December 5, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Suffering is not a sign of wickedness

John F. Fink(Forty-eighth in a series of columns)

The Book of Job is the first of seven Wisdom Books in the Old Testament. These books, which date back to the 10th century B.C., were an attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions of life. The Book of Job is widely regarded as one of the literary masterpieces of all time.

Sometimes we hear that someone has “the patience of Job,” meaning that she or he is an extremely patient person. I wonder if the person who coined that expression ever read past the second chapter of the Book of Job.

In the first two chapters of this folktale, Job indeed is patient. After God permits Satan to afflict him severely, Job says merely, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Jb 1:21). And later he says, “We accept good things from God; and should we not accept evil?” (Jb 2:10).

The first two chapters, though, are the prologue to the book, just as the last chapter, which tells of the restoration of Job’s prosperity, is the epilogue. What makes this a literary masterpiece is the cycle of speeches from chapters 3 to 42. And there we find that Job is not patient at all. He curses the day he was born, and longs for death to end his sufferings. He frequently cries out to God in complaint, and blames God for allowing him to be afflicted even though he has always been a righteous man.

This is the age-old problem expressed in the modern book by Harold S. Kushner, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Why does God allow injustice to occur? Job’s friends, who originally came to comfort him, are convinced that he must be guilty of some great wrong since his suffering is so intense, and they become annoyed with Job’s protestations of his innocence.

Job pleads for God to explain why he has permitted his sufferings. God finally answers. But not in the way Job wanted. God doesn’t try to justify his actions; he doesn’t answer the question “Why?” Rather, he refers to his own omniscience and almighty power. He shows Job that happiness and success are not rewards for living righteously, and neither are grief and failure punishments for evildoing.

This is enough for Job. He quickly recovers his attitude of humility and trust in God. In fact, his humility and trust are strengthened by the suffering he endured. Thus, over the 2,500 years since this book was written, this poor man has stood as proof that suffering is not a sign of wickedness.

From this book, we learn that we do not know why bad things happen to good people and that innocent people can be afflicted for no apparent reason. Their sufferings are a test of their fidelity. They will be rewarded in the end, but not necessarily in this life. Meanwhile, our human, finite minds cannot understand the depths of God’s divine omniscience and omnipotence. †

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