You have heard of Job’s endurance, James says (James 5:11). Job is the man who had it all and lost it all. His story is so unreal as to be incredible. But the Book of Job cannot be construed as merely an allegory or fictitious example of someone who suffered great pain and loss but continued, somehow, to hold on to his faith in God. Neither is it an abstract treatise on the nature of suffering, its causes and effects. If Job were not a real person who lived in real time, his story would have little power to aid the rest of us.
Did Job, in fact, keep his faith? He complained bitterly; he argued vehemently; he scorned answers given him by friends. He felt abandoned and betrayed by God who seemed to be toying mercilessly with his moral uprightness when he should have been rewarding it. If this is not enough to indicate serious failure of faith, Job, at several junctures, wished he were dead or, better yet, that he’d never been born. Can we say that a man who curses the day of his birth (Job 3:1ff) has faith?
Job held on, yes, but did he hold on to faith?
Job’s First Response—And Ours
Before the calamities that ruined his health and prosperity, Job “feared God” (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). With no Bible to read, Job nevertheless had come to a fully orbed view of God. God was his maker (implied in the term he uses for God: “Yahweh,” “the self-existent One”; see also Job 9:4-10 and 10:8); he was all-wise and compassionate (Job 2:10 and 10:12); he forgave sin on the basis of sacrifice (Job 1:5); he was a living Redeemer whom Job would one day—after death—see face to face (Job 19:25-27).
Satan knew that Job feared God. But Satan had so long believed his own distorted view of God that he could not imagine any person “fearing God” if God took away material blessing. As he correctly expressed, most people find it in their hearts to feign trust in God when everything is going well and there is financial security. He assumed that Job, once his wealth was removed, would curse God (Job 1:10, 11).
God, amazingly, allowed the proposition that Satan placed before him: “Put forth your hand now and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). Disaster after disaster destroyed Job’s livestock, his wealth and, yes, his ten children. Job lost everything—but a bitter wife.
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground and worshiped” (Job 1:20). Worshiped? In the days before disaster, Job humbled himself before his God and sacrificed. Now, in the face of loss and deep grief, he worshiped. In his devastation, Job acknowledged that God is still the Lord. Worship was Job’s first response.
Is it mine? Have I ever said, perhaps too quickly, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when trying to comfort someone else? Do I just as quickly say the same when I suffer grief and loss? Instead, don’t I wonder if God is being fair? Is that not our complaint when we look at others who are better off, or whose Christian life seems to be blessed when ours is in shambles? There is nothing in this initial response of Job’s that indicates he was grumbling about fairness. Instead, he acknowledged that he had nothing that God did not give; how could he complain when God took it away? It was God, after all. In fact, the next words out of his mouth were: “Blessed be the name of the LORD.” Blessed? Satan was so sure Job would curse God!
Ash Heap and Integrity
Job had no inkling of the heavenly battle swirling around him, nor of the diabolical plan of Satan to undo his faith. Would it have helped him to know of his mortal enemy who was prowling around, seeking someone to devour? And that God let him? Would it help me?
Satan was not finished. “All that a man has,” he said brazenly to the Lord, “he will give for his life. But . . . touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” Satan was still presuming a response commensurate with his own. So the Lord allowed him to ruin Job’s health.
Now, sitting in ashes, scraping his boils with broken pots, Job had yet another enemy—in the form of his wife. Unwittingly siding with Satan, she sneered, “Do you still hold fast your integrity?” In fact, it was Job’s integrity that God gave as evidence to Satan of the kind of man who fears him.
But she went on with eerily familiar words: “Curse God and die!” What would she have left if he “cursed God and died”? She would be a childless widow and a bitter old woman with the memory of a husband who was strong in faith when times were good but who gave up when times were bad. Anyone can do that.
Job echoed his own statement that it is the Lord who gives and the Lord who takes away. “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” This is spoken by a man who knew both good and evil almost to their limits. He had gone from “the greatest man in the east” to the man sitting in the ash heap, derided by his wife.
“In all this, Job did not sin with his lips.” So far, so good.
But: “Afterward, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (Job 3:1).
Had it all gone? His staunch, serene faith? His absolute confidence in the sovereign God who blesses, redeems, forgives, reckons faith as righteousness?
In the face of arguments put forth by three “comforting” friends, Job began to vent his frustration. Now he was being treated unfairly; he was at God’s mercy; he and God were unequal sparring partners, and God always won. I can’t hold my head up, he moaned, because you’ll hunt me down. Why bring me out of the womb if this is the way you’re going to treat me?
Is this not a large, rather than a small, view of God? If I know that God is bigger, better, stronger, wiser, and in every way superior to me, and I can still say all the things I’m feeling to him, would seem to indicate that God is big enough to take this complaining from one of his creatures who, in the same breath, pleads for mercy. This is the difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Complaining about him allows you to walk away. Complaining to him acknowledges a relationship that is still intact.
“I desire to argue my case with God,” Job said (Job 13:3). “I will argue my ways to his face” (Job 13:15). Job had a God with whom he may argue, defend himself, plead—even to his face.
Yet he was tempted to hide from God. Who would not be? He wanted relief. Who would not? Two things he asked of God: “Withdraw your hand from me, and let not the dread of you terrify me” (Job 13:20-21). However, he did not want God to hide from him (Job 13:24). He couldn’t live with God, and he couldn’t live without him. This very position separates the baffled believer from the doubting skeptic. Far from harboring a stubborn, rebellious resistance or dismissing God with disgust and indifference, Job wanted to be on speaking terms with God; he wanted to know that God was not being casual or callous with him but was carefully tending the events of his life.
Job expected a response, even if he had to wait until death to get it. “You will call, and I will answer you” (Job 14:13-15). We see in Job a man who refused to give up on God. Job was intuitively doing what Jesus prescribed in Luke 11:9—asking, seeking, knocking. It is the one who waits on God with expectancy, not knowing how long it is going to take, who has faith.
Not That Kind of Suffering
Was God cruel, unreasonable, merciless to drive Job to such desperation that he felt like a scattered leaf or dry chaff? Job was deserted by family and friends, scoffed at by strangers and children, walled in and surrounded by the darkness of God’s silence (Job 13, 16, 17, and 19).
Is it not possible—even probable—that too much suffering could cause a person to lose all faith in God? Is that not a reasonable, even a foregone conclusion?
There is only one person in the history of the world who, because of suffering, had the right to be driven over the brink of temptation to lose faith: the sinless Son of God who, bearing the sins of a world in his tormented body on the cross, cried out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). He is the only one whom God allowed to suffer so much that he was truly, for awhile, forsaken. To the rest of us—who do not bear the sins of the world, and who do not even have to bear our own—he does not give that kind of suffering. He promises to provide the way of escape with every temptation, so that you will be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Nothing, Paul says in another passage, will be able to separate us from the love of Christ, including suffering of all kinds (Romans 8:35-39). Nothing, in other words, makes a person lose faith. Losing faith is a choice, not an involuntary consequence of mental or physical anguish or unanswered questions.
But Job had to continue, for the time being, to live with the current reality. If I could just find him, he would pay attention to me, I’m sure of it. I can’t tell where he is or what he’s doing, but I know he’s doing something. He is a God who acts, but he eludes me. As Job reasoned with himself, he came back to the central truth he had discovered earlier: “But he knows the way I take” (Job 23:10). Job could not discern God, but that was not the decisive factor—God discerned him and knew him.
We often speak as if our view of God carries the weight of our faith or gives us sufficient reason to lose faith. Yet while the friends spoke of their view of God (and God excoriated them for their wrong views), Job continually spoke of God’s view of him. Job, even in his lowest moments, never ceased to believe that God was watching him and thinking about him. Which, after all, can I more depend on? My view of God? Or his of me?
In his final, masterful discourse, Job rehearsed his life and his integrity, his (former) high place in society and his acts of mercy, and invited God to rain down punishment on any area of his life if it was due him. Job was desperate for God! It was this desperation that kept Job holding on—and holding on to faith. Without faith that God saw, that God acted, that God dealt with men righteously and justly, that God had already dealt with the problem of his sin (Job 13:16, 23:10), that God was coming back as Redeemer (Job 19:25)—Job would have had nothing to hold on to.
Yet God also held on to him. James’ allusion to Job concludes: “[You] have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11). God knew his intentions with Job all along.
The Book of Job is not a testimony of joy in suffering. There was no joy in the midst of Job’s agony. There was only suffering. Am I desperate enough for God to endure whatever pain and unanswered questions he’s asked me to live with, to suffer the loss of everything? Most of us don’t lose everything—but can I suffer this? Because whatever I’m suffering now is the thing that God will use to enlarge my view of him and to assure me that he still has his eye on me. He will let it go on as long—and only as long—as he intends it to.
Did there ever come a time when Job understood God’s way with him? God did not appear to offer explanations to Job. Indeed, understanding was not possible. Job’s concept of God was correct but not complete. What God wanted was acceptance of his way with Job based on the knowledge given, and that was enough. No justifying himself, no complaining about his lost prestige, no pointing out his respectability or integrity, no asking why. Job finally learned there is nothing left in the presence of God but wonder and humility. (This point God drove home to Job before he restored him, his fortunes, and his family.)
Believing in a compassionate God’s view of me—accepted, forgiven, redeemed, watched—I can hold on, and hold on to faith.