I remember the day I first read the Book of Job. It was a beautiful morning set in the North Carolina spring. The mountain laurels were blooming just outside my basement dwelling. It was a great place for privacy despite the fact that I had moved into my parents’ home for a few months after living on my own for ten years. I emerged from my hideaway mid-morning, walking up the stairs just in time to catch my dad as he was leaving for the day. But as I reached the top of the stairs, I smelled a familiar smell. The scent was musty and oppressive; it made you feel like you shouldn’t be there. I saw the pleading look on my dad’s face. I recognized the scene, though I had not observed my mother’s depression up-close for a long time.
My mother struggled with depression throughout most of my childhood. Its roots lay in our family’s deep tragedy, the loss of my eldest brother to leukemia. Steve was eight when he died, and I was two; our middle brother Jim was five. My mother reeled in her bereavement and grief. For the next ten years, she searched for answers among a vast array of religions. At last, she heard the gospel and understood that her sins were forgiven. She became a Christian. Her heavy loss took on new meaning, and her depression eased. But it returned every now and then when her grief would again demand a hearing.
My parents’ bedroom had good light. A sliding glass door opened onto a deck and below was a lovely forest of Virginia pines. But inside the room, my mother’s spirit was dark. I asked if I could do anything to help. She asked if I would read the Bible to her. I was new at this, having just become a Christian myself, but I seemed to recall that the book of Job was about suffering. Perhaps we both hoped that reading this mysterious book might give an answer, a direction, an explanation, a solution. I opened the book and began to read aloud.
The Book of Job is written in the form of epic poetry. It begins with a scene in the heavens (1:6-2:10) where God offers up Job as an example to the tempter, who retorts that the only reason Job is a good man is that God has given him comfortable circumstances. If God took them away, the tempter prods, Job’s faith would crumble. God responds with a challenge, and in the following scene Job’s life is in ruin. His assets, his livelihood, his children are all gone. Job responds simply, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” The tempter goes back to God and says, in effect, “Yeah, but take away his health and then he will curse you.” God gives His permission, and Job is struck with a painful and debilitating skin disease. Still Job responds, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?”
The bulk of the poem is the conversation that follows between Job and four friends. Three of the friends seek to encourage Job, but they are no encouragement. Job responds each time with a defense to their “help.” They insist that Job had to have done something terribly wrong or these calamities would not have happened to him. Job maintains his innocence. Job and his friends go back and forth for a long while, the friends urging his repentance and Job defending his good name.
Job questions why God would bring such suffering to him, even pleading for a hearing before his Judge, confident that he would be vindicated. All the while Job recognizes the limits of his worthiness, acknowledging that no one stands truly blameless before God. He gives examples of the types of wickedness God punishes, and by those standards, he does not qualify for such punishment. He has pursued righteousness and served God with all his might, and beyond that he has implored his Judge for mercy. Job is struggling and confused as to why God is afflicting him, but he also contends that his unhelpful friends insult him, that they do not know what they are talking about. Job insists, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is flayed, yet without my flesh I shall see God” (19:25-26). Job trusts that God will set things right in the end. Job’s friends are working out of a different understanding. The God they believe in operates more like one of the temperamental gods their surrounding culture feared.
Neither my mother nor I were at all comforted by reading this odd conversation. I stopped somewhere in the middle and turned instead to Psalms. Much later, I looked again into the Book of Job. Somehow I wanted to understand the message of this mysterious book. The next time I pressed on past the point in the story where I had stopped before.
After the long conversation between Job and his not-so-encouraging friends, a fourth man, Elihu, comes on the scene. This youthful observer of the extended conversation dares to wonder if Job and his friends are all wrong, and maybe God causes calamities like Job’s to happen for reasons we cannot comprehend. “Whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.” Elihu calls on Job to “stand and consider the wonders of God” (37:13-14). Something was beginning to catch my attention in this story.
Then, in the dramatic climax, God shows up, appearing in a whirlwind and speaking for Himself. His answer is at once frightful, humbling, and gracious. The images painted of God as sovereign Creator of the vast cosmos are striking in force and sweeping in scope. God has tolerated Job’s thrashing, but He refuses to answer his questions directly. God judges the unhelpful friends for insulting Job. God also reproves Job, but not for his thrashing or for some evil that has gone unnoticed. He admonishes Job for not being more accepting—or maybe more respectful—of his Creator. God commends Elihu on his perspective, which appears the closest to the truth. In the end, however, God’s answer is no answer: God merely makes the case that He is God and Job is not. Following God’s compelling demonstration from the annals of Nature, this case is closed.
Job response is a brief and humble reply to an extraordinary revelation. He makes a curious admission just before he “repents in dust and ashes.” He says, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You” (42:5-6). Job had seen something true about God that he had not seen before his suffering.
I have read the Book of Job many times since my early encounters. While I am no scholar, reading it in its historical context has been helpful. Scholarly works consider source material for Job deriving from ancient Sumerian legend. This makes sense of the view of God embraced by Job’s friends, as it parallels the Sumerian culture’s view of their gods, who were capricious and vindictive in their actions. This information helps me differentiate the biblical God from those of the book’s ancient setting. This God was a different sort of god than they were used to.
Another theory suggests that Elihu’s speech may have been added later. Other scholars ponder whether Job was a historical figure or a composite of an “Everyman” sort. There are other intriguing theories about the book as well. But none of these ponderings adds to or takes away from the poem’s central message. As I have considered these more academic questions, I have come back to wrestling with the story itself.
It is deeply human to question the why of our suffering. And it even seems natural to expect fair treatment from God. When bad things happen to good people, our sense of justice is offended. But God does not justify Himself to Job or to us. Instead He poses probing questions to His creature, such as, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth” and “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (38:4, 40:2). That is, do you, small one, really want to argue with Me?
In the end, I am encouraged by several things in the poem. One is that God tolerates Job’s questions. God never reproaches Job for his wrestling, only for his lack of perspective. This gives me a sense of freedom in my own struggling with God. I am also comforted by the extensive picture of God’s sovereignty in the epic. This God is in control, and this knowledge helps me trust Him to manage His world and my own small life in it. Elihu’s speech is reassuring because it reminds me that God’s ways are not my ways and that my own journey into suffering may never be completely understandable to me. I feel God’s mercy even as I ponder my own frailty and limited perspective. My values and perspectives need to line up with God’s, and meanwhile, He is merciful as He feeds and cloths His creation, including me.
I recall my mother once saying that when Steve died, she felt that she must have done something horribly wrong, something unforgivable, in order for God to punish her so cruelly. Her guilt plagued her for years, until she found forgiveness at the foot of the cross. Not long after her conversion, she confided her struggle to a friend, who asked her in reply, “If God had told you that you could have Steve for eight years but no more, would you have wanted him?” My mother’s instantaneous answer was a resounding “Yes.” As she pondered the significance of this reflection, she found great comfort in the thought that Steve was God’s gift to her, if only for eight years. His death was not a punishment, but rather, his life a grace. The shift in her perspective was life-giving.
Perhaps the message of Job was one of comfort to my mother after all. Indeed God spoke out against the counsel of Job’s so-called friends, the ones who pressed Job to confess his unknown sins so that God would ease up. God says directly that they “have not spoken of [Him] what is right” (42:7). And so the truth embedded in Job’s epic can bring comfort, though not necessarily an explanation of God’s motives. His purposes are inscrutable. Rather the book gives confirmation that even if we do not get to know His reasons, we are in capable hands. God is God, and we are not. He does not answer to us.
But the real mystery of the epic of Job is that God reveals Himself in the midst of our suffering. Sometimes He seems utterly silent, but if we are truly His and being trained by our struggles, over time we see Him with greater accuracy and more clarity. It is through adversity that we gain insight into the character and priorities of the God who is there, who was there creating this vast universe long before we entered it. The life-giving perspective that we can come to trust is that, as a result of our deep struggles, we will see the true God more clearly.
My mother’s profound bereavement led her on a quest for God. And by God’s grace, she found Him. She did not come to understand God’s purposes for taking her young son. But over time she came to trust that those purposes were good.
The benefit of the epic of Job is not a soothing message of a loving God who is going to make our lives comfortable. No, the grace from this ancient poem is the true picture of a God who is in command of the creation He has made. He can be ruthless in accomplishing His purposes. But for those of us who seek to have faith like Job had, this God reveals Himself in the very core of our pain, giving the gift of perspective and insight.