This is a bit of a ramble, but it is what it is…
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did. One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around 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 stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Job, chapter 1, v 1-11 (NRSV)
Often overlooked when speaking of Job is that it’s not so much a story about a person’s patience as it is a story about God and the question of righteousness. Job begins with Satan bringing a challenge before God; namely that the idea of righteousness is a fiction, and whatever good Man does is a mere response to the spoils that God has lavished upon Man. People appear to value righteousness and pay allegiance to God not because God is God, but because God is a sugar-daddy. As if that isn’t interesting enough, it’s not like God says to Satan, “Liar! Idiot! Stop wasting my time and just go away. Be gone!” The far reaching argument, for those who care to make it, is that God placed the proof of Satan’s error, perhaps because God had no choice, into the hands of a contingent, mortal being. The implications of this are pretty far reaching, but I’m thinking of things a bit more basic…
ONE, if we as Christians are predominantly living our lives in a particular way so that we may go to Heaven, I’m not sure we are far from being guilty of Satan’s charge. I realize it’s a bit different with Job because it would seem that there wasn’t a thought about the afterlife in Job’s day, and so Satan’s charge wasn’t that Job was being such a goodie-goodie to earn an eternal reward, but was being a goodie-goodie because of past and present reward—and perhaps whatever blessings Job expected to come for the rest of his earthly life. But still, there’s a fairly common sense question that asks simply, “Isn’t being a Christian so you can get to Heaven just selfish?” To which, the common sense answer is, “No, because that’s what God wants for us, and we are loving God by doing what he wants.” I think both the question and the response have some merit. As far as the response, I have said before and still say that the best way to love God is to let God love you. Since God wants to work in your life and bring you to Heaven, then that’s what you should allow God to do. That makes sense to me. But I must admit that it sure seems selfish to spend a bunch of time—like your whole life—in a concerted effort to win your own way toward Heaven.
Now, this is where people will say, “Well but we don’t work our way to Heaven. We get there by grace.” Yep. True enough. But, from what I’ve witnessed there are a whole bunch of people who don’t live like they believe that. It seems to me their view is more like this: “We are saved by grace, through faith, and not by any work of our own. But, we remain saved only if we work at it and live just the right kind of life.” Which, in a practical sense, isn’t much different from working one’s way to Heaven. And, yeah, I guess I’m thinking that this just seems overtly selfish to me. Perhaps that’s too strong of a way to put it, and most likely in many cases it’s unfair for me to say so. So, on second thought, I’m going to put it this way: It’s terribly inefficient and for the most part unnecessary. By this, I mean, look; You’re saved. Done deal. So now you can focus on other people. It seems to me that the idea of Jesus being offered, that the idea of nothing being able to separate us from the love of God, that the idea of there now being no condemnation for those who are in Christ, are all meant to help us understand our salvation is a done deal. And why is it important for us to know this? I can only think of a single major reason; it’s so we can get over ourselves and realize we are here to get busy carrying out the business of God—which means I need to start spending my time thinking about God working in others’ lives through me. Seems to me God said, “Let me take care of this salvation issue that is going to worry you and hamstring you all of your life, and declare it done. There. Done. Finished. Now, can we get on with my business and what you can do to help me love people?”
I’ve ended up in recent years wondering if, perhaps, this is one of the intentions of Jesus’ Story; to fully resolve the individual struggling for righteousness on the grand scale, so that religion may be placed where it belonged in the first place—which is to say, about Man existing for the sake of God. I wonder if sometimes we’ve made the entire Jesus Story a self-centered story about God Incarnate dying just for me, as if this is the entire point, when perhaps that is just a tangential detail. It had to be done, but only so you and I could be freed to take part in the major theme of the story. So for the present, I’ve pretty much decided that I’m going to stop thinking in terms of my own eternal destiny, and try to commit myself to the understanding that it’s my job to simply give myself to God without reservation. This is no great revelation of the year for me, but it is another way to talk about it.
TWO, I have to admit that after a while, thinking about this issue in terms of the book of Job begins to raise more questions than I would like, and it does a handy job of pointing out that the book of Job is probing very foundational issues in the life of faith—issues beyond the proverbial patience in affliction. One has to ask, at some point, would I claim God, would I follow God, would I give myself to God, if God is apparently not the God I thought God was? In particular, what if I admitted to myself that God was something other than perfectly “good” in my mind? It’s difficult for us because we cannot fully separate the ideas of God and Good, but it’s worth trying to imagine it. What if God weren’t as good and loving as we make God out to be, given how we define good and loving? Would God cease, in our minds, to be God? Or, would God still be God, but not a God we would follow? And if we would not follow, then have we really accepted God as God, or have we only accepted God as far as God goes along with what we want God to be?
There are many people, for example, who cannot accept that a good and loving God actually willed the destruction of entire peoples in Old Testament times; some people who would argue that God didn’t actually will those slaughters but rather it must have been a misunderstanding on the part of God’s people, who committed the slaughters of their own volition. Be that precisely correct or absolute lunacy, my point is that such argumentation is concerned with making sure God fits our definition of goodness, so that we can continue to devote ourselves to this God. And this is common sense, too; who wants to say, “I follow a sometimes good and loving god?”
No doubt, we can say that we don’t want to commit the obvious mistake of using our own ideas of goodness to define God; this seems pretty obvious. But additionally, if we look at everything God has done and say “it must have all been good, because God is good,” then we are still constraining God in the “goodness” box—our view that God must fit into a “goodness” box. Any way we look at it, we have this unavoidable tendency to refuse to separate God and our definition of Good. God must be good. This is so foundational that we rarely admit that we may be thinking of it this way: I will give myself to God when—and if—I can decide for myself that I can declare God to be Good. If “God” passes muster, then “God” is my God. And I’m not so sure this makes much sense. Isn’t God God, no matter what I think or declare?
The impressive thing about Job is not patience, for in actuality Job isn’t terribly patient. The amazing thing about Job is that he remains devoted to God even when God does not fit Job’s expectations of what God is. In the end of Job’s story, there are no specific questions answered. God sets Job straight by pointing out that Job—that is, Man—does not, cannot, and will not fathom what God does nor why. The point is that God is God, Man is Man, and Man’s allegiance is to be to God; period. Job, to his great credit, gives this a grand okie dokie and re-admits his place in the order of creation.
THREE, it has been said that Job is protest literature. Specifically, Job was originally penned, or finally came to be penned, as a scathing attack on the conventional Wisdom that said God always and only blesses the righteous, and God always and only punishes the wicked. God is not particularly happy when Job, knowing he is righteous, questions God about the afflictions that have fallen upon Job. But God is particularly unhappy with the three “friends” of Job who have the arrogance to claim to know exactly what is happening and why; as if they know how God works. God doesn’t like it when Job questions, but God really doesn’t like it when Men attempt to speak for God. I think there’s an important lesson here, and in the short form it is this: I’d rather ask why the world is the way it is, and even go so far as to question God, than to pretend I can speak for God. Or in other words, I’d rather be a humble idiot without a clue—than a proud genius still without a clue. God seems to prefer the former.
I’m satisfied today to simply say I do my best, and leave the rest in the hands of a mysterious God, to whom I am poorly but sincerely devoted.