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How can Job’s suffering (and his wife’s) help Christians today?

Description: Some shy away from the Book of Job, yet it explores deep questions. Read how this ancient story offers today’s Christians valuable insights.



Introduction

Some modern Christians might be tempted to skip this ancient narrative, yet it explores deep questions and situations that really matter. These include:


1. suffering and faith

2. the mysteries of God’s justice

3. divine wisdom versus human limitations

4. whether we should question God

5. living a righteous life

6. the nature of friendship.


To start with, let’s look at Job’s story and get an overview of the characters. We can then review what happens to him, the reactions of his friends, and God’s intervention. We’ll also consider his wife’s role, which is easy to overlook despite the suffering she endured.


The main characters

1. God (of course!). He features as the divine creator and ruler of the universe. The pivotal conflict of the story is the start of a deep and illuminating dialogue between God and Job.


2. Job (the man himself). He is introduced as a righteous and prosperous man known for his unwavering faith. However, his life takes a dramatic turn when he experiences a series of devastating losses and trials.


3. Satan (the Accuser). Satan is the scheming character behind Job’s suffering. When God commends Job as someone who is blameless and upright, Satan challenges God about the sincerity of human faith. He suggests Job's righteousness is conditional. In other words, Job would renounce his faith – and the righteousness that flows from it – were he to be faced with catastrophic suffering.


4. Job’s friends. Three friends come into the story as comforters for Job during his time of suffering. They are Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. However, there is also a young man called Elihu, but he doesn’t come into the story until the three friends have stopped answering Job. See separate paragraph about Elihu below.


5. Job’s wife. She occupies a significant, but often overlooked role, and her presence is a powerful reminder of the human toll exacted by suffering and loss. See separate paragraph about Job’s wife below.


Job's losses and trials

God allows Satan’s challenge and gives him power over everything Job has. The initial exception is Satan may not lay a finger on the man himself. As a result, Job suffers a series of overwhelming tragedies.


In rapid succession, he loses his wealth, livestock, servants, and even his ten children. Coming as they do – fast, severe, and one after another – these calamities leave Job in a state of shock, intense grief and despair. Yet, despite these immense losses, Job remains faithful to God.


The initial encounter

As mentioned above, Job’s three friends come into the story as comforters. They stay with him for seven days, during which time they give silent support, thereby sharing in Job's grief and suffering (Job 2.11-13).


This practice was customary in ancient Near Eastern cultures, including those of the biblical era, and reflected a deep cultural understanding of the importance of companionship and solidarity in times of suffering. Seven days are also significant as the time span in which to honour and mourn the deceased and/or show support for those who are grieving.


Notwithstanding, the decision of Job's friends to remain silent for seven days is a point of debate among scholars. Some view their silence as a commendable act of empathy; others suggest they were simply unable to offer Job any meaningful comfort or support.


Whichever interpretation is preferred, there’s no doubt the friends’ subsequent arguments and criticisms (their theological perspectives) only increased Job’s distress (hence the expression: Job’s comforter – someone who discourages or depresses a sufferer under the guise of giving comfort and consolation).


The three friends state their case

The three friends based their arguments on the traditional wisdom of the time. This held that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. In their view, Job's suffering was evidence of hidden sins that had to be confessed.


Eliphaz was the first to speak. He began sympathetically, emphasising Job's wisdom and past righteousness. Then he drew on his own experiences and visions to argue the innocent do not suffer unjustly; hence, Job's suffering had to be the result of wrongdoing. He urged Job to end his suffering by acknowledging his sins, repenting, and seeking God's forgiveness.


Job's response was to express frustration at Eliphaz's oversimplified view of suffering. He challenged Eliphaz's assertions and continued to maintain his innocence. While lamenting his misfortunes, he longed for an audience with God to present his case and seek answers.


Bildad's response to Job’s answer built on Eliphaz's argument. He suggested Job's children must have sinned to have deserved such a terrible fate (all the sons and daughters had been killed when the eldest son’s house collapsed – see Job 1.18-19). Bildad asserted that God is just, and suffering a result of a person’s own actions. Further, he implied Job's suffering could be less severe if he repented.


Job's response to Bildad was to express frustration at the ongoing accusation that his suffering was solely due to sin. In bewailing his situation, he questioned the justice of God. He argued that he wasn’t privy to God's reasons for his suffering, and didn’t understand the divine plan.


Zophar's argument was even more direct and harsh than the others. He was less diplomatic and believed Job deserved even more suffering than he’d already endured, given his sins. Essentially, Zophar rebuked Job for his arrogance in judging himself pure in God’s sight. He demanded to know whether Job could fathom the mysteries, or probe the limits of God.


Job acknowledged God's wisdom as beyond human comprehension but asserted that, for him, his suffering remained a mystery. He again expressed his longing for an audience with God to seek answers for his questions.


Elihu

Unlike Job's three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – Elihu was not initially part of the debate. He remained silent until the others had finished speaking, then presented his perspective, as follows:


1. Youthful wisdom: in acknowledging his youthfulness, he claimed wisdom wasn’t solely tied to age. He believed the spirit within him and the breath of the Almighty had given him understanding.


2. God's instruction through suffering: he contended suffering served as a form of instruction from God. He suggested God used affliction to guide individuals away from pride and wrongdoing, aiming to turn their souls from sin and enlighten them with the light of life.


3. Calling for Job's attention: he emphasised God's justice and greatness, and urged Job to listen and consider the righteous purpose behind God's actions.


4. God's unsearchable ways: he also emphasised the incomprehensibility of God's ways, suggesting humans can’t fully understand God's judgments or the reasons behind suffering.


Interestingly, Elihu's role and contributions are not directly addressed by God in the way God responds to Job and his three friends.


Job’s overall response

In summary, Job's responses expressed frustration, confusion, and anguish because he didn’t know or understand why he was suffering so appallingly. Consistently, he asserted his innocence, challenged his friends' simplistic explanations, and pleaded for an audience with God.


God's response

In the latter part of the story, God responded to Job's pleas, yet rather than offering direct answers, he presented a series of rhetorical questions. Each emphasised the limitations of human understanding and the vastness of divine wisdom and power.


These questions reminded Job that humans must have faith in God's wisdom, even when they can’t grasp the reasons behind suffering. This compelling reality underscored the limitations of human understanding in matters of divine justice and suffering. Moreover, it highlighted the flaws in the arguments put forward by Job's friends. Job's suffering was not a result of personal sin. It was a test of faith and part of God's divine plan.


The book concludes with God being angry with Job’s friends because they hadn’t spoken truthfully. God also blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former. As well as giving him twice as much as he had before, he blessed him with seven more sons and three more daughters.


Insights about Job’s wife

The role of – and implications for – Job's wife are often overlooked, yet she is significant, and a forceful reminder of the wider impact of the suffering and loss events in Job's story.


For some, she is a symbol of enduring faith, while others view her as someone who struggled with the challenges she faced. Accordingly, some sympathise with the tremendous losses she endured, not least the deaths of ten children.


On the other hand, some focus on her words to Job, urging him to curse God and die. They interpret this as a lack of faith or resilience. A counter position suggests she was driven by compassion fused with an over-identification of grief for Job's suffering. This view recognises the immense burdens she bore and identifies empathy as the trigger for her outburst, not any hatred of God or lack of faith or resilience.


There are no rights and wrongs in this, just different perceptions. Although Job’s wife is barely mentioned, this in no way diminishes her importance. God loves everyone equally.


In a sense, she may have had the final word, for when God asked for sacrifices to be made for the three friends, there was no requirement for a sacrifice on her behalf. This, perhaps, honours her by recognising the unique burdens she bore.


Insights for today’s Christians

1. Suffering and faith: Job's unwavering faith in the face of immense suffering serves as an inspiration. It demonstrates faith does not rely on having material blessings; it can be maintained and, indeed, undeniably strengthened by adversity, even when the adversity is sorely challenging.


2. Questioning God: Job's bold questioning of God's justice and his desire for answers affirm the idea faith can coexist with doubt and questioning. It’s a reminder it is acceptable, appropriate, and discerning to seek a deeper understanding of God's ways.


3. Divine wisdom and human limitations: God's response to Job highlights the vast gulf between divine wisdom and human understanding. However much our egos protest, we are constantly faced with circumstances and life mysteries we simply can’t rationalise or even grasp. This boosts the impulse to resist God's plan, particularly when faced with apparently inexplicable suffering. A resolve to accept God’s divine wisdom, even when we don’t understand, can encourage Christian humility.


4. Living a righteous life: Job's life exemplifies righteousness and integrity. Modern-day Christians can draw from his example by striving to lead virtuous lives and maintain faith, regardless of external circumstances.


5. The role of friends: The Book of Job also serves as a cautionary tale. The well-intentioned advice and counsel of Job's friends ultimately proved to be flawed. This again emphasises the limits of human wisdom and also the importance of empathy and compassion, especially when supporting those going through hard times.


Conclusion

The Book of Job is a timeless and profound text. It offers valuable insights into the human experience, particularly regarding suffering, faith, and divine justice. For today’s Christians, it provides a powerful reminder of the importance of humility in the face of divine mysteries, the need to remain faithful, and the importance of compassion for others who are experiencing acute distress. As such, the Book is a relevant and enduring testament that offers guidance and wisdom when navigating life’s challenges.






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