This is a strange story to say the least. Terrible things happen to Job because God gets in argument with Satan. Satan here is a member of the heavenly council, not the symbol of evil we come to know later in the New Testament. With God’s permission Satan inflicts great disaster.
In most of the Old Testament God was believed to be the cause of both good and evil. For example, Amos who prophesied in the first half of the eighth century B.C.E. asks: Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?” And the implied response is: Well, of course God has done it. God brings blessing and God brings disaster. That’s what God does.
Satan says to God: “Have you not put a fence around Job and his house and all that he has?” This is why he is staying the course, suggests Satan. So God decides to let Satan go after Job to prove Satan wrong.
I hope you understand that this story is fiction. Scholars would call this sacred myth. It is a kind of extended parable. Job is actually a form of protest literature. There is a sense here where the whole quid pro quo tit-for-tat system of meritocracy is being challenged. In Job this whole idea of God sending blessings and curses is being subverted. Job calls into question conventional understandings of God’s relationship to human suffering.
This is, by the way, the beauty and power of scripture. Our sacred texts bear witness to an ongoing lively debate about what constitutes God’s will. Our scriptures reflect the constant struggle by people of faith to discern God’s way and will in the world.
In my little book Being a Progressive Christian I tell the story of receiving an e-mail from a representative of SONday Distributors. The company had a special deal going on for churches. For just ten dollars each (regular forty dollar value) we could get a shipment of ANSWER Bibles. Their goal, she wrote, was “to plant an answer Bible in 10,000 homes, organizations, and establishments in communities across America.”
Of course, you can imagine the answers that are given in the answer Bible can’t you? The answers no doubt reflect the doctrinal beliefs and assumptions of those who produced it. So what they believed would have determined the questions
Normally I would just click “delete,” but for some reason I couldn’t resist having some fun. So I responded: “No thanks, Paula (not her real name; I’m protecting the guilty). I’ve heard enough ANSWERS in my day, but if you ever get a Bible that invites people to ask the hard QUESTIONS let me know.” She didn’t care much for that response and let me know she didn’t care. She warned me that I was living dangerously. God might just zap me for my irreverence and she closed with: “I say this with the love of Jesus in me.”
What I have discovered is that those of us who go looking for answers in the Bible tend to find the answers we are looking for. Isn’t that true? We already have the answers, which we have acquired from parents, church, family, friends – all related to the particular way we were socialized into our particular religious context. We use the Bible to support what we already believe. We all do this – we all project the answers we want to find into the biblical text. I do it too. Maybe the most important question is: What do we want to find? Because that question actually gives us some indication where we are on our spiritual journey. It tells us something about our level of spiritual maturity.
If we approach the Bible honestly and openly then the Bible will raise a lot more questions than it ever answers and one of the great questions the book of Job raises relates to unjust suffering. Here the question is: Why be faithful when it seems that God is against us?
Terrible things happen to Job. He loses everything, his family, land, money. After the first go-around he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Keep in mind that Job was operating out of a theological framework where God controlled and micromanaged everything, where God was responsible for everything.
After the second go-around when Job loses his health and has soars break out all over his body he still says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Again, notice the theology of reward and retribution. God brings good and bad. But still Job is faithful.
But all of this raises the question: Why Job? Why be faithful to God when all hell breaks loose? Why remain loyal to God when God doesn’t seem to be holding up God’s part of the bargain? Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die.
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape letters a senior devil whose name is Screwtape offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, whose assignment is to undo the faith of a recently converted Christian. Screwtape tells Wormwood that God wants to fill the universe with creatures who reflect God’s own life. But God cannot force the process.
He tells Wormwood that God cannot override human will, that God cannot work with indisputable or irresistible power, for God wants creatures who become like God on their own free will. And then Screwtape offers this warning, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of God seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” Why would one continue to obey God when by all appearances God is not being fair? Job was asking: Why is God against me? For many of us the question is: Is there really a God?
So let’s thing about this. What would keep you going? Why would a person want to keep doing what is right and good and loving who feels forsaken by God and questions the very existence of God? Why be faithful to God when every trace of God seems to have disappeared. I can’t answer that question for you. But what I can do is share with you why I think I might want to keep going.
Two things, I think. First, I would like to think that no matter what would happen I would still be able to trust my inner experience of God in my deepest self. Or perhaps if I couldn’t trust my inner experience of God at the moment, I could at least trust the memory of past experiences of God. Now, this is not anything I can explain or defend rationally because it’s my experience.
A good analogy can be drawn from the movie Contact. If you have never seen the movie I highly recommend it, because it raises questions about what is real and how do we know what is real. Dr. Arroway, played by Jodi Foster has this amazing experience but all the outward, external evidence suggests that nothing happened at all. Almost all the evidence suggests that nothing happened. But she has her experience that tells her differently. So she appeals to the committee appointed to investigate what happened to her to accept her testimony on faith. The irony is that faith, prior to her experience, was something she had always been extremely critical and dismissive of. But she knows what she experienced. I know what I have experienced. It’s not possible for you or anyone else to know my experience. But these experiences of God are open to all of us, and they are all unique experiences.
The New Testament is full of this sort of thing. For example, in his letter to the Romans Paul talks about how the Spirit (capital S) bears witness with the human spirit that we are children of God. Paul is talking about an inner experience of God that affirms who we are. Can I or anyone prove this? No. One has to have the inner experience to know it. Until you have the experience all one has is the testimony of someone else who has had the experience.
The writer of 1 John says, “By this we know that we abide in God and God abides in us because God has given us of his Spirit.” In other words, I know because I know. I know that I am in God and God is in me because I have experienced God. So the question is: How much can I trust this inner experience? I suspect that much of what Jesus taught about the character of God he discerned through his own inner, personal experience of God, which brings me to the second reason.
The second reason I would like to think and hope that I would be faithful when all outward traces of God disappear is because of what I have come to see in Jesus of Nazareth. This is a more rational kind of experience than simply an inner-mystical experience, but it is still somewhat subjective. It is still rooted in personal experience.
I have invested a lifetime in the study of the Gospels and have come to the firm conviction that if any human life best reflects what God is like and what God intends for human beings it is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the stories about Jesus and in the stories Jesus told, in the stories of Jesus’ life and work in the Gospels, I have come to know/experience God. There is something that rings true about what he taught about God and the way he lived for God and God’s cause, and the way in which he embodied the wisdom of God.
But once again, I can’t prove that Jesus reveals the character of God. I can commend the life and teachings of Jesus to you as a source of wisdom, grace, and truth. But you have to encounter this reality for yourselves.
I resonate with the twelve in John 6. Jesus taught the broader group of his followers some very difficult things, which was very hard for them to accept. In fact, it was too hard for many of them. So they defected, they decided they didn’t want to be followers any more. After most of them left, Jesus then turns to the twelve and says, “Do you want to leave too?” And they say, “Where would we go. You have the words of life – your words are true, honest, and real. You are the most authentic person we have ever encountered. We trust you. So where else would we go?”
I would hope that no matter what happened I would be able to say that too. Where else could I go to discover what a full, authentic human life looks like? Surely if there ever was a life that embodied the character of God it is the life of Jesus of Nazareth? Obviously I can’t say for sure, but I hope that I would continue to follow Jesus even if all hell broke loose. I hope that I would be able to trust my inner experience of God and the life of Jesus as God’s revelation of God’s will and way no matter what would happen.
Now, you have to ask yourself: Would I be faithful if all hell broke loose? If I became a modern day Job would I still keep doing what is right and just and fair and good?
O God, there is so much we don’t know. We don’t know how we would respond if we underwent a series of devastating blows to our family and fortune. We don’t know how we would respond if all traces of you seemed to disappear. But we hope that we would be faithful. We hope that we would still cling to your love and goodness. May our participation in this table now affirm that hope. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen