Back in seminary, I was asked to write a paper about how the book of Job helps me understand difficult situations in my life. Honestly, I can’t say that the book of Job has helped me to better understand a difficult situation in my life at all. In fact, the whole point of the book of Job is that human understanding is limited and God will do what God will do, despite our demands, pleas, or need for an explanation. We humans are distinct from the Creator God, we cannot understand Him fully nor can we understand His motives, actions or lack of action in any given situation. As the LORD spoke to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4) God does not answer to us, nor should He. We are merely the creatures, distinct from the Creator and unable to see as He sees.
With all that said, of course the book of Job helps me to deal with difficult situations in my life in a faithful and hopeful way. Like Job, I have behaved in righteous ways. I have been faithful to my family and responsibilities without fail. I have put my family first and met their needs above my own. I have earned the respect of my fellow workers through hard work and honest interactions. I have attended counseling to help me put to rest issues in my life which get in the way of genuine interaction with the life I have today. I serve at church, read the Bible, pray and still….still God allows me to experience frustrations, anxieties, disappointments, etc. Like Job, I have behaved in righteous and appropriate ways. I have served God for much of my life. I have taught others to serve God. Still, life is sometimes a struggle.
Friends tell me various things, like Job’s friends told him. Eliphaz told Job, “Agree with God and be at peace; in this way good will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored, if you remove unrighteousness from your tents….and if the Almighty is your gold and your precious silver, then you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift your face up to God..” (Job 22:21-26) Obviously Job was putting other things before God and if only he would turn from those things, God would again smile on him. Brennan Manning calls this a “health and wealth gospel,” that health and wealth come to the faithful and when they are absent, it is obviously due to sin on the part of the sufferer. If only Job would stop sinning, God would give back his stuff and make his life happy again. The health and wealth gospel is a dangerous message. What of children with cancer? What of those who live in abject poverty? Can we agree that our God delivers health and wealth to the faithful and removes it from those who do not believe as we do? Is that the God of the Scriptures who says, “I am who I am?” Health and wealth come to whom they come to at God’s discretion and we have no knowledge of how or why He comes to those decisions. I have had dear friends, Christian friends, tell me that I didn’t pray enough or trust God enough and that is why I struggle. In this opinion I have brought the troubles in my life upon myself, and it is completely within my power to give up and allow it to be restored. And God whispers to me, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
One of Job’s friends, Elihu, has a lot to say about who God is and what God will do. It is interesting that when God answers Job from the whirlwind, it is just after Elihu has finished a monologue about God’s power and invisibility to us. God does not acknowledge anything Elihu has said and addresses Job directly and vehemently, but it is interesting that Elihu has just finished telling Job about God’s “abundant righteousness” and “awesome majesty,” and then God shows up. Elihu may have just been blowing hot air, but he also may have been performing the introduction for God’s entrance into the story. In my own life situations I have found that often before God Himself shows up with an answer or reprimand, someone in my life speaks a word of introduction for the Lord. In my life recently, it has been the voice of Brennan Manning in his book The Signature of Jesus. In this book, Manning introduces God’s presence relative to my situation time and time again. He writes, “We ask for spiritual growth and Christian maturity, but we don’t really want them-at least not the way God chooses to grant them. For example, if we ask the Lord to make us more prayerful, how does he answer our prayer? By bringing us to our knees in adversity and suffering.” Perhaps this is God’s intention for my growth and maturity. Perhaps, had it been a true story, it would have been His intention for Job’s as well.
Other Christian friends have taken the “curse God and die” approach to counseling me in my situation. They counsel me to leave my call to ministry and go back into the world of business so I can have financial success again and be “comfortable and secure.” So their advice is to get out, walk away and start over again. But with God, I am not sure there is ever a starting over again. Everything is related to everything else and walking out on a commitment, even one that brings pain, is not what Scripture commands. Even when Job’s riches are restored, they are different riches but he is the same man. Job does not get to walk away and start over, he gets new stuff, but he has to continue on from where he is and where he has been. He still suffered the loss of his family and the devastation of his life, that doesn’t magically go away. There is no starting over. There is only perseverance in the face of disappointment and loss. This is the message of a great portion of the Hebrew Scriptures and I believe it is one of the primary lessons in all of Scripture: We persevere because we believe that God is who He says He is. We continue on despite pain and loss and disappointment and grief. We do not stop, we do not look back with sorrow or regret, we keep walking forward in faith that the God who laid the foundations of the earth is the same God who attends to our sadness and who fills us with joy.
There is hope in the book of Job, which comforts me and helps me to carry on in the face of life’s disappointments and regrets. It may have been written as a play to comment on the self-proclaimed wisdom of those in the ancient faith communities, but it comments also on faith in general, particularly that faith really, in the end, is all we have. There is sorrow and grief, sadness and disappointment. There is disease and suffering, poverty and pain. But, there is also hope because God was there when the foundation of the earth was laid, the same God who is here today building me upon that foundation He laid so long ago. He will be who He will be. That can sound intimidating and distant or it can sound comforting and reassuring. I choose comforting and reassuring. The same God who knows the four winds and calls them by name, the same God who placed the stars in the sky and told the oceans where to stop knows me and loves me. That He will allow me to struggle and wrestle with my faith is proof to me that my faith is genuine. A genuine thing can take criticism and denial and remain the same. My faith is genuine because my God is genuine. Job knew it and his story tells the rest of us about genuine faith.