So began a session yesterday on the book of Job in the Torrey Honors Institute. The question, posed by myself and my colleague Matt Jenson, was intended to start a discussion on Job’s interactions with his friends, especially Elihu. It may seem like an odd, off the mark question given that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Yet, it is clear in at least two places that Job is corrected by his friend Elihu:
You say, ‘I am pure, without transgression;
I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me.
Behold, he finds occasions against me,
he counts me as his enemy,
he puts my feet in the stocks
and watches all my paths.’
Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you,
for God is greater than man. (Job 33:9-12)
For Job has said, ‘I am in the right,
and God has taken away my right;
in spite of my right I am counted a liar;
my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’
What man is like Job,
who drinks up scoffing like water,
who travels in company with evildoers
and walks with wicked men?
For he has said, ‘It profits a man nothing
that he should take delight in God.’
In both cases, Elihu’s critique is the same: Job, you are not defending and justifying the actions of God, you are merely defending and justifying yourself. Though there was some disagreement in our session, I believe that the reason why Elihu’s correction is so accurate is because the ways of God can’t be justified. As Elihu and God himself say later in the text, any one who can move mountains, create the world, tame the beasts and claim the title of the “Almighty,” then, and only then, can this person justify the ways of God. Why? Because this person would then be God. That is, only God can justify his ways, no one can do this for him. Sure, Job tried, as did John Milton, but ultimately both failed because the reasons why God allows bad things to happen to good people and vice versa remains, ultimately, a mystery.
For example, before this very Torrey session on Job began a student asked for the group’s prayers for her brother who had been injured in Afghanistan that very day. His injuries sounded quite intensive and would require at least one surgery and some period of recovery and perhaps even rehabilitation. This student was not asking for us to comfort her by offering explanations for why God would allow this to happen; rather, she was simply requesting prayer for healing for her brother. Had she asked “why did God allow this?,” the best response likely would have been silence, just as Job eventually learned: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:4-5). I am not suggesting that there is not space to develop and espouse a theological theodicy. I am merely saying that at the end of the day God is inscrutable. He’s knowable and desires to be known, but his ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Faithfulness to him despite our circumstances is probably, in the end, a better response to God’s work in our lives than incessant questioning of God’s ways. We are to be content despite our circumstances, even when we lack full understanding (Philippians 4:11-12). Therefore, let us not contend with the Almighty but rather, repent in dust and ashes (Job 40:2; 42:6).