Job: Wrestling with Injustice
The book of Job wrestles with one of the biggest questions in life: why is it unfair? The story centres around Job, described as a righteous man who has fallen victim to severe and unjust suffering: losing all of his family, his wealth and property, his social standing, his reputation, and suffering a terrible illness. Job is then in dialogue with “friends” discussing why this has happened to him.Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing.
The Karmic Myth
In essence, the argument of Job’s opposing “friends” is that everyone gets what they deserve. If Job is suffering, it is because he deserved it and God is punishing him. Job insists that he is innocent and therefore concludes that God is just arbitrarily hurting him (which some Christians do believe). Much of the conversation revolves around Job’s history of social justice, although it is easy to extend today to various other ways that we think should make us immune from suffering: believing the right things, being a part of the right group, personal ethics, religious rituals, etc. We like life to be this simple: one cause for the effect(s).
Job begins largely self-centred, focusing only on his own suffering and how it is unfair (e.g. 7:1; 14:14). From there, however, he realizes that he is far from alone in this situation. Many of the poor around him were in terrible conditions held under the power of those with more money and cultural influence. Job concludes that God blesses oppressors (21:27-34; 24:22) while:
12 along the city streets,
the wounded and dying cry out,
yet God does nothing. (24:12 CEV)
Many still have this debate today: why does God allow suffering? Job’s friends concluded that everything that happens to you, good or bad, is ultimately your responsibility and God is simply blessing or cursing in response to your choices. Job concludes that God is either arbitrary or deliberately unjust. Many today still conclude one of these two extreme and simplistic options.
Debunking the Myth
At the end of the Job story, God shows up and proceeds to not really answer the question at all. In short, he basically says Job doesn’t know what’s really going on and it isn’t his place to know. As the reader, we know that this is is true: we saw in the introduction that these turmoils, while allowed by God, are actually the work of Satan. It was neither strictly Job’s fault as his friends argued or God being arbitrary and unjust as Job charged. In other words, we can’t simply boil down injustices to cause-and-effect from our own actions.
Jesus said something similar in this story:
9 As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who had been blind since birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it because he or his parents sinned?”
3 “No, it wasn’t!” Jesus answered. “But because of his blindness, you will see God work a miracle for him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do what the one who sent me wants me to do. When night comes, no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light for the world.” (John 9:1-5 CEV)
This isn’t to say strictly that we should never look at causes of suffering. There are definitely scenarios where understanding a cause can help you heal as well as help prevent it happening again. In that sense, it is vital to see what oppressive systems are at the root of the specific problems. This has to be to bring healing, though, not simply blame for blame’s sake.
This may be partly why Scripture seems to be far more interested in encouraging us to work to fix the suffering of others than it is in figuring the proper blame. As interesting as discussions about why God would allow injustice may be, the much better question is one that Job and his friends didn’t stop to consider: what can and should we be doing to combat those injustices? What ways are we following in Jesus’ footsteps as being light to the world?
The other valuable point to draw from the Job story is that after God spends four and a half chapters explaining to Job how he was wrong to blame him, he then turns to Job’s friends and says:
What my servant Job has said about me is true (42:7)
So which is it? Why did God just spend a while telling Job how he was wrong to blame him? And why do we see at the beginning of the story that Job is in fact wrong, that God was not punishing him arbitrarily?
I think the best answer is that Job’s approach was true, even if his understanding of the cause of his suffering was wrong. We often see lament throughout the biblical texts. People are unafraid to speak to God about their suffering and injustice. Lament texts are still used in worship today. God is definitely not turned off by this way of speaking to him. Actually, he approves of it. While Job’s friends denied that injustice existed, Job was painfully honest about it.
I believe that at least part of the reason for this is that we cannot really begin to solve injustice until we have acknowledged it. I don’t just mean intellectually admitting that it happens. I mean being really involved and feeling the pain of those suffering. We saw this with Job. Even though we know that Job was a just man who helped his neighbour rather than oppressing them, it took him suffering similarly to really realize how unjust his society was. It is quite possible, I think, that this was actually a major reason God allowed (not caused) his suffering – it has the potential to snap us out of our self-centred world and realize when others need our help.