If there are just and fair consequences to all our actions, why are there situations in life that just don’t add up? If we see a virtuous person enjoying good health and financial prosperity, fine. But what of the honest people who find themselves poor? And what of the dishonest people who sometimes become rich? What are we to say about situations which seem to defy the idea of a just universe?
These questions have been asked for a long time. The classic and extended biblical discussion of this issue is the book of Job, named for its main character. The story begins with Job losing all his worldly possessions. Not only that, all of his ten children perished in a catastrophe. Not long after, Job himself was afflicted with “sore boils” from head to foot. All this action takes place in the first two chapters. The remaining forty chapters of the book consist of dialogue between Job and his friends wherein they debate the meaning of the catastrophe. At the very end of the story, God intervenes and Job has his fortunes restored, including ten more children. The underlying question throughout the book is “Why do the righteous suffer?” The conclusion does not address the question. Rather, answers are found by thinking through the story and the dialogue.
The popular impression of the man Job in our age – which has been largely formed by second-hand references rather than by people reading the Bible for themselves – is a caricature. He is often viewed as some sort of hapless fellow, mired in unending misfortune. Reading the story in the Bible, however, produces a different portrait.
Job was a righteous man who enjoyed enormous prosperity. The Bible talks about the camels and sheep he owned. Those were the signs of economic prosperity in that part of the ancient world. Today, we’d speak in terms of condos, cars, and credit cards. The point is that he was financially well off. He also enjoyed social prestige, a happy family life, and good health. He lived over a hundred years and the misfortune he endured is estimated to have lasted only about six months. After his suffering, his blessings were restored to him double! Therefore, misfortune didn’t characterize his life. Rather, prosperity did. The book focuses on his brief but intense time of trouble precisely because it made so little sense in the context of the rest of his life.
The story focuses on evil consequences coming to a man who doesn’t deserve them. At first, Job didn’t complain about the adversity. When he lost everything, he merely pointed out that he had come into the world with nothing and would now leave it with nothing. That is, he expected to die soon. Even when the misfortune intensified, he still didn’t complain. He had accepted much prosperity; he felt he ought to accept some adversity without complaint. But when Job didn’t die after losing everything and becoming horribly ill, he began to question what was going on.
Losing everything and dying, however awful it might seem, at least made some sense to him. You enter the world with nothing and acquire, then divest everything and die. But losing everything and living on made no sense at all. He had friends who came to sympathize with him, but they couldn’t see what he was driving at. Since God was just, they figured Job must have done something to bring this situation on himself. Job kept insisting that he hadn’t done anything to cause this. He wasn’t claiming to be sinless, just consistent. If his actions called for the misery that had come upon him, then all his previous blessings had been inappropriate and out-of-place. But if all the previous blessings were appropriate consequences to his behavior, then the current trauma was uncalled for. This was his argument, but his friends never quite got it.
Unbeknownst to Job or his friends, the misfortune heaped on Job was caused by something going on in the larger context. That is, in the spiritual realm, Satan had made certain challenges against Job’s integrity. He insisted that Job was faithful to God only because of the good fortune that it brought Job. Satan’s specific challenge to God was to assert that misfortune would cause Job to change his tune and start cursing God. God accepted the challenge because Job was His friend and, as we’ve learned, the very purpose of human beings is to teach angels what true goodness is. We are told about this larger context in the first two chapters, but Job and his friends seem oblivious to it.
Job’s friends tried to comfort him with their faith in the just nature of God. Their conception of that justice, however, couldn’t allow for Job’s innocence. All Job and his friends could see was the earthly dimension. If God was just, his friends reasoned, Job must be guilty. They thought that since God was just, everything must make sense…to them. Job steadfastly insisted that this calamity wasn’t making sense and that he wasn’t going to accept claims, however pious, that it did. He knew that his behavior had not changed and he was not about to lie and say that it had. Job’s friends finally gave up trying to convince him.
God then challenged Job with a series of questions, all of which pointed to the fact that the explanation Job was looking for was beyond his current ability to understand. That doesn’t mean Job would never understand it – only that he couldn’t at the time. Job rightly inferred from God’s rhetorical questions that he should stop demanding explanations that were beyond him and instead return to his righteous ways.
In the end, God vindicated Job to his friends, saying he was more right than they were. Without a knowledge of the prior conversation and challenge in heaven, there was no way the calamity could make sense to anyone on earth. That’s why Job was right to reject the platitudes of his well-meaning friends. To have accepted such bromides would have been to deny his own integrity and submit to a characterization of his sinfulness about which he had no conviction.
When bad things happen, it’s good to stop and take stock of the situation. Often we may find that our own behavior has invited the trouble. Poor grades in school aren’t random acts of the universe. Maybe we should have studied harder. On the other hand, it’s possible that there isn’t enough data to morally explain what has happened. For example, some people contract sexually transmitted diseases because of their own promiscuous behavior; others contract them innocently through a blood transfusion. The first group can see the consequences of their behavior; the second group can search in vain for a sin just as Job did. This second group must be sure not to make Job’s mistake.
Though Job had done nothing to bring on his calamity, and though he accepted the calamity with dignity and humility we can only admire, he did end up making a mistake he had to repent of before God would restore him. The mistake Job made was that he, while pondering his dilemma and growing more and more discouraged, had ceased to do the things that had made him such a wonderful person in the first place. He had put his life on hold while seeking an answer to a puzzling crisis. Instead of living, he was merely waiting for death, and becoming more and more puzzled about why it didn’t come. The longer the crisis went on, the more wasted his existence became.
I say “wasted” because Job’s puzzlement over his situation began to crowd out concern for those less fortunate than himself, a concern that had previously marked his life. Before, he had always prayed for his children. In the end, Job realized that even though his children had died, he could still pray for his friends. Even though his circumstances were less fortunate than theirs, he could ask God’s favor for them and still be an instrument of blessing in the earth. Once Job got back to living this way, God restored his fortune to him double!
Self-scrutiny is most helpful when it’s practiced regularly, but not to excess. Job got carried away with it, and his friends were unwittingly contributing to his downward spiral of depression. They kept encouraging him to further introspection in the hope of finding the “hidden” sin that had caused all the trouble. When self-examination reaches a point of diminishing returns, it’s time to set the questions aside and get back to living. This isn’t an abandonment of all self-scrutinizing however. People who go to the other extreme of never examining their own lives wreak havoc upon themselves and the rest of us, never stopping to consider that their own behavior has produced the peck of trouble they’re in. Except for his brief “paralysis of prolonged self-analysis,” Job is the perfect model of balanced self-scrutiny.
The book of Job urges us to maintain a faith in justice even when events seem to add up to injustice. The advantage of eternity is that God always has more time to make things right. If someone argues that He should have never let them go wrong in the first place, then that someone is arguing against his or her own existence: human beings are by design free to choose wrong. As we live and learn about consequences, we can continually enlarge the borders of our knowledge. But with each piece of knowledge gained comes the increasing realization that there is so much more we don’t yet know. We must therefore trust that beyond the borders of our knowledge rules the same justice that we find this side of them. Once we get to heaven, this will be confirmed to us.