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Job and Judgment

by Nick Boone

Nick Boone

 

NickBoone After New York and Washington were terrorized on September 11, 2001, well-known evangelist Jerry Falwell stated that the attacks may have come from God as a punishment and warning against America’s problem with homosexuality.  Just before hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast, I heard a lady in church say that the storm may be God’s judgment on the wickedness of New Orleans.  Several more remarks of that kind have been made after the hurricane struck the area, though none by prominent Christian ministers.  It seems we have a nearly unquenchable desire to make sense of tragedy, and Christians often feel the need to plug God into their cause-effect equations.

The book of Job, however, warns us against presuming to know the judgments of God when it comes to disasters and human suffering.* Reading only the beginning and the ending of the book, as I have been prone to do in the past, one gets the plot, but one also loses the complicated nature of Job and his friends’ situation.  Without reading the bulk of the text, it is easy to view the friends as absolutely wicked and their arguments as totally wrongheaded.  But the text complicates such easy readings.  I find it intriguing, for instance, that much of what the friends say is theologically correct.  The question then becomes, “Why does God express his anger against the friends at the end of the story?”

Interestingly, Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, each make claims about Job’s situation that God validates by his own words and actions.  Each of them tells Job that God is faithful and will restore him to happiness in the end.  Zophar even says that if Job repents God will restore his happiness and safety (see 11:14-20).  This, indeed, is what happens.  Job does repent for his questioning of God (see 42:6), and his riches are restored to double what they were originally.  Also, Zophar indicts Job for failing to recognize the vast reaches of God’s wisdom.  He says, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?  They are higher than the heavens–what can you do?  They are deeper than the depths of the grave–what can you know?  Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea” (12:7-9).  Interestingly, God makes the same indictment against Job, and even uses language similar to Zophar’s: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know!  Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (38:4-5).

The similarities between the friends’ speeches and the words and actions of God are stunning, especially given the fact that God says he is angry with the friends “because you have not spoken of me what is right” (42:7).  It seems the friends were right, at least on some levels.  They knew a lot about God.  They could speak correctly to Job about God’s faithfulness to the righteous, and of his ultimate redemption of suffering.  This allowed them to correctly predict the restoration of Job’s fortunes.  They also knew that God’s wisdom is infinite, and they correctly chastised him, as God did, for pretending that he could face God with his questions about justice.  But though the friends were theologically correct, they were dead wrong when it came to their basic presumptions about how God expects us to relate to one another.

The friends presume to know things only God can know, like the state of Job’s heart in relation to God (they accuse him of sin), and of how God has chosen to judge Job.  God alone is judge of men’s hearts.  God alone can say whether or not a disaster is natural or supernatural.  To presume to know God’s judgments of these matters is far beyond the reach of our minds.  God is angry with Job’s friends because they place themselves in God’s seat of judgment.  God refers to himself as “jealous” in the context of idol worship, but he is also jealous of his place as judge of the earth.  No one should even pretend to take his place in that position.  Thus, like Job’s friends, we too can be theologically correct, and yet still remain far from the heart of God.

In the midst of the disasters that occur throughout the world, secular society is watching, perhaps even waiting, for a Christian to respond in a judgmental fashion.  Satan will use any opportunity to distort the truth of the inherent mercy and grace of Christianity so that the outside world sees it as fundamentally judgmental instead of fundamentally charitable.  We need to learn, not only from the book of Job, but also from the very words of our Lord himself, that it is not our place to judge the hearts of others, or to presume to know the workings of God when it comes to disasters and human suffering.

Finally, another lesson we can learn from Job about responding to suffering will surely be a hard teaching for our media-saturated society: Job says to his friends, “If only you would be silent!  For you, that would be wisdom” (13:5).

*I must admit that I could not help but think of God’s judgment when seeing the casinos so utterly destroyed.  I also thought of how shameful it was to hear governors speak of how vital it is to get those casinos back in business as quickly as possible.  But no matter how bad I think it may be for a state to rely so heavily upon such a wicked industry for its revenue, I still must not presume to know the mind and judgments of God in this situation.

 

                                       Nick is the grandson of Buford and Maude Smith and teaches at Harding University.

 




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