Seems like since the beginning of the shutdowns and general craziness, we’ve heard a lot of references to Job, suffering, and the feeling of having lost it all. In the context of Job, I don’t believe I personally have seen anyone during this pandemic lose anything close to what Job did. But at least he didn’t have to wear a mask for his ailment. So I feel like I’m right there with him as far as degree of suffering goes. Yes, there’s a big ole tongue in my cheek as I say that.
You all know Job’s story. In a nutshell, Job lost his wealth, his livelihood, his children, his health, and in a less literal sense, his wife, all in a cosmic stand off between God and Satan.
For this devotional, I’d like to focus in on the lesser known characters in the book of Job — lesser known even though their words take up a large chunk of the book. Job’s friends. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. To their credit, they came, they stayed quiet for seven days, they wept with Job, and when they spoke, they said it to Job and not all over town.
So after they’ve been sitting with Job in silence for a week, Job starts talking. “I wish I had never been born.” Imagine that it’s a friend of yours that is suffering, and this friend tells you he wishes he had never been born. What would you tell him?
Eliphaz tells Job:
“Blessed is the one whom God reproves;
therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty.”
Doesn’t sound that bad, does it? It’s a spiritual way of telling Job that the bad things that have happened to him *may* have been his fault. Job replies that yes, his words have been rash, but he has ample cause for rash words. He tells them he can see the fear in their eyes — what if this is a punishment from God? What if Job’s misfortune is catching? And this is such a great word from Job when it comes to being with suffering people:
“Do you think that you can reprove words,
when the speech of a despairing man is wind?”
Eliphaz is tut-tutting Job’s words when Job is in every kind of agony, rather than doing him the kindness of letting some steam off (let alone the kindness of physically taking care of his friend). This is not where I’m heading, but I think it’s worth pointing out that being a good friend means allowing your friends to be free to say things in the fullness of their hearts that they will perhaps later repent of. Bildad replies to Job next:
“If your children have sinned against him,
he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression” (Job 8:4).
“Behold, God will not reject a blameless man,
nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:20).
He's saying look, your children may have (probably) received what they deserved. God’s not in the business of hurting good people!
“He crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get a breath, but fills me with bitterness.
If it is a contest of strength, behold, he is mighty!
If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?
Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me;
though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death
he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
he covers the faces of its judges — if it is not he, who then is it?”
I love this book! There’s so many things we feel when we’re suffering that are not kosher to say. And here Job is, just laying it all out there. And here God is, putting all Job’s words in a book for us to read and shake our heads in amazement at! “God, you destroy the blameless and the wicked together. You mock the calamity of the innocent. You are crushing me without a cause!”
Here’s Zophar’s response:
“You say, My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in God’s eyes.’
But oh, that God would speak and open His lips to you,
and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!
For he is manifold in understanding.
Know then that God exacts less of you than your guilt deserves.
I mean, technically, what’s wrong with this, right? Isn’t it kinda like what we say when we’re asked how we’re doing and we reply “better than I deserve”? If we all deserve hellfire, then what’s wrong with saying that Job’s received less than he deserves? The book goes on like this, with Job continuing to assert that he has done nothing for which God would be just to punish him in such a manner, and with the friends doubling down on their assertions that God is punishing Job justly. At the beginning, they’re hinting around that God may be punishing Job, but as Job continues to tell them he is innocent, they quit with hinting and just say out and out what they were really thinking all along.
Is it for your fear of him that he reproves you
and enters into judgment with you?
Is not your evil abundant?
There is no end to your iniquities.
For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing
and stripped the naked of their clothing.
You have given no water to the weary to drink,
and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
Wow, Eliphaz! Don’t hold back, bro! Tell us what you really think! As I read this, I see these friends saying things that are not right about Job, but at the book’s conclusion, God tells the friends that they have not spoken what is right about Him, as Job has. So if that’s the case, I’ve always wondered, what did they say that was wrong about God?
I think, put simply, what the friends are saying is that God is comprehensible, predictable, and formulaic. That God is good, and therefore, God only does what is easily explained as being good. He rewards good people and punishes bad people. Eliphaz told Job in his reply to Job’s first words:
“Who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?”
Which is to say, if you’re innocent, these kinds of things just don’t happen to you! Check off your boxes of sacrificing for sin, cross the “t” of giving to the poor, dot the “i” of living a righteous life. Et voila! You’re bound to be blessed in your finances, family life, and health. Does that sound familiar? TBN preachers? Follow this formula, send me this money, and God will bless your finances.
This is a very easy trap for all of us to fall into, even as Christians who have immeasurably more information about God than these four men would have had at the time of Job’s story. Even as Christians who would die on the hill of “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” We say “Your ways are higher than our ways, and your thoughts than our thoughts” but do we think that way? Much of the time we act as if we actually can explain what God is doing.
The problem is, God isn’t an iPhone app with neat buttons and progress bars to tell you what’s going on. Mr Beaver gets it right in the Chronicles of Narnia: “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Back to Job’s friends. Let’s be fair to them. Were they wrong to think and believe that God punishes wrongdoing? Absolutely not. See Romans 2:6 - “God will repay each person according to his deeds.” Were they wrong to think that God disciplines his children? No. Hebrews 12:6, right? “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” And let’s continue to be fair to them — if you were to have a friend who in one day lost his wealth because fire fell from heaven, lost his business in a vicious one-hour takeover, lost his children in a tornado, and then who broke out in disgusting sores all over his body and whose marriage was suddenly on the rocks? Well, if you don’t think you’d have some questions about where they stood with God, I think you maybe don’t know yourself very well. That’s Sodom and Gomorrah stuff there! Job’s situation did bear the hallmarks of divine judgement. But Job’s friends went wrong when they assumed that just because some suffering bears God's fingerprints, that therefore the reason for that suffering must be sin, as if God is a God of karma, or this world is fair, or Satan does not abuse those that God loves, or God does not bring suffering for his own divine purposes.
Because, let’s be clear, God does sometimes bring suffering for his own divine purposes. “His own divine purposes,” meaning that you may have absolutely no idea what good any of it is doing. It may seem utterly meaningless. Look at the psalms. Sometimes a psalmist suffers as a result of his sin — “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” (Ps. 41:4) — but often it’s just inexplicable. Listen to this psalmist’s lament: “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14).
As a child of God, when bad things happen to me, I’m with Job — “Make me know my transgression and my sin” (Job 13:23). I think we all need the humility in suffering to ask this, to say “is it I, Lord?” But if God does not show us a sin to repent of, we also need the faith to move on from looking at ourselves, to looking at the sovereignty of a loving, yet sometimes inexplicable God
In the middle of the confrontation with his friends Job says this:
Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
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.
Amazing isn’t it? The God Job thought wasn’t listening, was listening. The God Job thought had stopped caring, was putting Job’s tears in a bottle, one by one (Ps 56:8). Job’s words are inscribed in a book, an eternal book, and the Redeemer that Job had only the vaguest notion of has come, has stood on the earth, has shown the kind of love that God has for us, and at the last, he will stand on the earth again. So whatever mess we are going through may, like Job's, be unexplainable, but it is not unloving or purposeless.
Have I been doing a lot of crying out and “woe is I” complaining over the past year? You betcha. But I feel very at home with David, with Moses, with the other psalmists, with Paul, with Jeremiah, and yes, even with Job. After all my calling out and questioning, here I stand with those many witnesses saying with them “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. I’m going to attempt to stop figuring out the reason for this mess, stop looking at my own weakness and failings, and try to trust the God whose plan is beyond my comprehension.
O for grace to trust Him more!
Miles & Mar