“The Innocent Don’t Suffer” and Other Lies I’ve Loved
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This morning we have come to Job’s conversation with his three friends; Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Being good friends, they come to be with him in his misery, and Job’s suffering is so bad, that for 7 days, they all sit in silence. But then, seeing that Job’s suffering is very great, they are compelled to speak. They want to find a reason for this suffering. If they find the cause, they can find the cure, so they engage in a lengthy discussion with Job on the cause of his suffering. They spend twenty-four chapters going back and forth with each other as they try to flesh out the reason for Job’s great misfortune. They say that it might be because of some sin in Job’s life. They say that maybe Job isn’t as righteous as he thinks he is. They say that suffering is the result of Job’s actions. Just as they believe they are naming the cause, they try to name the cure too. They tell Job to repent, to stop being so proud and that he actually deserves much worse than he is getting. It feels like a scene from a crime show where the police are trying to force a confession. Just say you did it and all will be well. We know what you did, just confess and we’ll go easy on you; you’ll get a good deal. Job’s friends have made up their minds about him. Their arguments are repetitive and desperate. Yet, they are getting these arguments from their understanding of Scripture. Their theology has taught them that God preserves the righteous and destroys the wicked. We can find many verses in the Bible that support their theology. Take a read through the book of Deuteronomy and you’ll see this reward-punishment theology laid out in detail. We read a portion of their speeches to see what they’re getting at. Eliphaz cannot fathom that the innocent would perish. Bildad argues that God doesn’t pervert justice. Zophar says that Job, being guilty, actually deserves worse than what he is getting from God. They become more bitter the longer this goes on and they get more hateful towards Job the more he insists he is innocent. After all, the innocent don’t suffer, right?
These speeches demonstrate to us humanity’s attempt to understand God’s justice. That’s what these speeches are – an attempt to explain injustice and why it exists in the world. Before you get too harsh with Job’s friends, remember Job has this same theology. He’s been out there every morning making sacrifices for his children in case they have cursed God in their hearts. He doesn’t want God’s wrath to come upon them so he intercedes for them on a daily basis. Job, like his friends, believes that bad things happen to people who deserve it. The only difference between him and his friends is that knows he has done anything wrong. He knows he’s not harbouring any secret sins. And we see throughout his 9 speeches, that he is torn. He is torn because he knows that God is just and he knows that he is innocent and yet, he still suffers. So how does Job reconcile his beliefs with the enormity of his suffering?
You’ve probably been in this place before. It’s a hard part of growing up to learn that life isn’t fair, that no one is immune to sickness or loss. We believe the narrative that world feeds us; If you work hard, you’ll be successful, if you take care of yourself, you will live long, if you don’t do anything really bad, then your life will be really good. This message often gets taught in the Church too, perhaps unintentionally; if you pray hard enough God will answer, if you live rightly, God will bless you if you do good to others then good will come back to you. Just as the time came for Job when his “blessings” were taken away, that time will come for us too. I could list examples, but I don’t think I need to. You can probably all think of a time when you were suffering, and God didn’t intervene, at least not in the way you thought he would. You can probably think of a time when you lost something or someone, and there was just no reason for it. And when we find ourselves in this place of grief, it’s natural to ask why, but it’s rare to get an answer. It’s also natural for others to try and provide answers for you because sitting with someone in their pain is uncomfortable. Which is why Job’s friend tries to clean up his mess, whatever it is.
This theology that Job and his friends adhere to, is called Cosmic Retributive Justice. It is the idea that God will reward what is good and punish what is bad. You’ll find it other religions too, known as Karma or Reincarnation, anything that teaches that people get what they deserve.
As I pondered this theology of Cosmic Retributive Justice, I realized that it’s really a theology for those who lead a life of privilege. When we are possessors, it is easy to question how something could be taken away. We have health, we have houses, we have family. When you are born into stability and wealth and access, then you have an understanding that you are entitled to those things.
But what if you start off without having anything? What if you are born with an illness or born into poverty or born a slave? The idea that these are the result of some divine justice is a hard one to buy into. Can you say that people leave the womb deserving punishment? Some religions will say yes, and that this can be accounted for by how you lived a past life. And some belief systems will say yes, that based on your class or race or gender, you deserve less. This was the world that the ancient Israelites were born into; a system that told them they were less than the Egyptians and a system that told them that they existed to serve those who were more powerful.
There is a commonality between how Job describes his suffering and the complaints of the enslaved Israelites. In chapter 23:2 Job says my complaint is bitter and his hand is heavy despite my groaning. We find a similar sentiment in Exodus 2 that says “the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and God took notice of them”. It’s an interesting connection to make. Some scholars believe that Job was actually written by Moses which would make sense given the theme of the book. The Israelites were not in bondage because of anything they did. These were the chosen people of God and yet, God allowed them to live in bondage for centuries. In their case, God was waiting for Pharaoh to die and then we read that he took notice of Israel’s suffering. A few verses later God describes himself as the One who knows their suffering. He takes their suffering into the divine self. And as he takes on their suffering, he reveals himself to his people through Moses, his chosen leader. That revelation is the first step in a journey that will lead to their deliverance.
God often uses people to lead others out of their bondage and to a place of deliverance. God will often choose a person to speak on his behalf. Job’s friends believe that this is their role; they believe they are representing God. Job’s friends treat his situation like a mystery novel. They are searching for the cause of his suffering. And they are right, there is a mystery, but it’s not about what Job has done. The mystery is about what is God doing? The problem with Job’s friends is that they talk with him about God, but not once, do they try to talk with him to God. Rather than complain and lament with him, they try to use logic and reason to understand his pain. But human reason does not cure pain.
In chapters 23 and 24 we reach a turning point for Job in his theology. He has been very focused on the wicked who go unpunished but now he is shifting his focus to say that the poor suffer unjustly. Job accuses God of ignoring the pleas of the widow, the orphan, and the needy. His Cosmic Retributive Justice theology is breaking down. He stops focusing on the wicked and stops focuses on himself, the innocent one who has lost everything and instead turns to the many injustices that occur against the poor. Just as in Exodus, God goes from noticing the Israelites’ suffering to knowing it, Job has gone from noticing the suffering of the poor to knowing it. His own suffering has given him a new empathy for those born into a life of injustice.
This is a big change for Job. When Job was rich and healthy and surrounded by people, he was someone who did good. From his discussions with his friends, we can conclude that Job made sure to feed and clothe the poor in his community. This is where the difference lies between doing good and doing justice; to serve the poor is to do good, but to do justice, requires starting on a journey to lift the poor out of their poverty and that journey begins by asking the question “why?”.
Maybe Job’s suffering isn’t about Job. This book would be a lot shorter had someone reached down to whisper in the ears of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, to say “this is not about Job”. The innocent do suffer, and Job is an innocent sufferer. And the innocent sufferer suffers for a purpose that is beyond themselves. Job’s story comes long before Jesus comes to earth, but it sets the stage for it. Job is setting the stage for One who will suffer without intervention by God and yet is righteous and holy and pure. Jesus had to die because he didn’t deserve it because that was the price required, the death of One who is truly innocent. Because guess who’s not righteous? We are born into sin and it’s a force in our lives and in the world that we cannot defeat on our own. We need the Innocent Sufferer to intercede on our behalf and to bridge the gap that exists between us and God. We need Jesus. We need the man of sorrows who died on the rugged cross to purchase our salvation.
Job is a man of sorrows. And while there is no reason for his suffering, God does bring purpose out of it. I don’t think I’m spoiling the ending by jumping to the last few verses of the book. It will be a few weeks before we get there, but we will see that Job’s fortunes and family are restored. And we see some changes in Job’s life. Particularly in how he treats his daughters. It is not unusual in the Bible for women not to be named. We saw that with Job’s wife. Her losses were his losses and yet she doesn’t even have a name in the story. With Job’s first set of children, he has 7 sons and 3 daughters, which would be considered a good during his time, because daughters were a financial drain. When they get married, they require a dowry, so daughters, caused you to lose part of your family wealth. In Job’s restored family, he again has 7 sons and 3 daughters, this time, his daughters are named. He gives them names that reflect the beauty and goodness of God. And more than that, he gives them part of his inheritance. Rather than treating his daughters as property, as was the custom, he treats them the way he treats his sons, he gives them an inheritance. What is this an example of if not Biblical justice? Job is not only doing what the law requires of him, he is being generous and doing so freely. And this is a good picture of how God loves; not according to some laws of reward and punishment, but generously and freely, he lavishes his love upon us, holding back nothing, not even his Son.
May our prayer be that God would bring purpose out of our own suffering and that it would lead us to pursue, not only service but justice. What will this look like? Well, just like Job and his friends, to understand biblical justice may require that our theological categories are shattered. People have used their theology to justify racism and classism and patriarchy. There are lies that we have loved over the years, lies that the Church has clung to. Engaging in justice, will require that we rid ourselves of any notion that there is ‘us and them’. It will require that we dismantle systems that allow for some groups of people to be treated as less than others. It will require that we sacrifice our time, energy and money to commit to building God’s Kingdom in our neighbourhoods and in our city. This is not Cosmic Retributive Justice but Cosmic Redemptive Justice. And for those of us who call ourselves Disciples of Christ, this is our inheritance.
So, if you are suffering this morning, I want to substitute some of the lies, you may have loved for the truth. The innocent do suffer. Bad things happen to good people. Not everything happens for a reason. God does give us more than we can handle. And God helps those who cannot help themselves. This my friends, is what redemption is about, this grace that God so lavishly bestows upon us. And part of that grace is providing people to come alongside us as we suffer. People who will cry out to God on our behalf. Job’s friends didn’t quite have it right, but at least they distracted him from his pain for twenty-four chapters. Instead of complaining about his sores and his grief, he got to complain about how awful his friends are. May God enable us to be a community that supports each other well through suffering and loss.