Reflections on Job and His Friends

Some thoughts this morning as I read through Job again...

Innocent suffering really exists. It happens. And it makes us just as uncomfortable as it did Job’s friends. We don’t like the uncertainty and so we come up with explanations that help to give us our understanding of the world back, and our control of it. The long speeches that make up the book of Job get confusing. It helps to note that there are consistent themes that emerge in Job’s three friends, themes that confront our understanding of suffering.

Eliphaz comes out in the archetypal model of a theologian. He wants to debate the nuances of innocence with Job. He feels the need to drive home the reminder that there is no real innocence. If there is no perfect innocence, then there is no unjust suffering. And so he falls back on the platitudes of “just be patient”, “take it to the Lord.” Eliphaz’s cold theology does nothing to help his friend, who is actually suffering in innocence.

Bildad doesn’t have the categories for innocent suffering either, but his approach is a little different. In his mind all suffering comes back to sin. He even goes as far as to say that Job’s dead children must have done something to deserve it. And so, Bildad’s answer is that Job has to do better, try harder, be more upright and righteous. Then God will surely restore his fortunes. It’s a soft prosperity gospel in its finest form, void of any compassion for his suffering friend.

Zophar is the third friend to speak up, and the most heated. In Zophar’s mind the only explanation is that Job is hiding a secret sin. He is offended that Job would ever claim innocence when “God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” Of course, Zophar doesn’t know quite what that secret sin is, but his only answer to Job’s suffering is “Repent!” When we fall into moralism, there is no explanation for good or bad, comfort or suffering, other than our own sin or lack thereof.

Elihu comes in as a bonus friend at the end. He has a way of summing up the perspectives of the other friends. The big difference is that Elihu is the friend who looks ahead instead of backward. He sees Job’s suffering as discipline. It’s what God will use to make Job stronger in the end. It’s a call for Job to pull himself up by the bootstraps and look at all the good that will come out of the total devastation of his life. And it feels to me like there are few places in Scripture that feel more American.

In the midst of this we see the direct contrast of Job from his friends. Job is confused. He is hurt. He has searched himself before God and the suffering he has experienced just doesn’t seem to line up. The rigidness of his friends’ perspectives only makes the suffering more intense. As Job cries out for pity and shared sorrow, his friends only explain away his pain. It’s not that Job wanted silence. He is desperate for communication, most of all with God Himself. He never asked to have everything restored, but he desperately longs for God’s presence and voice.

When life levels us, and others around us, God does not want or need defenders of the faith. Sure, sin can cause suffering but we can’t fall into reverse deduction that all suffering is caused by sin. The friends are more concerned with their theology than with Job and they did tremendous damage because of it. In the end, God does not tolerate it.  Were it not for Job, it would have cost them their lives.

Innocent suffering really does exist. When we suffer, and our weakness and insignificance is exposed openly, we are reminded through Job’s story that our lives actually matter to God. We can never know why we suffer. We can never know the real circumstances behind the storms of our lives, let alone others’ lives. But we also know that God Himself came to suffer tremendous injustice, in perfect righteousness, and His love for us is shown supremely on the cross.

So, let’s look to Christ, and cry out in lament and sorrow. It’s no help to be Job’s friends to ourselves or to anyone else.