Job. I have never met a person with the first name Job. And for good reason. The name brings up feelings of having more than your share of disasters. It is the least understood of all biblical stories and yet the darkness of it attracts us. Like Luke and Darth Vader. Harry and Voldemort. And just about every character in the Game of Thrones or House of Cards. If Job were an atheist, however, there would be no discussion here. His tragic life would be chalked up to terrific bad luck, bad management or lack of foresight. But if you believe in God like Job does, you wonder, ”Why is God making bets with Satan to hurt Job? Why would God do such a thing?”
In the beginning of our text today, God is apparently hanging out in the heavenly employee lounge, checking on things, when Satan drops by. God asks him, “Where have you come from?” And Satan answers, “From going to and fro on the earth and from walking up and down on it.” It is God who points out Job to Satan—for his goodness and integrity. Satan tells God that the only reason Job loves Him is because God has given him every good thing. Make his life harder, Satan says, and Job will curse him. Satan is basically saying that we humans are in this God relationship so that we can get stuff—so that God will reward us with good things. We are fickle friends. Take the stuff away—and we go away. God is useful as long as we feel good and have it our way. We only want God for what he can do for us—not for the relationship or the love. Satan questions Job’s motivations. God protests, “No, not Job. Job actually loves me– with or without his stuff. He would never curse me.”
So– Game On. Satan makes a bet with God that he can make Job curse God. God takes the wager, and Satan destroys all that Job has, including his children, property and his good health. The ‘good’ man Job is left in ashes, with only his faith left.
At first, Job’s friends really comfort him. They silently sit Shiva with him—the seven days of mourning after a Jewish death. They don’t speak but stay with him in his ashes, witnessing his pain. This is very comforting to Job. But then his friends do what we do—they start trying to figure out what he did wrong to deserve this. They try and fix him. They give him bad advice. We have texts from Job for the next three weeks so we’ll hear how Job’s friends tell him that he deserved what he got. Maybe he or his children did something evil that they are in denial about. Maybe he needs to work harder at being a better person. If he would only be more deserving, he would get all his stuff back. He begs them to just listen to him, hear him out.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Pain makes theologians of us all. If you have spent even one night in real physical pain, then you know what that can do to your faith in God, not to mention your faith in your own ability to manage your life.” I would say watching someone in pain does that, too. I spent the better part of this week in the Pediatric Isolation unit at UVA watching our 15 month old, curly headed, chubby cheeked granddaughter Annie, cry and scream in pain from a gastro infection. Nothing twists your insides as much or as completely as watching a child suffer, while being powerless to do anything about it. In self-defense, your mind searches for some ground to stand on that feels familiar and can give you some feeling of control over the feelings of powerlessness. Who is to blame for this? Someone must have done something wrong for this to be happening to an innocent child! Maybe the day care provider gave her infected food? Or an infected migrant worker picked the strawberries she loves? Maybe the baby food had infected batches that someone let slip through?
When those lines come up empty, we turn the accusations on ourselves. “What did I miss? Did I wash the berries I gave her really well? Why didn’t I notice something earlier?” We start to narrate a story in our heads of blame and shame. It gains momentum and relates less and less to the truth, because our fear starts telling the story. Brené Brown says we are conspiracy theorists about our own lives. Lacking data, we fill in the blanks with emotions.
What if you lost everything—spouse, child, home, future- and someone told you it was your fault? You didn’t see it coming. You weren’t as prepared as you should have been. You didn’t think it through enough—didn’t head it off at the pass. If only you had done that thing or been there when it happened. You should have known better. Figured everything out ahead of time. Done exactly the right thing instead of what you did. The Buddhists call this the second arrow—the first arrow is the hurtful happening and the second arrow is the one we stick into ourselves that increases our suffering. This is what is happening in Job. Job’s friends have lots of arrows. Between his friends and wife, we get to hear all the ways we think about suffering. The basic idea is that God rewards and punishes us based on our behavior. Man’s fate is in man’s hands. As long as we get it right, everything will be all right. It’s all about our managing well.
I would like to think this type reasoning was only practiced by the uninformed ancients, but I know that I think this way every day. What happens to me is either a reward or a punishment for something I have done. Whether I admit it or not, I think that my fate is in my hands. If I only manage well, my life will be smooth sailing. If I don’t, well, there’s stuff hitting the fan. The other shoe will drop. Your life is your fault and your problem. I even think that way about the people I love. When they are hurt or suffering, my judgment comes up way before my thoughts of care and concern. If you get lung cancer, well, you shouldn’t have been smoking. And then my brother-in-law, who was more brother than in-law, died of lung cancer, even though he had never smoked a day in his life. I smoked for more than a decade and I’m don’t have lung cancer. Where is the justice in that? The Christian mystics called these things desolation and consolation. Desolation is feeling far from God and consolation is feeling close to God. Neither is within our ability to command. If we are desolate, it is not because we have done something wrong. If we are consoled, it is not because we have done something right. There are seasons in our life that are beyond our knowing. We accept both knowing that we don’t deserve either and that God loves us. Judgment is met by the grace of Christ telling us that we are loved because of whose we are, not by what we have done or left undone. Suffering is not a sign of rejection.
Job’s reaction is based on this same experience. He asks, if its is true that God punishes the wicked, then “Why do the wicked live, reach old age and grow mighty in power?” Job does not deny that he has sinned, but against his friends’ arguments, he does not believe that his sins are the cause and effect for what has happened to him. He knows that there is no judge but God and he seeks God’s face. God is the only one who knows both sides of the equation.
Which brings us to our friend Satan. Satan is about death and the false power of this world. He tells us that God will only love us if we please him by being good, and that otherwise God doesn’t care about us. These are the lies that the book of Job exposes. As Job says in chapter 28, “Wisdom [is not] found in the land of the living.” We need a power greater than ourselves and that power is grace, through the love of Christ. Christ exchanges life for death, forgiveness for blame, belonging for isolation, the power of love over the false power of glory, and revelation over deception.
When God finally speaks to Job, he does not address Job’s question of evil. As theologian Carol Newsom tells us, “What God has done by ignoring Job’s way of posing the question is to illumine the inadequacy of Job’s starting point.“ God speaks directly to Job, answering his longing to see God’s face and feel his care. But God also reminds Job that “Job’s categories have been too narrow, his conception of God hopelessly anthropocentric. Both Job and his friends had assumed that God primarily reacts to human conduct, a view of the world that puts the individual human being at its center.” God educates Job in the ways of the world. There is more to God’s world than our own human centered thoughts.
There is more mystery to the universe than our minds can fathom. Mario Livio, the Senior Astrophysicist for the Hubble telescope, talks about new pieces of the cosmic puzzle in his book, Is God a Mathematician. The Universe is expanding, accelerated by dark energy—an unknown force that is 70% of the known universe. To date, they have catalogued 200 billion observable galaxies and 450 other star-suns like ours with extrasolar planets. God response to Job is, “Where were you when I made these? You were not present at the creation of the world. Have you even seen its full expanse?” We have not seen its full expanse. God is more than we can ever understand with our minds or hearts. But God is- whether we see or feel God or not.
God wins his wager with Satan because Job does not curse him. Job’s and our relationship with God is not about getting stuff—it was about identity and love. Who are we that God should be mindful of us? We are God’s beloved children. So much so that He became flesh and dwelt among us. As 1 Timothy 2 tells us, “There is one God and one Mediator between God and us—the man Jesus, God’s Anointed.”
In closing, Robert Capon reminds us, “He is your Lord and your God, and he brings you out of the nothing of your death as easily as he brought you out of the nothing before your birth. “ We don’t know how it works—but we can trust that we are loved not for what we do, but because we are God’s creatures of his own making.