Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Book of Job

This is a great excerpt by John S. Tanner, at a symposium down at BYU “Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?

"If you are like me, you can scarcely keep your mind off Job. His trials come to my mind almost daily as I read or hear or experience fresh instances of unaccountable misery—especially the suffering of innocent victims. The book of Job is as timely as today’s headlines telling of blameless children starving in the Sudan or beaten, raped, and murdered in Midvale. It is as timeless as the cry of the widow and the fatherless, whose collected tears over the course of world history would fill a great sea of grief. When life forces us “to feel what wretches feel” (King Lear 3.4.34), the book of Job stands as a permanent scriptural referent for our anguish. This power to sensitize us to suffering is alone reason enough to “consider Job,” long and hard. For in our quest to become more compassionate disciples of Him who “hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4), it is good for us, like Him, to be “touched with the feeling of [others’] infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).

I'm convinced that strictly speaking, the book of Job’s central concern lies not with the philosophical problem of evil but with the personal problem of despair; not with God’s relationship to evil but man’s relationship to God out of the midst of “evil.” Job’s sense of godforsakenness is the real problem he must endure and overcome. To put the matter succinctly, the problem Job treats involves relationship; the answer it provides entails revelation. The book of Job teaches us how to endure suffering, not the reason for it.
Let me explain. If we look at the text, we observe that Job is never told the reason for his afflictions. We also note that the text devotes but a few brief (albeit vivid) verses to the description of Job’s physical pain. To be sure, Job’s boils are deeply etched upon our memories, but they are not the main source of his suffering. In fact, Job endured physical pain in silence. When he finally cried out, after abiding seven days and seven nights in complete silence, Job complained not of boils but of betrayal: “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul” (Job 3:20). It is as if Job’s cancerous skin disease ate its way inward during his long week of brooding, ulcerating his spirit until he became “bitter in soul.” However difficult to bear, Job’s physical pain was most embittering for what it seemed to him to betoken: a violated relationship with God.
Job’s relationship to God remains the focus throughout the dialogues. Physical affliction forms but the occasion, not the main topic, of the ensuing dialogues, which make no further reference to Job’s specific personal losses or boils. Instead, Job’s friends come with glib explanations about why Job suffered. Their pious advice—accept your suffering, Job, as punishment for your sins—not only provide him cold comfort but, if accepted, would have perverted Job’s absolutely honest relationship with the Almighty. To follow their counsel would have forced Job to live a lie by confessing to the Lord that he felt he deserved his affliction—which he did not, and should not feel. Such “comfort” exonerates God by charging man with depravity, so that no matter what happens to man, the pious religionist can always say, “God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth” (Job 11:6). 

The book of  Job warns us against reasoning backward from peoples’ external circumstances to the condition of their souls. To do so traps us in a logical fallacy of an “if-then” argument called “affirming the consequent.” If-then sequences are not reversible: If A then B does not permit the reverse conclusion, B therefore A. If a man is a millionaire, then he may buy a Mercedes, but if he buys a Mercedes, he is not necessarily a millionaire. Or, to apply the same principles to Job, if a man is wicked then he may (and ultimately will) suffer, but if he suffers he is not necessarily wicked. Sinfulness may result in suffering, but suffering does not necessarily imply sinfulness. The same holds true for the corollary: virtue may result in prosperity, but prosperity does not necessarily imply virtue. You cannot reason backwards from the fact of prosperity or suffering to the state of the soul, as Job’s comforters try to do. “Affliction is not necessarily evidence that one has sinned,” the Bible Dictionary wisely concludes."

Tanner, John S., “‘Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?’” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 266–282.

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