When someone is going through unspeakable suffering they often do not need your arguments. They will not benefit from your theological exercise of sense-making. They need your presence so they do not have to bear the burden alone. They need you to hope for them when their hope is lacking. And they need you to be able to stand under the weight of their pain and doubt when it feels like they can’t stand for themselves.
“Wait, what happened?” my eyes widened as the pastor shared details of the tragic death of a young man in our church. It was senseless, completely preventable, and tragic. His mom had been in the small group I was leading, so I felt like I should do something. But what could I, a 25 year-old seminary student with no kids, possibly say or do to comfort his grieving parents in the middle of an unspeakable tragedy? “Just show up,” an older minister encouraged. Obediently, I did though I didn’t completely understand why.
The scenario above hasn’t exactly repeated itself, but everyone is acquainted with senseless violence, tragedy, or unexpected illness/death. It’s completely natural for those suffering in such circumstances to ask questions like, “Where is God in this?” “If God is so good, then why…”, or “How could a loving God allow…” and countless other versions of the question. It’s also completely natural for committed Christians to feel like their role in these circumstances is to try to help the suffering understand God’s role in or plan through the tragedy. We say well-meaning things like, “God surely has a plan,” or “Trust God’s goodness” that often come across as salt in the wound rather than balm for an aching soul.
Without thinking, well-meaning Christians play the role of Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite from the story of Job.
When Orthodoxy isn’t the Point
After a brief prologue (Job 1-2), much of the book of Job is structured around a series of speeches. Job makes a speech complaining about his unjust suffering to which one of his friends responds with a defense of God and an insistence that this is all because of Job’s sin, to which Job responds with a refutation, followed by another friend tagging in to pick up the argument, and around and around we go for almost 30 chapters. Then, a younger man named Elihu chimes in for 5 chapters worth of speeches in which he rebukes everyone but takes up the argument of Job’s friends.
We’ll come back to what happens next shortly and try to identify where this all goes so sideways, but for now I want to point out something that is often missed in conversations about Job. If we skipped the prologue which describes events occurring in Heaven and approached the book with only the knowledge of the human actors, we would likely agree with Job’s friends. While we may not go so far as to insist that Job’s suffering is because of his sin, the strategy of many North American evangelical Christians when someone is in the midst of suffering is to attempt to defend and exonerate God.
This is exactly what Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu do for more than half of the book of Job. Their arguments appear orthodox. Their reasoning makes sense and feels more objective than the emotional decrees that Job makes. If we removed the knowledge we gain from the first 2 and final 5 chapters, we might find ourselves nodding along with much of what they say and cringing a bit when Job speaks.
But we shouldn’t remove the knowledge we gain from the first 2 and final 5 chapters. Because what we learn there means everything to how we understand Job’s story.
He Said What, Now?
Imagine you’re Eliphaz. You’ve been going round and round with him for a while now and no one seems to be making progress. Job is entrenched in his position that he’s innocent and insisting on having an audience with God. You’re entrenched in your position that God doesn’t afflict righteous people unjustly. No one is making progress.
Finally, God shows up. It appears that Job is having a conversation with God (Job 38-41:6), but you’re unprepared for when God turns his attention to you.
What are you expecting? Are you scared out of your mind? Maybe you’re expecting a “Well done” from the Lord.
Instead, God says:
7I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. 8 So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. —Job 42:7-8