By Ed Rybarczyk
Does life ever seem particularly unfair? Ever silently complain about how much you’ve suffered? Ever seem like the pressures of life just won’t let up? Me, too – yes, to all those hard questions.
Still more? Did you ever wonder if you somehow brought all of that frustration and hardship down upon yourself? Maybe you’re some kind of fridge-magnet for pain? Or maybe the laws of karma – sowing and reaping – are invisibly at work and now the universe is paying you back? It can make us wonder: isn’t justice woven through the universe? I mean, that’s the assumption: that the universe itself finally evens things out. Yin and Yang, things eventually working out, and all that. Or through a Christian framework, why isn’t God balancing things out? Just where is the justice of God? Why do the wicked prosper?
Job takes those precise questions to task across 42 chapters, through 10 or so long poetic speeches. You may know the story: Job was a respected, successful, family-oriented Middle Eastern businessman. He had it all: 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 donkeys, six Ferraris (well, actually no, but I want to see if you’re paying attention!), and enough pairs of oxen to plow big chunks of Treasure Valley farmland. On top of all that, he feared God with a reverence that was blameless and upright. He had it all. And then? Life punched him between the eyes. Hard.
He lost all his animals to foreign raiders and fire from heaven. His children were all killed by a tornado. His esteem was leveled when oozing boils covered his body. Poor Job, even his wife piled on with her miserable counseling advice: “Job, give up on God. He’s given up on you. You’ll be better off by cursing God and dying.” And all that’s just in the first two chapters!
Old Testament scholars tell us that the crux of Job’s book establishes – but then wrecks, with crushing effect – the retribution principle. Ancient Wisdom 101 taught that God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked – divine retribution. Every good Hebrew knew that God loves His own but judges filthy foreigners. Good deeds produce blessing. Evil deeds produce hardship and pain. Job’s lousy friend Eliphaz summed it up by saying, “The rain falls on the earth that God loves” (5:10).
All this was basic Hebrew spirituality and Job’s author, across 10 long speeches, displays it fully: do good and enjoy God’s favor, do evil and suffer God’s wrath. Why, it was much like the theology I encountered at my boyhood church. You caught a cold? “There must be sin in yer life!” Hit a red light on the way to a job interview? “Must be sin in yer life!” As if God were passive-aggressively re-paying your sins with random inconveniences!
But that’s the law of karma: sowing and reaping. It all comes full circle. Bad attitudes wreak bad fruit. Good thoughts produce measurable bounty. Kindness always results in fiscal profit. And all the people in Job’s life repeat established ancient Wisdom 101: “Repent of your sins, Job! Stop being so prideful! You brought this misery to your own doorstep!” Retribution is the book’s constant refrain. Except. Except for the one character who does not emphasize karma: God.
Curiously to us, and shocking for the ancient Hebrew mind, God doesn’t even broach the retribution principle. Instead, in the book’s odd crescendo, God talks about the wild weather and some wild animals: mountain goats, eagles, hawks, and horses. He tells Job, “My friend, you cannot even understand my non-human creations. Their ways surpass your knowledge. How do you possibly think you can understand me or my ways?” And we should be clear: God’s point isn’t about zoology. God’s not rehearsing a biological litany. Something rather opaque, something mysterious is being unpacked via God’s final response (chs. 38-41). But that something can make all the difference in our life, our attitude.
To top it off? God tells Job to consider two un-tamable monsters: Behemoth, who lives on land, and Leviathan, a ferocious sea creature. Many contemporary believers get bogged down in what or whether these monsters may have been. One more time: God’s not rehearsing zoology. So what is He doing? He is introducing monsters, figures familiar to the ancient mentality: creatures of non-order and even disorder. God is, in keeping with the poetic nature of the entire book, using chaos-monsters, imaginatively vivid monsters to say to Job, “The universe contains disorder. There are things you cannot understand because they are not understandable, not tamable by your thinking.”
What’s the kernel Job’s author wants us to grasp? That God is not causing everything, that His wisdom transcends any one-for-one causation, and that life is not a simple matter of karma. Just like we cannot tame the unseen monsters in life, we may suffer pain we didn’t sow, or we may enjoy a prosperity we didn’t directly earn. Jesus affirmed Job’s theology when He said, “The sun rises on both the evil and the good, the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Life is complicated. Life’s full of contingencies: powerful weather storms and animals that dart onto the roadway. But God – again, in Job it is God who says this! – is not causing everything. Things happen. The universe contains some built-in free-play.
There are multiple angles by which Job’s theology could be applied. The most important one for those suffering? Be slow to blame God. Don’t be too quick to squeeze the “God is directly hurting me” trigger. No, that’s not all a Christian would say about suffering, but it is what the book of Job says. And me? I say, “Praise you, God, for not blaming me for my pain! Praise you, God, that you are greater than karma! Praise you, living Lord, that you transcend all our knowing!” Because in the end? Whereas God’s justice is not clearly readily at hand, His wisdom is always at work. May we all trust the wisdom of He whose ways are greater than ours.
Ed Rybarczyk, PhD, is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @ uncensoredunprofessor.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.