It may seem odd to jump right from Easter to the book of Job.  But then life is often odd like that. Great celebrations are barely over and great tragedy strikes; we think life is finally going to go smoothly and then we get thrown a curve ball.  It happens to all of us, Christian and non, and I think it is important to remember that new life with God has never meant freedom from pain, suffering and disaster.  I do mean to speak to God about that someday, but the fact remains that life is hard no matter how you cut it.  What Easter shows us is not that Christians never suffer but that Christians look at suffering differently.  Why? Because Easter brings the promise that suffering can bring about redemption, death can be the beginning of life.  So we turn to the book of Job.

    You heard the beginning of the story.  It starts with God bragging on how good this man Job is. Satan then challenges Job's goodness and as a result, God puts Job to the test.  First he loses all of his material possessions and all of his family, except his wife.  Job passes that test.  Then Satan ups the ante and wants God to make it harder, so God makes Job physically ill...covered in boils from head to toe.  

    Job is downright miserable, moans and groans for a fair number of chapters later on.  He has friends who show up and tell him that he must have sinned for God to do such things to him.  They insist that he repent of some unnamed sin and Job begins to wish that maybe God would have taken his friends as well as his family.  Job demands that God show up and explain all this, and God does appear.  The trouble is, God doesn't really explain Job's question.  Job wants to we often do...."Why me?"  I've been good, says Job, why are you making me suffer?  God's answer is basically that we are not capable of understanding.  It is the divine version of that annoying thing parents say to their children..."Because I said so."

    Job is asking the question that comes up almost every time religion enters the conversation.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do the righteous suffer?  Because Job is stuck on that question until God shows up at the end of the book, people have tended to see that question as the focus of the book of Job.  But the more I read Job, the more convinced I am that there is a different question that drives the book...a question that we need to answer first before God can begin to explain to us about suffering.  It seems to me that the question the author of Job would like us to probe is not "Why do good people suffer?" but "Why are good people good?"  

    That the question revolves in some way around Job's goodness is obvious from the beginning.  The very first verse of the very first chapter points out Job's blameless and godly character.  Then, a few verses later, the very first thing God wants Satan to notice on the earth is the goodness of Job.  Job's upright character is a key part of the theme.     But notice what happens next, in 1:9.  Satan's response to Job's goodness is to question his motive. "Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan asks.  I think this is the question of the book.  "Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face."

    Satan, which means "the Accuser", has just asked the question still asked by those who seek to accuse the church today.  "See Sally Churchgoer," says God.  "She lives right, just like a Christian ought to.  And you'll find her in church every Sunday with a tithe in her offering envelope.."

    "Well of course she does," says the challenger.  "She's had it easy all her life.  She's never known poverty or illness or tragedy...not really.  She's just a good Christian because she thinks nothing really bad can happen to her that way.  She is into this faith thing for herself, not for you, God.  She doesn't love you for who you are, she loves you only because you give her what she wants.   You're just her insurance policy. Take away those comforts and you'll see what her faith is really made of.  You might be God, but if she doesn't get what she wants from you, she'll never darken that church door again.  Just you try it!"

    The question of Job, it seems to me, is raising the issue of whether we are able to pick up a cross and follow Jesus or whether we are only in the crowd because we have eaten our fill of loaves and fishes.  Do we worship God as a way of paying for blessings we expect to receive or do we worship God simply because God is worthy of worship?  It is a timeless question and a crucial question....and one that the book of Job eloquently and sufficiently answers.  Job passes the test, in the end, and God more than makes up for the things Job has lost.  Most importantly, though, we see that as Job comes to grips with the fact that his faith is about God and not about himself, the question about why God is making him suffer vanishes into thin air.

    So how did Job get to that point?  The first thing we see is that Job never saw anything that God had given to him as anything other than a gift.  None of it was truly "his."  Job never appropriated God's belongings...not his wealth, not his house, not his family.  When it is all taken from him in a single day, Job responds in verse 1:21, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

    Most of us lose the battle right here, because most of us think we are owners rather than stewards of God's gifts.  We think that the things God has placed under our control are ours to do with as we please and find ourselves angry if God should require their return or move them into the hands of another steward. Now, please notice that Job is not jumping in the streets for joy.  These losses are real blows.  They really hurt, and Job shows all the signs of mourning.  He shaves his head and tore his robe in grief.  I'm not suggesting that the faithful response to loss is a mere shrug of the shoulders.  Job felt the losses and grieved deeply.  But then he fell on the ground and worshiped.  Until we have abandoned our notions of entitlement, this part of his response makes no sense, and we turn away from Job sad, like the rich young ruler in Mark 10 who just couldn't let go of absolutely everything.

    The rich young ruler is, in fact, outwardly very much like Job.  Before the law he is blameless...has kept all the commandments from his youth.  Like Job, he is famous, wealthy, and a man of power.  God here does not take anything from him.  Here he is asked to give it up...not his health, not his family...just his money.  He can't do it.  He would like to...his refusal makes him sad...but he is too attached.  We can almost hear Satan saying to God, "See, told you so."  That is what Satan thought would happen with Job.

    Like the rich young ruler, most of us prove Satan's point when it comes to our possessions, and the world has taken note.  Those of us who weep at the Cross from a comfortable pew and fidget when our expressions of devotion to the Almighty are not tightly bounded by the clock stand before both God and the Accuser.  When the Accuser points at us and says, "This one is only good because he's never really had to put his money where his mouth is," many of us have lost the challenge.  And that is only chapter one.

    It seems like Job surely has passed the test, proving that there is such a thing as a human being who worships God simply because God is God.  But the Accuser sees deeply into the human psyche and probes still further in chapter 2.  "Yes," Satan says in essence, "He has been able to keep his priorities straight regarding those things outside of himself.  But a man's body is his ultimate possession.  Mess with that and you'll see that every person has a buyout price."

    And Satan is right insofar as the affliction to Job's body is the straw that threatens to break the camel's back.  It is hard to get more relevant to our own suffering.  A loss here and there may be troublesome, but most of us manage.  But if we live long enough, we all have those times when all the losses seem to save up and hit us all at once.  We look around and see that not one area of life is going well.

    When disaster piles upon disaster and loss upon loss, all of us are overwhelmed and we who profess faith want to know what a faithful response to such misery looks like.  In the speeches of Job and his friends, we see that suffering confounds even the most faithful.  Even Jesus cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Job comes to curse and despise the day he was born.  What a comfort to know that the sense of darkness, unfairness, and the absence of God has been shared by God's most precious and faithful in their dark times.  

    Job helps me to keep my prayer life honest.  Job does not hide his anger and bitterness from God.  He says God has denied him justice (27:2).  He claims God has left him (29:1-6)..  Listen to his prayer in 30:20-23: "I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me.  You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me.  You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm.  I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living."  That is honesty in prayer. You hear it also in the Psalms and in most of Lamentations.  

    How do the righteous pray when they suffer?  Well, here in Job is one example that God countered but did not condemn.  It feels like pure freedom and grace to me to be allowed honest prayer and to have Scripture acknowledge that even the blameless, even the Son of God, feel at times like God has gone on vacation without them.  We hurt and we call God to account for what is happening to us.  Job shows us that God does not condemn our questions.

    But when we ask that question...Why do bad things happen to good people?  What is the answer we really want?  What would satisfy us?  Do we want to hear that it happens because we deserve it?  I don't. Do we want to hear that it happens because God is capricious or even evil?  That would hardly make me feel better.  On the surface, I think what I want to hear is some version of  "Oh, gee, sorry.  I didn't realize things had gotten that bad.  I'll have it fixed right away."  But do I really want a God who's not really on top of what's going on down here?  In the end, I don't.

    The only answer that really does me any good is the answer we just celebrated last week.  It doesn't really tell us why we suffer, but it assures us that God has redeemed our suffering...has taken our lemons and made lemonade...has taken our death and turned it into eternal life.  But that question has no sooner left my lips than God counters with a question for me.

    Why are you good, Anne?  Why do you bother to try?  Is the prospect of suffering something you don't understand enough to make you turn your back on me?  Do you love me?  Or are you in this relationship for fire insurance?   I remain faithful to you, even when you treat me really badly.  Do you love me?  For better, for worse...for richer for sickness and in health?  That is the root question of the book of Job.  Job proves that he is not placing his trust in God just for what he can get out of it.  This is love of God for God's sake alone.  

    Although the challenge is finished for Job, there is the sense that it will surface again.  The Accuser goes back to his corner, but there is one more level he has not tried.  Job's health has suffered, but God refused to let Job die.  Everything was taken, but not his life.  Satan can't do any more with Job, but he is willing to wait for another blameless man to come along, one that can be tested to the final limit.  We saw the results last week.  As it is tried, we see the same darkness of suffering descend.  Even the sky turns black as Jesus feels and expresses the absence of God.  "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?"  But in the end, with his dying breath, Jesus says, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit."  The Accuser is defeated once and for all.  

    Why do the righteous suffer?  God's answer to Job seems to be bent on making him realize that the urgent question is whether our lives are centered on ourselves or on God.  Just how far are you willing to go with God?  Past your understanding?  Past your comfort?  To the Cross?  All your heart?  All your soul?  All your mind?  It's worth asking of ourselves, and I promise you that it is being asked by those who turn a critical and accusing eye toward the church.  Is it really God that is important to us, or is it the benefits package?


(c) Anne Robertson, 2000

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