March 30, 2003

Job’s Response: Accepting the Good with the Bad
Job 1:13-2:10

Alexander, a young boy made famous by writer Judith Viorst, went through one ordeal after another. He went to bed with gum in his mouth, only to find it twisted in his hair the next morning. As he crawled out of bed, he tripped over his skateboard. During breakfast, he watched as his brothers, Anthony and Nick, removed a Corvette Sting Ray car kit and a Junior Undercover Agent code ring from their cereal boxes, while Alexander found nothing in his. Alexander felt smushed in the crowded car on the way to school, and his day only worsened once he arrived there. His teacher, Mrs. Dickens, wasn’t overly fond of the picture he had drawn of an invisible castle; his best friend, Paul, abandoned him; and his mother had forgotten to put dessert in his lunchbox. Alexander discovered this traumatic oversight while watching other students stuff their faces with cupcakes and Hershey bars in the school cafeteria.

After school, things continued to go downhill for Alexander. During a seemingly routine visit to the dentist, Dr. Fields detected a cavity that needed to be drilled and filled. A quick stop at the shoestore produced colorful new sneakers for Anthony and Nick, but drab white ones for Alexander—the salesman had run out of the blue ones with red stripes that he had so desperately wanted. He spilled ink on his father’s desk at the office, encountered lima beans on his dinner plate, saw people kissing on an evening TV show, and got soap in his eyes during his evening bath. In sheer agony, Alexander cried, “It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

Many of us have had bad days similar to Alexander’s—we stub our toe, watch our favorite team bow out of the playoffs, or grab feverishly for the plunger as the toilet backs up and the water rises closer and closer to the top of the bowl. We’ve all had bad days. But for many of us—though not necessarily all of us!!—such days pale in comparison to what Job is about to experience as the curtain rises again here in 1:13-2:10.

In the previous scene, you will recall, the level of Job’s commitment to God was brought into serious question. As God and his so-called advisors met in the heavenly throne room, the adversary burst onto the stage and suggested that Job, an undeniably righteous man, served God only because of the benefits that such service brought. “If you remove the hedge that you have built around him,” the adversary daringly announces to God, “then he will curse you to your face.” “Let me knock out some of his crutches so that he suffers a little, and then we will see how faithful he is.” God, without further explanation, gives his O.K.

Attention now nervously shifts from the heavenly stage to the earthly one. What will happen next, we all wonder? Suddenly, virtually everything that Job owned and cared about vanishes. Job, the writer had informed us, was extremely successful with respect to his business ventures. Gone are his agricultural investments and his food-production center—the oxen, donkeys, and servants who supervised that portion of Job’s sprawling corporation. Gone are his shepherding division and his clothing manufacturing plant—the sheep and associated servants. Gone is his transport and trucking company—his camels and camel-drivers. While Job might have been the most financially successful person of his day—a Fortune 500 man—he wasn’t anymore. Everything was gone. How will Job respond? What will he do?
What would we do? After all, possessions are typically of inestimable value to many people. They will often neglect their families, abandon their virtues, and disregard their deepest vocational passions in their quest to gain more wealth. People will at times steal and even kill for what Job had, and now it is all gone.

But more is yet to come. Job, the writer also informed us, was deeply devoted to his family. While the smoke is still rising from his smoldering estate, word comes to Job that all of his children were caught in a collapsing building. None of them survived. What will Job do? How will he respond?

What would we do? I have never lost either a parent or a child, but I would guess—this is conjecture—that it would be more difficult to lose a child. We move through life, after all, expecting to bury our parents one day, and we similarly expect that our children will bury us one day. To be honest, I can think of few things that would test my faith more than losing one of my children, let alone all of them. Job might have had the perfect family, but no more.

Job, the financial whiz, has lost all of his belongings. Job, the family man, has lost all of his children. Now, what about Job, the profoundly religious man? Will his faith disappear, too? God, the heavenly advisors, the adversary, and all of us are anxiously watching. Quietly, Job stands and enacts the mourning rites customary in his day—he tears his clothing, shaves his head, falls to the ground, and…worships. In spite of everything. Recognizing that everything he owned and everything he had was in reality a gift from God, Job accepts his losses and offers God his praise. The adversary loses round one.

With that, attention shifts back to the heavenly stage. Once again, the adversary enters the throne room, this time no doubt aggravated at his recent set-back. One of the things that is so intensely frustrating about the adversary, of course, be it our angry district attorney here in Job or the Devil himself through the New Testament, is that he rarely gives up following a single defeat. Instead, he typically returns with a revised strategy, setting his sights on new targets. Accordingly, he now proposes round two. This time, he suggests that Job’s faith in God, if not dependent on his possessions, is surely the result of his good health. “Skin for skin,” he seems almost to shout at God. “All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”

You’ve heard much the same thing before, haven’t you? Perhaps you have even thought it. “I can deal with anything,” some people say, “as long as I have my health.” The adversary here argues along those same lines. And it is true—our health is vitally important. All it takes is a slight sprain of the smallest finger—a seemingly insignificant part of our bodies—to remind us of just how important our health is. But forget about the little finger for a moment. As our attention eerily shifts back to the earthly stage, we watch as Job’s entire body is stricken with painful and disgusting sores. In a day when medical options were frighteningly limited, Job tries desperately to find even the slightest bit of relief. Picking up a worthless piece of broken pottery and scraping open his sores, he hopes to let some of the festering puss escape. What will he do now, we wonder as we sit on the edge of our seats and clutch tissues in our hands? How will he respond?

But before he even has a chance to speak, Job’s wife unexpectedly interrupts: “Do you still persist in your integrity?” she asks. “Curse God, and die.” Yet her response is a bit puzzling. Indeed, her very presence on the stage is surprising. Why, we might wonder, is she even here? In looking back on the parameters that God had established earlier when he gave the adversary permission to knock out Job’s crutches, never did he say anything about sparing Job’s wife. Why, we wonder, did she not die with the rest of the family? Wouldn’t her death, after all, have been an even greater test of Job’s faith than either the loss of his possessions or the deaths of his children?

My suspicion is that the adversary left her here by design. Job’s wife, I think, constitutes round three. Please don’t misunderstand me—it could have worked in reverse had his wife been under the microscope and Job himself left to test her. You know how it is. There is a special bond between spouses, or at least there should be. If I say or do something that other people seem to appreciate—a sermon that people resonate with, an article or book that readers compliment, a renovated room that visitors admire—I feel understandably encouraged and proud. If my wife, however, were later to respond with far less enthusiasm and perhaps no enthusiasm at all, my heart might melt. What she thinks of me matters more than what others think.

So it is with Job. I can just imagine the adversary saying to himself, “Just in case Job passes the second test and endures the physical pain that I am about to inflict on him, I’ll leave his wife around to nag him to death!” And that is precisely what she tries to do. She is the adversary’s trump card. She serves as the third test. She encourages her husband to do precisely what the adversary wants him to do, and precisely what God hopes he will not do. How, then, will Job respond? What will he do? Will he buckle under the weight of not only his diminished health, but the scorn of his grief-stricken spouse?

After speaking rather harshly with his wife—he doesn’t mix his words when he answers her, much like Jesus saying “Get behind me, Satan” when he rebukes Peter—Job asks a probing question: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” “Should we really expect life to throw us only straight fast balls and never any curves?” he wonders. “Is that realistic?” he seems to ask. “Did God ever actually promise such a utopic, pain-free way of life?” And with that perplexing thought, the curtain slowly begins to fall. As it does, the writer calms our fears by assuring us that Job, in spite of all that has just transpired, did not sin. Job might have lost all of his possessions. Job might have lost all of his children. Job might have lost his health. And Job might have lost the support and understanding of his wife. But Job, at least up to this point, retained his faith. Far less has sent many others into a spiritual wasteland.

Where does one begin to reflect on such a story? The story itself is powerful, and I fear reducing it. As a start, let me suggest a few significant ideas that continue to jump out at me as I reflect on what I reade here. To begin with, I feel like I am disarmed or forewarned in some way as I read about Job and his experiences. I don’t have a financial estate even closely equivalent to his. I don’t know if I care about my children as deeply as he cared about his—I hope so. I don’t know if I am as committed to God as Job was. To be honest, I’d like to be, but I doubt that I am there yet. I just can’t quite imagine, at least at this point in time, that God would ask the adversary, “Have you considered my servant, Terry?” Job was profoundly religious, unusually successful, and deeply committed to his family. And yet, all of this happened to him.

That, of course, is precisely why the writer selects someone as lofty as Job to be the “victim” in the story. Pain and suffering are not respecters of person. Loss and sickness and tragedy and death are but a phone call away for both the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the young and the old, the righteous and the unrighteous. I don’t want to sound overly fatalistic or discouraging, but I think it is crucial that we pause and take an honest look at life. Even for those of us who live in a relatively insulated world like central Pennsylvania—most of us have little clue about the desperate pain that many people elsewhere live in—bubbles burst and dreams come crashing down. If all of this happened to Job, then I need to beware. It could happen to me, too.

But there is a second thing that we must face head on here. I can’t help but sense the writer’s cautious care as he crafts this drama. In reality, he walks a theological tightrope as he describes God in these opening scenes. On the one had, he carefully avoids creating the notion that God “causes” the pain and suffering that Job endures. God gives his permission, so to speak, but he did not conjure up the scheme itself. The God depicted here in Job does not go around harming his people or destroying his creation or inflicting senseless pain. He doesn’t act that way.

On the other hand, neither does God always prevent such traumatic experiences. God, from all indications here, could have guarded Job from his pain and suffering. In the drama, he could have said to the adversary, “Think whatever you want,” and left it at that. He did not. He did not prevent Job’s pain and suffering anymore than he always prevents yours and mine. God could protect us from all harm, but he often doesn’t. God could prevent sickness and loss, but he sometimes chooses not to. And this, quite frankly, is a tension that we, my brothers and sisters, simply have to live with for now.

What the writer is careful to demonstrate, however, is that God does not allow evil and pain and tragedy to come upon us in totally unchecked and uncontrollable proportions. While God gives his O.K., so to speak, he does not simply raise his hands and defer to the adversary. God does not stand idly by while his creation is pulled helplessly down the drain. There are limits. Parameters have been established. Unlike we humans, who maneuver entirely on the earthly stage and see only what is going on directly around us, God looks out and down and around and sees the whole. Whatever comes our way and as chaotic and painful as our lives might be at times, God has not relinquished control of this world to the adversary, or anyone else for that matter.

Finally, if we can assume that none of us—none of us!—is exempt from pain and suffering, and if we can somehow believe that God remains in control of our lives and the world, regardless of what happens, then the crucial remaining question is this: Will we earth-bound creatures curse God or not when tragedy actually does come? Cursing God, after all, is a recurring theme throughout this section. The adversary certainly believes that Job will, and Job’s wife encourages him to do just that. What does it mean to curse God?

Interestingly enough, the verb that is translated “curse” in each of these verses is actually the verb “to bless.” That sounds odd, of course. Why would the adversary want Job to bless God, and his wife’s intentions in 2:9 are clearly not positive. Instead, the verb is used euphemistically here, as it is in 1 Kings 21:10-13, for example. In such cases, one pronounces a blessing at the point of departure. You bless a person as you part ways. To curse God, then, involves a great deal more than just saying the wrong thing. To curse God involves a withdrawal of one’s confidence and allegiance. “Bless you Lord. See you later.” “Bless you Lord. I am leaving now.” The debate going on between God and the adversary, then, centers not solely on what Job says, but on what he does. When everything around him crumbles, will Job say “Nuts to you, God” and walk away. Would we?

Alexander really did have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Prizeless cereal boxes and dentist drills and soapy eyes will do that. By comparison, however, I scarcely know how to describe Job’s day. Extremely terrible? Incomprehensibly horrible? Days like that happen sometimes, even for the most God-fearing people. After his bad day, Alexander wanted to leave—he wanted to move to Australia! After his, Job asked, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Perhaps, just perhaps, having God is enough.