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Born To Trouble, Take Two: Really Bad Orthodoxy

Web posted on July 13, 2014

Sunday Peace

Rev Robert Lyon

( For a short version of the book of Job, click on JOB at )

A pastor speaking on Oakville Christian radio a couple of years ago raised the question: "Why do good people suffer?" His answer: "They don't [pregnant pause] because there are no good people."

That's how Job's friends explained his sufferings to him, too. But the writer of the book of Job knows better. He describes his protagonist as "blameless and upright" (1:1) and God twice uses the same words to confirm that this is so (1:8 and 2:3).

The book of Job, as you'll recall from last week, is not a history but a parable, where the protagonist is the model of a good and godly man facing adversity. Through a combination of natural disasters and marauding neighbors, he loses his livelihood, including thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, and his workforce, as well as his ten adult children. This happens because, unknown to Job, God has accepted a wager about Job's integrity with a malevolent being called The Adversary.

After two chapters we find Job "sitting in the ashes", grieving the deaths of his children, when his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to comfort him. They begin well, sitting with him in compassionate silence for a whole week, until Job tells them how he feels. He says he wishes he'd never been born: "Why did I not die at birth?"

Immediately, knee-jerk orthodoxy kicks in. Eliphaz demands, "Who that was innocent ever perished? [If I were you] I would commit my cause to God. Despise not the discipline of the Almighty" (ch 4,5). After so much loss, Job is close to feeling suicidal; these days we call it post-traumatic stress. What he needs is lots of affirmation and a manly hug. What he gets is a painful harangue about repentance.

Job is not under any illusion of being perfect. He asks God, "Why do you not pardon my iniquity?" (ch 7) He can't figure out what he might have done wrong, but he knows that, whatever it was, what he is now suffering is out of all proportion. As he continues to ask, "Why, God?" his three "comforters" up the ante. Bildad insinuates that Job's children must have sinned and deserved the deaths they got (ch 8). Zophar says Job's suffering was "less than your guilt deserves" (ch 11). And Eliphaz alleges specific sins against the poor, the hungry, the widows, and the fatherless.

The escalation of this verbal assault is so clearly false that we recognize the friends' views as a perverse sort of orthodoxy that is not really orthodox at all. The author knows what motivates it. He makes Bildad say, "Inquire of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out" (ch 8). He makes Eliphaz say, "You are doing away with the fear of God" (ch 15). And Job tells them, "You see my calamity and you are afraid" (ch 6).

Afraid of what? Afraid, rightly, of offending God. But also afraid of ambiguity. Afraid that they cannot acknowledge Job's innocence without raising unanswerable questions about God's justice. Afraid that if they leave the problem of human suffering unanswered, they will be "doing away with the fear of God." Afraid that not having an answer will precipitate a crisis in faith, morals, and religious observance. Far better to condemn a good man despite the evidence.

As the debate concludes, it is clear that Job's friends have no idea why Job (or any of us) suffers such adversity. Then Job hears from young Elihu (ch 32-37), a new character who says he has remained silent until now in deference to his elders. In fact, Elihu may well be a later addition to the story, because God's address to Job (38:1) seems to follow naturally from Job's final statement (31:40), and when God gives verdict for Job and against his friends (42:7), he doesn't seem to know that Elihu was even part of the conversation.

Elihu is a send-up on the know-it-all college student, full of words and itching to be heard (ch 32). He sees himself as "one who is perfect in knowledge" (36:4) but he misses the irony in later referring to God also as "him who is perfect in knowledge (36:16). He promises Job's friends, "I will not answer him with your speeches," but despite some novel ideas, his logic is the same as theirs: Job should be tried to the fullest for falsely protesting his innocence, because God does not pervert justice, therefore his disaster must certainly be a punishment (ch 34).

Though the Elihu monologue may be a later addition, it's surely an inspired addition for it shows that the mystery of suffering eludes both the wisdom of the elders and bright young minds alike. And it shows that both are equally susceptible to simplistic reasoning that defies the facts. The author of Job rejected that kind of reasoning.

Jesus rejected it, too. When asked about some "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (murdered them while at worship), Jesus insisted that they were no worse sinners than anyone else. And in the same way that the story of Job addresses both human evil and natural disaster, so Jesus added that neither were the eighteen people who died when a tower collapsed in the town of Siloam. He also added that such disasters should move us to repentance (Luke 13), but that's another topic for another time.

Meanwhile, Job teaches us that faith does not preclude ambiguity. Rather, as we'll see next week, faith is able to live with ambiguity precisely because it trusts that all ambiguities are resolved in the character of God.

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at

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