The Book of Job and the Problem of Suffering

The Problem of Suffering: Human Innocence vs. God’s Goodness?

The book of Job is a series of dialogues that explore the problem of suffering. Why is suffering, specifically the suffering of the innocent, a problem? The problem of suffering is often understood as a tension amongst three factors: the innocence of the one suffering, the righteousness or goodness of a God who would allow or even cause such suffering, and the all-powerfulness (or sovereignty) of God (this is typically assumed within the definition of “God”). This is the way the problem of suffering is presented by those who use it primarily to discredit the very idea of a God. A just/loving and all-powerful God would not permit the innocent to suffer, because that would contradict one of those two aspects, or as Lex Luthor says in Batman v. Superman, “No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, he cannot be all good. And if he is all good, then he cannot be all-powerful.”

An unfortunate way that conservative Christians sometimes defend God’s goodness in response to this particular presentation of the problem of suffering is by sacrificing the innocence of the sufferer. No human is innocent, they say, so we all deserve to suffer, even in the worst way possible, and even the least guilty among us (the unborn and the newly born) because of inherited guilt. On the other hand, some Christians, uncomfortable with the doctrine of inherited guilt (Ezekiel 18:2-4) but also desirous to defend the righteousness/goodness of God, sacrifice the sovereignty of God: God really wishes he could protect us from suffering, but he cannot for some reason.

Interestingly, all three of these approaches – the dismissal of God’s goodness, the dismissal of human innocence, the dismissal of God’s sovereignty – are sort of mathematical or logical (if two of set ABC, then not the third), because they try to resolve the problem outside of dialogue with God himself, treating God as a mechanism, not a person.

The Book of Job’s Superior Approach

Over against this three factor, mathematical way of resolving the problem of suffering, the book of Job presents a superior approach in several ways.

1) God is Unquestionably Sovereign

First, unlike the second erroneous Christian response mentioned above, at no point does the book of Job question God’s sovereignty. Even the introduction of Satan – or, more accurately, the Satan – in the Narrative Prologue does not call into question God’s absolute sovereignty over all that will happen to Job. In the book of Job, the Satan is a kind of angelic official, an accuser, within God’s royal court (i.e., the sons of God) whose job it appears to be to question the king and the loyalty of his servants. He must receive authorization from God to do whatever he does, meaning it is God’s own decree that causes Job’s sufferings. Moreover, after everything is inflicted on Job, the Satan completely disappears from view. For the book of Job, the Satan himself has nothing to do with the problem of suffering. It is theologically illiterate to defend God by laying the blame for suffering on the Satan, because, again, this sacrifices God’s sovereignty for the sake of his goodness.

2) A Fourth Factor in the Problem of Suffering

Second, the book of Job recognizes that the problem of suffering is better understood as an unresolved tension amongst not three but four factors, the fourth being our assumption that the outworking of God’s righteousness is going to look a particular way (meaning it will be more or less immediate and obvious to the average human intellect). This fourth factor is a kind of assumed or instinctive theology shared by many if not most humans by nature, and it is what is most accurately called retribution theology. The book of Job, unlike the average modern treatment of the problem of suffering, identifies this assumption. and gives it a voice in the form of Job’s three friends.

Again, Job assumes God’s sovereignty, so while we may recognize four factors, the book of Job frames the problem as a triangular tension amongst three factors: the innocence of Job, the righteousness of God, and the retribution theology of Job’s friends (or their assumption that God’s righteousness must necessarily work out in recognizable ways). Job’s sufferings mean that one of these three factors has to give. Job’s friends say that Job’s innocence is what must give, but rather than invoking a doctrine such as inherited guilt, they presume that there must be some hidden sin in Job’s life to justify his suffering. Job is not entirely clear what he thinks must give in this triangular tension, but he finds fault with his friends’ theology at the same time that he often utters sarcastic near-accusations against God. His implicit accusation of unrighteousness on God’s part (which begins when he expresses his desire that he had never been born in chapter 3) is what motivates his friends to begin speaking on God’s behalf.

3) The Role of Dialogue

Third, Job employs dialogue rather than propositional logic as its method of exploring the problem of suffering. Job embodies what I have been saying about the OT’s approach to truth, namely that it is dialectic. Neither Job nor his friends are entirely right, nor are they entirely wrong, though Job is more right – or less wrong – than his friends are. The reason Job is more in the right is very important, and I think it is connected to something that happens only in some of Job’s speeches (never in the friends’ speeches, nor even in Elihu’s speeches) – Job addresses God directly. In each of Job’s speeches from the first series, Job concludes his speech with a section addressed to God in the second person (6:21-7:21; 10:2-22; 13:20-14:22). He also speaks directly to God in a short portion of his concluding statement in 30:20-23. Even more importantly, this occasional shift to addressing God in the second person reflects an overall God-ward trajectory in Job’s speeches. Even as he is speaking accusingly, sarcastically, and bitingly towards God, he is still addressing himself to God. This is why it is so appropriate (even inescapable) that the climax of the book of Job is a dialogue between Job and God himself (and it is a dialogue, even if God is the one doing most of the talking).

In contrast with Job, Job’s friends never address God. They speak hypothetically of God himself answering Job, as when Zophar says in 11:5-6:

But O that God would speak and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.

Job 11:5-6

This is an excellent example of the way Job’s friends say things that sound correct and pious but that are said in a context that makes them somehow false. Zophar’s wish that God would speak seems to imply that he does not actually believe that God will speak to Job, that it is impertinent for Job to demand God answer him, and that Job is lucky God doesn’t just zap him to ash right now. Who are you, Job, to question God? In this way, Job’s friends profess to defend God but strategically keep God out of the conversation. Their theology creates a nice, neat picture of a world where everything functions in an intelligible and reliable way. The irony of their retribution theology, which aims to uphold God’s righteousness and sovereignty at the expense of their friend’s reputation, is that it actually treats God as a gear in a closed system and so sacrifices God’s real sovereignty, meaning his right to act in a way that they cannot predict or understand. A world where existential truth can only be approached via prayerful dialogue with God rather than being mathematically formulated from first principles and articulated with calculated, unchangeable precision is a dangerous world for the mind that loves the security of absolutes.

But for Job, his sufferings have shattered any possibility of the kind of neat and tidy theological world that his friends insistently hang on to. All he has left is the hope of dialogue with God. And in my opinion this God-ward trajectory of Job’s speech – in other words that Job treats God as one of the conversation partners and not just the subject of conversation – is key to understanding why it is that Job is exonerated in the end and his friends are not.

The Justification of Job

In the Narrative Epilogue, in Job 42:7, God tells Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (NRSV). What have Job’s friends said? We know they have falsely accused Job of a variety of sins (see especially Eliphaz’s unhinged speech in 22:4-9), but, if translators are correct to translate Hebrew ʾel as “about” or “of” in 42:7 (and this is debatable), then what God is angry about isn’t what they have said about Job but “about me” – about God himself. So what did they say? Much of what Job’s friends say about God is perfectly compatible with not only Proverbs but the entire OT, especially in the earlier speeches. For example, Eliphaz says in 4:17:

Can mortals be righteous before God? Can human beings be pure before their Maker?

Job 4:17

The implied answer is “clearly not”, and this sentiment is, on its surface, unobjectionable (from a biblical and theological perspective). Throughout both the OT and NT, the Bible consistently affirms that if there is a disagreement between God and humans, God is the one who is in the right (God is righteous) and humans are not. However, the problem is what Eliphaz really means (the illocutionary force) and what he is trying to do with his speech (the perlocutionary force). The implication of Eliphaz’s theologically correct statement (the illocutionary force) that mortals cannot be righteous before God is to tell Job that he cannot be righteous in any dispute with God. In demanding an answer from God, Job is, in a sense, taking on the role of the plaintiff in a law suit. What Eliphaz is trying to do by saying what he does (the perlocutionary force) is get Job to be silent and not demand an answer from God. Eliphaz is essentially saying, “Job, shut up! How dare you question God?”

The same holds true when Bildad says in 8:11-13:

Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water? While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant. Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish.

Job 8:11-13

There is nothing biblically or theologically offensive about this. God is our source, Bildad says. If we forget him, we will perish. The problem is the way Bildad puts this technically correct idea to use: because you are perishing, Job, you must have forgotten God. He has taken a theological statement that starts with God and ends with observable reality (logically, if God is our source, then those who forget him will perish) and has turned it around backwards to make observable reality determinative of God’s mind and actions (in other words, if you are perishing, you must have forgotten God). A careful look at these statements will reveal that they are not logically equivalent (it is an example of the logical fallacy known as “affirming the consequent”). And, again, the context shows that the reason Bildad says this is to warn Job against arguing his case against God.

So even though Job’s friends say things that are technically correct and that are consistent with the larger Wisdom tradition (at least on their surface), the context in which they are saying these things, and what they are trying to accomplish in saying them, makes them ultimately incorrect despite their technical correctness. And they are incorrect in what they say about God. What are they saying about God? By implication, that God is offended by Job’s angry and bitter invitation to dialogue. That God has no interest in dialogue with a mere mortal such as Job.

On the other hand, what has Job said that his friends have not? Job has uttered some angry and bitter things about God. Job does say many faith-filled things, but he also declares that God is angry at him for no reason, that he is unfairly scrutinizing a fallible human being, perhaps even that God is acting to intimidate him (13:20-28). Job’s speech is full of angry bewilderment. Yet, God considers Job to have spoken what is “correct” or “honest” (another way, perhaps, to translate nekonah in 42:7) about him. I would argue that a big part of the reason why what Job has said about God is considered more correct or honest than what his friends have said about God is that Job has said these things in dialogue with God, and not just when he addresses God as “you”. Job is calling on God throughout to answer him, to tell him what it is that he has done wrong. This interpretation may be strengthened by revisiting the Hebrew word ʾel in 42:7, which is typically translated “about” or “of” but far more commonly means “to”, especially when designating the addressee of speech. So it is possible that God is angry at Job’s friends for not saying what is honest to him the way Job has. In any case, Job’s willingness to work out his confusion in dialogue with God contrasts with Job’s friends’ desire to shut down that dialogue through misused theological language.

The Conclusion: Job was Innocent and God is Righteous

The book of Job does not end with a nice, neat theological statement resolving the tension with mathematical precision. That would, in fact, defeat the whole point. Job never learns why he has suffered because God never tells him. God’s answer to Job is essentially that there is no way Job could understand things from God’s perspective, and the implication is that Job had not, in fact, earned his sufferings by committing sins, as his friends have slanderously said. Job was innocent and God is righteous. Both are true, and the resolution belongs to the mysterious realm of God’s sovereignty, not the carefully defined realm of Job’s friends’ retribution theology.

Job may never find out the full reason for his sufferings, but even from a limited human perspective his sufferings have not been pointless. His sufferings, and the encounter with God that has happened because of those sufferings, has changed Job. Job himself expresses this in 42:5, when he says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” This man, who even before all of his sufferings was perfect and upright, has grown in his knowledge of God and in his faith, meaning his ability to trust God despite the appearance of his circumstances.

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