The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering

Suffering, and questions about why God allows it, are the main thing Job and his friends talk about through the majority of the Bible book that bears Job’s name. We often say that it is a book about suffering. Since reading Philip Yancey’s book The Bible Jesus Readhowever, I’ve realized Job’s story is actually about a whole lot more than suffering.

Yancey says that if you’d asked him what Job was about, he would have once said, “It’s the Bible’s most comprehensive look at the problem of pain and suffering” (p. 46). But then he took a closer look. Job asks all the questions we want God to answer about suffering, but then the book points us to a completely different way of looking at the problem.

The Stage Is Set

The book of Job begins by setting the stage for a dramatic story. We’re introduced to Job, a man who “was blameless and upright, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, quotes from WEB translation unless otherwise noted). He had ten children and exceedingly great wealth, as we’d expect such a good man to have in light of God’s promises to bless those who follow Him. And then something happened.

Unbeknownst to Job, he becomes the central figure in a wager between Yahweh (God’s proper name, see Ex. 3:14-15) and Satan (which means adversary). The “god of this world,” who actively opposes all Yahweh’s plans, comes before Yahweh and issues a challenge in response to a question.

Yahweh said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant, Job? For there is no one like him in the earth, a blameless and an upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil.”

Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t you made a hedge around him, and around his house, and around all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will renounce you to your face.” (Job 1:8-11)

God holds up Job as an example of a faithful person. Satan challenges that Job only follows God because he gets something out of it. This begins what Yancey calls “a cosmic drama in heaven — the contest over Job’s faith” (p. 49). Satan has attacked God’s character, alleging that He basically bribes people to follow Him. God gives Job the opportunity to prove otherwise (p. 52).

The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering |
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To Trust, Or Not To Trust?

Job doesn’t know any of this behind-the-scenes stuff. We know why he is suffering — the only mystery for us is how Job will respond, and possibly an embarrassed questioning of whether or not God “should” set Job up like this. And it happens not just once, but twice. Job passed the first test. Satan took all his wealth and his children, “yet in all this Job did not sin, nor charge God with wrong doing” (Job 1:22). Seeing this, Satan shoots back another allegation.

Satan answered Yahweh, and said, “Skin for skin. Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will renounce you to your face.” (Job 2:4-5)

God is not on trial here. He really doesn’t have to prove Himself, but He chooses to do something that’s really quite mind-boggling.

“The view behind the curtain in chapters 1-2 reveals that Job was being exalted, not spurned. God was letting his own reputation ride on the response of a single human being. … Job convinces me that God cares more about our faith than our pleasure (Yancey, p. 63)

The central question of Job is not about suffering. It is, “Will a human being trust a sovereign, invisible God even when everything around him confutes that trust?” (p. 61). This is a very different way of looking at Job than I had ever considered before.  It also offers a very different way of looking at the question of suffering in the world around us and our own lives.

The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering |
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The Lord’s Reputation

Setting aside for the moment the problem of Job’s suffering, it’s an incredible thing to realize that God entrusts His reputation to human beings. He puts His name on his people (Num. 6:27), and in Hebrew thought, a person’s name had to do with their character, reputation, and honor. When God says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Ex. 20:7, KJV), it includes a command not to misuse His reputation. We actually carry God’s reputation with us when we’re His people, and we are not to do so in a vain or empty manner.

How many people would you trust to defend your reputation and stay loyal to you if their whole world crashed down around them and the people closest to them said it was all your fault? Oh, those people also said you were right to punish this person — they must have done something wrong — but you’re the one who took away their blessings and gave them suffering.

Essentially, this is what’s happening here in Job. Behind the scenes, we know that Satan attacked God’s reputation and God trusts Job to prove Satan wrong. But Job’s friends all tell him that suffering happens when you do something wrong and are punished by a just God. They argue back and forth with Job and Job insists on clinging to three paradoxical truths: “Suffering comes from God. God is just. I am innocent” (Yancey, p. 58). He insists, against all odds, in trusting God no matter how crazy it all seems. He refuses to take the Lord’s name in vain either by word or action. He lives by faith now in his suffering as he did in prosperity.

The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering |
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An Answer To Job’s Questions

Job and his friends spend most of this book asking the same sorts of questions we ask today. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow suffering? Is it alright to question God? Where is He when you need answers? Is God a cosmic sadist? How would He defend Himself against our allegations?

Astonishingly, God personally shows up to answer Job. But He does not actually answer the questions Job asked. He does something else.

Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man, for I will question you, then you answer me! … Will you even annul my judgment? Will you condemn me, that you may be justified?” (Job 38:1-3; 40:8)

The full record of God’s response is found in chapters 38-42. Summarizing it, Yancey boils down this beautiful, poetic speech to this message: “Until you know a little more about running the physical universe, Job, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe. … God criticizes Job for only one thing, his limited point of view” (p.61-62). Instead of answering Job’s questions about suffering, God shows up personally. He reveals Himself and His perspective, and that is enough for Job.

Job’s Answer

The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering |
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Then Job answered Yahweh, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be restrained. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ therefore I have uttered that which I didn’t understand, things too wonderful for me, which I didn’t know. You said, ‘Listen, now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will answer me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

Job’s character holds up. He passed the test and proved Satan wrong. And beyond that, he gains a deeper faith and a fuller understanding of God. Job’s friends were scandalized by Job’s audacity in questioning God, but God doesn’t condemn his doubt, despair, or outbursts — just his ignorance. It was the overly-pious, self-assured friends who were ordered to seek repentance for, says God, “you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8).

One man’s faith made a cosmic difference. And Job learned that the “why?” of suffering is not nearly so important as the question, “To what end?” (Yancey, p. 71). We don’t actually need to know everything; not when we can see God’s power and care, and know that He is working behind the scenes in ways we can’t fully know. Not all suffering is a result of a dramatic, cosmic wager but Job’s story reveals that there are many more aspects to what’s going on in our lives than simply what is visible on the surface.

We can lament our trials and pray for relief, while also trusting that God knows what He is doing. Many times there are things going on that we have no control over or knowledge of, and that’s okay. The sovereign creator God of the whole universe is in charge and He has promised to work things out for the best in the end. We can trust Him. He’s got this and He will help us endure, no matter how confusing or horrible things seem right now.


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