Job has always been my second favourite book in the Bible (my favourite is Jonah). I have loved it since I recognized what must be the oldest use of sarcasm in recorded human history. “Surely you are the people and wisdom will die with you.” (Job 12:2) Every time I go through the book I learn a number of new things. The last time I was taught out of the book, for example, the pastor told us of how he had asked the question, “Why is the Book of Job so long?”. The answer that occurred to him after prayer and reflection was that when we are suffering everything seems to take a long time. I recently reread the book of Job and wanted to share some thoughts on it.
When I was a younger Christian, I used to jump on the bandwagon and trash talk Job’s friends. “Job’s friends were friends in name only.” I thought. Upon completing my most recent reading of Job I have come to the opposite conclusion. “Wow”, I thought to myself, “those guys were great friends. I would count myself lucky to have such men stand behind me.” I think other people also make the mistake of being too harsh with these men. Let us consider what the story tells us about Job’s friends.
“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him.” (Job 2:11)
Maybe you always go to visit someone who is having a difficult time, but I have to be honest and admit that for many people in my life I have limited my level of comforting to prayers from a distance or a telephone call. These three men heard that their friend was in trouble and they decided to travel to meet him. How long was the journey for them? The Bible doesn’t tell us anything, but we do know that even a distance of only 10 miles would be a difficult journey in those days. You couldn’t just get into a car and drive that distance in 20 minutes, you had to prepare your animals and prepare for an unsafe road. You had to put someone in charge of your affairs because you would have no idea how long you would be gone. These three men show that they are true friends by making a real sacrifice to go and see Job when he is in trouble.
“And when they lifted up their eyes at a distance, and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each one of them tore his robe, and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky.” (Job 2:12)
Their reaction when they see him tells you that they care about him a great deal. The have made a difficult journey to comfort him and when they cannot even recognize him because of his physical disfigurement, they begin to mourn. While other people have been treating Job as accursed, these men continue on even when they see that he is horrible to look upon.
“Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” (Job 2:13)
In his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote about how his friends who tried to cheer him up after the death of his wife Joy accomplished the opposite effect. To Lewis in his time of extreme grief, there were no words that were adequate and those who were the greatest comfort to him were those who didn’t say anything but just stayed with him and shared his grief in silence. Upon seeing Job’s condition, these three men are aware of his great pain and they sit on the ground in the dirt with their friend for seven days joining him in sympathetic silence.
Now the Bible doesn’t say so explicitly, but when I read this passage I believe these men fasted with Job for those seven days. I believe this because it is inconceivable to me that while joining Job in his great suffering in silence, Eliphaz turned to Bildad as he was going to his camel and said, “Hey I am going to get a sandwich. You want something?” The agrarian cycle of that society would have made fasting a regular part of religious observance for these men and the natural way to interpret this passage is that they fasted with Job for seven days in silence.
Now as I consider these basic facts, I appreciate what great friends these men were. How often have you fasted with someone who was going through a tough time for seven days? I have never done this. I would be proud to have demonstrated my loyalty and love for a friend as well as these men did. To judge these men harshly when they were the only ones who were there for him in his darkest hour seems to me to miss the whole point of the story. What is that point? The whole point of Job is to combat the natural human tendency to think that suffering, pain and calamity means that God has abandoned us or does not love us. Job’s friends did not understand this, but even Job himself did not understand it at the beginning of the book. Why else would he want to argue to God that he did not deserve the calamities that he was experiencing?
The Reason for Job’s Suffering
So what was the purpose for which Job suffered all this tremendous loss? Why did he lose everything? Why did he lose his family, his wealth and his health? The simple answer is he lost them because Satan and God got into an argument, but what was God’s purpose in engaging in that argument? I believe that Job himself came to see that purpose when he came face to face with God.
“‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand. Things too wonderful for me which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)
With this verse, I believe that Job came to see the amazing purpose which God had for his suffering. Job has been the most comforting book in the world for people going through extreme difficulty for thousands of years. I was arguing once with a Hindu at UCLA and he said, “Yes we know the book of Job, everyone knows the book of Job.” It has comforted literally millions of people who wanted to question God. “Why is this happening to me? Why did I lose that family member? Why did I lose my job? Why am I having this health issue?” The answer that comes out of Job is not, “You must never ask these questions.” Job asks these questions and is vindicated as the servant of God. The answer that comes out of Job is that an understanding of what God is doing is beyond our capabilities so that trust is ultimately the only rational course of action.
I believe the humility that God is calling for here is essential because without it, God cannot trust us with the ultimate gifts that he has for us. As I have argued in other essays, the paradise that God intends for human beings requires that we freely submit to his commands and judgements even when we do not understand them. If we put our own understanding above God and judge Him who made all things as being deficient when our understanding causes us to disagree with what He has said, then God could never trust us with the kind of authority and blessing which He has promised to His children. The idea that I would say to God, “Okay, God, explain what you are doing so that I can understand it then, if I agree with your reasoning, I will do what you have asked me to do.” is laughable when you think about it. By that standard, for example, God could never have made my body because I do not understand all the complexities of biology.
In learning how to submit to God’s superior knowledge and love, the rubber meets the road when it comes to our own personal suffering. It is all very easy to understand that suffering might be necessary in some kind of detached, clinical, theoretical way, but when we ourselves suffer something that we do not understand this serves as a “reality check” in terms of where our hearts really are. Will we abandon the hope that we have in Jesus Christ? Or will we trust that Paul was right when he said:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)