Storms, rain, deluge, the worst floods in decades. ‘Why does it always rain on me?’, sang the Scottish band Travis in 1999. “Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?” they go on to ponder, expressing the pervasive belief in exact retribution, consistent with the Old Testament:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.
For by me thy days shall be multiplied, and the years of thy life shall be increased.
If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself: but if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it (Prov 9:10-12).
The perfect equation of sin with judgment is as prevalent in modern pop culture as it was in Job’s day. The principal plea of those who suffer disaster and trauma is “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?”, and the easy, comforting answer is to believe that the suffering is deserved; that some personal wickedness or sin was its cause, because associated guilt places the catastrophe in a comprehensible universal order, namely that suffering is explicable in terms of punishment.
Job shares the premise of his friends that because God is just, He rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, which is why Job can make no sense of his own suffering (10:5-7). ‘Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard: I cry aloud, but there is no judgment’ (19:7).
It isn’t easy to square God’s promises of prosperity for the faithful and hardship for the disobedient with the reality that Travis sing about. How does one equate Psalm 146 with Job 24:1-12, or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:4? The author of the Book of Job clashes directly with the ideology of Proverbs, and so, many conclude, “The Bible is just full of contradictions.” Proverbs seems to say, “Here are the rules for life; try them and find that they will work.” Job and Ecclesiastes say, “We did, and they don’t.”
But Job isn’t necessarily a contradiction to Proverbs; more a modification or qualification. Proverbial expressions of natural retribution are something most will understand: eating junk food results in heart attacks; smoking gives you lung cancer; building on floodplains is just asking for trouble. But Proverbs does not attempt to reconcile the contradictions of experience. Thus when poverty is linked to laziness or folly (Prov 6: 6-11; 10:4f; 21:17,21,25), it is easy to conclude that laziness results in poverty; or worse, that poverty is always the result of laziness.
But this is to ignore that righteous people are afflicted by suffering (Ps 13:1):
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? (Jn 9:1f).
Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? (Lk 13:4).
By separating calamity from moral wrongdoing, there is an alleviation of associated guilt, and thus illness and disease, death or disaster need not necessarily cast discredit on the victim. Proverbs speaks truth, but the lesson from Job is not to apply it dogmatically or simplistically.
Job’s friends repeatedly state that all humans are flawed by sin and none is pure (4:17-21, 15:14, 25:4-6), and Job shares this view (1:5, 14:1-4), and does not therefore claim to be sinless (cf 7:21, 13:26, 14:16f). This appears to contradict his claims elsewhere (9:15,20, 10:1-7) to be innocent. It has to be assumed that the prevailing theory of retribution held by Job and his friends was that God’s punishments and rewards were in proportion to man’s sin or righteousness – a theory which has been perpetuated throughout church and literary history: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” cries King Lear.
Job clings to the deeply-held belief that he is innocent of anything which may have deserved calamity and suffering on such a massive scale. His experience moves him beyond a limiting theology, and opens his eyes to the fact that the wicked are rarely punished (ch 21) and the oppressed are rarely comforted (24:1-12). Job ultimately allows his experience to modify his theological dogma, while his friends cling to their dogma against all the evidence.
Some people believe that these present floods and interminable downpours are God’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious nation.
No, they absolutely and unequivocally are not.
Firstly, God promised never to do that again (Gen 9:11-17); and secondly, the books of wisdom found in the Bible suggest that the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer. Job’s counsellors were of most use when they sat with him in silence for seven days (2:13). Though their understanding of suffering was partial, in their silence they moved towards empathy and understanding.
Mankind is unable to locate and obtain wisdom (28:12-22), but God ‘established it and searched it out‘ (vv23-27) when he created the universe. In this context, wisdom appears to be the deepest principle underlying the cosmos, and silence is perhaps an appropriate reverent response. Communication with the Divine is, however, possible throughout suffering. God may be the justifiable object of wrath, impatience or grief, and He may rightly be blamed, for He is ultimately the origin of the suffering (42:2), so if a victim’s encounter with God is pierced with hatred and resentment, so be it. It is, at least, an honest encounter and is commendable (42:7f).
Job 33 is said to contain the one real insight into a human understanding of woe: Elihu’s constructive view of suffering (vv14ff), and the need for a mediator to help make sense of it all (vv23-28) – a gracious minister of rebuke and guidance, leading the sufferer to joyous restoration. Elihu contributes the idea that suffering can be a discipline (vv16-30 cf 36:9-15), and thereby makes a valuable contribution to its positive and constructive aspects.
But theodicy – the justification of God – is a complex area of theology. Job clings to the notion that, contrary to appearances, God is just. He is absolutely certain that he will be vindicated (19:25) and it is possible that he believes his vindicator to be God. Job’s world may lie in ruins, but there is a deeply held conviction that ultimately God acts justly. He may be a present enemy (19:8-12), but Job’s complete human isolation turns him to God as the only possible source of his vindication. Reaching out to the supernatural is a normal human reaction when faith in humanity and earthly order has been destroyed by trauma and isolation.
There are many struggles involved in any journey from despair to trust. Although God avoids all the questions that Job and his friends threw up, He lovingly leads his son beyond the horizons of his own world of suffering. By God’s word the healing is effected. Christians are charged with instilling a hope in those who suffer loss or bereavement, to help them find meaning for a continuing existence in a world of fading certainties.
No one is comforted or helped by the crass assertion that tempests and floods are the result of God sitting in judgment upon our rebellion.