I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid
-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
This year I resolved to spend all of 2018 resting in one book of the Bible. Job has always been the most compelling and confusing book to me, so I decided to camp out there. I had no idea what I was signing myself up for five months ago.
Studying Job is awful. It’s terrifying. It makes me feel like an ax looms over my head ready to fall with a scourge of suffering, while simultaneously making my own weak complaints seem completely insignificant (because they are) in light of the insurmountable, outrageous suffering heaped upon the righteous man of Uz. I want Job to end with a promise that God operates predictably, but five times reading to the end and I keep running against the wall that it does not conclude tidily at all. There is no conveniently packaged god in Job’s conclusion. The author does not tell us we can prevent calamity, or hedge ourselves from loss. There is no promise that God will keep evil from touching us. Job strips from us all our wishes for a comfortable life and crashes through the falseness of #blessed.
The book of Job leaves me feeling raw, like I too have been scraping myself with a shard of pottery. I find myself trying to side with Job’s friends, hoping for a tidy, reasonable world system that allows me to predict my future fate. But Job sits upon an ash heap as a shocking, horrible specter, an innocent, faith-filled sufferer standing against his friends’ (and my) attempts at taming God. Job was chosen as a victim precisely because of his solid faith in the God who is sovereign over all, and that is not reassuring.
In Job’s laments I find my own thoughts echo with him asking, why, God? Job questions God, wrestles with him, pleads with him. As I read I feel like I need to come to God’s defense, no Job, he isn’t cruel, yet simultaneously I think, but are you God? But just as my defenses of God are weaker and weaker, and just as Job’s friends set up all sorts of false and wimpy notions about how the world works, suddenly God shows up for himself. He doesn’t need our defense. He answers definitively for himself. In the poetic answer he provides in response to Job’s questions I recall C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, “he is not tame, but he is good.” God doesn’t condemn Job for his questions, and he doesn’t answer them outright either, but he shows up, and by Job’s response–awed, worshipful silence–that’s enough. God doesn’t present himself neatly, he doesn’t lay out his reasons why he allows the Satan to torture Job (though the author gives us a glimpse into the why at the beginning of the book). God doesn’t apologize. I can almost hear his words to Moses reverberate through each stanza, “I AM”, and it is here we see the profound mystery of God, it both unhinges us, and yet somehow comforts us at the same time.
God is God. If he is, he is worth bowing to, and this is precisely what we see Job do. Job doesn’t bow to God because he gave him great wealth–it’s been stripped away by raiders, or because of his beautiful children–they’ve been snuffed out in a violent storm, or because of his loving wife–she looks upon him in derision, or because of his faithful friends–they’ve accused him of hidden sin and grieved as though he has already died. No, Job worships God, not because of what God has given him, but because of who God is, and as he does so he proves that God was right when he points Job out to the Satan at the beginning of the book. Job worships God because he is God: all powerful, all loving, all holy, all good, Creator and Sustainer of all. And because Job trusts who God is, he looks forward with hope, even in the midst of the most absurd, gut-wrenching suffering, because he trusts in a future Redeemer who will one days set all things right.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold and not another.
My heart faints within me!
Not one inch of this world is outside of God’s hand, and for this Epoch he has allowed evil–on a leash yes, but still running rampant–to cause great suffering. But the suffering and evil of this world are not the last word. God is God, and he has bent down into our tumultuous world and touched us by innocently suffering himself, to a far greater degree than even Job.
As Eliphaz asks, who that was innocent ever perished? (4:7). The Bible places against that question a large eternal cross.
In the book of Job we see an innocent man (not innocent in the sense of sinless, but faith-filled–Job has given sacrifices, he lives righteously by faith in God’s satisfaction in those commanded sacrifices) suffer devastating loss, excruciating physical pain, and loneliness as his friends and wife abandon him, and all of this we know has been allowed by God, orchestrated through Satan’s power in the world. In fact, it is God that points to Job first, he sets Satan’s eye on him, he removes his protection and allows Satan to do what he likes, with the singular rule of keeping him alive. Job knows God’s power and he also trusts God’s goodness, so in the midst of his intense suffering he questions him, he begs for death, and God answers: proclaiming his sovereignty over all created things, including Satan who he allows temporary and limited power in this world. God uses Satan’s evil ultimately, and through a twist accomplishes our good and his glory through Satan’s very attempts to undermine him. Later in the timeline of humanity God answers our cries in the midst of a world still suffering under the weight of evil and the Prince of Darkness, and he answers with himself, bleeding and dying, and then triumphing, but the final triumph we still have yet to see.
Evil still reigns in the world. Wars still rage, storms are still violent, disease still ravages, death still steals our loved ones, and Christians have never been promised that we will be hidden from such ills. This is why as Dustin Shramek states,
Good theology is essential if we are going to suffer well.
The question is not, will we suffer? but will we suffer well?
If our comforts are stolen, our greatest treasures, our dearest loved ones, can we still proclaim Christ is all? Will we adore and worship God because of who he is, faithfully trusting that this world is not our conclusion? Can we remember our purpose?
The great purpose of life is not to stay alive, but to magnify–whether by life or by death–the One who created us and died for us and lives as Lord of all forever, Jesus Christ.
Will we stand in faith even if evil crushes us under foot, knowing that suffering will not have the final word?
The world tells us, like Job’s wife, “curse God and die.” But Job knows that even if all is stripped away, so long as he has his God he has something far greater than anything this life has to offer; we can be assured of this too. The great, untamable, mysterious, Creator God innocently suffered for our sin, continues to suffer with us, and holds us steadfast even in a world that is full of evil. He doesn’t promise it will not touch us, but he does promise he will be with us through it, and that our perseverance is ten-fold worth the reward on the other side.
The normal Christian life is warfare and waiting and being loved and humbled by God, and being justified by God, all in the here and now. But it is the expectation of blessing at the end.
-Christopher Ash, Out of the Storm
We haven’t reached the end of the story. We may not understand the suffering of today, but we can trust the God who reigns over all, who loves us and died for us, and we can trust that the end is so beautiful we can persevere because He is worth it.
God isn’t tidy or predictable, and he certainly isn’t comfortable. But he is true, he is good, and he is for us.
Job is a tough book, but there are some wonderful resources out there to understand it if you’re willing to wrestle with it. I highly recommend the following (and as the year progresses will likely add to this list):
Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job By Christopher Ash
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God By John Piper and others
Job: The Wisdom of the Cross By Christopher Ash
Job: An Interpretive Poem By John Piper