No book in the Bible has perplexed me more than Job. Ever since I got my first Bible, I’ve searched for meaning in the trials of the protagonist of that book. Over the years, I’ve come to plenty of inconclusive conclusions about its meaning.
Now that I’m in my 50s, I think I finally understand why that is.
This is the Book of Job in a nutshell:
Satan appears before God and wants to test the faithfulness of a righteous man named Job. The Enemy thinks Job’s faith is founded solely on his health and wealth.
God allows Job to be tested.
Job loses almost everything. His children die. His riches fade. His health is destroyed. His wife nags him.
Job continues in his faith in God despite his ordeal.
Three of Job’s friends visit. They sit in silence with him for a week because they see how much he is suffering.
Job’s friends finally speak and question Job’s faithfulness. They believe he is receiving tit for tat. Obviously, he did something wrong or else none of this calamity would have befallen him.
Job protests his innocence, both before his friends and before God. He wants God to explain Himself.
God remains silent.
Eventually, God speaks and reminds Job of His mighty works and power over all creation. Job is overcome.
God chastises Job’s friends for their lousy analysis and advice.
God restores everything Job lost and more.
I hope I did that summary justice, but the book is worth reading. Many scholars claim it is the oldest book in the Bible and a beautiful example of Oriental wisdom literature.
The odd thing–to me at least–is that it was never clear what the wisdom was in the Book of Job. You have this strange contention between God and Satan, Job defends himself against his friends’ accusations of wrongdoing, Job pleads his case before God, and after a while God overwhelms Job with human insignificance in the face of the Almighty’s works.
I mean, what the heck? Where’s the moral of the story?
For a moment, let’s move to another man-God faceoff:
The same night he [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
And one more:
Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
—Genesis 18:20-33 ESV
Going back to Job, the one sure truth that emerges from the book is that it ends inconclusively. Job never receives an answer as to why he suffered what he did.
Likewise, God wasn’t happy with Job’s friends’ deficient “comforting.” They were fine so long as they sat in silence with their beleaguered comrade, but the moment they began reasoning with him, they blew it.
If you’ve been around the Church long enough, you’ve probably heard this:
God said it. I believe it. That settles it.
I’m beginning to understand why such a view is naïve. Or at least incomplete.
The story of Job makes it clear that Job did not sin during his ordeal, despite his questioning God. In the end, God blessed Job with even more than Job started out with.
When God said He was going to destroy the entirety of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, Abraham would not take that for a final answer.
Jacob, wanting more out of life, would not relent when faced with a fearsome “wrestler,” and it took a little “cheating” on the part of his foe to end the confrontation.
All three of those great men of faith appeared to have problems with God that maintaining the religious status quo simply could not resolve. God said it, and these men were not exactly happy with it. They wanted a different outcome. So they fought for it.
I think the story of Job (and of Abraham and Jacob) carries with it some profound wisdom regarding wrestling with God:
1. Sometimes, God blesses those who do NOT take His actions and pronouncements at face value.
There was no “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” in these cases. These faithful men would not allow what God was saying or doing to be the end of the matter. They wanted something more. And God blessed them for their discontent. Now, read that previous sentence again.
2. Sometimes, silence IS golden.
Job’s friends were fine in God’s eyes—until they opened their mouths. We don’t have to have an answer for everything. We don’t even need to have a Bible verse for everything. Part of wrestling with God is not having answers to every last event/situation/question in life. Sometimes, the best response to another’s wrestling is no response at all.
3. Sometimes, the prevailing wisdom isn’t.
When Job’s friends finally did speak, they beat him up with the wisdom of their time: Good people receive good and bad people receive bad. Sadly, that’s the same view of life you hear out of some Christians. God was not happy with that response, though. I think God is not happy with a lot of the responses we Christians beat others with, whether our beating is an effort to prove ourselves biblically correct (and therefore—as we reason it—the rightness of Christian belief) or because we feel we MUST say SOMETHING Christian or else we have not done our Christian duty. Either way, perhaps we need to refrain from speaking until we have all the facts and God says it’s OK. Otherwise, we may very well be throwing our bulk into someone else’s wrestling match, one that isn’t ours to fight.
In the end, wrestling with God is messy. Christians today don’t want messy, though. We want a systematic faith built on systematic theology that produces systematic answers to life.
Bzzt. Thanks for playing.
Instead, God wants people who tussle with Him. Messy people with fierce questions that make others uncomfortable and that defy simplistic answers. He blesses such folks, despite what we may think of them.
Now before someone wants to use that reality to question everything all the time, notice that word sometimes in the three-item list above.
Jesus is Lord. No point in questioning. Your wrestling and mine will not change that truth. Other immutable truths exist.
But life has gray areas. Recognizing them and wrestling with them is warranted. Perhaps if we recognized that God blesses those who wrestle, then we wouldn’t be so quick to speak the prevailing wisdom and would instead find a second or third way that would bless not only us but the rest of the world too.
So, wrestle with God. And may all of us receive the name Israel.