Job’s Friends Blame Job for the Calamity (Job 4-23)
Regrettably, Job’s friends are not able to endure the mystery of his suffering, so they jump to conclusions about its source. The first of the three, Eliphaz, acknowledges that Job has been a source of strength to others (Job 4:3-4). But then he turns and puts the blame for Job’s suffering squarely on Job himself. “Think now,” he says, “who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). Job’s second friend, Bildad, says much the same. “See, God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:20). The third friend, Zophar, repeats the refrain. “If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear.…Your life will be brighter than the noonday” (Job 11:14-15, 17).
Their reasoning is a syllogism. God sends calamities upon wicked people only. You have suffered a calamity. Therefore you must be wicked. Job himself avoids this false syllogism. But it is very commonly accepted by Christians. It is called a theology of divine retribution, and it assumes that God blesses those who are faithful to him and punishes those who sin. It is not entirely without biblical support. There are many cases in which God sends calamity as a punishment, as for example he did at Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29). Often, our experiences do bear out this theological position. In most situations, things turn out better when we follow God’s ways than when we forsake them. However, God does not always work that way. Jesus himself pointed out that disaster is not necessarily a sign of God’s judgment (Luke 13:4). In Job’s case, we know the theology of divine retribution is not true because God says that Job is a righteous man (Job 1:8, 2:3). Job’s friends’ devastating error is to apply a generalization to Job’s situation, without knowing what they’re talking about.
Anyone who has spent time with a suffering friend knows how hard it is to remain present without trying to give answers. It is excruciating to suffer silently with a friend who must rebuild life piece by piece, without any certainty about the outcome. Our instinct is to investigate what went wrong and identify a solution. Then we imagine we can help our friend eliminate the cause and get back to normal as soon as possible. Knowing the cause, we will at least know how to avoid the same fate ourselves. We would rather give a reason for the suffering — be it right, be it wrong — than to accept the mystery at the heart of suffering.
Job’s friends succumb to this temptation. It would be foolish to imagine that we would never do the same. How much harm have well-intentioned Christians caused by giving pious-sounding answers to suffering, even though we have no idea what we’re talking about? “It’s all for the best.” “It’s part of God’s plan.” “God never sends people more adversity than they can handle.” How arrogant to imagine we know God’s plan. How foolish to think we know the reason for anyone else’s suffering. We don’t even know the reason for our own suffering. It would be more truthful — and far more helpful — to admit, “I don’t know why this happened to you. No one should have to go through this.” If we can do this, and then remain present, we may become an agent of God’s compassion.
Job’s friends can’t lament with Job or even acknowledge that they lack a basis for judging him. They are hell-bent (literally, given Satan’s role) on defending God by placing the blame on Job. As the friends’ speeches continue, their rhetoric becomes increasingly hostile. Faced with the self-imposed choice of blaming Job or blaming God, they harden their hearts against their former friend. “There is no end to your iniquities,” says Eliphaz (Job 22:5), and then he invents some iniquities to charge against Job. “You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry” (Job 22:8). “You have sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the orphans you have crushed” (Job 22:9).
Zophar’s last speech observes that wicked persons will not enjoy their riches because God will make their stomachs “vomit them up again” (Job 20:15) and that “They will give back the fruit of their toil, and will not swallow it down; from the profit from their trading they will get no fruit of their enjoyment” (Job 20:18). This is an appropriate righting of the wicked’s wrongdoing, that “they have crushed and abandoned the poor, they have seized a house that they did not build” (Job 20:19). The reader knows this does not apply to Job. Why is Zophar so eager to blame Job? Are we sometimes too eager to follow in Zophar’s footsteps when our friends face failures in work and life?
The book of Job demands that we see ourselves in the faces of Job’s friends. We too — presumably — know right from wrong, and have some sense of God’s ways. But we do not know all of God’s ways as they apply in all times and places. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6).God’s ways are often a mystery beyond our understanding. Is it possible that we also are guilty of ignorant judgments against our friends and co-workers?
But it doesn’t have to be friends who accuse us. Unlike Job, most of us are quite ready to accuse ourselves. Anyone who has tasted failure has likely pondered, “What have I done to deserve this?” It’s natural, and not altogether incorrect. Sometimes out of sheer laziness, bad data or incompetence, we make poor decisions that cause us to fail at work. However, not all failures are the direct result of our own shortcomings. Many are the result of circumstances outside our control. Workplaces are complex, with many factors competing for our attention, many ambiguous situations, and many decisions where the outcomes are impossible to predict. How do we know whether we are following God’s ways all the time? How could we or anyone genuinely know whether our successes and failures are due to our own actions or to factors beyond our control? How could an outsider judge the rightness of our actions without knowing the intimate details of our situations? Indeed, how could we even judge ourselves, give the limits of our own knowledge?
Eventually, Job’s friends move from questioning what Job did wrong to questioning whether Job has abandoned God (Job 15:4, 20:5). Along the way the friends encourage Job to return to God. Bildad directs Job to “make supplication to the Almighty” (Job 8:5) so that Job’s future will be “very great” (Job 8:7) and filled with “laughter” and “shouts of joy” (Job 8:21). Eliphaz adjures him, “If you will return to the Almighty, you will be restored” (Job 22:23). Again, in general terms, this is good advice. We frequently do turn away from God and need to be recalled to him. However, we the readers know that Job has not done anything to deserve his suffering, and the effect of his friends’ attacks is to make Job begin to doubt himself. Just when he needs his friends to believe in him, they keep him from believing in himself. How can they support him when they have already made up their mind about him?
In contrast, Job has wisdom many Christians lack. He knows to direct his emotions at God rather than at himself or those around him. He believes the source of blessings — and even adversities — is God, so he takes his complaint to the source. “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God….How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin. Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (Job 13:3, 23–24). He acknowledges he doesn’t understand God’s ways. “He does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number” (Job 5:9). He knows he can never prevail in an argument against God. “If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand. He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength —who has resisted him, and succeeded?” (Job 9:3–4). But he knows his anguish has to come out somewhere. “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). Better to direct it at God, who can handle it easily, than against himself or those he loves, who cannot.
We all know the demons that plague us after failure. We second-guess ourselves during sleepless nights of self-torment. It even feels like the holy thing to do — to protect God by blaming ourselves. If we second-guess ourselves like this, imagine how we second-guess our friends, though we are seldom aware of it. Job’s friends show us how it’s done. In their eagerness to protect God from Job’s protestations, they increase their attacks on Job. Yet over the centuries, the Christian reading of Job has viewed the friends as tools of Satan, not God. God does not need protecting. He can take care of himself. Satan would like nothing more than to prove to God that Job served God only because God blessed him so richly. An admission by Job that he has done something wrong, when in reality he has not, would be the first step towards validating the accuser’s attack.
For example, Eliphaz’s last speech concentrates on putting God above reproach. “Can a mortal be of use to God? Can even the wisest be of service to him?” (Job 22:2). “Is not God high in the heavens?” (Job 22:12). “Agree with God, and be at peace” (Job 22:21). “If the Almighty is your gold and your precious silver, then you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God. You will pray to him and he will hear you” (Job 22:25-27).
Job, however, is not trying to blame God. He is trying to learn from God. Despite the horrible adversity God has permitted to afflict Job, Job believes that God can use the experience to shape his soul for the better. “When God has tested me, I shall come out like gold,” Job says (Job 23:10). “For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind” (Job 23:14). Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung have pointed out how many soul-shaping events occur at work.The dark forces of the fallen world threaten to sap our souls there, yet God intends that our souls come out like gold, refined and molded into the particular likeness of God he has in mind for each of us. Imagine what life would be like if we could find spiritual growth not only when we are at church, but in all the hours we spend working. For this, we would need wise, sensitive spiritual counselors when we face trials at work. Job’s friends, mired in mindlessly repeating conventional spiritual maxims, are of no help to him in this regard.
Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung, Taking Your Soul to Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).
Like Job’s, our sufferings often begin with difficulties at work. But seldom are God’s people equipped — or even willing —to help each other handle workplace failures and losses. We might go to a pastor or a Christian friend for help in a family or health issue, and they might be truly helpful. But would we ask them for help with workplace problems? If we did, how much help would we be likely to get?
For example, imagine you are treated unfairly by your boss, perhaps blamed for her mistake or humiliated during a legitimate disagreement. It would not be appropriate to reveal your feelings to customers, suppliers, students, patients or others you serve in your work. It would be harmful to complain to your co-workers, even to your friends among them. If the Christian community were equipped to help you deal with the situation, that could be a unique blessing. But not every church is fully equipped to help people handle work-related difficulties. Is this an area where churches need to improve?
We have seen that Job is not afraid to take his complaints — including work-related complaints — to God. The series of complaints in Job 24:1-12 and 22-25 particularly concerns work. Job complains that God lets evil people get away with injustice in work and economic activity. People appropriate public resources for personal gain, and they steal the private property of others (Job 24:2). They exploit the weak and powerless to gain outsized profit for themselves (Job 24:3). The arrogant get their way at work, while the honest and humble are ground into the dirt (Job 24:4). The poorest have no opportunity to earn a living and are reduced to scavenging and even stealing from the rich to feed their families (Job 24:5-8). Others work hard, but do not earn enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor. “Though hungry, they carry the sheaves; between their terraces they press out oil; they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst” (Job 24:10–11).
Job knows that all blessing comes from God, and all adversity is allowed — if not caused — by God. Therefore, we can feel the sharp sting in Job’s complaint, “From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer” (Job 24:12). Job’s friends accuse him of forsaking God, but the evidence is that the righteous are forsaken by God. Meanwhile, the wicked seem to lead a charmed life. “God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power; they rise up when they despair of life. He gives them security, and they are supported; his eyes are upon their ways” (Job 24:22–23). Job believes the wicked will ultimately be cut down. “They are exalted a little while, and then are gone; they wither and fade like the mallow; they are cut off like the heads of grain” (Job 24:24). But why does God let the wicked prosper at all?
There is no answer in the book of Job, and there is no answer known to humanity. Economic adversity is an all-too-real pain that many Christians face for years or even a lifetime. We may have to abandon our education when we are young due to financial hardship, and it could prevent us from ever reaching our potential in the workplace. We may be exploited by others or scapegoated to the ruin of our careers. We may be born, struggle to survive, and die under the thumb of a corrupt government that keeps its people in poverty and oppression. These are merely a few work-related examples. In a million other ways, we may suffer serious, grievous, unfair harm that we can never even understand — much less remedy — in this life. By God’s grace, we hope never to become complacent in the face of injustice and suffering. Yet there are times when we cannot make things right, at least not right away. In those situations, we have only three choices: make up a plausible, but false explanation about how God allowed it to happen, as Job’s friends do; abandon God; or remain faithful to God without receiving an answer.