Christianity faces a strong temptation to say suffering is good and redemptive. This idea is part and parcel of our culture and our religious tradition. I think before beginning any reflection on the book of Job it’s important to state, I don’t believe this is correct. As I start down the “Job” road, I’ll say again there is no intrinsic goodness to suffering, grief, and loss. To try and make our square pain fit the round hole of some divine plan is a task bound to meet in failure and disappointment. If we attempt to understanding human sufferings on the basis of an ancient near eastern fable, a man-made attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people, we will walk away more confused than when we began. Before we begin, we must realize Job is not a real person. If Job is not real, then a wager making Satan and a wager taking God are not real. Three elements of the story are real. Job’s pain, loss, and suffering are real. Secondly, a real question is raised. Is God on our side? Thirdly, there is no value redemptive value in suffering.
Suffering may not be good or redemptive, but it is real and as we see in Job, suffering originates somewhere within God’s identity. Suffering exists within and beyond God. This is what we observe in the opening chapters of Job. Like a 16th century drama, suffering appears as a major, yet unseen character who will define the essence, being, and actions of every character walking across the stage. In the dramatic dance of heavenly figures, where human morality is nothing more than a wager between the cosmic forces of good and evil, Job’s suffering arises in the amoral debate between good and evil.
The possibility of suffering comes from the potential of removing Job’s tangible economic assets and thus causing him to spiritually blame (curse) God for their removal. This is not an abstract discussion. There is a clear belief, on the part of the adversary, that if Job’s possessions are removed, if his quality of life begins to suffer, Job will doubt his allegiance to God. The adversary probably makes this approach because it’s worked numerous times in the past. This tells us that even in the distant an ancient past, people held a belief, “that the more stuff I have, God must really love me more than other people.” His logic is pretty sound here. He’s seen people say this kind of thing. I’ve heard people say these words. If you believe you got your blessings from God and your entire relationship with is a quid pro quo, then by removing the stuff (the tangible blessings) you’ll come to believe the blessings are gone and you’ll have no need for God. I’m going to be with you as long as I get what I need and when you stop getting what you need. Of course you’ll turn on the hand that was doing the feeding. This is the adversary’s basic logic in beginning to test Job.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The adversary’s logic is easy. It’s not the problem. The problem is God. Why would God propose such an outlandish idea in the first place? It’s not the kind of thing one associates with a loving God. The Golden Rule tells us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. How does the Golden Rule apply to the 1st chapter of Job? Make a side bet with Satan on how you can screw up one man’s life and then force us all to use it as a template for suffering for all eternity? I think it’s a fair question. Is it so we can get to the narcissistic speech about creation at the end of the book and have nothing ultimately resolved about why it’s important to show God unnecessarily ruining a man’s life? Again, this is a fair question.
Why would God set Job up with the possibility of failure? Why put Job in a place of unbearable pain? If I could answer that question, I would know why the doors of Auschwitz were opened. I would know why pediatric cancer centers remain full. I would know why madmen fly Germanwings Airbuses into the French Alps. Why would a good God allow an innocent, faithful man from Uz to suffer for no good reason? Yes, it’s the theodicy question. Why does God permit evil and suffering, but more importantly, in Job, how do we understand suffering and pain coming directly from God’s actions? God isn’t just permitting Job’s suffering; it’s essentially God’s idea.
This is the second real question raised by the author of Job. If making humanity suffer is God’s idea, is God on our side? I’m reminded of Psalm 124. Think of how bad things were, even with the Lord on our side. The Psalmist goes on to ask, “Think of how bad they could have been, despite how bad they were, knowing that we had the lord on our side.” For Job and the Psalmist, simply being alive is the only difference “having the Lord on your side” made. The only way you know God was on your side is that you’re alive. Was God not on the side of the people who died in Psalm 124’s battle or Job’s sons and daughters? Is that any different from the bargain the adversary wants to make, the “as long as I got mine I’m on God’s team” deal? In Job, is God on our side?
Job has been misinformed about the nature of God. The God Job thought he was worshipping will turn the circumstances of Job’s suffering into something ultimately wrong with Job. Perhaps this is because God realizes gamble he made with Job’s life was wrong. I would love to see God apologize and make right with Job without the final scenes of passive aggressive rage. It will become clear, much later in the book, that Job can’t appreciate the death of his children or any of his suffering because he didn’t create the Earth. Because he doesn’t have the cosmic context of the creator, his pain is really meaningless. And who brought this on Job in the first place? How hard would it have been for God to say, “I’m sorry, this whole thing was a mess. You’re faithful and we don’t need stupid bets with Satan to make a dumb point in the first place.”
Job forces readers to ask hard questions about the nature of suffering, pain, evil, and what redemptive value can be gained by experiencing such situations. When things go bad, where are we and where is God? If Job is all we have to go on, I hope God and I are in two different places. His is a vicious cycle of death, suffering, and guilt I would hope to avoid.