Wrestling Lessons with Job

*This is a guest post written by Matt Erickson.  The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect those of Kurt Willems.

In Shakespeare’s powerful drama King Lear there is a moving scene where King Lear, bereft of the daughter he loves most, Cordelia, and being controlled by his two other self-serving daughters, Goneril and Regan, rushes out into a tempestuous storm.[1]

As the dark storm rages about him, Lear rages about his own suffering and loss. He calls upon the wild thunder and lightning to destroy him and the grief-filled world as he wanders wildly through the darkness around him. Eventually, King Lear goes mad with grief and confusion in this episode. He calls out for justice, meaning, and resolution, but finds none in the isolation of the storm.

In some ways, King Lear’s struggle parallels that of Job. They are both looking for meaning in their suffering.

I’m sure that we’ve all either experienced dark times or been around others who have.  It is one thing to experience a brief adversity or set-back, but another thing to endure ongoing suffering for weeks, months, or years.

“We Have Much Yet to Learn…”
Remember that Job suffered great loss. All of his children – 7 sons, 3 daughters – and all of his belongings – 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys. All gone in one stunning afternoon.

Still, Job could make an amazing declaration:

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. (Job 1:21)

Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)

Job was able to make the great declaration of faith in the moment suffering struck. Now, however, we find Job is in a place of ongoing suffering. The initial dramatic declaration of faith is followed by a period of wrestling with that suffering. “Why, God?” is the question which resonates within Job’s mind.

In great fairy tale style, we’d like for God to immediately restore the fortunes of Job. We want to skip from the end of chapter 2 right on to the end of chapter 42 and have things put right.

Why do we need the rest of this book? In the words of John Piper, it is because we “have much yet to learn about suffering and about God.”

What Friends Are These?!
When Job’s friends arrive the best thing that they do is sit silently with him. When they begin to open their mouths, things immediately go south.

Their understanding of suffering and God could be summarized most succinctly in the following ideas:

  • God corrects or disciplines those who need it
  • Sin in one’s life leads to adversity and God’s punishment
  • Lack of generosity leads to God’s punishment
  • If you confess and repent of your hidden sins, then restoration comes

Job, in their eyes, is encountering suffering, adversity, and dark times as a result of sin in his life which God wants to correct. If only he were to confess his sins and turn back to God, then he would be restored. But there is something about the theological truth that the friends offer to Job which doesn’t ring true.

Here is why Job’s friends’ statements don’t ring true:

  • Job’s standing and righteousness wasn’t a joke: two times God described Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8 ; 2:3); yet, Job’s friends doubted his standing before God; their statements about wrong ways leading to God’s punishment may have been true in general, but not specifically in regards to Job
  • Suffering is not necessarily doled out in proportion to one’s goodness or evil: Job rightly understood that “the wicked are spared from the day of calamity” (21:30) and that all too often the righteous are “a laughingstock” to those around them (12:4); the understanding of life that if you’re good  you will avoid suffering and if you’re bad you will suffer just doesn’t prove true in life’s realities.
  • Sometimes God allows things we do not understand: Job was part of something bigger than him – a cosmic drama behind the scenes – and, as we see later in the book, he never really gets that explained to him; neither his friends nor Job know God’s ways behind the scenes – God’s ways are bigger than us and our understanding

Job’s Growth through Suffering
While the ensuing speeches don’t reveal much further about Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, they do show us something about Job. He begins in despair, cursing the day of his birth and his continued existence. He complains of the absence of God’s justice. He laments his suffering and longs for the finality of death without a future.

But as the rounds of speeches continue, while not letting go of his call for God’s justice, Job’s perspective begins to change. The pinnacle of this is found in chapter 19:

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (19:25-27)

And then in chapter 23:

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (23:10)

Job may not understand all that is happening to him – his part in it, God’s part in it, Satan’s part in it – but he does experience a transformation that is extremely significant. Job trusts in God’s ultimate salvation even as he wrestles with not understanding his suffering.

And For Us…
Now, what can we gather from this extended passage of Scripture for our own everyday lives? If we do have much to learn about God and suffering, then what do we need to glean from this today?

Perhaps we need to learn something about getting honest with God as a form of wrestling with our suffering. Maybe it is time to allow God to grow our faith through that wrestling. Or perhaps we need to develop as a friend in the midst of others’ wrestling with suffering and God.

Hopefully, like Job, we too will trust in God’s ultimate salvation even as we wrestle with our suffering.

What are your thoughts on the subject of suffering?  Do you agree with Matt’s perspective?  What stands out to you in this article?


Matt Erickson is the Senior Pastor at Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, WI, and blogs regularly at <Renovate>: www.mwerickson.com.

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  • Mike Ward

    Job, is a very interesting book. Job speaks at length and it is very tempting to mine everything he says trying to find the lessons that we want to find.

  • AultBL

    Interesting!  But I disagree with your conclusion
    Job may not understand all that is happening to him – his part in it, God’s part in it, Satan’s part in it – but he does experience a transformation that is extremely significant. Job trusts in God’s ultimate salvation even as he wrestles with not understanding his suffering.”  
    What about Chapters 38-41?  These passages do not imply that Job is trusting in God’s ultimate salvation; in fact, I think the writer of Job feels the need to express one view of God, that God is beyond, not only the need for Job’s trust, but laughs in the face of Job’s distrust!  Thus, in these latter chapters of the book, Job is still not trusting in God’s view of justice.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed, there is SO much that happens in between chapters 23 and 42 for us to draw conclusions from that early in the book.

    • That’s why I think (referencing my other comment) that God is not actually talking primarily to Job, but at Job, over his shoulder to his friends, and over their shoulders primarily to the Satan (the only character, incidentally, who is never reconciled to God at the end). To the extent God is talking to Job, it’s only to disabuse Job of his retribution theory convictions.

      • AultBL

        Your claim that the book of Job is primarily concerned with God’s credibility is an intriguing one, and I think there is certainly evidence of that, as you have stated.  But I’m not sure if I agree that God is talking primarily “over his shoulder.”  What about verses 38:2-3, “Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man; I will ask and you will inform Me.”  (JPS)   Plus, the only one to reply is Job (40:3-5;42:2-6).  
        Admittedly, I am not reading the original Hebrew.

        • I’m not saying God doesn’t address Job at all. I’m saying God address Job the least, and to the degree God is addressing Job, it’s about Job’s prior buying-into retribution theory. I’m saying the weight of the theophany falls not upon Job, but upon the Satan.

  • Job is the story of a prince who falls from privilege and gets to meet God when he becomes “a brother of jackals” (30:29). His skin literally becomes “black.” It’s the only use of the verb “to blacken” in the Hebrew Bible, though it probably gets translated out. His story is basically what it would like to involuntarily be transformed in the way that James Cone challenges all “white” people to be transformed. Read Job 29-30 to see how the writer of Job problematizes Job’s privilege. Job gives himself attributes that should only be given to God. He thinks that he is the savior of the poor in his community. Elihu calls out Job on specific points within his self-righteous speech, so I don’t think I’m just being anachronistic. The text makes Job arrogant enough to cause the reader discomfort in the later speeches. The way one commentator put it is that Job’s sin didn’t cause Job’s suffering, but Job’s suffering did cause Job to sin.

    God’s speech doesn’t just mock Job in that “I’m the boss because might makes right” way that is so attractive to today’s predestinarian nihilists. God’s speech specifically champions the outsider. Look at the animals whom He mentions, all of them are creatures from the wilderness who mock civilization, the animal kingdom’s equivalent of the canyon dwellers Job mocks in 30:1-8. The Leviathan who is “king of all the sons of pride” represents humanity stomping around in the jungle destroying everything in our path. There’s tons of double entendre in the Hebrew in 41:12ff where God is comparing the arguments of Job’s discourse to the body parts of the Leviathan. Anyway, that’s my Hebrew poetry term paper in very messy, condensed form.

  • participant

    suffering creates character. hate it, but tis the way it is for now. it’s easy to feel like a lab rat sometimes. Well, it’s been a learning experience here, and i appreciate  your blog Kurt. I’ve learned a lot from all of the input from many people here. Thanks. for reasons of my own, i’ll be movin’ on now and you all take care. Love, helen

  • I taught a narrative approach to Job (at a sister church of Eastbrook’s, in fact) that takes a somewhat different approach, to begin with, that the book isn’t primarily about suffering. Rather it’s about God’s credibility. The only explicit accusation in the book is not at Job, but at God, that he has “stacked the deck” against the Accuser. Whether God can be believed – and the case revolves around the specific question of whether Job is righteous – is what is really at stake in this book. What the human beings in the book project, as Matt points out here, is “retribution theory” – but Job is guilty of it, too, hence his demands for a hearing (which only make sense within the context of that theory), and for this he recants in the epilogue. Yet, by maintaining his own righteousness, he accords with God’s own claims (and the evaluative point of view of the story), and thus the broader point that it is possible for a person to be righteous before God (contrary to the vision Eliphaz receives in Chap 4 where the Satan is passing off the role of antagonist to the friends). When God responds in the theophany, contrary to readings that would view the speeches as overly harsh or irrelevant to Job’s suffering, God is really primarily talking to the Satan (“Will a *faultfinder* contend with the Almighty?”). All sorts of other stuff there I can’t go into in a comment post, but this will becoming out as an article in *Horizons in Biblical Theology* in the Fall.