The Job Paradox

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 6.45.26 PMAt some point we all face suffering. At some point we all face unjust suffering, the suffering of the innocent, the suffering of pain that takes us to a place where we ask “Why?” So Krish Kandiah, in his new book Paradoxology:

Whether we are forced to watch the suffering of others, or experiencing suffering in our own lives, we desperately want to know ‘Why?’ Why does God stand passively by when there is so much suffering going on all the time? Why does he criticize our tendency to walk on by on the other side of the road when we see people in need, when he himself sees all suffering and yet chooses to do nothing? Does God not care? Does God not understand? Or perhaps he is, after all, incapable of stepping in? God’s deliberate policy of not fixing things when we are suffering highlights one of those universal paradoxes – we believe that God is active and powerful, so if he does not intervene, we are forced to conclude that this God is actively choosing to be passive (86).

Surely this is one of our faith’s biggest challenges and surely also one of the deepest questions to answer. This paradox is also quite true, as I remember Elie Wiesel questioning God’s existence because of the Holocaust and the Rebbe telling Elie Wiesel that the reason to believe is because of the Holocaust. Here is Kandiah’s formulation:

The problem of suffering is one of the most enduring questions humanity has to grapple with, and from an anthropological point of view it is one of the main reasons humans have sought to explain the world we live in by reference to a God or gods. At the same time, in our culture particularly, it has become perhaps the main reason raised in objection against belief in God (86).

Every religion deals with unjust suffering: is it, as in Hinduism, karma? is it, as in Buddhism, wrong desire? is it, as with atheism, bad luck? “Unlike atheists, we believe that the inevitable question ‘Why?’ is in fact crucial evidence that we intrinsically believe things don’t happen by chance, that someone is in control and that things don’t have to be this way” (94).

He turns to Job:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised (Job 1:20-21).

Job’s confession reveals a commitment to continue trusting God despite his circumstances. Job’s perspective is that life itself is a gift, and so is everything that comes with it, and he will continue to love God for who he is, not for what he has given to Job (95).

But then that torturous dialogue. What do we learn?

First, we are clearly told that God is in control.
Second, we learn that not all suffering is deserved.
Third, we see God specifically allowing suffering to happen to an innocent person. Satan is permitted to disrupt Job’s life, which throws us back to the classic paradox: does suffering continue because God is not all-powerful, or because God is not all-loving? The book of Job clearly states that God is all-powerful; Satan can do nothing to Job without God’s permission. So the question becomes whether God is all-loving. Can we truly continue to believe in a loving God when he allows such extreme suffering simply to win what appears to be nothing more than a divine wager? As the story unfolds, however, we will see that there is more at stake than a cruel test.

What of the free will defense? “God desires genuine relationships with us as human beings, something which is only possible when there is free choice” (99). “God is still in control, but as he has given us space for us to exercise our freedom, so we have to reap some of its consequences, and live in a world that is not as God originally intended, nor how it will eventually end up” (99).

He wants to present his case before God, but when he gets there God interrogates him.

In fact, the constant barrage of questions from God is not designed to silence and belittle Job, but rather to help him to see something of the wonder of the world as God sees it – to experience a sense of awe. Job doesn’t learn about God’s perspective on his own suffering, but he does learn about God’s perspective on the whole world. Job finds himself knowing God better: ‘My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.’ Job finds himself trusting God better: T know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’

The only answer to the problem of suffering we will find in Job is the example of reflecting on the universe to observe the power, skill and wisdom of God demonstrated in nature. This is evidence enough to prove beyond question that if God is able to create and order the universe, then he is more than capable of overseeing the details of our lives. If God is powerful enough to create the constellations and yet is attentive enough to watch while ‘the doe bears her fawn’, then he is capable enough to work out the complexities of our lives.

The free-will defence of suffering puts God’s desire for genuine human relationships at its centre. So, in the end, does the book of Job. Will anyone still choose to trust God even if they lose everything? The book of Job answers, yes. The pain of Job’s tragedy and the steadfastness of his faith despite it proves that God’s creation project has not been a waste of time. Job’s story encourages us that when life is hard and perhaps God feels distant and passive, we can get through this with our faith intact.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.