We are most familiar with Job as the guy that lost everything, complained a lot about it but didn’t curse God, and then got twice as much back. His example can be, I suppose, a useful example to good people who suffer terrible losses. Except both God and Job, thought Job blameless, and most of us find it hard to make such a claim. In fact, it is God that draws Satan’s attention to Job and gives Satan permission to take almost everything from him.
Reading Job is problematic partly because the words of Job’s comforters/torment0rs sound like something we would say. And many of Job’s words seem like something no one should ever say. And yet it is God who in chapter one declares Job “a blameless and upright man” and at the end rebukes Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar for not speaking “what is right, as My servant Job has.” These critics of Job who insisted that Job must have done something wrong are humbled by God and told they must have Job pray for them.
These facts have not kept us from trying to turn the story of Job into Sunday school lessons. It is sometimes used as an illustration of how God uses our trials and suffering to refine our character. I am sure this idea is often true; I can’t imagine God not using our suffering for our growth in holiness and maturity. But this idea isn’t in Job. In fact, the narrative of Job makes a point of how blameless Job was before the trial. The only thing Job repents of at the end is thinking he could understand the ways of God, yet God doesn’t address anything in Job’s character or words.
Another lesson we are sometimes taught is how to face loss and suffering without losing our faith. This, I think, is a solid biblical lesson but addresses only part of the problem Job faced. More than the loss of all things, Job cries out against the silence and absence of God. When Job recalls the days before he lost everything, it is clear it was God’s presence he valued most:
Oh that I were as in months gone by, as in the days when God watched over me;
When His lamp shone over my head, and by His light I walked through darkness;
As I was in the prime of my days, when the friendship of God was over my tent.
When the Almighty was yet with me. (29:2—4)
Notice that Job doesn’t say he never walked through darkness before now; he says that in the past God’s light had always guided him. Worse than all other losses is the loss of God’s friendship; the loss of His light in the darkness.
In Chapter 24 Job’s complaint about God’s silence and absence is blunt:
Oh that I knew where I might find Him that I might come to his seat!
I would present my case before Him and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn the words which He would answer
And perceive what He would say. (23:3—6)
We may, like the comforters of Job, be outraged that Job would think he could present his arguments before God, but we should note that Job also longs to hear from God. Job longs for God to explain his suffering.
Job addresses an obvious difficulty often ignored by pastors and teachers: God is invisible. Job addresses this:
Behold, I go forward but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him
When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him
He turns to the right, I cannot see Him. (23:8—9)
We often tell new believers to keep their eyes on Jesus and just follow Him. Good advice, I suppose. But Jesus, like the God of Job, is invisible. The “just follow Jesus” exhortation probably means we should follow his teaching and example. Of course, as soon as we start reading scriptures about Jesus, we must decide on how to interpret those Scriptures. (We should add that the interpretation of the Bible is inescapable, no matter how loudly we insist that we just do what it says.) And the work of interpretation is always done within the context of theological tradition, race, economics, and personal experiences. We are often not honest about the complexity of following an invisible God.
This matters because we often comfort those who suffer by assuring them that God is always with them. This is true but misses two obvious things: God is invisible and often, like with Job, He is silent. If we add to this Job’s inability to see the hand of God at work in his life, we end up with a presence of God that is almost identical to His absence. The narrative makes clear that God’s eye was upon Job, and that God had set limits on what Satan (the Adversary) was allowed to do, but Job experienced none of the abiding presence of God. He missed His friendship with God.
Seeing the absence and silence of God as central to the suffering of Job is important because all believers are called to suffer in this way. We may not all face the catastrophic losses of Job, but we are all called to follow an invisible God who is sometimes silent. We all go through seasons when God’s friendship is over our tent and seasons when we turn every direction and cannot find Him. Jesus speaks to the universality of our call to believe without seeing when he says to Thomas, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). Every believer is a Job in this way and blessed in this way.
It is perhaps because of this difficulty of following an invisible God that Paul told the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, just I also am of Christ.” During these last couple years when one loss has piled upon another and tragedy seems always around the corner, Teckla and I have not heard much from God. God has been invisible, but the church hasn’t. Our sisters and brothers in Christ have made the love of God real and have been his helping and healing hands. Unlike Job’s comforters, they have offered almost nothing by way of insight or explanation. They have simply been God’s presence. If every believer is a Job, then every person will find themselves in the position of Job’s comforters. Like Job, his comforters had no knowledge of the challenge Satan had presented to God concerning Job. They too were blind to the bigger picture and the back story to Job’s suffering. It is okay for both Job and his comforters to have no answers. “I don’t know” have often been the most comforting words spoken to us during these hard times. As comforters, we are not called to know all the answers to Job’s (or Mark’s) questions. We are called to be present in love, and in being present, make God present.
I would like to believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God, makes Job’s experience irrelevant. Perhaps it has for some. I have certainly had times when I experienced the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit—heat, electricity, revelation. But honestly most of the time the Spirit is as delicate and fleeting as the fragrance of spring on an April evening. He is an inner nudge, a slight suggestion or intuition. I am almost always uncertain if I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit or the voice of my own thoughts and imagination. Often, I cannot tell if it is my faith in God or God Himself that is comforting me. I want Him, not just my belief in Him. All this is just to say that even those filled with God’s Spirit can and do face the absence and silence of God found in Job.
As we attempt to comfort those who feel abandoned by God, we should recognize that the fault may not lie with them. We should avoid plaguing them with platitudes and the power of a positive attitude. We should not be like the comforters of Job rebuked by God. The frame story for Job, which may have never been explained to Job, should give us comfort that although we may never know the larger context or meaning of our suffering, God has not forgotten or forsaken us. Satan’s implied accusation against God was that He was honored and praised not because He is worthy but because he had blessed and protected Job. It was the high and holy honor of Job to silence this accusation against God’s right to sit upon the throne. It is our honor too.