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In addition to writing for The Twelve, I am also blessed with the opportunity to co-host the Groundwork radio program along with my colleague David Bast. Currently we are getting ready to record a 5-part series to be broadcast later this year on the Book of Job. Today I was preparing a program on some of the key arguments of Job’s friends. Well, we call them “friends” but most readers of Job know that these so-called friends hit the apex of their usefulness during the initial seven days when they sat with Job in stunned silence. It was after they started to speak that things got . . . well, less friendly.
I will not re-hash their arguments—which go on and on and on in Job as they circle the same mulberry bush again and again—but for the most part two main things are asserted: God never lets good people suffer so Job’s suffering is an indication he was a pretty bad sinner after all so he had best confess and see if things get better. As a kind of corollary to that, the friends also insist that it is manifestly always the case that wicked people are miserable, they suffer, they always come to a bad end, and they never eke out a moment’s worth of true pleasure or enjoyment in life. The friends had defined what “justice” means and they insist God toe the line on the parameters they had established.
These arguments are made ever and anon by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar across 28 long chapters while the fourth and most junior member of the friends, Elihu, stays silent out of respect for his elders. But finally the three older friends all strike out. They can’t seem to hit the pitches Job is throwing across the plate. So in Job 32 young Elihu gets angry and begins to spill out his own view of things for a few more chapters before God in the end intervenes to tell the lot of them they are full of beans.
But Elihu’s anger is curious and he uses it essentially to beat Job up one side and the other. Job could not be in a more miserable state and yet Elihu figures it is as good a time as any to kick the spiritual crap out of Job. Nice. It would be like visiting a terminal cancer patient in the hospital but before leaving his room for the night you gave him a few hard uppercuts to his jaw.
In the end Job dismisses the lot of them as spouting “nonsense.” And indeed they do. Anyone with two functioning eyes in his head could tell you that the wicked often do just fine, thank you very much. They do not always—usually?—die unhappy and destitute. They do not only seem to be having fun but often really are. And the attempt to say that only sinful people suffer is likewise contradicted by common sense observations of what happens to some of the most devout, lovely, and pious folks among us.
As I thought about the core problem with these friends—and it crystallizes once you study Elihu’s summation comments borne of his own anger—I concluded that these men were more interested in being right than in being loving. They deemed it more important that the neat and tidy box they had constructed for God to fit into was more important to maintain than being humbly open to the possibility that there is more going on in heaven and earth than can be contained in our best theology, catechism, or confession.
If these friends had opened their minds for even a few seconds to the possibility that the testimony of Job had some validity to it; if they had considered for even a moment that in humility they had to admit they might just be wrong and that the worldview box they had fashioned could not, as a matter of fact, contain God, things could have been otherwise. But it too easily happens among us orthodox and devout folks that the need to be right outstrips the call to be loving and humble. (And I can find lots of New Testament passages that make it clear that love and humility are our calling but fewer passages that say it is important always to insist you are right so you can win every argument you enter.) And too often right below the surface of all that holy certitude is a vast ocean of fear (and as the Apostle John points out, fear and love are opposites).
Anyway, all of that is a preview of a future radio show with Dave Bast and me. But as we enter the annual season of general assemblies and synods, it seems fitting to remind ourselves that as important as it is to be committed to the truth as best we can discern that truth from God’s Word, it is also vital to remember that we none of us have truth cornered.
Some years back a current colleague of mine at Calvin Seminary was asked at her synodical job interview “What is the bottom line message of the Book of Job?” Without missing a beat she replied “God is God and you are not.”
Had Job’s friends pondered that truth for even a few moments, the Book of Job would probably be a lot shorter, a bit less tedious, and a whole lot more loving. And that is worth pondering for a bit this June day.