Monday, March 31, 2014

Behind the Curtain

                Today, we are going to begin a journey through the book of Job, which I intend to write on every day until it is finished. I have had the purifying experience lately of seeing several people who I care deeply for go through difficulty and experience apparent separation from God. I will be writing through this for one of them in particular, for anyone else who finds it helpful, and also to help myself process that question which is easy to answer in our minds, but hard to accept in our hearts: why do bad things happen to people?

I have long been in the habit of responding to mild annoyances by saying that “worse things than this have happened to better people than me.” It is something I still stand by, and know to be true. It becomes no less true when the problems in our lives hit closer home, but it does become harder to say. Job is one of the most difficult books of the Bible, mostly because it is not at all what we think the Bible ought to be like. There are few passages which fit our normal idea of inspiration, where some biblical writer teaches us something, and even when God Himself speaks, He seems to avoid the question He was asked, and answer a different one instead. It is an ancient, epic poem, which is partially difficult to read because it tears so honestly at the depths of the human heart. As you read through Job, you will constantly hear the echoes of things you have felt, but have been too afraid to say.

Let’s crack open the prologue and set the stage for our study, Job 1:1–5 (NASB95):

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. His possessions also were 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants; and that man was the greatest of all the men of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When the days of feasting had completed their cycle, Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.


This opening is nice, because everything is exactly the way that we expect it to be. We are introduced to a man named Job, who is described as blameless (not without sin, but complete, always responding to his sin with heartfelt repentance), upright (he had integrity), fearing God (he respected and worshipped God) and turning away from evil. When his sons had their birthday parties, he would make special offerings for them, showing that he was concerned for them, and was entrusting them to God.

All people are theologians, although most are bad ones, so we all have a natural assumption about how this should turn out. When you have someone who follows after God, what do you expect their life to look like? Almost everyone would agree that such a person should be wealthy and successful. We don’t even need God to arrive at that kind of a theology. An agnostic, a deist and a Buddhist can all be quite comfortable with this kind of theology, since they can appeal to some vague kind of balance. Even atheists, who have no mechanism for such a thing, have a vague sense that ‘what goes around comes around.’ God, if there is one, is primarily a cosmic accountant, moving things from one bank to another and making sure that the sinners get their bills and the righteous get their dividends.
It is a pretty good system we have invented, and I would be quite comfortable with it if I didn’t have a Bible and had never met any other human beings. The theory only falls apart when confronted with the facts. When I was a kid, I had[1] an active imagination. I invented elaborate worlds, with very specific rules. One the playground at Stevenson Primary School, there is an oddly round hill, which looked to me like a gumball. A friend and I decided that if you jumped on the hill, you could fall through into Bubble Gum World, where you could then play. I was pretty strict about these things, and it must have driven my teachers crazy to watch me run the wrong way when I was called in for recess. But I had to go back to the hill so I could go back to the real world, and I couldn’t really understand why that didn’t make sense to them. My ideas about the world were consistent and they worked for me. The problem is that they weren’t true. I think a lot of people’s ideas about God are like that. They seem to make sense, you can follow through with them and be pretty happy, but they’re still wrong.

The world is just more complicated than the 8 year old Justin thought. If you study the Bible, you will quickly become confronted with the idea that there is literally more going on than you can see. Behind our world, but still very close, is an invisible spiritual realm, where the work of God is taking place. Ordinarily, we can’t see it, and so it seems half-real to the people who acknowledge it at all. But this is where the real action is, and in Job 1, God gives us a peak. Job 1:6–8 (NASB95):

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”  The Lord said to Satan, “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.”

The angels have gathered around God to report their progress. In their midst is the Satan – the Accuser. God calls out to him and asks what he has been doing, and he reports that he has been wandering around on the earth, obviously looking for people to attack in their weakness. Take a minute to imagine this and consider the implications. A sea of angels gathered around the throne of God, and God’s voice calls out to the one who wants to oppose Him: What are you doing? Satan has no choice but to answer honestly, because God already knows. Satan is not some equal god, wrecking people’s lives while Jesus wrings His hands. He is someone who has some authority for a time, but is ultimately under God’s control.

God issues a challenge to Satan. “You’ve been tempting people? Have you tried my servant Job? There is no one like him.” Wouldn’t it be something to think that God could be talking about you like that? “Oh Satan, I know you want to tempt people, but you don’t stand a chance against my servant Justin. He is blameless and hates evil. There is no one like him in the world.”[2] God throws down the gauntlet and issues the challenge – always in control. Job 1:9–12 (NASB95)

Then Satan answered the Lord, “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. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.”  Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord.

                The way Satan responds to God’s challenge is incredible. Satan, like many of us, operates under the fascinating assumption that everyone is just like him. What is tempting to him will be tempting to everyone. What is not, will not be. His mentality (the pattern of this world, to quote Romans 12) is very simple: me first. His entire strategy is based on the assumption that you will do whatever it takes to get what you want, and if you behave well, it is only because you are looking for something good from it. When you watch TV and a commercial tells you about what you deserve or what you are worth, this is the mentality being appealed to. Sometimes well-meaning people will tempt you with the same kind of reasoning: “It will be okay, you’ve really earned this. You’ve had a hard week and you do so much; just go ahead.” Satan assumes that if Job is following God, it must be because of the things God gives him. So God gives Satan permission to attack everything Job has, but he cannot hurt Job directly. God is still in control, but He has authorized Satan to let Job suffer.

                This does not fit into our karma god. Job has done nothing wrong, but God is letting Job be tested, apparently on a whim. How does this make sense? Consider what Oswald Chambers once wrote: “Suffering is the heritage of the bad, of the penitent and of the Son of God. Each one ends in the cross. The bad thief is crucified, the penitent thief is crucified, and the Son of God is crucified. By these signs we know the widespread heritage of suffering.”[3]

The world we live in, though under God’s dominion, is fundamentally broken. Suffering is the lot of every person, and this stems from sin. But, that is too simple. When you suffer and do not know why (or when someone else does not suffer and you do not know why), you are faced with a terrifying fact: God is alive. When you do not feel God’s presence when you cry out to Him, it is the same striking testimony: God is alive. He is not a force that is manipulated and controlled at your whim, like the laws of physics. He is sovereign and behaves as He sees fit, and a relationship with Him will eventually come crashing into that fact. Sometimes He goes against our expectations to teach us that. Sometimes we do not understand all of the complexities of the situation, but the God revealed in our text today is not the God we expected

He is allowing Satan to harm someone who is following Him closely, for reasons that seem foggy at best. But if we will all suffer, we can take a deep breath and know God chooses to sovereignly place it where He knows is best. This may seem like precious little comfort when we are suffering (and even less when those we love are), but it is still the truth. God is God, and He uses suffering the way that He sees fit, for purposes which are beyond us.

As we wrestle through this book, we will not find many answers fit for a poster or a bumper sticker. They are probably not very satisfying either, but they are amazing. But as you read through the book of Job, the first lesson I think we see is that God is alive. He doesn’t act the way we expect, which is at once terrifying and comforting. He is bigger and burns brighter than our expectations. We came expecting an accountant, and found a CEO. Where we expected a judge, there was a King.

Come back tomorrow for the rest of the first chapter and all of the second as we finish the prologue, and make sure to check back every day for the journey through this exciting book. It is my heartfelt prayer that we do not just encounter a story or find answers, but that we come into contact with God Himself.

[1] Notice the past tense. Because I never imagine that large buildings are spaceships now. That would be dorky.
[2] I am pretty sure this conversation has never happened.
[3] Quoted in Ray Stedman’s Let God Be God, pg 23.

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