What does the book of Job mean for us today? What is the message and application? John Walton and Tremper Longman III conclude their book How to Read Job by addressing these questions.
The book of Job provides answers – important for us today as they were for the original audience. Christians often turn to Job, and Pastors recommend Job, in times of suffering. Here, we think, we may find both the answer to suffering and the recipe for endurance. This is not really the case. We do gain some insight into suffering – but no real explanations.
We cannot dismiss all suffering as the just desert of sin. “We know that inherent sinfulness is not the answer the book promulgates because the text makes it clear throughout that Job is considered righteous. … No one is without sin, but we cannot just pull out that theological trump card when we try to understand our human plight.” (p. 163)
We will not always find an answer to the why of suffering, and we need not ask. Some will claim that God is inscrutable (impossible to understand or interpret) and this is true, but he is not inconsistent and capricious. “We may agree that God is inscrutable in the sense that he cannot be fully known, but in the book of Job it is God’s reasons that are beyond are knowing and beyond our ability to infer. … The argument against inscrutability is that we need not seek answers that will justify Job’s or our experiences; we know enough to believe that God is wise.” (p. 164)
But, you say, God’s ways are above our ways, certainly there must be a purpose to suffering. The book of Job does not address the question of purpose. “When we look to the past, we are seeking reasons. When we look to the future, we are seeking purposes. The former attempt should be abandoned and the latter held loosely.” We can, sometimes, find tragedy serving a purpose in our lives … but not always, not (for example) for the one who suffers a tragic death. God has a purpose for his world, and the unfolding of the world is according to his purposes – but that doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of purpose in every event.
“We cannot out-God God.” (p. 166) God’s first speech from the storm makes this point. Neither Job nor we could do a better job of organizing the cosmos than God has done and continues to do.
We learn that trust is the only possible response – and that God’s wisdom will prevail. We can’t treat the relationship as a contract … behavior for (earthly) reward.
The book of Job does not provide comfort! Don’t recommend the book of Job to someone in the midst of suffering. The book does not provide comfort in this situation. The dialogues and discourses are interminable, God’s speeches won’t help much, and restoration isn’t guaranteed.
Study the book of Job when all is going well, preach from it, teach it. “The message of the book is more suited to training for crises than to performing in a crisis.” (p. 170)
Some of us would like results but are not willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve those results. The book of Job provides the opportunity for training our minds to maintain spiritual flexibility and to act instinctively when the need arises. We shouldn’t start learning scales the day of the performance, and we should not think that we can sight read a challenging score once the concert has begun. The lessons of Job should be learned in preparation for crises, not turned to for comfort after life has gone desperately wrong. (p. 170)
Walton and Longman suggest that rather than finding comfort in Job we will find help in other ways – we will find guidance toward acceptance. We need to accept that God’s control of the world is not defined by micromanagement.
If we can accept this view of God’s role in the world, our expectations of him can be revised and we can accept the circumstances that come upon us with more resolve. If we really believe that God is wise and we are not, then we can relinquish control to him in spite of our lack of understanding. … Such acceptance can be discussed in terms of rest, shalom, and coherence. (p. 171-172)
Here they turn to the New Testament. Rest is found in Christ … “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And in Christian community. Rather than casting out, turning away from, or accusing the sufferer, Christian community should support and sustain those who are in need. Job’s friends accused him, a mistake too often repeated. “The Christian way is different. We should rally around the person who is suffering. When that happens people can find rest even in their suffering as they find support and security in stable community.” (p. 174)
The book of Job should also set us on a path toward shalom, peace. This is a path that finds its end in Christ. “Jesus has given us a focus for our trust – far more focus than Job had. In this way the book of Job starts us on a journey of trust and hope that finds its completion in Christ.” (p. 177)
Finally, coherence. Coherence doesn’t require a comprehensive understanding of any situation or subject. “Coherence indicates that we have achieved an optimum level of understanding.” (p. 177) Longman and Walton find no evidence that Job himself finds coherence (although I think perhaps his last response indicates such an understanding), we can gain understanding from the book that leads to coherence, away from fear and confusion. “The book of Job can help us find coherence through understanding, and it can help us find peace through trust.” (p. 178) Rest is found in Christ and in Christian community – when (if?) the community rallies around the one who is suffering.
Post script. Walton and Longman, in their full commentaries, but even more in this short book, have cast the book of Job in a whole new light. From being enigmatic, troubling, and boring, it has become one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. This book will make an excellent resource for small groups and adult education classes. I used it in a short study last fall with excellent response and hope to dig in deeper in a future class. It is one of my “2016 books of the year.” It isn’t theologically deep, profound, or academic. It is written for a general lay Christian audience. It isn’t shallow though, and it will open eyes to reading Scripture with a whole new depth of understanding. How to Read Job will serve the church well … use it.
How should we use the book of Job in the church?
What does it mean to prepare for the trials of life? How can the church help?
Is acceptance better than comfort?
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