Since last August, I’ve been leading our Sunday School class in a discussion of Job. I didn’t think we’d take it chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse, but we have. My expectations were set by my casual reading of a difficult book. Reading this ancient poem on my own is almost fruitless and fairly boring. It’s much more rewarding to go through it with a reliable guide. Everything I’ve learned has been through Christopher Ash’s commentary, which is just as readable as I had heard (recommending with two links).
Perhaps the difficulty of reading through this long, dialogic poem is the reason so many of us don’t get its central message. We bog down in the long-winded complaints and accusations, coming away only with the idea that God can run over anyone he wants and make it all right again in the end. But the tension point of Job’s argument is one we still miss when trying to apply God’s Word to our own or other people’s lives—that Job is completely innocent.
The first couple chapters present to us a man who is “blameless and upright, who fear[s] God and turn[s] away from evil.” That’s how his character is summarized for us upfront, and God repeats that description (2:3). Job is brought to the point of death “without reason.”
No matter what other questions we have about that, we have one truth to apply to our lives—innocent suffering exists.
Many people naturally believe that just about all suffering has a cause that can be avoided. The pain in our lives can be avoided by the proper regimen of diet, respectable living, and sound thinking. If you find yourself in pain or hardship, you’ve either caused it yourself or God is judging you for something. Seek the Lord, these people will say, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to get out of this trial. Because the trial is unnatural. The trial is not how God intends your normal life. Suffering doesn’t just happen.
But Job tells us it does.
A blameless man, who feared the Lord and led his family in regular sacrifices to avoid sins of the heart (these were around the days of Abraham, well before the Mosaic covenant), was afflicted beyond imagination. His pain was indescribable even before his body was besieged with sores. His friends were men like him, men of high standing and likely considered wise in their communities. They urged him to admit to sins they could not name themselves with any credibility, because they could not believe the Lord would allow a righteous man to suffer. Many times they repeated what Eliphaz introduced in Job 4:7-8,
“Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.”
They said you reap what you sow, and if you’re reaping suffering, you must have sown iniquity. That line is repeated by many believers today, believers who hope to tease out some confession of sin in order to justify a problematic condition. Any sin, any lack of faith, any refusal to follow this believer’s line of thought could be the nail for securing this rationale. Oh, you have lingering bitterness against your brother? You haven’t fully confessed an old sin pattern? You won’t call on the Lord with the expressions of faith I think you should use? That’s the reason you’re messed up. By contrast, if you’re comfortable now, the Lord is blessing your righteousness.
Clinging to this sowing/reaping rationale is a phantom of control, a way to judge others for their failings while resting in your own sense of security, but Job tells us even the righteous may suffer without reason. That raises questions about why God would allow this. I’ll touch on that another time.