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It’s about Faith?
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Job, chapter 1 and follow along as I read verses 9-11.
9 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Does Job fear God for nothing?
10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.
11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face."
Amen. The word of God thanks be to God.
Most of the people who read the book of Job say that it is about the problem of suffering. More specifically, it is about the problem of undeserved suffering. If God is love and God is good, why do good people sometimes live and die in such pain and misery?
Chapters 3-37 of the book of Job have no action at all. These chapters consist of long speeches by Job, his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and a younger man, Elihu. The speeches discuss Job’s situation. Job has lost everything. He lost all his money. He lost all his children. He has been afflicted with a loathsome skin disease. He is sitting on a pile of ashes, scraping at his open sores with a piece of clay pot. And the question he and his friends examine is: Why has this happened?
It is a question everyone asks. The book of Job seems especially suited for our time. The twentieth century was a century of progress. It was also a century of pain. The twentieth century began with a genocide. The Turks tried to wipe out all Armenians. The century ended with a genocide. The Serbs tried to wipe out everyone in the former country of Yugoslavia who was not Serb. The Twentieth Century had two world wars, and a hundred minor wars and a dozen or more major attempts at genocide. And now in the opening years of a new century, we have terrorist assaults on our society.
It is no surprise then that many modern authors have used Job as a figure for the human condition. Archibald MacLeish did it with J.B. (1956), Neil Simon did it with God's Favorite (1975). Robert A. Heinlein wrote Job, A Comedy of Justice (1984). Then there was Robert Frost with "The Masque of Reason", and William Safire with The First Dissident. H.G. Wells wrote The Undying Fire, and Thornton Wilder wrote Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job? All these literary works explore the problem of pain, which was the problem Job and his friends were arguing about.
Job and his friends agreed that a loving and powerful God ought to do certain things. God ought to reward those who do good and punish those who do bad. Therefore, Job must be suffering because he has done evil. Suffering is the punishment for sin, so Job’s friends argue, and therefore Job has committed some horrible sin, but Job knows this is not so. His friends are trying to explain suffering, but their theology fails to match the facts.
Many people still follow the theology of Job’s friends, even in church. It goes like this. If you believe in Jesus, Jesus will be with you, and everything will go well with you. Your business will prosper, your family will gather around you, you will live a long, happy life in peace and comfort. This is called the “Prosperity Gospel.” It is a false doctrine. It was not true for Jesus when he lived among us. He was crucified. It was not true for the early church, they were thrown to lions. Historically, there is no evidence that belief in Jesus leads to worldly success or good health. In fact, Jesus said, my kingdom is not of this world.
Also, the “Prosperity Gospel” is a selfish gospel. The “Prosperity Gospel” says I should believe in Jesus because he will make me successful. I will make lots of money and everyone will like me. That is not what the real gospel is about. We do not love Jesus because of what he can do for us, we just love Jesus.
In the book of Job, Satan preaches the Prosperity Gospel. In Job chapter 1, God brags about his favorite human being, saying in v8, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Satan replies, It is not surprising that Job has faith in you. Look what you have done for him. You have created a fortification around him and his family. You have given him vast wealth and possessions. In effect Satan says, Job only believes in you because of what he can get from you. Satan says, Let me take it all from him and he will spit in your face.
That tells us what Job is about. It’s about faith, Job’s faith. The book of Job tells the story of a hero who endured an astonishing test of faith.
But Job never understands this. He does not understand why such bad things keep happening to him. From our viewpoint, the first two chapters explain why these things are happening. We understand that this is a contest between God and Satan over Job’s faith. But Job and his friends have not read the first two chapters, and so they do not know anything about this. Thus they speculate about possible theories of pain, and generally get things totally wrong.
Job scratches himself with shards of pottery, and asks: Why me? What did I do wrong? Where is God in this? Of course, we already know the answers. Job has done nothing wrong. God himself called Job "blameless and upright." Why is Job suffering? We know that he is not being punished. God is using Job to prove that a person’s faith can motivated simply by love of God and not God's gifts.
This even extends to the gift of heaven. There is throughout the book of Job no mention of heaven or hell. Apparently, Job had no knowledge of any kind of life after death. Job worships God not because God will grant him any kind of heavenly reward, but simply because God is worshipful, because worship is the appropriate response to the creator of the cosmos.
Most commentators would like to forget chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Job because they are a theological embarrassment. Satan wanders into heaven, and no one raises an eyebrow. Apparently, they do not have much in the way of security in heaven. God has a conversation with Satan like they are good old boys talking about the prospects of their football teams this year. They debate the outcome of the contest over Job’s faith like it was some sort of game.
And Satan challenges not only Job’s trust in God, but God’s trustworthiness. Satan's accusation that Job loves God only because "you have put a fence around him" attacks God. Satan implies that God is unworthy of love in himself; people only believe in God because they are "bribed."
So Satan implies that God himself is on trial here, and Job, for different reasons, would also say that God is on trial. Job asks: How can a loving God be so unjust and treat people so unfairly? Job says several times that he wants to ask God what is going on. His question is, Why God? And we are in sympathy with Job. Whenever we see people suffering, we ask, Why, God?
But the book of Job will never answer those questions. In fact, you might argue that the whole purpose of the book is not to answer those questions. This book is about faith, radical faith. The real question is can we have faith, without any proof whatsoever, without any reasonable support whatsoever, without any prospect of reward whatsoever.
Both Job and Satan are wrong. God is not on trial in this book. Job’s faith is on trial. Can Job’s faith withstand the complete destruction of all that most people value.
Satan is betting that Job can’t do it. Satan’s Prosperity Gospel has a low opinion of people. People are just out to get what they can for themselves. They are a greedy and treacherous lot. That is Satan’s view. God holds us to a higher standard. Having endowed us with freedom, God insists that we can use our freedom to live lives of faith. We can freely trust in God and live for God, even in the harshest circumstances. You see, God believes in us. Job is the test of God’s belief in us.
Satan is what we would call today a behavioral psychologist. Satan says that Job’s belief is just a product of environment and circumstances. Change the environment, change the circumstances, and Job will change his belief. God says that Job is better than that. Whatever his environment, whatever his circumstances, he will still believe. And God is right of course. No matter what happens to Job, he keeps his faith. He never wavers, he never gives up on God.
Job complains about his circumstances. In 3:3, he says, “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, 'A man-child is conceived.” He complains to God. In chapter 30:20-21, we read, “I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me.” But Job complains to God because he has not given up on God. He still has faith in spite of everything.
In the last chapter of the book, God chastises Job’s friends because throughout the book they have preached some form of Prosperity Theology. They have constantly told Job that he must be a great sinner or bad things would not be happening to him. God says that they are idiots and their theology is terrible.
We do not love God for reward. What kind of God would want that? Certainly, our God does not want that. God is love. That means that God is the supreme object for our love. We love God simply and only because God is the most loveable being we can ever know or imagine.
I remember the first time I ever read the book of Job. I waded through all the speeches in chapters 3-37, and finally I got to God’s response in chapter 38. I thought this is great. Now God is going to speak and we are going to get some answers. But in the four chapters of God’s response (38-41), God does not answer any of Job’s questions. God does not even mention Job’s suffering. God does not tell Job, or us, why bad things happened to good people. Instead, God tells Job that he does not know enough to ask questions. God does this very poetically. God asks Job a series of questions to indicate the extent of Job’s ignorance. For example: Job 38:4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” and v12, "Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place.”
But God’s main point is that Job does not know about chapters 1 and 2 of this book. Job does not know that he has participated in a cosmic drama in which his faith decisions were of crucial interest to both God and Satan. Job thinks it is about suffering and for thirty-five chapters he and his friends have wrestled with that problem. God, of course, has known all along that it’s about faith. Will Job cling to faith when every self-interested reason for doing so is pulled away? Satan had said, "He will curse you to your face." Satan lost. Job kept the faith.
After God lectured Job about his ignorance, God restored double all that Job had lost. Some commentators dwell on Job's restored fortunes. They emphasize that Job underwent trials only for a season before again receiving material rewards from God. But that was Satan’s point not God’s point. Satan’s accusation was that Job served God only for material reward. Job proved however that he served God only because God is God, and material rewards have nothing to do with it.
True, God did reward Job lavishly, but the book is not about that. Faith is the main emphasis in Job. Job's material prosperity is insignificant in comparison with his faith in God.
The book of Job is a battleground of faith and testing. Job's true crisis was a crisis of faith, not of suffering. The same is true for us. All of us sometimes face Job-like circumstances. Bad things happen, a tragic accident, a terminal illness, or a loss of job—and we ask: "Why, me? What does God have against me?"
We focus on our circumstances: our illnesses, our poverty, our bad luck, our pain. We pray for God to change our circumstances. If only I had a better job, more money, then I could serve God better and believe more deeply. if only I were taller or more beautiful then I could be a more faithful person. That is Satan’s Prosperity Gospel. Job shows us the kind of faith we should all cherish, a faith that is not dependent on anything at all.
When tragedy strikes, we are tempted to believe that it is all about me, and we blame God for our problems, but the book of Job shows us that when Job thought he was most down and out, at the bottom of the pit, from God’s point of view, Job was not down and out at all. He was at the top of his form, living by faith. And God had not abandoned Job, far from it, God was exalting Job. At the moment God seemed absent to Job, God was totally present to him.
At the moment when God seems absent to us, God is totally present to us. And at every moment, not just moments of trial, but at every moment, God calls us to live by faith and nothing but faith. Trust God then. No matter what people say, no matter what the circumstances, Trust god now and always. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 8/22/05