When bad things happen to good people - Job 1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It was just over 70 years ago that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet Army in 1945. One of those discovered half starved to death was a 15 year old Hungarian Jewish boy named Elie Wiesel. He, his mother and sister were separated at the camp, and would not see each other again. He wrote: ‘Never shall I forget that night the first night of the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke, never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Some talked of God, of his mysterious ways, of the sins of the Jewish people, and of their future deliverance. But I ceased to pray. How I sympathised with Job! I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.’
‘Behind the cry ‘Where is God?’ is the deeper cry of Wiesel, ‘Where is God’s justice? Why doesn’t he do something? Surely if he is all powerful he can and if he is all good he will, so why the delay?’ Of course, some would argue that this is the price we have to pay for what is called ‘free will’, we can choose to do good or evil and innocents invariably get caught up as collateral damage when evil is chosen. But others would say that if that is the case the price for such ‘free will’ is way too high- 6 million Jews in the gas chambers, 60 million killed in World War Two.
But what of situations which don’t involve the action of other human beings, but creation gone wrong as was the case with another Jewish believer, Rabbi Harold Kushner. His son, Aaron, had been diagnosed with a rapid ageing- disease, becoming like an old man of eighty, and so he writes: ‘I believed that I was following God’s ways and doing his work. How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if he was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could he do this to me? And even if I could persuade myself that I deserved this punishment for some sin of neglect or pride that I was not aware of, what grounds did Aaron have to suffer?’
Perhaps of all the books in the Bible associated with the question of senseless suffering it is the book of Job. It is a book which doesn’t deal primarily with the ‘why’ question of the origins of evil and suffering, (although we are given some insights into this) but deals more with the practical ‘how’ questions, that is, how are we to think and speak of God when we suffer? How can we face up to the fact that we live in a broken, fallen world which means that no matter how good we are, things are going to cross our path which will hurt us and those we love?
This book is part of what is called ‘wisdom literature’, and wisdom is all about how to live life and negotiate its challenges wisely, including the challenge of enduring intolerable pain. This is the main purpose of the book of Job to help us to know why we can trust God who knows why even when we don’t.
It is no accident that the book focuses on an individual- Job, because that is how we have to deal with suffering as an individual experience. It is also deliberate that after the prologue setting the scene in chapters 1 and 2 which is written in Hebrew prose equivalent to that written by a thirteen year old, it is followed by 40 or so chapters of the most sublime poetic writing, equivalent to Shakespeare and then reverts back again in the last chapter. This may be because while as we experience suffering it is at the level of every day mundane affairs, losing our wealth, our health and family, but when we try to ponder it, it leads us into deep, unchartered waters- like moving from reading a story written by a thirteen year old to reading Shakespeare. What is more, reading the forty odd chapters of Job and his critics going back and forth in accusation and defence can seem interminable but isn’t that just what it is like when you are in the midst of anguished suffering, it just seems to go on and on with no end in sight? It is also significant that with the possible exception of one character, none of the others, including Job, are Jewish so pointing to the fact this is the experience anyone can have.
We are introduced to the main character in verse 1, ‘In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.’ He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.’ Job lives at a time when a person’s wealth was measured not in terms of the size of a person’s bank balance but the size of a person’s herds. This would place him in the period of the Hebrew patriarchs, with men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What is more, we are told that he lived in Uz, which locates the story somewhere between what would today be southern Jordan and south-central Iraq. So he is well beyond the bounds of Israel, nonetheless he fears the God, and the fear of God, we are told in Proverbs, is the beginning of wisdom. Job religious and moral credentials are established as impeccable. Not only is Job great morally but materially with the numbers of children and belongings reflecting Old Testament symbolism of completeness (threes, sevens and tens). We are told he was the greatest man in the East by whichever measure you may care to use.
His deep personal piety showed itself in several ways, not least in his passionate concern for the spiritual well-being of his children. In verses 4-5 we read that just in case his sons and daughters had behaved in a way that might have offended God and brought down his judgement upon them, Job went out of his way to make sacrifices for their sin on their behalf.
But maybe here we begin to see some small flaw in his character, a weakness which needs to be challenged and strengthened which might only come through suffering. Later in chapter 3:25, after everything has been take away from Job we read him saying: ‘What I feared has come upon me: what I dreaded has happened to me.’ Maybe this in part explains why he seemed so obsessive and excessive in offering sacrifices for his children. Deep down Job was plagued with fear and uncertainty about the future. That inspite of his well-ordered and secure existence, life was a little more unpredictable than he dares hope. In which case why not trust God for the future rather than trying to control the future? And isn’t this a challenge we all face, especially those of us who find ourselves on the more anxious side of the anxiety-contentment spectrum with regard to our families. Making proper arrangements for them is one thing, going over the top and worrying about them and trying to run their lives is another. And as our world seems to become more unpredictable being able to trust in the God who holds the future in his hands will become more important for us.
But without doubt on a relative scale of values Job does stand head and shoulders above everyone else as affirmed by God himself in verse 8 -he is blameless in character and upright in action. So, here we have a sincere worshipper of God, an honest hard-working businessman, a loving husband and thoughtful father who is second to none; in fact Job almost appears to be too good to be true. But as we shall see, Job is one of those rare individuals who exist within a class all by themselves; he is a genuinely good man.
So what could go wrong? This is when the scene switches to the unseen heavenly court where an angelic being called the ‘Satan’ comes into God’s presence. The word ‘Satan’ is not a proper name like ‘Bill’, it is a description of the Creature’s role; it is a word which means ‘accuser’ or ‘prosecutor’, we might even say, ‘Challenger’. What we are to note is that the angelic barrister does not accuse Job of doing anything wrong, except maybe having dubious motives for living a godly life; rather it is God who is being harangued for setting up a phony arrangement amongst human beings by blessing righteous behaviour with rewards, and this, the Satan argues, hampers true righteousness. The assumption is that real righteousness involves doing good and honouring God for their own sake, not because of what we might get out of them. Do you see? This is the first charge levelled against God, (1:9–11): ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? . . . Have you not put a hedge around him and his household? You have blessed the work of his hands . . . but stretch out your hand and strike everything he has got and he will curse you’ ‘The only reason why Job behaves as he does’, argues the Satan, ‘is because he knows on which side his bread is buttered. He is religious only because of what he can get out of it. After all, everyone knows that religion is nothing but enlightened self-interest. It’s just a matter of the right carrot and stick with Job. In fact, you can put it all down to his rather fortunate circumstances which you have provided. Anybody can afford to be religious when they have a lifestyle like that!’ The underlying point he is making is that with this kind of arrangement one can never know whether a person is being truly righteous for righteousness’s sake or simply being good in order to enjoy blessings. In short, the Satan is charging God with setting up a flawed system. There is only one way to find out, he argues, and that is to put Job to the test by taking away some of his benefits. God is confident he will pass the test and allows the Satan to do his worst. Well, perhaps not quite his worst, because in the first instance God will not permit Job to be afflicted physically. The Satan can go so far but no further; God still remains sovereign in setting limits. `The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger" ' (verses 11-12).
That is precisely what happens. In what has all the ingredients of a screaming nightmare, Job's life is totally wasted.
The first thing to disintegrate is Job’s financial empire: raiders attack his oxen, donkeys and camels, carrying them off and killing his servants. Then the fire of God falls from the sky and burns up the sheep and the servants (1:14–17). This is an economic disaster of epic proportions. But even that catastrophe is nothing compared to the devastating news which comes hard on its heels: Job’s children were all in one house when a storm blew in and took them with it (1:18–19).
How would we have responded to all of that? Just listen to Job's response: ‘At this Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head [signs of intense grief and mourning]. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: `Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.' Then we read: `In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (verses 20-22). Incredible!
Now we may think that that would be enough for any man to bear. But God apparently thinks not. As the veil is lifted once more in chapter 2, we find ourselves in the heavenly court yet again, only to discover the wager being taken one stage further. The Satan, still not convinced that there is not a base ulterior motive for Job's faith, pursues his challenge in verses 4-5: `Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones and he will surely curse you to your face.' In other words, `Get under Job's skin, God and let him feel some physical suffering; let him think that his own life is being threatened and then watch him reveal his true colours- that he is only out for himself.'
So, Job is afflicted with boils of such excruciating pain that his wife, finding it unbearable to watch, urges Job to commit voluntary euthanasia by cursing God (verse 9). It might well be that the wife’s advice is a faint echo of Eve’s counsel to Adam in the Garden of Eden (and here we have another man Job in his own little garden paradise- or at least it was!). In both stories the woman’s advice follows the accuser and leads towards death. But note Job’s response, unlike Adam, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.’
Job is so despairing and disfigured that when his friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar arrive to console him, they hardly recognise him as the same man and break down in uncontrollable weeping, (2:11-13). This was a man undergoing suffering alright, a suffering which is heightened, not lessened, by his faith in God. For if he had not believed in God it would have been some cold comfort to know that it was all a result of blind chance with no-one to blame. But to believe in God, and a good and all powerful God at that, seems to fly in the face of his present experience. How could such a God allow this to happen? If God has set up his world in terms of cause and effect in the physical realm, with a parallel system of cause and effect in the spiritual realm- good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, how do you explain what is happening to Job who is one of the good people? That is Job’s troubling question. Of course that raises the further question as to whether God does operate this kind of ‘tit for tat’ system which some Christians today think he does or at least should.
So the great man is reduced by great suffering to a whimpering, pitiful, but still believing wreck as he crawls onto the ash heap to die, wishing he had never been born, chapter 3:11, ‘Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed?’
One of the main lessons we must learn if we are going to cope with suffering is to realise there is an irreducible element of mystery in all suffering. Job cried out: `Why?’ `Why didn't I perish at birth?’ `Why is light given to those in misery?' And yet Job is never given the answers. Although we as readers are allowed to have insight into what is going on in heaven, Job is not. He is never made aware of the discussion between God and Satan. Now this is important, because one of the main themes of this book is the need to trust God in situations when we do not know why certain things are happening. But let it be said that this faith is not blind faith. Job knew about God, he had reasons to believe that God is all powerful and all good, and he is reminded of these things later when he encounters God in chapters 38-42. Therefore, although Job didn’t know why these things were happening to him, he did know enough of God to know why he trusted him who did know why. Now as we shall see, one of the means God uses for us to get to know him better is through trails and difficulties. But unless we take every opportunity of getting to know God in the calm- being at church, small groups, praying, then we will not fare well in the storm.
And knowing enough about God who does know all the answers while we don’t is crucial in enabling us to endure what St John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul.’
So let me tell you about someone who discovered this for himself as related by Professor D. A. Carson. It concerns a young man who was a 6 foot skinny something who worked in Latin America for about 15 years as an effective church planter and trainer of others. He met his wife over there, a daughter of a missionary family and they had a little girl together. The missionary agency wanted this man to get a PhD so he could be more effective in training and so he embarked on a course at TEDS where Don Carson is a professor. Six months into the course his wife was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She underwent the usual treatment- mastectomy, chemotherapy- fighting for her life but she came through it all and for a while it looked as if she was cured. He started up his studies again. 6 months later he was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. The local hospitals which were good ones said there was nothing they could do for him. The mission board eventually sent him to the Mayo clinic who suggested a course of treatment which involved taking out 90% of his stomach and supplying him with drugs which were normally used for colon cancer. 6 months later, skinnier than ever, eating about ten times a day, he resumed his studies. He did another six months and his wife’s cancer came back- and she died. Eventually he came back to Trinity and finished his PhD. The last time Dr Carson saw him, his daughter was nine and a half, they were getting ready to go back to Latin America and he addressed the church Don attends. As he spoke that Sunday morning for about half an hour- all he talked about was the goodness of God. How could he do that? Because, he knew the God who knew why in Jesus, a personal knowledge built up over years of getting close to God and serving God. There are no short cuts.
, 3:11, ‘Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest with kings and counsellors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins, with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver.’
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