Is Job about Suffering?
Let's start with this question, is the book of Job about suffering? After all, that's really the only time you hear about it - if someone is in a season of suffering they're compared to Job, and if someone preaches about Job, they're talking about suffering. And this is the way I've always tried to understand it, as instructions for enduring suffering. But that has always left me rather confused, flipping through the dialogue trying to found out who is right and who is wrong, and baffled at why God stays silent for so long. It doesn't seem like the God I know. So instead of approaching it with this assumption of finding an answer to suffering, let's shake off what we've heard all our lives and take a fresh approach the book of Job, asking it to tell us what it is. This is the great misunderstanding of Biblical interpretation, that we so often try to make it fit what we think it's saying, rather than asking it to tell us. We first need to look at the type of literature it is, as the Bible contains a mixed package of historical narrative, parables, poetry, law, prophecy, and apocalyptic literature, to name a few! Job is classified as wisdom literature, and wisdom literature is intended to speculate on a person's life experience for the purpose of practical living. It is looking at one person's experience, not looking at the theology of how God relates to people. So let's look at Job's story and see what advice for practical living we can see, rather than creating an entire theology around his circumstances.
Job is a blessed man who is righteous and obedient. He has wealth, family, and power. One day he suddenly loses everything, even his health. He moves to the city dump because he's now an outcast covered in sores, and his 3 friends arrive to comfort him. They argue back and forth, his friends mostly declaring that he must have some horrible hidden sin that God is punishing him for, and Job maintaining his innocence and begging God to tell him if he's done something wrong. But we, as the reader, get a behind the scenes glimpse at the beginning of the book, that God has told Satan how great Job is. Satan believes that Job only loves the Lord because of the gifts he has received, so God gives Satan permission to remove those gifts and see that Job's love is unconditional. Here it's important for us to remember that this is not a theology of how God relates to people, but a story of one man. We don't need to live in fear of God testing our love.
At the end of the story, God arrives and gives a monologue that... doesn't answer a single question Job has asked. Instead, God describes His power and creation, and reminds Job of how big He is. He basically says "Job, you can't even understand a donkey, how can you expect to comprehend the greater things?". Job now sees things in the right perspective, sees how big God is and how small his problems are, and he humbles himself and turns to the Lord. The story ends with God repairing the relationship between Job and his (less than helpful) friends, and then restoring, and doubling every blessing that Job lost, extending his life another 140 years.
It seems that the book of Job is not an answer to suffering, but it does hold wisdom for us about what to do when life doesn't make sense. Remember, Job didn't have that behind the scenes info where God gave permission to Satan to test if his love was unconditional. Job believed that God was kind and that He didn't punish innocent people, but when his circumstances didn't match up with his belief, he couldn't decide what to believe. What we see from his story is that instead of arguing about why bad things happen, we should lean into discovering who God is. Reminding ourselves of His authority, His beauty, His power, is the right place to be when life is hard. We have to find a way to be ok with unanswered questions, because there is much going on behind the scenes that we will not know, not on this side of heaven. The answers that we need are too big for our minds and for this time.
When God showed up, Job's friends were expecting Him to zap Job and judge him for his sin. Job was expecting God to tell him what he had done, give him a fair trial, and let him die. And what did God do? Neither. He showed up, and He lifted Job's head to see Him correctly, and then restored him fully. We have to be ok with God showing up in unexpected ways and not following the boundaries we'd like Him to. To do this we have to trust that His heart is so good towards us that He knows what we need better than we do.
You see, what Job needed more than God's answers was God's Presence. It was the Presence of God that healed his pain, and the Presence that restored his health, his wealth, and his family. Sometimes God isn't giving us what we ask for, because we're asking for less than He wants to give.
One of my favourite details in this book is that when God shows up, he answers Job "out of a whirlwind". This is repeated in Job 38:1 and 40:6. The significance of this lies way back in the beginning at 1:19. Job's greatest loss was the death of his 10 children, and we see in this verse that the they died when a wind struck the four corners of their house.
His greatest loss came in a whirlwind.
And that is where God spoke to him.
There is no love greater than this, love that meets you in your place of greatest pain and works to bring healing from the ground up. God knows the deep places in your heart that need His touch, and He won't rest until the source of your pain is healed with His touch and His voice.
After looking at this book in detail, I am happy that I no longer have to wrestle with a view of God that is different from what I first learned in the gospels. What I see here is His love, His mercy, His kindness. I don't see answers to why bad things happen to good people, or why seasons of suffering last longer than I want them to. And I'm ok with that, because I see God.
Above all, the greatest lesson we can learn from Job is that when you can't see God's hand in your life, you need to trust His heart.