The book of Job rests on a foundational understanding. To understand Job, we have to understand Job’s theology, that is his understanding of how divine justice works. Oversimplified it’s a reward/punishment theology. If a person is good, obeyed all the rules, loved God with all their heart, soul and strength….” Duet 6:18: Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so that it may go well with you.
Basically, If you were a righteous person, God would reward you with a good life.
In today’s culture, some refer to this as the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is more common than you might think, and there are varying degrees depending on who you follow. Most of the leaders lead huge congregations and are televised. At it’s worst, it encourages pastors to believe they deserve private jets, it convinces followers that they can create their own destiny if they just think the right way, behave the right way, pray the right way.
A few years ago now, was a book titled The Secret, that became hugely popular thanks to Oprah, and it suggested something similar. That the more you put out there in the world what you wanted for your life, the more the world would respond in kind. In all fairness, I haven't read the book, but I hear it suggests that if you create a bulletin board filled with what you want for yourself, and kept positive and open, you can create your own destiny. And it works for some people, which then creates more believers, and who doesn't want to believe you can create your own destiny?
But there’s a whole other side to that thinking that gets minimized in the process. And it lives on the side of suffering. When I question whether something is a good theology, a healthy theology, I begin a few questions, like- How would I feel telling a single mother of three children, living in poverty, working two jobs to get food on the table, no car, in an apartment with rats that are biting her children at night, that if she just creates a bulletin board and thinks about her life differently, she too can have it all? That seems cruel. And what’s even crueler, is to say to a family who has lost a child that everything happens for a reason and that God must have a plan. That’s not a theology I subscribe to, but many do, and so we make choices as to how we understand one of the oldest questions in the book, Why do bad things happen to Good people? Job’s life as he knew it fell apart. And when he asks his friends for helping understanding how and why this could happen, they essentially say; You must have done something wrong to deserve this. And if you think that only happened in the 7th century, BCE, think again.
Kate Bowler, a divinity professor at Duke, who taught classes on the Prosperity Gospel, wrote a book on the prosperity gospel, lived the prosperity Gospel way of life, followed Oprah, believed if you just think positively, believed there is no such thing as luck..at the age of 35, a baby just born, was one day diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.
Through the experiences of battling that cancer…she wrote another book, and this one was quite different- It’s title…Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.
In it, she writes-
“Everything happens for a reason.”
The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason.
I’ve had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason. (end quote)
Now I want to be careful because I also know that this understanding can be helpful and may have helped many of us get through some tough times. And on one level, I'm behind that. But there’s another level, where suffering takes on radical circumstances of life and death, when we start to think about horrific times, like the Holocaust, or the murder of a child, you fill in the blank, that's when I would call this a weak theology, because If you tell me that God made those things happen for a reason, I begin to question what kind of God I choose to believe in. But this is Job’s theology. And for those who aren't familiar with the Book of Job, let me give you a very short set up to take us up to the text you heard…This is a mash-up of Barbara Brown Taylor’s description and mine-
Here’s our God, hanging around with Satan in the opening chapter. Not the Satan we’ve come to know…but one that’s understood as The Accuser, whose job it was to act as an adversary in God’s circle, bringing people to trial, but only if God approves the suggestion. So God’s still in control. But there they are, just hanging around discussing Job when Satan bets God that if God makes Job suffer, Job will lose his faith and love for God. God says I’ll take that bet. Job who up till now how enjoyed his own reality of reward punishment, prosperity…is described as blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. He is the “the greatest of all the people of the east,” with a loving wife, ten children, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pairs of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and enough servants to look after all of them.
And he loses everything-the animals, sheep struck by lighting, the servants killed trying to save the animals, servants all die, his children die at the dinner table when a big wind out of the desert blew the house down on top of them.
Job lays in the dirt, and we get the well-known line, the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord…
God was right. And makes the point to Satan, see Job still loves me. Satan says, that’s because you haven't laid a hand on him…hurt him physically, and he will curse your face, so Job gets sick, thanks to God, covered in sores and moves into despair-wishing he had died…
Out of the whirlwind…God speaks…
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have an understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Isn’t that what we all want, a God with a tone of sarcasm at our darkest moment?
God goes on for four whole chapters and God never answers the question-but points to creation and gives us some of what scholars regard as some of our bibles most eloquent poetry and timeless wisdom.
David R Henson in one of the better sermons I’ve read on Job says this-
God just doesn’t give Job an answer. God doesn’t try to explain it. God doesn’t even contradict Job’s accusations. Instead, God responds with beauty.
Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.
And here’s the thing. I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think the one negates the other. God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering. Because no answer — even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of our pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world. There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side. (end quote)
This is our lived experience-That life holds both.
Randomly cruel one minute, and breathtakingly beautiful the next.
Kate Bowler, the theologian and young mother with stage four cancer has a new theology now and writes of it in a grounded lived experience way-
I CAN’T RECONCILE THE way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
At the end of her book, in the appendix, she lists all the things you never want to say to people who are suffering….and the book is worth buying just for that list. Then she creates a list of things that in her experience are helpful. And the one that caught my eye was this, to say simply-
“Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.” She advises the listener to simmer down and let the person in pain talk for a bit. Be willing to stare down the ugliness and sadness. Life is absurdly hard, and pretending it isn’t is exhausting. (end quote)
The book of Job seems to be offering us an alternative theology to reward and punishment.
God created the world, this lived experience of a life that holds both the sorrow and the joy of it.
But this God has given us something even greater. This is a God who never abandons us. Whatever we go through, we don’t go through alone. This is a God who stays, stays in the conversation for 42 chapters of Job- stays with us, shows up in beauty, shows up and keeps showing up despite every awful moment….
God with us…Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us always, even when we’re convinced we’ve been abandoned, God is with us. That’s not a consolation prize to a failed theology of reward and punishment. Anyone who's been through it knows that. Once we've come through to the other side of despair… and affirmations of joy and beauty begin to make themselves known, life takes on a different quality. When faith returns, it takes on a new expression. When we realize we were held through the most excruciating moments, but couldn’t see it then, but know it in our bones then loving God with all our heart, soul and strength is no longer something we do to earn God’s love, its something we do in thanksgiving for being loved by a God who is right there beside you, as close as your breath. God only knows why or how.…But God is with you. All thanks
 BBT, Home by Another Way, 165
 BBT, Sermon on Job.