Abstract:The book of Job is an obvious place to turn when a Christian suffers, but it is not easy to discern what God means to teach his people through this difficult book. This article interprets Job’s teaching on suffering from five broad perspectives: (1) God’s purpose in allowing suffering; (2) how Job “diversifies” our interpretations of suffering; (3) what God requires of us when we suffer; (4) what promises God makes about the end of suffering; and (5) how Job-like suffering grants us a new vision of God.
How does the book of Job help disciples of Jesus Christ remain faithful to God as they suffer—or walk alongside others who suffer—in ways that are extreme and inexplicable? Job is an obvious place to turn to when one is overwhelmed with pain, but it is easy for a casual reader to leave the book more mystified than encouraged. Job is an easy candidate for the Old Testament’s most difficult book. In addition to the textual and philological problems (which a good translation will negotiate for the reader), it is often difficult to understand what the participants in the debate are saying, and why. God’s answer to Job is also difficult to understand: why would 34 verses be given describing what is apparently a crocodile (41:1–34)? How is that supposed to help Job, and us as readers?
This essay certainly will not resolve or even address many of the problems of the book. For all its challenges, however, I believe the book of Job speaks directly to faithful sufferers in ways that, if not simple, are clear and encouraging. In my opinion, the book of Job is a greatly underused resource for endurance in discipleship in the midst of deep pain. I would like to explore five ways the book addresses suffering in the following pages.
It is important to clarify at the outset, however, that the book of Job is not universally relevant and is not intended to be. Human suffering is varied: sometimes the causes of pain are obvious, and sometimes God’s purpose in allowing it clear. But Job found himself in a kind of agony that was beyond all proportion, and one which he was at a loss to explain. For instance, he spends most of ch. 10 testing and rejecting different hypotheses as to why God might have allowed the tragedy of chs. 1–2: “Let me know why you contend against me!” (10:2). Job suffered in a peculiarly excruciating and confusing way, and his story addresses that kind of experience. But to say this is not to limit the relevance of the book, for Job-like suffering is extremely common. I would wager that everyone reading this piece either has experienced the peculiar kind of extreme, inexplicable suffering portrayed in the book of Job or knows someone who has.
Let us consider five main ways in which the book of Job addresses and interprets suffering, defines God’s role in it, and reveals what God expects of us as we suffer. As we do, the God who inspired this text will help us, like Job, to bless his name whether he gives or takes (1:21) and gain a new vision of the Lord (42:5).
1. Loving God “for Nothing”
I believe a key to interpreting the book of Job is found early in the first chapter in the Accuser’s1 question, “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). Clearly the expected answer is negative: the Accuser is implying that Job is not faithful and obedient to God for God’s sake, but only because of secondary blessings which accrue in the relationship. Take those away, the Accuser says, and Job will openly curse God (v. 11).2 A curse does not, of course, refer to obscene speech in the OT but is the act of abominating someone or something, regarding it as utterly ugly, worthless, and execrable. The accusation is that a relationship with God—with God—is impossible, because Job loves the gifts more than the Giver. Once the gifts are taken away, the game of “bribery and payoffs” will stop,3 and Job will curse God by cutting off his relationship with God, by demeaning God as unworthy of love or trust.
This is the issue at stake in the book of Job: will human beings continue in a relationship with God in which all they gain from the relationship is God? Or are we just too selfish? Is our piety just for show? Will we ever treat God as anything more than a business partner or a means to an end? The opening chapters of Job show God putting his beloved servant in a position in which he loses every other reason to stay in a relationship with God except God himself. It starts to cost Job dearly to hold on to his relationship with God. As Thomas Merton writes, “if we love God for something less than himself, we cherish a desire that can fail us. We run the risk of hating Him if we do not get what we hope for.”4
This is an issue of deep relevance for God’s people under the new covenant. This is the case because, while the outward form of the secondary blessings is not the same for us—faithful Christians are not promised wealth, cattle, and many slaves (1:2–3)—we all enjoy benefits in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ which are secondary to the ultimate blessing of the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and communion with God. Speaking personally, I never could have married the woman I did and started a family if it had not been for God’s grace at work in my life for many years before I met her. As I read Job 1–2, I must ask myself: if my family were suddenly killed in a car accident, would I praise God any less as I grieved and mourned that very real loss? For that is the meaning of Job’s worship in 1:20–21: without suppressing his pain, he considers God no less worthy of worship when he takes than when he gives. In other words, Job’s relationship with God is entirely on terms of grace: since everything he enjoyed was a gift from on high rather than reward for good behavior, God is not to be faulted when it is taken away. On the other hand, if God allows a Christian to suffer some great and painful loss, and if the Christian’s response is, “How dare you, Lord? You’ve betrayed me!,” then that Christian’s motives for faithfulness are (shall we say) less noble than Job’s.
We are only at the first chapter of a long and complicated book, and the Accuser’s question is only four words in Hebrew (הַחִנָּם יָרֵא אִיּוֹב אֱלֹהִים, 1:9). But already we are deep into the complexities of the book of Job. Part of what the prologue of Job teaches is that sometimes God temporarily interrupts his normal policy of giving earthly blessings to his saints (remember Job’s restoration in 42:10–17) and puts us in a position where we have every earthly reason to give up on God. Sometimes God will appear to act like an enemy (13:24), like someone who has betrayed us. Furthermore, there is a sense in which God must allow these temporary and tragic interruptions in his goodness if he is to prove the reality of our relationship with him. This is the case because a relationship with God for God’s sake is the only kind of relationship that will save us. The true character of our faith—whether we have faith at all—is exposed in this kind of crucible.
This is probably why God does not simply rebuke the Accuser in 1:12, as he does in Zech 3:2. YHWH allows a terrifying test to confirm and solidify and demonstrate that a relationship with himself, for his own sake, is actually possible. Although he was not discussing the book of Job, C. S. Lewis expressed this issue well as he journeyed through the collapse of his faith:
If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which “took things into account” was not faith but imagination. . . . It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled “Illness,” “Pain,” “Death,” and “Loneliness.” I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now that it matters, I find it didn’t.
Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game, “or else people won’t take it seriously.” Apparently it’s like that. . . . [Y]ou will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high; until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.5
When God allows extreme and inexplicable suffering, when he appears to treat those who love him as if he hates them, the book of Job teaches that God is delivering us from our trivialization of God as a means to our ends and giving us opportunity, in the midst of unhidden and public grief (1:20), to worship God as God, for his own sake, regardless of any secondary blessing we might gain or lose. Such worship is painful, costly, and deeply honoring to God as the Lord and not a pet deity. Without these tragic experiences, even the best among us will slowly and unconsciously drift away from Job’s costly and beautiful worship in the first chapter of this book. In suffering, God is saving us, delivering us into a relationship with himself where he is actually God and Lord.
2. Three Kinds of Suffering
My sense is that current North American evangelical culture basically has two explanations for suffering: sin on our part or God’s work of growing us as Christians. Both are, of course, thoroughly biblical. With regard to the former, David writes that his wounds “stink and fester” because of his own foolishness (Ps 38:5). Similarly, David’s great psalm of repentance expresses the wish that the bones God has broken would rejoice (Ps 51:8). David is in pain, but it is no mystery why—and clearly the best response in such pain is repentance.
The second explanation of suffering mentioned above is clearly taught in the NT. James urges us counter-intuitively to regard trials as joy, because God is working perseverance in us—which ends in the very precious state of a Christian mature and complete, lacking nothing (1:2–4; cf. Rom 5:3–5). When God allows pain in order to grow us as Christians, the appropriate response is to “make every effort” (2 Pet 1:5) to supplement to our faith whatever virtue or blessing God intends to give through this painful means. John Owen wisely asks in this regard whether we have received “any eminent mercy, protection, deliverance, which thou didst not improve in due manner . . . or hast thou been exercised with any affliction without laboring for the appointed end of it?”6
Neither of these valid explanations is, however, relevant to Job. The book is at pains to show us that it is not because of any fault in Job’s life that his affliction comes—quite the contrary, it is just his exemplary piety which attracts such unfortunate attention (1:8). YHWH’s praise of his servant is quite remarkable, for the phrase “none like him in all the earth” is most often used for God (Ps 86:8) and only one other time refers to a human being in the OT (1 Sam 10:24).7 This is high praise indeed!
Similarly, we cannot explain Job’s suffering in terms of some immaturity or inadequacy in his faith. YHWH is not trying to grow his servant spiritually, because Job already shows all the signs of a mature saint. It is true, of course, that there is some uncertainty and perhaps excessive carefulness at the beginning of Job’s story in 1:4–5 (Job may be referencing this when he speaks of that fear which now comes upon him in 3:25). And Job does end the book by confessing his new and far more profound knowledge of God (42:5). But in terms of his moral character and the practice of his faith, Job is blameless (1:1). Not even the Accuser can find fault with him. Job shows all the virtues that Proverbs describes. In fact, after reading ch. 31, it is hard to imagine what more Job could have done to love God and neighbor in costly and beautiful ways. Nowhere in the book is it suggested that God allows the tragedy of chs. 1–2 to give Job some virtue or moral quality that he is lacking.
There is a second and more subtle reason why Job’s suffering cannot be explained in terms of spiritual growth. It is significant that the terms of the test in 1:9–12 exclude any secondary blessing whatsoever outside of God himself. Although the blessings listed are familial and financial, if Job received some spiritual blessing or virtue from his ordeal, it would be possible for the Accuser to repeat his accusation, this time with reference to a different part of Job’s life. I think there is a sense in which Job cannot benefit in any way from his ordeal except with regard to a deeper experience of and intimacy with God. And it is on just this note that Job’s final speech ends (42:5–6), instead of some kind of progress in holiness.
It appears that we need a third category of suffering. Sometimes God allows pain and loss that have nothing to do with sin in our lives and are not meant to teach us anything. Rather, our loss and bewilderment become an avenue by which God gives himself to us more than he ever could have before, when we were at ease (29:6). When God puts us into a position where we must hold onto our relationship with God for God’s sake only—in which we stand to gain nothing but God—we start to receive him more fully than we ever had before. Job’s amazed cry, “Now my eyes see you,” becomes our own (we will return to this at the end of this essay).
Attention to this aspect of the book of Job deepens and nuances how we interpret suffering and prevents us from well-intentioned torture of our friends who suffer, either by implicitly blaming them for their pain or by reducing their tragedy to moral lessons. The word “torture” may seem extreme, but that is how Job experienced the “help” of his “friends” (19:22). After all, anyone who has (for instance) suffered the loss of a child and then been blamed for it, or been told God is trying to teach them something, knows how bitter that kind of “help” is (cf. 6:5–7). When walking with a friend through traumatic suffering, it may be appropriate to find a time to ask if there is some sin which God is bringing to the surface, or some growth edge which this pain is exposing. But if one’s friend cannot find any unconfessed sin or area in which spiritual growth is needed, the friend may be undergoing a Job-like experience.
3. God’s Requirement for us in Job-like Suffering
When God allows tremendous and seemingly inexplicable pain, what does he expect from us? If we can find no explanation of our pain in relation to our sins or God’s good desire to grow us into maturity, what does God want us to do?
The answer in the book of Job is surprisingly simple. The Accuser predicted that Job would curse God when he lost everything (1:11)—that Job would give up on God, cut off his relationship with him and demean God as unworthy of any love or worship. In fact, Job did the opposite and blessed God when God seemed to be cursing him (1:21).8 So far as I can tell, YHWH had no other requirement for his servant throughout the book. Although YHWH will confront some of the foolish things Job has said in the dialogues (38:3), God never rebukes Job for any sin.
When we find ourselves in Job-like suffering, what God wants from us is not complicated: we are to hold on to our relationship with him and not give up on him. Like Job, we may say some very foolish things about God in our pain. Like Job, these careless words will cause us intense pain when God restores us, as they did for Job (42:6). But God’s response to this foolish speech is extraordinarily gentle—although he does tell Job to prepare himself for the encounter (38:3), his initial question implies only that Job did not really know what he was talking about (v. 2). This is an extremely gracious way to respond to someone who has said just about everything negative one can say without cursing God.
In fact, in light of the “dark” things (38:2) Job has said about God, it is surprising that Job does not curse God. If it really is true that God destroys both blameless and wicked and laughs at the calamity of the innocent (9:22–24, a passage which summarizes Job’s case against God), why would anyone continue in their relationship with such a person? Wouldn’t one cut off their relationship with that kind of deity just on principle? But in the midst of his protest, Job finds within himself a contradictory drive to hold on to God, and a hope that he will somehow be reconciled to him (13:13–23, 19:25–27). D. A. Carson puts this well when he writes that even Job’s “demand that God present himself before Job and give an answer is the cry of a believer seeking to find out what on earth God is doing. Even while sitting in the ash pit, Job trusts God enough to express extraordinary confidence in him, and for no ulterior motive.”9
So also saints in the new covenant, when they find themselves in deep pain that seems to have no point, will find themselves saying with Job, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him” (13:15). Like Job, we endure (Jas 5:11), “not in serenity and tranquility, but in the energy to persist in faith . . . in the midst of contrary experiences.”10 And like Job, they too will be vindicated for it (42:7–10). This is God’s expectation for us when we suffer in a Job-like way: not to give up on God, and to wait for him to restore us, whether in this life or the life of the world to come.11
4. God’s Present Delight in Creation and His Final Defeat of all Evil
Job is an exhausting book, not the least because the dialogue between Job and his opponents (chs. 3–37) seem designed to frustrate the reader in both its length and lack of resolution. We are supposed to conclude that the human participants in this drama have absolutely no answer to Job’s problem, no matter how long they talk about it. By way of contrast, Job seems entirely resolved and reconciled to the God he has criticized throughout the book by the end of YHWH’s speeches (42:1–6).12 Despite this, however, the reader may not share Job’s sense of relief and resolution. How is it that dozens of questions about different parts of creation and the animals in it (38:4–39:30) and long descriptions of what appear to be a hippopotamus (40:15–24) and a crocodile (41:1–34) elicit such awed worship in Job?
One common answer is that these speeches express the limitless power and wisdom of God.13 Although this is not totally wrong, it does not quite explain Job’s change from protest to praise, because Job never denied that YHWH was powerful or (in a certain sense) wise. In 9:4 and 12:13, Job attributes to God just these two qualities—but in context, this attribution only deepens Job’s terror of God (see 9:5–18 and 12:14–25). This may sound strange, since wisdom is usually associated with moral uprightness in the OT (Prov 1:2–3). Job is using the word “wisdom” in chs. 9 and 12 to mean “effective ability” (a connotation it has elsewhere, such as Eccl 2:9). Since Job is deeply suspicious of YHWH’s righteousness at this stage of his story, the moral and ethical dimensions of the term do not seem to be in play.)
But if YHWH does not simply or only affirm his power and wisdom in his two speeches, how do they effect such a great change in Job? We can only examine these complicated chapters cursorily, but it is significant how they directly answer different aspects of Job’s protest in ways that explain Job’s about-face from criticism to worship. In 38:4–7, for instance, YHWH describes the founding of the earth in a way that counters Job’s conviction that God destroys the good order of creation by shaking the earth out of its foundations (9:6) and that the earth is under the control of the worst sort of people (9:24). Job has, understandably but wrongly, pulled into himself in his pain, viewing everything through the lens of his tragedy. In his eyes, the world is a sinister, chaotic mess. God expands Job’s vision to show him beings higher than himself unable to restrain their praise (38:7) as God establishes the very place Job has “darkened.” Similarly, 38:12–15 shows the moral edge to creation. The poetry is complex, but the description of the rising sun chasing the wicked away (v. 13) and breaking their arm (a symbol for strength, v. 15) implies that there is a moral edge to the architecture of creation. The order of creation resists evil—a very different perspective from Job’s in his protest. The description of the sea in 38:8–11 is especially striking in that it activates one of the most powerful biblical symbols for chaos and evil (cf. Ps 18:5–6, Hab 3:15, Rev 21:1).14 Most often in OT poetry, YHWH wages war against the chaotic watery powers (e.g., Job 7:12, 26:11–13). Here, he treats the sea like an infant as he diapers it (v. 9), even though it is still resisting him! That is the meaning of the reference in v. 11 to the “proud waves” of the sea—even though it does not submit to him, YHWH still cares for this part of his creation as he restricts and contains it. YHWH is communicating to his scarred servant that he does allow some chaotic and sinister elements in his creation (such as the predators of 39:26–30), but only within strict limits (vv. 8, 10)—and he is far gentler and kinder even with chaos than Job has imagined. Creation is a good place in which God delights, not an amoral jungle ruled by an arbitrary tyrant, as Job had imagined.
YHWH’s second speech in chs. 40–41 deepens his engagement with Job’s protest. The animals described here are animals, but they stand for something more, similar to the serpent of Genesis 3:1 or the unclean animals inhabiting the waste places of divine judgment in Isaiah 13:20–22 and 34:14–15. Leviathan is a symbol for supernatural chaos elsewhere in the OT (as in Job 3:8, Isa 27:1; recall the fleeing serpent of Job 26:13). Furthermore, although the evidence is sparser, there are references in ANE literature to a chaos monster similar in description to Behemoth.15 Failure to recognize the supernatural symbolism of these animals short-circuits the rhetorical strategy of these chapters. If YHWH is describing his prowess only over two animals which one might visit in a zoo, the speech becomes irrelevant to Job, not to mention a little pathetic. What is a man mourning dead children supposed to say to a deity who boasts of capturing a hippo?16
But if Behemoth and Leviathan symbolize supernatural chaos which resists God, then the resolution to Job’s protest clicks into place: YHWH is allowing that there is a great evil at loose in his creation, but he promises one day to defeat it (40:19, 41:8). In fact, YHWH “raises the stakes” in this chapter by giving Job a close-up picture of an evil which Job is aware of (Job refers to Leviathan in 3:8) but cannot fully comprehend. It is as if YHWH directs Job’s gaze to a massive, writhing monster which Job cannot even touch, much less engage with in combat. Only Behemoth’s maker can bring a sword near to kill it (40:19), and only YHWH can and will engage in battle with Leviathan (41:8).
Tone is difficult to detect in a written work, but a feeling of joy seems to pervade these chapters. YHWH’s description of his world and his manner of ruling it in chs. 38–41 is anything but apologetic or defensive. Without being idealistic or unrealistic, YHWH goes so far as to praise his opponent (41:12–34). The person who most clearly sees everything which is wrong with creation is the person most enthusiastic about it. There is a kind of staggering joy driving the description of Leviathan. Perhaps that is the monster’s ultimate defeat, that our Savior is not only unintimidated by his opponent, but positively cheerful as he looks forward to the day when he pierces the fleeing serpent (26:13). What would it be to view creation with that kind of irrepressible, divine joy, before the redemption of all things?
These are complex chapters, but they are deeply encouraging to us as we suffer and wait before the redemption of all things, when God scours all evil out of his creation and makes it new. God’s present manner of ruling over creation is to allow evil some limited agency—for a time. The promise of the coming battle (41:8) helps us persevere when he allows evil some limited agency over us (for a time), and deepens our yearning for that day when we see him engage in glorious battle with a power we cannot now even fully comprehend.
In his new commentary on Job, Christopher Ash expresses this wonderfully when he writes,
[The] assurance that he [God] can do all things and that no purpose of his can be thwarted is the comfort I need in suffering and the encouragement I crave when terrified by evil. He does not merely permit evil but commands it, controls it, and uses it for his good purposes. . . . [The] God who knows how to use supernatural evil to serve his purposes of ultimate good can and will use the darkest invasion of my life for his definite and invincible plans for my good in Christ.17
5. “Now My Eyes See You:” A New Vision of God
Job ends the book by worshipfully confessing that he has gained a whole new vision of God (42:5), a vision so great that all his previous knowledge of God is like unreliable second-hand information by comparison. Since Job is already exemplary in piety (1:8), this is quite a statement! What new insight does Job get at the end of the book? Job already knew about Leviathan (3:8), and none of YHWH’s questions in chs. 38–39 are especially difficult—even when they have to do with things Job does not understand, the questions themselves are not difficult to answer.18 So Job does not appear to have received new information about God.
Job wholeheartedly submits to God’s particular way of ruling over creation before the redemption of all things. He is entirely reconciled to a world in which children sometimes die, and the best kind of lives are sometimes the most miserable. As he withdraws his complaint of injustice (cf. 40:7), he sees YHWH as God and Lord in a whole new way. By analogy, if a human friend allowed the death of one of my children or the destruction of my property, and did not apologize or explain himself to me, I would “curse” that former friend in that I would not continue in my relationship with him—and I would be justified in so doing. But God allows just such a tragedy to happen to Job, and he does not apologize or explain himself. Job remains forever ignorant of the true cause of his suffering (1:6–12; 2:1–6). So when Job worships this God, it proves how different his relationship with God is from every other relationship he has. It proves how much Job values God over any other relationship. Job sees YHWH in a whole new way as the Lord.
The same is true for modern readers of the book. When we suffer without knowing why and persist in our relationship with God without any explanation or apology from him, we too will have God stand before us as the Lord in a whole new way, as God in a way totally different from any other relationship we have.
The book of Job is not relevant in every circumstance, but Job-like experiences are all too common. This book teaches us that this kind of suffering is not a sign of God’s anger, or even a way to improve our moral quality as Christians. It is an avenue through which God reveals himself to us more profoundly than he ever could have in our safety and comfort. Job-like suffering becomes a context to love, honor and remain faithful to God for God’s sake, irrespective of any secondary blessings he might give, as we accept his present administration of ruling over a still-dangerous creation. The book of Job narrates how these times of suffering are temporary (42:10–12) and terminate in a new vision of God as God. In so doing, this difficult and challenging book speaks in clear and strengthening ways to Christians suffering and trying to remain faithful in their agony.19
Finally, the ways in which the book of Job portrays and interprets suffering in God’s economy anticipate and pre-figure the Lord Jesus. If Job was blameless and upright in his relationship with God (1:1), Jesus was even more so. If Job innocently suffered the wrath of God in order to further God’s purposes, defeat the schemes of the Accuser, and prove the all-surpassing worth of knowing God, Jesus did even more so. If Job shows us imperfect but genuine trust in God in inexplicable suffering, Jesus shows us the same theme perfectly in his prayer in garden. And if Job ends with a vision of a universe cleansed of all evil, we see in Jesus how God actually brings Job’s hope about. As Ash writes, “It is not until the New Testament that we learn what it cost God to win this victory over the Leviathan.”20 In sum, the book of Job shows us, in outline form, a greater Job, who suffered even more deeply than that OT saint, in whom God’s purposes were furthered even more deeply, who holds our hand as his leads us, in some measure, through his own pain.