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From the archive: Job’s Story: God’s Purpose in Inexplicable Suffering

During these unprecedented times, the outline of Job’s experience in the Bible feels increasingly relevant to Christians across the country. We’ve looked back through our archive to find wisdom on the book from Eric Ortlund.

‍Having recorded videos recently about Job on Youtube, Eric Ortlund gives an overview of this challenging and encouraging book:

Why is the book of Job in the canon? It can be easy to assume that God gave us this lengthy and difficult book only as a resource on the rare occasions when our lives aren’t going very well. Having taught and preached the book in a variety of contexts, however, it seems to me more likely that God gave us this book because Job’s experience is so common. You don’t have to talk to very many people in church before you see the outlines of Job’s ordeal in another Christian’s story: God allows some terrible loss, which cannot be explained in relation to some sin in that Christian’s life or God’s work of sanctifying them as a Christian. And with tears in their eyes, you are faced with the terrible question: why did God allow this? Why does God allow some who live out their faith most beautifully to suffer so nightmarishly?

Job’s nightmare unfolds in the early chapters of the book with deceptive simplicity. Almost the first thing we learn about him is his extraordinary piety: the three phrases in 1:1 are an OT way of describing Job’s complete integrity with God. (This does not mean Job never sinned [see 31:33-34], only that he consistently confessed and repented of his sins.) As a result, Job has what is, in an OT framework, a picture-perfect existence (v. 2-4). As far back in the OT as Deuteronomy, God insists that obedience to him will not go unrewarded; Job is the ultimate example of this.

Unbeknownst to Job, however, he is the subject of an unfortunate conversation in God’s throne room. As God’s various divine servants give reports to their sovereign, the Accuser also reports back to the Lord (v. 6), at first evasively (v. 7), then viciously attacking God’s favourite servant as an utter hypocrite (v. 9). This accusation is, of course, both unfair and untrue—unfair because, when the Accuser cannot find any flaw in Job’s walk with God, he turns Job’s integrity itself into a problem; and untrue, because we are already assured of Job’s love for God in v. 1. God sees this as clearly as the narrator, repeating Job’s spiritual qualities (compare v. 1 with v. 8) and even adding “there is no-one like him in all the earth.” Since this is a phrase only rarely used for human beings and more often applied to God (e.g., Ps 86:8-9, Jer 10:6-7), this is high praise indeed! 

And yet, baseless as it might be, the Accuser’s question lingers: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” The implied answer is obviously “no:” Job only says he loves you (so the Accuser implies), but what he really loves are the secondary blessings you give. Take those away and you’ll see how he really feels about you. Job is, in other words, a “gold digger,” mouthing empty pieties just to hold on to his picture-perfect life.

We are only nine verses into this long and complex book, but already we are near its heart. The issue here is whether a human can have a relationship with God for God’s sake, with any other secondary benefit remaining secondary and dispensable. Will we enter into a relationship with God where all we gain from it is God? Or are we too selfish? Is all our piety just for show?

This question makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t benefit from my relationship with God in ways identical to a member of the old covenant, but I do benefit from being a Christian in ways secondary to the forgiveness of my sins and eternal life. I never could have married and started a family unless God’s grace had been at work in me for decades prior to meeting my wife. But if God allowed the loss of one of my children, what would be revealed about the quality of my love for God? When I next went to church, without suppressing my grief (cf. 1:20), would I still worship God for his own sake, and because he still promises himself to me in deepest intimacy? Or would it be revealed that my Christianity was just for show—that I was treating God like a business partner, a means to some other end? Thomas Merton put it this way: “[I]f we love God for something less than himself, we cherish a desire that can fail us. We run the risk of hating Him if we do not get what we hope for.” (1)

God could, of course, simply rebuke these accusations (as he does in Zech 3:2). Instead he allows a terrible ordeal in which Job loses every secondary blessing and has every earthly reason to give up on God. I think we begin to see why: there is a sense in which God has to all these temporary experiences of extreme, inexplicable suffering, because it is the only way to prove the reality of the relationship. After all, a relationship with God in which every secondary blessing remains secondary is the only kind of relationship which will save you. Otherwise, we’ll be bored in heaven, when all earthly blessings have passed away. God allows extreme, inexplicable suffering in order to push us into the kind of relationship with him that will actually save our souls. Some affirmations (“I love you best of all, Lord!”) simply cannot remain theoretical forever. 

Even more, when Job makes his tear-stained, beautiful confession in 1:21, blessing God’s name just as sincerely when God takes away as when he gives, he does more than just prove his love for God. He seals himself in it. Job’s confession is similar in significance to wedding vows, which do more than express inner emotion, for most lovers affirm the equivalent of “in sickness and in health” to each other many times before saying so during their marriage ceremony. Rather, the wedding vows seal and objectively externalize the relationship in a way which no other private declaration of love can. Job’s confession does the same. When he blesses God’s name in the midst of terrible loss instead of cursing, Job “receives the outcome of his faith” (1 Pet 1:9) and sees God as God in a whole new way. He is able to receive God in all of God’s fullness in a way he couldn’t before. Almost the last thing Job says is, “Now my eyes see you” (42:5)—Job is simply caught up with the all-surpassing worth of knowing God (Phil 3:8), and receives the object of his confession, God and more of God, in that state where “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And so the question of “Why?,” which Job asked so plaintively, which has echoed in the mouths of so many Christians who have read their own story in Job’s, receives the terrible and blessed answer: God is actually about saving our souls and giving himself to us. Job’s suffering has nothing to do with some hidden sin or with growing him as a believer, for Job is already a mature believer. It has only to do with God communicating himself to Job in a way almost too profound for words.

The wordplay between “bless” and “curse” in Job 1 was hinted at above: although the Accuser predicts Job will curse (v. 11), Job does the opposite (v. 21). A poignant and precious truth is discernible here. Sometimes God allows terrible evil to touch our lives, and the Devil’s intention is to destroy our relationship with God so that we’ll (terrifyingly) belong to him. But in God’s grace, this evil produces exactly the opposite of what it intends—it drives Job deeper into God instead of away from him. And as God enables us to echo Job’s costly confession from v. 21, we too receive the outcome of our faith, just as Job did, and our eyes see what our mouths can hardly find words to express. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear …”

(1). Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, (reprint; San Diego: Harvest, 1985), 18.

Written by Eric Ortlund

Originally published in Commentary, October 2019


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