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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Inbox: Have I Got a Deal for You

Alison writes:

Something [has] been bothering me for really long time. Everybody says “Read the book of Job for comfort, blah blah blah” but look at Job 1:8.

“Have you considered my servant Job?” The speaker is God.

OMG did you get that?!?! It was YHVH who pointed Job out to the Adversary in the first place! He might as well have said, “Sic him, Satan!”

[Throws hands in the air and wonders what it’s all about anyway]

That’s a big question, Alison. And though your wording may jar some readers, I think that at the end of the day, it’s actually quite a fair one.

Essentially, you’re asking why God would allow Satan to “sift” someone like Job. Job’s supposed to be a good guy — a friend of God, a true servant and a “righteous” man; why would God allow his life to go this way?

Maybe I can offer a few brief thoughts, because I’ve worked on this issue myself before. Of course, I haven’t all the answers, but I’ve got some ideas that I find helpful.

But let’s tackle things head on.

Preliminary Thoughts

Let’s start off by realizing that Satan’s a minor player in this drama. The real story is about Job, and about how God and he relate to each other. After the first couple of chapters, Satan is gone; and he figures no more in what happens.

But in spite of being only a minor character, Satan’s not entirely irrelevant, because he becomes the occasion of the situation that develops. And it happens because Satan asks a provocative question that human beings often also ask about God. They wonder if the reason people want to be Christians is merely to get rich, get happy, get prosperous and get blessed … or at least, in order to have a calming drug or a security blanket to keep the scares of life away. Christians are probably cowards, they think, and are too afraid to face life alone. So they have to imagine a big “Daddy in the Sky” to save them from trouble.

In a sense, the book of Job is a total rebuke to this lie.

God and Relationships

So let’s begin. Now, here’s the idea that Satan has about God: that the kind of relationship that he establishes with people goes this way: he “pays off” his “friends” by making their lives easy. So God’s relationship with people is an economic one … a deal.

God is not actually teaching people to love him, but how to act in their own best interests by pretending to love him. But that’s as far as it goes. Really, the whole thing is just a giant bribe. People don’t love God; they love the benefits of faking loving God.

But the Lord says:
“Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.”
Implication: “He’s authentic — the real deal. He loves me, and I love him. We’ve got a genuine friendship here, though I’m God and he’s merely a man. That’s what I can do when I get hold of a person.”

Satan says, “No, no, it’s not like that.” Or to put it another way, in the biblical wording:
Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.”
Satan’s saying, “It’s a deal; it’s always been a deal. Job doesn’t love you, and you’re nothing special to him. You’ve bought him off, and he’s not so choice. There’s nothing special, nothing unusual here. It’s a deal.”

Then Satan sets the test for authenticity:
“But put forth your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse you to your face.”
Essentially, he’s saying, “Break the deal, and your ‘friend’ will curse you. He’s no more committed to you than anybody else.”

So God says, in effect, “How greatly you underestimate both me and my servant. You have not the slightest idea what kind of friendship I have established with him.” And he gives Satan permission to run the test — not because God doesn’t know Job will pass it, but because he’s certain that Job will demonstrate that he can pass it.

And also, by extension, that others who love God can do the same.

That’s what’s going on there.

Let’s Make a Deal

Now, if we think that Satan’s the only one who has this cynical deal-based view of the relationship between God and man, then maybe we need to think again. Because ironically, Job’s own friends have the very same view. God’s in the deal-making business: people who are good get blessings, and people who are bad get blasted. And that’s not some outcome in the far distant future, in eternity. No, it’s a thing that happens right now, right here, on earth. You can tell the people God loves, and who love God, by external signs. They have big houses and nice cars. They have solid financial portfolios, and excellent retirement plans. They have excellent health. They have happy kids, and obedient wives, and bundles of friends. And they’ve got great teeth.

So Job’s friends just can’t figure out how God could love someone and not make his life good for him. And, if life is bad, then by deduction, it must mean that God hates that guy. Therefore, Job must have sinned — how, they have no idea, but it must be so — because obviously God’s whipping him for it. That’s their figuring.

So they tell Job:
“How long will you say these things,
And the words of your mouth be a mighty wind?
Does God pervert justice?
Or does the Almighty pervert what is right?
If your sons sinned against him,
Then he delivered them into the power of their transgression.
If you would seek God and implore the compassion of the Almighty,
If you are pure and upright,
Surely now he would rouse himself for you
And restore your righteous estate.”
You see, they’re saying the same thing: God would never allow you to suffer if you were not a bad man. That’s how the deal works: you be a good person, and God is obligated to give you good things. You’re not getting good things, so even though we don’t know what you did, you’ve got to be covering up something.

So buy a clue. It’s time for you to repent. God will forgive you, and of course he will be bound to give you back all the good stuff you lost. It’s a deal. It’s always been a deal. Work the deal.

Deal, or No Deal?

But the main message of the book of Job — or at least, one of them — is that it is NOT a deal.

It’s not a scam, or a play, or a bargain. It is not the case that in exchange for our feigned love, God will give us cherries and ice cream every day. Rather, the way the relationship works is that God does what is right, and we trust him to do it — even when we don’t understand what he is doing in our lives, and especially when things go wrong.

And Job understands this, though no one around him — not even his wife — gets it. He says:
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”
Job’s saying, “I have learned to love God unconditionally, because of who he is, not because he pays me off in predictable ways, or lets me manipulate him through my good behaviour. We really are friends, and I trust him — no matter what happens to me.”

Then Job adds:
“Nevertheless I will argue my ways before him. This also will be my salvation, for a godless man may not come before his presence.”
This means, “Because we are friends, he gets to decide what happens; but because we are friends, I also get the privilege of asking him why unfair things seem to be happening to me. It’s a conversation, not a bargain. And if I have that right, it’s not because God doesn’t love me; it’s because I know he does. I’m not a godless man. I’m God’s man.”

And he is.

Controlling the Agenda

Now, a final note.

I used to feel a bit disappointed that Job never found out why God allowed what he allowed. Instinctively, I thought that maybe the right ending was for God to explain himself. When we are the one suffering, don’t we all feel we have a right to ask why? And wouldn’t knowing the answer make us feel somewhat better, and maybe even make it more possible for us to endure? But pointless suffering — suffering like a dog and never knowing why — that seemed too much to bear.

But God doesn’t give Job an explanation of why what happened to him has happened. Instead, he gives this massive, rumbling speech that goes:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”
And then there’s some very impressive poetry about the sea, and the stars, and the animal kingdom, and the deeps, and justice, and pride. Very stirring stuff, to be sure — but really, not an answer to the particulars of Job’s need.

Or so I thought.

I was wrong.

God DOES answer Job.

Who’s In Charge?

In fact, he gives him the only answer that the Almighty can give to a mere mortal. In essence, he reminds Job of who has control of the situation, who writes the agenda for the universe … who is in charge.

You see, Job has asked God to explain his dealings. He’s asked for the master plan for why things happen. And God has responded by telling him, “Job, you’ve come to ask me for the ocean, but you’ve only brought your little cup. I cannot answer you — not because I do not know, but because you cannot possibly contain the answer.”

At the end of the day, the agenda is God’s. Whatever happens in this world is in his hands, and forms a tapestry far too huge and complex for any one of us to see in its totality. Lives other than Job’s were involved. So were all future generations. So was the very fabric of the will of God itself. Any answer but the complete one would have been less than forthcoming; any answer that large would have crushed the hearer.

At the end of the day, we just have to trust God. We just have to know that the One in charge of us all is our great Friend, who never fails to have in mind exactly the right combination of circumstances for us and for everyone else at the same time. The millions and millions of lives involved, since the very dawn on human history, make all of this one complex weaving; and nobody but God himself is up to managing it. So at the end of the day, we just have to rest in that.

No Deals Here

There are no deals here. God writes what is necessary for each of us, and our job is to play our role in the totality of it. The minute we think the roles can be reversed — that we are able to write the agenda, or worse, that we can make deals with God instead of trusting him — we are over our heads.

And Job gets it. That’s why he responds as he does. He says:
“I know that you can do all things,
And that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask you, and you instruct me.’
“I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees you;
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes.”
In other words, Job says, “I forgot for a moment that you are God and I am me. I didn’t realize what I was asking. Please forgive me for being a fool; I take it all back.”

But God isn’t the least bit angry with Job, actually. However, he is not at all happy with Job’s alleged friends. He says that if Job doesn’t pray for them, they’ll get smoked for lying about him and insulting his relationship with his friend Job. With their cheap talk about how good people always get a good deal from God, and people who suffer deserve it, they’ve misrepresented the whole situation. They’ve lied about God, and they’ve lied about his friend Job.

No Deal

So there’s a lot of important revelation in this. Here we learn not to try to “read” our circumstances, as if God gives benefits to those he “loves” and punishes those he “hates”. Sometimes good people suffer and bad people seem to thrive. That’s how it goes in this wicked world. Because ultimately the point is not that we should have riches and blessing merely on earth, but that we should be made into true companions fit for God. Compared to that great goal, the present blessings are not much, and the present pains are not much.

For now, on earth, we experience both good and bad. None of it is reflective of some sort of “bargain” we run with God. It’s all preparatory to our entry into a full, open-hearted and unconditional love relationship with God, one that shall last forever.

Summing It Up

In many ways, that’s exactly what the book of Job is all about. It’s about learning that we can’t tell much about our spiritual state from our present circumstances, and that those despised by the world may be yet highly esteemed with God.

For that matter, a person who loves God could have all sorts of things happen in his or her life. But it wouldn’t mean that God didn’t love that person.

It might mean that he or she had come from tough circumstances — the world is full of those — and was on the way to a brighter, eternal destiny.

It might mean that for now, he or she needed to be going through some specific tests and trials in order to refine character. That can happen too.

It might even be, like Job, a demonstration of the grace of God to others who were watching, showing them that God really does love people, and people can really love God; that they are true friends.

But whatever happened to such a person, it would never be because God didn’t love him or her — it would be because he did.

*   *   *   *   *
Hope this helps, Alison. And remember: while mankind cannot always have the answer,

Immanuel Can

3 comments :

  1. The analysis is spot on but (perhaps due to deliberate omission) somewhat incomplete. As any teacher and parent will tell you it is extremely important to instill behavior that incentivizes a child to expect rewards for good behavior. Job's friends were therefore properly brought up and thought exactly according to what their early teaching instilled in them. So why would God consider their behavior to be deserving of reproach? Especially since their approach is also expected in adulthood like on the job where good behavior definitely gets rewarded perhaps even with a promotion. So, what gives?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think your question is not quite based on the right analogy, Q.

      What Job's friends have in mind is not a FAMILIAL relationship, but an ECONOMIC one -- goods for services rendered, if you will.

      In the economic paradigm, God is thought to "owe" us something on condition we "do" something He "wants"; and reversely, we are thought to "incur" life's troubles through some definite sin or failure on our part.

      It is against this model that God is speaking: we do not "earn" God's favour by doing him favours; and neither do our misfortunes come predictably as a result of some secret sin we have hidden.

      So Job's friends have slandered both God and his servant, Job, by claiming their relationship is merely economic -- an exchange or "deal" in the sense described.

      In truth, there is no predictable correlation between our status with God and our earthly circumstances. Some of the best of men have been martyred, and some of the worst have lived long lives and died in their beds. You will not find these things matching up in ways that can be read or anticipated. The master-plan is God's; and that's the only thing we can know for sure, other than that we can trust Him to do rightly with it.

      It's what happens after this life that tells the real tale.

      Delete
  2. The analysis is spot on but (perhaps due to deliberate omission) somewhat incomplete. As any teacher and parent will tell you it is extremely important to instill behavior that incentivizes a child to expect rewards for good behavior. Job's friends were therefore properly brought up and thought exactly according to what their early teaching instilled in them. So why would God consider their behavior to be deserving of reproach? Especially since their approach is also expected in adulthood like on the job where good behavior definitely gets rewarded perhaps even with a promotion. So, what gives?

    ReplyDelete