“Pondering the book of Job, that intense debate about God’s goodness within the Bible, I began to discern that the answer to Job’s questioning was simply the fact that he found himself in God’s presence. In God’s presence all the questions just fade away, as you realize the immensity of the infinite, divine reality with which you are confronted.” (Frances Young, BROKENNESS & BLESSING: TOWARDS A BIBLICAL SPIRITUALITY)
New Testament scholar Frances Young offers what might be one of the best insights into the book of Job – it is about being in God’s presence, not about understanding justice or suffering. We struggle to make sense of our troubled and fallen world – why is there evil and why does evil and suffering triumph at times even over the innocent and the good? Can it be that the loving God allows His faithful servants to be put through torture and inconsolable loss just to prove Satan wrong? As Young puts it, by modern thinking “God’s morality is in question.” Indeed, modern people, including many believers often wonder if God is powerless in the face of natural disasters, war, holocaust, terrorism, human hubris or sin.
We see at the beginning of the book of Job a man blessed by God with prosperity and all that one could hope for in life. He is described as being blameless, upright, God-fearing, not seduced by evil, who worships God even when bad things happen to him. He accepts God’s will despite the loss of everything; even his wife tells him to curse God. He has done no wrong nor does he sin; yet and on top of his suffering, his “friends” do not console him but rather tell Job it is all his own fault that he suffers, accusing him of arrogance and sin.
What perhaps is amazing in the story is that it is only through his suffering, and not through his prosperity and righteousness, that Job experiences the presence of God! Only after suffering terrible loss, unbearable sorrow, and the accusatory chastisement from his friends, does Job encounter God. Prior to his undeserved and unjust suffering – in that time when he was blessed by God for his faithfulness-Job only “had heard of God by the hearing of the ear.” But in the hell in which he found himself where all was lost and even spouse and friends blamed him, Job saw God and conversed with the Almighty.
The story does not follow the religious idealism and logic one would expect – when blessed and prosperous, Job is faithful to God but the Lord does not speak with him – only about him, and to Satan! Job has no personal experience of God in his prosperity, but is faithful and upright anyway. His faithfulness, blamelessness and righteousness do not protect him from wicked suffering and loss, as one might expect in a Bible story. Incredibly, only when he is reduced to poverty through unjust suffering and total loss of all that is good, does he get to see God and speak with Him.
This is hardly a story for teaching the benefits and rewards of being good, or of following God’s commandments. Job’s steadfastness in keeping faith with God defies reason; the story may be a panegyric for such unyielding faithfulness to God despite historical reality (which certainly would be consistent with Israel’s tenacious faith in God despite their miserable Old Testament history).
The story does however set up an understanding that helps us make sense of the life of Christ, who though God’s Son and Messiah suffers humiliating torture and execution before being justified by God and returned to glory. The rejection of Christ by the people and His seeming abandonment by God follows the pattern set by Job and gives it all full meaning. God’s favor cannot be measured by human prosperity.
The methods and logic of God indeed are beyond human understanding, and warn us against accepting cliché ridden religious formulae and formalism. The purpose of God may remain hidden in mystery, and at times all we may be able to discern is His presence, not His purpose. And though this remains unsatisfactory for our minds, we can realize that the sense of His presence is sometimes enough for our hearts to carry on in this world. His presence is more valuable to our existence than understanding His purpose. I always pray that those I know and love may be blessed by the sense of His Presence, even if His purpose remains hidden.
The book of Job teaches that to suffer is neither an absolute sign of God’s rejection nor of God’s punishment. Though we wish it on no one, suffering can become the entrance into the presence of God. We have heard about God and His great deeds, and read His Word, but that all is mere informational learning. For it is possible to experience God Himself in this world and even in our suffering, and that experience is formational and transformational making the world tolerable because we realize it is the very place where we do encounter the living God.