Many of these columns I write are as a result of questions friends ask me to research in my Bible studies. Most often these are passages or topics in the New Testament where it is fairly easy to learn about the language, context and customs of the time. But occasionally I’m asked to get out of my comfort zone and into less familiar territory in the Hebrew Bible.
And so it is I have been asked to explain the happenings in the Book of Job, which is probably the oldest piece of Hebrew scripture we have. I find myself woefully unprepared to do so, and I can only read and research and pray for guidance to share with you. But I have been given a challenge and hopefully God will speak with you in some way through my efforts.
Specifically troubling for my friend are the exchanges between God and Satan in the beginning of the narrative, where God permits Satan to harass Job, a devout and God-honoring man, short of taking his life.
More thoughts on that in a moment, but first let me explain a principle I often hear chanted as a call-response in worship services: "God is good! All the time! And all the time, God is good!."
While this is theologically sound, I’m not sure those who recite it truly realize the deepest implications of it. John the Apostle expresses this principle in a slightly different way,
This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. 1 John 1:5 NLT.
What this principle tells me is that any time it looks (to me) that God is doing something I consider wrong, puzzling, or even evil, I most assuredly have the wrong interpretation and need to search further for a different answer consistent with the revealed nature of God. That is, '…God is love.' 1 John 4:8
Evil is a consequence of free will. We first see this expressed in the Garden of Eden story when Eve chooses to believe the serpent’s lie rather than God’s truth. To quote C.S. Lewis,
“The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they've got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (...) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.” C.S. Lewis - The Case for Christianity
So it seems evil is inevitable unless everyone makes choices within God’s will. However, we do have assurance that a loving God is always seeking to manipulate the circumstances of life to our benefit despite those circumstances being the result of the wrong choices of those outside His will.
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28 NLT
Which brings me back to the story at the beginning of Job.
Let me remind you that this scripture was written many thousands of years ago, in an era when people had no conception of God’s love, but rather were concerned with his righteousness, his justice and his vengeance and vindication. Prosperity was regarded as an indicator God’s favor, poverty and illness were evidence of God’s punishment for evil actions.
This attitude was still prevalent in Jesus’ time (c.f. John 9:1-2) and can still be seen today in the so-called “prosperity gospel” of TV evangelists. It’s only half-true, though! As Jesus taught, the Father does indeed recklessly shower his creation with blessings (regardless of their spiritual condition), but never does He inflict evil as a punishment. Jesus had a totally different take on that:
“…love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven” Matthew 5:44-45 NLT
Bad things happen as a consequence of the actions, or inactions, of people outside God’s will. Some of those consequences may indeed be felt by those who were “innocent” of the choices giving rise to them.
So let me inquire, “Who was the reporter of the conversation between God and Satan”? And the obvious answer is that no human was present to witness these words, only the Holy Spirit could cause them to be written in the form we have them. So the dialog is there to make a point. God does not harm Job, Satan does! But even then God limits how far Satan can go in his harassment of Job because ultimately God wishes to bless Job for his faithfulness.
My wife complains that these columns are getting too long, so I hope to continue to examine what the Book of Job has to say to us in subsequent issues.
But for now let me encourage you to read the actual scripture in a good modern translation so we can dive into topics such as “why do bad things happen to good people?”, “why does God allow suffering?”, “is God mad at me?”, “why am I depressed?”, “is God listening to me?”, and “why me?”. These, and many others, are questions that Job asks and in the end the only answer he can come up with is this,
“But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last.” Job 19:25 NLT
I hope to talk with you soon, and remember, “God is good, all the time!”
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black