If God is God he is not good
If God is good he is not God
Take the even, take the odd
Job is one of the most difficult books of the Bible for me to grapple with philosophically. I remember during my senior year in high school reading J.B. by Archibald MacLeish, which is a dramatic, existentialist interpretation of Job, and it really threw me for a loop. Even now, many, many years later, the arguments I read in that play come to mind again and again whenever I ponder the terrible gravity of suffering.
In church Job is held up as a hero–a righteous man who refused to turn his back on God. In J.B. the character of Job, and in fact his entire situation, is cast in a very different light. There Job is still the protagonist, but he isn’t truly heroic. He has no good choices with which to pursue the possibility of heroism. Zuss, who represents God, has betrayed Job and utilized him as a pawn in a cosmic game. The devil, or Nickles, as he is called in the play, is a Morpheus-type character, working to shock J.B. out of the Matrix, out of the delusion that God is good and that there is sense to be found in the world.
Our assignment in class was to write a defense of either Zuss or Nickles, and being a good evangelical, I endeavored to write a theodicy and defend God’s treatment of Job. Only…I couldn’t. No matter how many times I read the text and despite all my churchy training, I couldn’t defend His role in the story. So, in the end, I wound up defending Satan. Like you do. And ever since then, Job has been a terrible burden for my faith to carry.
Not only is the problem of pain intellectually difficult to resolve but the experience of suffering is so profoundly crippling. Who among us hasn’t been Job? I know I’ve found myself on the ash heap a time or two, screaming down the stars and demanding answers of a God who doesn’t seem inclined to show His face. I can’t defend God to Job, and I can’t defend Him to myself. For someone who struggles to believe in the goodness of God, this can create a bit of an obstacle.
While philosophically I affirm that if God exists He must be good–must, in fact, be the definition of goodness (what else can be, after all?)–when it comes to His providential hand on my own life, I have less confidence. Does God watch over me? Does my pain matter to Him? Most days I see God as a God far off. He is in His heaven, and I am here on earth, and there remains an infinite gulf in between.
B sees things differently. He is the faithful positive to my skeptical negative. He believes and actually lives as if God really cares what happens to him and about the choices he makes. We discussed this on our last date night, and B tried to explain to me his philosophy of suffering–that no pain is ever wasted, and God redeems it all. “What if I stub my toe?” I asked. “Does God care about that or is it a wasted pain?” B looked at me like I’m crazy, which, admittedly, I am and shook his head. “I don’t think God is overly concerned with a stubbed toe, Jess. That’s a very temporary pain.” “Isn’t it all temporary pain? From an eternal God’s perspective, I mean? How can I trust a God who sees such a big picture when I’m stuck in this small one? What if, to Him, it’s all stubbed toes?”
I guess that’s the big question. How can a God so transcendent–the God of leviathans and horses and all the non sequiturs He threw out at Job to put the long-suffering man back in his place–really understand, not intellectually but personally, the crisis of pain? Pain is, of course, an effective teaching tool, but it’s terrible in its power. How can I believe that God, to whom my life is a but the blink of an eye, will utilize pain only as a last resort; that He won’t sacrifice my happiness for some greater good?
Yes, Job is an odd book. And I’ve come to think it’s a wrong book in some important respects. I don’t believe Job relates history or accurately explains the inner workings of heaven, but its theology is troubling, nonetheless. The God it describes is distant and detached. In the heavenly courtroom scene we see an accuser, the Satan, and God as judge, but the tableau is missing a crucial actor, one that my Pentateuch professor assures me would have been expected in the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Where is Job’s defense? Though God and Satan discuss him at length, he has no one to speak for him.
This is what makes reading Job theologically rather like looking into a fun house mirror. Job has everything to say about God’s transcendence and nothing at all to say about His immanence. It only tells part of the story. It is Jesus, at last, who provides the gloss for this oldest of biblical tales: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom 8:34). Our defense attorney is Jesus, who is God Himself. And this has got to be tremendously good news! It means that God isn’t an impartial observer. The one who judges us is also on our side. He has some skin in the game. God isn’t only the omnipotent creator we find in Job, but someone who has stacked the deck in our favor, who is arguing for us, who has thrown in His lot with us. Now, I sure wouldn’t bet on me, but if God really has, then that has to mean something, right? Cosmic implications abound.
Obviously, this isn’t the last word on the problem of pain. I hope someday to have more to say about it, but it’s a starting point for now. Our God is a biased God, and He’s biased in our favor. What does this mean for how we read Job? I’m not sure. It’s a deeply empathetic text and one that resonates with many of us, which has some value in itself. Personally, I don’t find it all that encouraging (“Yeah, you’ve got some dead kids, but not to worry. I’m going to give you some replacements!”), but I think it serves as a powerful reminder of our need for Christ. Without the incarnation, how could we be sure of God’s love or the depth of His compassion? Absent Jesus’ living, dying, and resurrection, God would remain the God of Job to us, and Job, in the final summation, was alone. Happy ending or not, he stood before God and he stood against Satan alone. And we don’t. I call that the gospel.