The story of Job is a lesson in the way we should view ourselves, others and God. I wrote in Job: When the Tables Are Turned Part 1 how Job was viewed, and viewed himself, as a righteous man. We know, though, that no one is really righteous, at least when compared with the perfection of God.
Who hasn’t gotten angry with other people, insulted them and called them fools? Who hasn’t lusted after other people in your heart? Who hasn’t lied, cheated, acted or reacted out of jealousy, spite or pride? Who has observed every law, all of the time, even when no one is looking? We can’t boast of being perfect because no one is perfect. (Romans 3:20)
We don’t even have a good idea of what perfect means.
Jesus said being perfect means turning the other cheek, offering our coat to the person who asks for our shirt, going two miles when someone forces you to go one, giving to all who beg from you and loaning to all who ask to borrow. (Matt. 5:39-42) Jesus said that being perfect means loving our enemies! (Matt. 4:43) It’s not enough to love our friends, family and people who are good to us. Being good means loving our enemies and praying even for those who persecute us. (Matt. 5:44)
Thus, when the Book of Job says he was a righteous man, we need to understand that this was how Job viewed himself, but he wasn’t righteous like God is righteous.
Job’s view of himself colored the way he saw himself, other people and God. He thought more highly of himself than he should have, and he looked down on others. He believed that his good fortunes were the result of his good living, and he was convinced that the misfortunes of other people were brought upon themselves by their own failures.
Job believed that God rewarded good living with good things, like a worker earns his wages. His friends believed that too, as we see it in their responses to Job and their attempts to “counsel” him. In fact, the way Job’s friends respond to him implies that they were mirroring to Job the exact same advice Job had given to others in the past.
Eliphaz was the first to speak to Job, asking, “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking?” (Job 4:1)
These words smack of being rhetorical. Eliphaz knew Job would be impatient with him, but he was going to speak anyway. A clue regarding why Job’s friend responds this way to him is found in the next verses.
“Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? ‘Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?'” (Job 4:3-7 ESV)
From these verses we learn that Job was known for the “advice” he gave to others in their distress, but now the tables were turned. Job was no longer in the superior position of fortune, privilege and ease. Job had lost everything – his wealth, his house, his children and his health. Joseph was complaining bitterly. Now that he was no longer on top of the world, his attitude had changed.
To be fair, when Job lost his wealth, then all of his children and house, in a sudden series of unfortunate events, his first reaction was to worship God (Job 1:20), saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
Then Job lost his health, and Job’s wife told him he might as well “curse God and die”. (Job 2:9) Job was initially appalled at her brashness, chastising her and sticking with the “Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” line. (Job 2:10)
This was probably what Job was taught. It may have been force of habit. It was probably the way Job had always viewed the world. He had always chalked up the good fortune he enjoyed to his good living. His view of the world had never really been tested.
Immediately at the onslaught of the sudden catastrophe, Job was philosophical and stoic. The full force of his situation had not set in, but platitudes don’t ultimately satisfy.
Over the next seven days, Job sat in silent mourning, stewing over all that he lost, and his friends came alongside and joined him. (Job 2:13) They viewed the world the same way. Good people are rewarded with good things. Job had said that very thing many times over to other people in their misfortunes. “Just be good (like me) and everything will go well with you.”
I used to think of Job’s friends rather negatively. After all, the story of Job focuses on their questionable advice and their lack of sympathy and understanding. God even reprimands them in the end.
But I think I may have been wrong about them. They were actually pretty good friends to sit with Job, mourning with him for a week in silence. They didn’t just swoop in uninvited, offering nothing but gratuitous, unsympathetic words.
They didn’t say anything until Job finally broke the silence.
When Job finally spoke, his tune had changed. He wasn’t parroting the party line anymore. After seven days to think about his current fate, Job’s attitude was completely different. He cursed the day he was born, questioning God for allowing him to see the day when he would lose everything.
Only then did one of his friends chime in, reminding Job that he had offered advice in the past to people going through difficult times, maybe to the very friends who now sat with him in his suffering. Now his friends were offering to Job the same gratuitous, unsympathetic advice Job had offered many in the past.
We see this in the challenge initially made to him: “Behold, you have instructed many…. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?”
I wonder how many times Job had used these same words before, maybe to the very friend who now spoke them back to Job. “I thought your faith gave you confidence! You said, ‘Just live right, like me, and everything will be good!”
It was easy for Job to say such things before when his friends were going through their tough times, but now the tables were turned, and Job was undone. He was angry, bitter and full of self-pity.
Reading in between the lines, much of the Book of Job is an exploration of the idea that “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people”; and if a person leads a good life, they will reap their rewards. We see a similar attitude in the American faith movement. If you would just have enough faith, you won’t be sick; you won’t be poor; God will give you everything you ask… if you ask in faith.
We see in the following chapters that his friends doubt Job’s righteousness. They assume that he must have committed some heinous sin to deserve such a fate, but we get the sense from reading Job that he probably was righteous. He was at least as righteous as a man gets.
And that may be why he had no sympathy for the misfortunes of others. The same attitude he had toward others was mirrored in his friends’ attitudes and questionable counsel they gave him. These attitudes are reflected in the Pharisees in the Gospels and religious people we know today… maybe even you and me at times.
The truth is, though, that evils do befall “good people”, and life isn’t fair. Bad people sometimes enjoy a “good” life while good people suffer. Leading a good life doesn’t ensure that we will reap our rewards. This is a harsh truth, and the Book of Job doesn’t shy away from that fact. Acknowledging this helps us to have sympathy for people going through tough times.
The age old question is: why? I am not going to tackle the problem of evil in the next blog post, Job: When the Tables Are Turned Part 3, but I am going to explore how we should respond to these realities: how we should view ourselves, others and God. The Book of Job doesn’t really answer the problem of evil (not directly), but it does have a lot to say about our attitude and perspective.