A (late) Lenten posting, that’s been on my computer awhile: some scattered thoughts on the Book of Job. (This’ll be the last substantial posting; the blog’s been dead for a while anyway. Though I plan on putting up sketches occasionally, as I like the look and feel.)
(“Blessed be the Name of the Lord”, by Beth Redman)
This song used to puzzle me. Praising God in good times and bad: understandable. But why do the Redmans sing “You give and take away” with something almost like ecstasy? You can exult in praising God, but how do you exult in God both giving and taking away? I did not even recognise the source of the song, because when Job famously says “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:20-21), I imagined a tone of dull despair or controlled stoicism, rather than rapture. He doesn’t seem impassioned until he begins to rail at Heaven.
This is something that can’t be fully explained, although I came to understand by having something of a bad day myself (not approaching Job-level misfortune, however); and being unable to react in any other way I played this song and sang and finally understood. Job doesn’t stop praising God; he can’t say anything without agony in his voice so he offers pain and praise together. You give and take away. It’s the heart of the song, and sometimes it’s the only thing you can say.
(Job then rails against Heaven, because sometimes you have to; and the Lord does not seem too concerned, from His judgement on Job’s friends and their upbeat happy-talk theodicy: “you have not spoken rightly of Me, as My servant Job has” – Job 42:8.)
(Nick told me once of evangelicals he had known who, uncomfortable with “You give and take away,” modified it to something Job’s friends would probably have liked better: You give and give and give. I assume they, like my younger self, did not notice the Bible reference.)
The difference between Job and his friends, I was told as a lad, is that Job speaks honestly, and his friends are willing to bend the truth to make God look good – “God does not need my lie,” quoth St. Augustine, but they are otherwise persuaded; seeking to conform reality to their beliefs instead of the other way around, they accuse Job of being a terrible sinner, because he must have been guilty of something – “admit it, you’ve been stealing from orphans and kicking puppies, haven’t you? Look, just own up to it and repent so God can stop punishing you” (Job 22). But there’s another difference too: God judges in favour of the bewildered sufferer over the rationalisations of those who have not suffered yet. Note also that Job was praised for acting rightly before God when he was still comfortable, but not for speaking rightly about God until after he had suffered. Perhaps you cannot really begin to speak rightly of God until He has deigned to make you miserable.
God commends Job for cursing the day of his birth, railing against Heaven and complaining that nothing makes sense, but first rebukes him by pointing out, at length, that the world is in fact even more bizarre, mysterious and incomprehensible than Job was giving Him credit for (Chesterton). This is daunting: if we can only speak rightly of God when in pain, when lamenting or railing against Heaven, that makes theology, logic, and indeed life, a lot more difficult. (No wonder Thomas Aquinas looked at his towering edifice of philosophical rationalisations and declared them to be all as straw; he’s commonly seen as being sainted for his virtuous rationality, but I wonder.) I suddenly find some of the “New Atheists” a lot more sympathetic: like Job’s friends, they’re essentially demanding that life should be entirely comprehensible to a sufficiently bright individual smoking his pipe in the comfort of a university common room. Compared to the idea that the zenith of human insight is to have your life torn to rubble, to rail at Heaven, and in place of answers to receive towering riddles spoken from the storm, the pipe-and-armchair route has a very compelling case.
Job is traditionally considered a reflection of Christ’s undeserved suffering, a “type of Christ” in the older theological terms. That Job does not speak rightly until he becomes a suffering servant reflects the fact that God’s ultimate revelation of Himself is in the person of Jesus dying on the cross – “the only answer Heaven ever deigned to give to the problem of suffering”. Unlike Job, Christ had the benefit of seeing what was coming. He lived life aiming towards death and suffering, and summed up Job’s lament in a single sentence: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He also made plain that his followers must be willing to take up their cross daily – becoming a Christian means signing away any right to an easy life (insofar as one had any such right in the first place) – and commanded baptism, a sacrament signifying death and burial: one is initiated into the Christian religion by being united with Christ’s (highly unpleasant) death. Job was, in a sense, baptised into Christ’s sufferings; it’s his unbaptised friends God rebukes.
(IJob’s friends also made the effort to comfort him, and they help get his life back together; when God offers them forgiveness through the intercession of the one they helped, this is another clear reflection of Christ: “whoever gives a cup of water to a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward”; “as you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”)
(I note also that Job demands an answer from God, a tall order if ever there was one. Job’s friends are less demanding: they just want Job to accept their helpful advice, and also to acknowledge his depravity so their nice neat view of the universe can trundle on unperturbed. Job actually gets an answer, of sorts; Job’s friends get a rebuke. Ask, and ye shall receive…)
Job never – in life – got to understand. Apparently, understanding comes with seeing the face of God, and we cannot see God face to face “till we have faces” – a matter C.S. Lewis wrote probably his best book on, at the end of his life, when he’d been through unbearable grief after the loss of his wife.
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
– Habakkuk 3: 17-18