The story of Job is such a baffling, tragic, amazing biography. Why do bad things happen to good people? Here’s Job. He’s a good guy, as humans go; one of the best. He lived around the same time as the patriarch Jacob – whom, tradition has it, was his second cousin. In those pre-Law days, relationship with God was something you took into your own hands; the priesthood came generations later. So there’s Job, doing everything he possibly can to keep in good with God, to the point of having his grown children’s back. He lives like a king, but he thinks like a servant. He takes care of the poor.
Enter the Enemy. He sets about to test God’s theory that Job is a righteous man all the way to the bone. God agrees to the bet. And the funny thing is, in one sense the Enemy does win: Job, though having no particular sin to repent of, winds up repenting of trying to compete with God’s righteousness. Job is not righteous down to the bone after all. But God Himself breaks the fourth wall by letting us know early on that “you incited me to ruin himwithout any reason”. The audience knows something that the principal characters do not.
The thing that grates about Job’s story is the unfairness of it all. He does nothing wrong, and then in short order he loses his wealth, his staff, his family, and his health. His friends show up, and for a week they do the right thing: they silently commiserate with him. But then, at a total loss to account for such bad luck, they start coming up with an arsenal of what Adrian Plass terms “some specially sharpened chunks of Scripture”.
This is the rub for me. When I look at the statements Job’s “friends” make, they sound very like the things I myself would say about God. He is holy and untouchable; He does what He pleases; He lets both the good and the wicked reap what they’ve sown; in His great mercy He forgives the contrite if only they will turn to Him. There are some beautifully eloquent passages spoken by these guys. They had a very good handle on the character attributes of God.
The problem was that they were misapplying them. In the thinking of the day, life was understood by this formula: do good, and your life will prove it by prosperity; do evil, and your life will display it by calamity. Job’s friends had no grey areas in their thinking; it was all black and white. Job was suffering the most calamitous calamity; ergo, Job had somehow sinned greatly when no one was looking. The idea that Job’s suffering had come about because God was proving some important points, never entered their heads. The real reason was so far beyond their ken it wasn’t funny. They knew of only one reason Job would be in this mess – so they applied it vigorously. It was the right answer to the wrong question.
I wonder if we’re not the same. In the face of the inconceivable, we cast about for any answer that seems plausible. The problem comes when we offer it to someone like a platitude, without having any idea of what is happening off-stage. It is true that the violent generally reap violence; but it is not conversely true that every victim of violence must therefore have been violent themselves. It is one of the great pities of Christian life that occasionally we have to don the full armour of God to protect ourselves from our own side. The Word of God is a powerful weapon – the “sword of the Spirit” – but it is meant to be wielded against the darkness, not against each other. Before we start quoting verses at people, we need to step back and ask God quietly, “Are there long-term plans at work here that I know nothing about? Are there forces at play that have nothing to do with the status quo? Should I speak, or be silent?” Oh, the number of times I’ve heard God shout in my spirit “DON’T SAY A WORD!” … and oh, the number of times I’ve neglected to ask …
The end of Job’s story is happier; rather like “that’s what you get when you play a country song backwards … you get your house back, you get your dog back, you get your first and second jobs back …” Job’s friends were requiredaudibly by God to take back their accusations and their misappropriation of the nature of God. Job himself was required to forgive their outrageous insensitivity and pray for them. And ‘til the end of time, we have it on record that sometimes bad things happen to good people for reasons fully outside human comprehension, but that God is still in the mix to bring about His redemptive purposes. He may allow broken things to happen to broken people in a broken world, but He is never indifferent to it. See, your Saviour comes! See, His reward is with Him, and His recompense accompanies Him.