continue believing what I always believed? That would have been easy. Or, like Job with his suffering, would I stare my questions in the face and sacrifice sleep? Since I believed there to be something true about the Bible -- although I didn’t quite know what that meant -- I decided to be like Job. Here, I will share with you four things that resulted from that decision.
1. God values honesty because it leads to wisdom. In contrast to Job’s near blasphemies, his comforters offer tired and trite counsel, none of which jibed with Job’s experience or his own understanding of God. The comforters looked for a reason for Job’s suffering instead of empathizing with Job. If they had, they might have concluded that Job’s suffering was beyond human reason. Even though they had good intentions, they did not “speak of [God] the thing which is right.” The fact that God admonishes the friends and honors Job reveals that God is not threatened by our questions, our complaints, or our incorrect theology, if they come from a place of honesty. At the heart of Job’s angry and impious speech is his asking “where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” (28:12). Wisdom can only be found if we begin being honest with our doubts and anger and frustrations. God can only work in and through us if we are honest with ourselves. If we speak honestly, we listen honestly. If we listen honestly, we grow and learn to live honestly.
2. Above all, repent!. As we’ve seen, Job says some outrageous things, things which God calls “words without knowledge.” But this does not disqualify him from receiving God’s blessing. Following God is not just about “right thoughts” or “right theology,” which are certainly important but never sufficient on their own for honoring God because we can never have perfect knowledge of God. What matters most is right living, which Job demonstrates in his act of repentance at the end of the book. After hearing God’s voice from the whirlwind, he declares, “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not...wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3-6). All that Job had said before is not held against him in this act of repentance. He accepts the painful and beautiful truth that God is God and man is not. And he finds wisdom: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28) But he never would have reached this conclusion had he not wrestled honestly with his suffering and his anger with God.
3. The Bible is not about moral guidance. As a kid, I learned the Bible was our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. But this acronym is simply not true. The book of Job makes that painfully clear. If we approach the Bible expecting basic instructions, we will be confused and frustrated when we actually read the Bible. And we will have no use for the book of Job. The Bible is the revelation of God’s character and plan of redemption, which reaches its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Certainly, this revelation imparts some instruction for our lives, but those instructions are only properly biblical once we put them in the context of the bigger picture. Taking Job seriously taught me that studying the Bible is more akin to reading literature than an instruction manual. When we spend time meditating on the truths of the Bible’s revelation, our hearts and minds transform and our behaviour follows.
4. The Christian life is one of suffering. Job was the most upright man alive, and he was allowed to suffer precisely because of that. There is a clear message throughout scripture: godliness does not lead to comfort. We live in a world hostile to God. Our own hearts are naturally hostile to God. So choosing to follow Him is guaranteed to bring us suffering. This truth is at the center of scripture when Jesus Christ takes on the suffering of the world when he dies on the cross. Freely choosing to be murdered by his enemies instead of killing them, Christ reveals God’s unconditional, self-giving love for us. Many ask why God would allow innocent people to suffer. And many have turned to Job to help answer the riddle of meaningless suffering. The question, though, is nullified in the fact that God identifies and takes on that suffering himself in the flesh. We are commanded to emulate Christ in this way. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus says. So life in Christ means we too need to accept suffering for the gospel. We too need to say NO to our own desires and YES to God’s. We too need to so love the world that we would be willing to die for our enemies. And like Job, we too need to seek wisdom, and suffer, and repent.