"Though we do not have all the answers to the question of suffering, God is still in control."
-- Introduction to Job, NIV
When her 11-year-old son died of leukemia, Carol's grief was compounded by her guilt. "If only I'd had more faith," she said, "God would have healed my son."
Carol was the last person responsible for her child's death, but her self-condemnation is not unusual. From the death of a loved one to casualties of accident or war, human nature doesn't tolerate suffering without a cause. If we can't find a reason, we make one up. Often, like Carol, to avoid bitterness or to keep from blaming someone else -- or God -- we assume the guilt ourselves.
If anyone ever suffered without an apparent cause, it was the Biblical character of Job. Prosperous, blameless and beloved, Job was everyone's ideal man, including God's.
The story begins with God praising "my servant Job," and Satan sneering that Job wouldn't be so wonderful if God hadn't blessed him so much. To prove his point, Satan offers God a challenge.
"Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face" (Job 1:11).
"Very well," God says, "everything he has is in your hands, only don't lay a finger on the man himself" (verse 12).
The next day Job's enemies steal all his donkeys, oxen and camels, and kill the servants tending them; fire falls from the sky and consumes his sheep; and a windstorm demolishes the house where his 10 children are gathered, killing them all. But if Satan thought he had won the bet, he was mistaken. Job just falls to his knees and cries, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (verse 21).
Undaunted, Satan discounts Job's first test because it only affected what he possessed. "But," he told God, "if you stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones he will surely curse you" (2:5). God agrees to the second challenge, too, as long as Satan spares Job's life, and immediately sores appear all over his body. He is in such agony his wife urges him to curse God and die. But Job replies, "Shall we accept good from God and not trouble" (2:9-10)?
Job's friends find him in the ash heap, rubbing pieces of broken pottery across his sores. They came to console, but turn to chiding, convinced he must have done something to bring on such misery. Loss of support from those who should love him most: curse No. 3.
Soon a younger friend arrives with his reasons for Job's predicament. Job may not have sinned already, but God sent the trials so he won't sin. Finally, God appears, discounting all their reasons and reminding them that it's no more possible for a man to understand the answers to life than for him to "lay the earth's foundation... shut the sea behind its doors... give orders to the morning, or show the dawn its place" (chapter 38).
But Job is just a story -- isn't it? A literary masterpiece added to the Bible to entertain its readers? Some scholars think so, but others believe Job was a descendant of Jacob's brother, Esau, and a king in Edom, an area between Egypt and Babylon.
Mystery may surround the Book of Job, but the subject it addresses is eternal: Why does a good God let bad things happen to innocent people?
According to Eerdman's Handbook Of The Bible, the reason Job's friends -- and ours -- keep inventing answers to this question is that human minds always measure justice in human terms. In the end, Job demonstrates the difference between the temporal and the eternal when he exclaims -- and glorious voices sing to this day: "I know that my redeemer lives and that, in my flesh, I shall see God" (19:20).
As Job's story ends, his family, health and prosperity return. Our story may not end this way, at least not in this life. But today Job, and someday those who accept "the ways of God," will inhabit a place where suffering no longer exists. Then, in our painless flesh, we, too, "shall see God."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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