Have you ever read the book of Job? It’s fabulous. OK, listen, I admit it, it goes on a bit and it’s often circular in its reasoning, but I reckon that’s cultural. It’s like some ancient old wise man who adheres to a particular structure of philosophical debate and he is not going to deviate from it, even if his audience falls asleep, throws cabbages at his head, or wanders away, leaving him shouting to only a nearby raven. A very stubborn old wise man, then. But, honestly, the book is wonderful. There’s not a lot of God in it, and there’s a hell of a lot of pious right-on so-called friends, and there’s a fair bit of Job, and the overall effect is a bit like an East Enders episode where everyone’s shouting at each other, and denying accusations, and giving it large with self-justification. The only thing it lacks is ‘You’re not my muvva!’ “Yes, I yam!”
In other words, it feels like today. I laugh when Job loses patience with these friends, and I love it when he begins a hopeless rant against God even admitting as the rant gets going that it’s all futile. And I hear the echo of my friends in their words – their desire to ‘sort it’, to have the answer, to share wisdom and kindness, to counter everything he says with their own version of his life. To help him. That’s the good bit of them (and of my friends) – they want to help him.
The question the book asks isn’t so much ‘Why does man suffer?’ or even ‘How can a good God allow suffering?’ but it is rather ‘How should we react to suffering?’
And the lesson I draw from it (you may draw another lesson, we are all at different stages) is that, in the great scheme of things, our suffering is but a sigh, a passing breeze, here today and gone tomorrow and it has nothing to reveal to us about the nature of God. What we do with the suffering, what the suffering teaches us, well, that has everything to do with God. But, you know, more than that, it teaches me that God is unimpressed with our suffering.
Is the book allegorical or is it the historically true story of a man called Job who lived through these trials and had these actual conversations with God and with his companions? I see it as an allegory, but that’s my choice and I don’t claim ‘rightness’.
For me, Job is mankind. He has everything; wealth, health, family, reputation, he’s in position of leadership, he guards and guides his family, he’s a happy man. Metaphorically, Job is the ultimate creature on planet Earth, he has reasoning and foresight, an opposable thumb! He is in a privileged position in God’s creation.
Job sees himself, and others see him, as a good man (as mankind sees itself as ‘good’) . But there are little hints in his description that he’s not – contrary to what he’s called – blameless. That his life is not a paragon. When his sons and daughters have feasts and invite each other to their houses (I told you they were wealthy!) Job sees a need afterwards to offer prayers and rituals to cleanse them of any sins they may have committed during their celebrations. He hasn’t, then, raised well behaved kids. And, more importantly, he believes that he can purge their sins by bargaining with God, swopping a lamb for a sin, a ritual for a sin. Further on in the book we see that his opinion of the poor is a self-centred and privileged one, that he is proud of the small kindnesses he does, rather than open hearted and open handed. He is, in fact, just like me. He is mankind, trying, striving, wanting to do good and be good, but ultimately self centred and self deceiving.
The opening premise (using the voice of Satan) is that Job is only behaving like a good man, because he wants rewards from God, and that if those rewards are taken away, he will cease the pretence of goodness and will rail at God, turn on him, start sinning from morn till night. A concern of mine, as I grew up in a Roman Catholic environment, was that when I lit a candle in the Lady Chapel, or said a prayer, or went to confession, I was doing these things only to curry favour with God. If so, I knew this wasn’t any good. I would watch the priest as he went through the much loved (by me) unhurried ritual of the Mass, and I’d wonder if he was doing it just so that he would get to heaven, if it was cupboard love, pure and simple? I wondered if my devotion too was anchored in my desire to get to heaven? If so, wow! even then I knew, as an 8 year old child, that it wasn’t the sort of love that God wanted.
I see Job at the beginning of the book as a man going through the motions. And it’s only as disaster after disaster overwhelms him, that he begins to question his own attitude, and to honestly engage with God. His pals, full of comfort and banality don’t realise it but everything they say seeks to turn him away from this honest confrontation. They go through the whole gamut of pious thinking, ‘Good is good, who are you to question him?’ ‘Ask for forgiveness and all will improve.’ ‘You must be lacking faith, just tap into it and God will reward you’ etc etc etc. In effect, they are trying to keep him from God, to remould Job into the image of themselves, not thinking too deeply, not exploring the nature of God and of life, living a life of faith as deep only as a veneer.
But Job wanted more than that. Mankind wants more than that. Needs more than that. We need to grapple with our God, to be stripped of all pretence and ritual, all cliché and hypocrisy. Ironically, the arguments put forward by Job’s friends help him to do that, as he fights against them. And for me, today, when I try to draw nearer to God, it’s the things that stand in my way that, paradoxically, bring me closer to Him. Recognising my selfishness, my willingness to be offended, my instinct to withdraw from people – these are all the ‘arguments’ and obstacles that, as I recognise them and ask God for help with them, ultimately give me a better understanding of Him, and of His presence, and of myself.
The book of Job, to me, is a picture of our need for honesty before God. Hey, it’s just occurred to me – his pals, these right-on pious men, never ever address God directly! They never pray! Job speaks to God, but they don’t. They’re too busy being ‘right’ to step into God’s presence, too busy trotting out comfort to have time for prayer.
But the most, most, most exciting part of Job, for me, is that this book, written probably 2000 years before Christ, recognises the need for a saviour, a mediator between God and man, in the person of Jesus Christ:
Job 9:33 “If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together”
Hey, Job, my old pal, relax. God has it in hand.
At the end of the book, after meeting with his God, Job is moved to silence. He puts his hand over his mouth. And that’s what I’m doing now.