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?
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