What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?

—Job 7:17–19, NIV

If you had asked me a few years ago what the book of Job was about, I would have been quick to respond, “Job? Everybody knows what Job is about. It’s the Bible’s most complete treatment of the problem of pain and suffering.”

I refer to Job whenever I write about pain. And without doubt, the bulk of the book (chaps. 3–37) revolves around the theme of suffering. Those middle chapters render no action to speak of, just five prickly men—Job, his three friends, and the mostly silent Elihu—sitting around discussing theories of pain. They are trying to account for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that have fallen upon poor Job.

We cannot get enough of Job’s story. Its central motif of undeserved suffering seems peculiarly suited to our own pain-wracked century, an era that has included two world wars, two atom bomb attacks, and more than its share of genocide attempts.

More, the portrait of genial old Job, moaning mournfully while life caves in around him, seems to fit a favorite modern stereotype. Neal Simon borrowed the Job setting for his play, God’s Favorite, as did Archibald MacLeish (J.B.), and Robert Frost before him (“The Masque of Reason”). Recently, novelist Muriel Spark again tried to update the plot of Job in a contemporary setting (The Only Problem).

All of the takeoffs explore the conundrum posed by the original book. Job and his friends agreed that a just, loving, and powerful God ought to follow certain rules on earth. Mainly, he should reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. Job’s suffering, his friends argued, must therefore have come as punishment for some unconfessed sin.

For Job, who knew his own soul, the facts did not add up. And for us, too, they do not add up. We see the face of unexplained suffering wherever we look: the Jews in the Holocaust, famine victims in Africa, Christians in Communist and Moslem prisons. Those who still subscribe to the neat formula of Job’s friends—and there are many, if religious television is any indication—would do well to consider just one sobering fact: the most aggressively Christian continent on Earth, Africa, is also the hungriest. (And, the most aggressively non-Christian region, around the Arabian Sea, is the richest.)

In short, the questions asked so eloquently by Job have not faded away over the centuries. They have grown even louder and shriller.

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Yet, despite all the echoes in modern literature, despite my own reliance on Job as I write about pain, despite the fact that all but a few pages of Job focus exclusively on the problem of pain, I am coming to the conclusion that Job is not about the problem of pain at all. Details of suffering serve as the ingredients of the story, the stuff of which it is made, not the central theme. A cake is not “about” eggs, flour, milk, and shortening. It merely uses those ingredients in the process of creating a cake. In the same way, Job is not “about” suffering but merely uses such ingredients in its overall scheme.

Rather, when seen as a whole, Job is a book about faith. It tells the story of one man selected to undergo a staggering test of faith. His trial and response present a message that applies not just to suffering people, but to every person who lives on planet Earth. Most of the time, our visual faculties admit a narrow spectrum of “natural” light; Job temporarily lifts our blinders and reveals the supernatural activity going on behind the scenes.

A Story Within A Story

To understand how the themes of faith and suffering work together in Job, it helps to think of the book as a mystery play, a “whodunit” detective story. We in the audience showed up early for a press conference in which the director explained his work (chaps. 1–2). We know in advance who did what in the play, and we understand that the personal drama on earth has its origin in a cosmic drama in heaven—the contest over Job’s faith. Will he believe in God or deny him?

But then the curtains come down, and when they are raised again we see just the actors on stage. Confined within the play, they have no knowledge of the “omniscient” point of view enjoyed by the audience. Although we know the answer to the “whodunit” questions, the star detective, Job, does not. Obsessed with suffering, he spends his time on stage trying to discover what we viewers already know. He scratches himself with shards of pottery and asks trenchant questions: Why me? What did I do wrong? What is God trying to tell me?

For those of us in the “audience,” Job’s “whodunit” questions should be mere intellectual exercises, for we already know the answers. What has Job done? The answer is easy—he’s done nothing. God himself called Job “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (2:3). Why is Job suffering? We know in advance that he is not being punished. Far from it—he has been selected as the principal player in a great contest of the heavens. God is using Job to prove to Satan that a human being’s faith can be genuine and selfless, not dependent on God’s good gifts. Job represents the very best of the species.

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Because of the glimpse “behind the curtain” afforded in chapters 1 and 2, the author of Job forfeits all elements of narrative tension but one: the question of how Job will respond. In short, it is the question of his faith.

The Contest

It is a testament to the genius of the book—and the reason it has endured as a work of literature—that we can forget chapters 1 and 2 and get swept up in Job’s personal anguish. He struggles with the imponderables of suffering with such force that, for the duration of the book, his questions become our questions. But we must remind ourselves that behind the lofty speeches looms the background setting of those first chapters in which the director explained in advance the nature of the contest.

Some commentators treat chapters 1 and 2 with a tone of mild embarrassment. I get the distinct impression they would like the Book of Job much better if it began with chapter 3. The scene in heaven shows God and Satan involved in—and you can almost see blush marks on the commentary pages—well, something resembling a wager. The two have a kind of bet going, at God’s instigation, a contest in which God has stacked the odds against himself.

Satan’s accusation that Job loves God only because “you have put a hedge around him” stands as an attack on God’s character. It implies that God is unworthy of love in himself; people like Job follow him merely because they are “bribed” to do so. Job’s response when all the props of faith are removed will prove or disprove Satan’s challenge.

The remainder of the book weaves together wonderful strains of dramatic irony, the most prominent being a double-hinged trial of integrity. To Job, God is on trial: How can a loving God treat him so unfairly? All of Job’s legal briefs, however, are contained within the setting of the larger trial set up in chapters 1 and 2, the test of Job’s faith. From our omniscient reader’s viewpoint, we watch for cracks in Job’s integrity as he loses, one by one, everything of meaning and value.

It says something about our modern culture that we find such sympathy for Job’s point of view. C. S. Lewis put his finger on the reason behind our empathetic response in his essay, “God in the Dock”:

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“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”

The Book of Job may help us form questions about God, but it fails to give many answers, for a very simple reason: chapters 1 and 2 have clearly shown that, regardless of what Job thinks, God is not on trial in this book. Job is on trial. The point of the book is not suffering—“Where is God when it hurts?”—that’s dealt with in the prologue. The point is faith—Where is Job? How is he responding?

Do human beings truly possess freedom and dignity? Satan challenged God on that count. We have freedom to descend, of course—Adam and all his offspring have proved that. But do we have freedom to ascend, to believe God for no other reason than, well … for no reason at all. Can a person believe even when God appears to him as an enemy? Is that kind of faith even possible?

Or is faith, like everything else, a product of environment and circumstances? These are the questions posed in the Book of Job. In the opening chapters, Satan reveals himself as the first great behaviorist. Job was conditioned to love God, he claims. Take away the rewards, and watch faith crumble. Job, oblivious, is selected for the great contest.

Job’s Friends

In a splendid stroke of dramatic irony, most of the high-sounding (but false) theology in Job comes from the mouths of pious, devout men. Satan makes no further appearances after chapter 2, and he does not need to. Job’s three friends all spout his behaviorist party line. In summary, they say: Those who obey and remain faithful, God rewards. Those who sin, he punishes. Who could deny that? Then they take a further step and argue backwards: Job’s extreme suffering must represent some serious, unconfessed sin. He need only repent and God will pardon and restore him.

Job’s friends get a bad press, and rightly so since in the end they are blasted by God. But their calm, forceful reasoning at times contrasts with Job’s uncontrolled outbursts. I would even surmise that if today we had only Job 3–37, we would judge the three friends as the true heroes of the book. I say that because almost all their arguments are still being sounded in Christian churches.

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To truly grasp the prescience and timelessness of the Book of Job, study the arguments of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar in light of common sentiments today. Almost all common responses to people in pain can be traced back to the Book of Job, where they are presented negatively. (Some of their arguments find support in other Scripture and are true in general terms, but could not be rigidly applied to the specific case of Job.)

Does God send suffering as punishment for sins? Ask a hospitalized Christian you know whether he or she has ever heard that suggestion.

I hear the most vigorous assertion of Job’s friends—that God makes good men prosper and evil men stumble—virtually every time I watch religious television. I do not hear much about Job’s kind of faith on those programs: faith that believes God when nothing works the way it is supposed to. Rather, I hear about faith that finds its inevitable reward in the relief of suffering.

At one point, in order to impress the other listeners with his religious authority, Eliphaz appeals to a mysterious vision in which a “spirit” restates Eliphaz’s own line of argument. In the next chapter he hints that Job should turn to God for a miracle (5:8–10).

In short, Job’s friends emerge as self-righteous dogmatists who defend the mysterious ways of God. They are properly scandalized by Job’s outbursts. The very idea of him questioning God, even demanding an audience with him! A modern-day bumper sticker captures their condescending tone succinctly: “If you feel far from God, guess who moved.”


Trapped in the “ingredients” of the drama, Job concerns himself exclusively with the issue of suffering. Of course, he knows nothing of the cosmic contest of faith—knowing such inside information would keep his trial from being fair. As a result, he feels betrayed by God.

How, then, does Job respond? What does his faith look like? His speeches contain some of the most profound expressions of pain, despair, and outrage in all of literature. He wanders just to the edge of blasphemy. The first words in his first speech set the tone for what follows: “May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, ‘A boy is born!’ ” (3:2, NIV). (For a sampling of Job’s expressions of anguish, see 3:24, 6:3, 10:21, 14:18–19, 16:9, 19:7, 30:20–27.)

To Job in his misery, God seems a villain who “destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (9:22)—the reverse image of Jesus’ concept of a Father who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). The same bleak fate awaits everyone, whether good or evil: “Side by side they lie in the dust, and worms cover them both” (21:26).

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In his final speeches, Job marshals every example of unfairness that he can find in the world. Those of us who know the full story, and rush to the ending, may easily miss the impact of his words of anguish. One does not expect to find the arguments of God’s greatest adversaries—say, Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth or Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian—bound into the center of the Bible.

Yet, in the end, God praises Job, in marked contrast to his verdict on Job’s pious friends: “I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). In light of Job’s vitriolic responses, how does he triumph? To put it crudely, how does God “win the wager” on Job’s faith? Why does Job never follow his wife’s advice at the beginning, to “curse God and die”?

Though it is true that he questions God’s fairness and goodness and love, and despairs of his own life, Job refuses to turn his back on God. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him,” he defiantly insists (13:15). He may have given up on God’s justice, but he stubbornly refuses to give up on God. At the most unlikely moments of despair, he comes up with brilliant flashes of hope and faith (9:33; 16:19–21).

In desperation, Job settles on one request, and sticks to it until the end. He asks only for a personal explanation from God himself (13:3, 31:35). He wants a day in court, a chance to hear God testify on his own behalf about what surely looks like a gross injustice.

This last request arouses Job’s friends to fury. What right has he, one insignificant human being, to call God into account? How could a “man, who is but a maggot—a son of man, who is only a worm” (25:6) oppose the God of the universe? Job will not back down. To the end, he insists on his right to question God.

Job ultimately passes the test of faith by clinging to belief in God although he has no evidence in support of that belief, and much against it. And he clings to his own human dignity even as it is being assailed on all sides. One might even call Job the first Protestant, in the fullest sense of the word. He takes his stand upon individual faith rather than yielding to pious dogma.

The Finale

Ironically, God appears to Job just as Elihu is explaining why Job has no right to ask for divine intervention. Much has been made about God’s magnificent speech in Job 38–41. I, too, have marveled at the wonderful images from nature, but along with marvel comes a nagging sense of bewilderment. Why does God avoid the very questions that have been tormenting poor Job? His avoidance of the issue of suffering seems shocking after 35 chapters on nothing else.

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God’s choice of content leads back to chapters 1 and 2, the “behind the curtain” context. Job and his friends talked about suffering because they were trapped in the “ingredients” of the drama; they could see nothing else. God, of course, knew all along that the real question was the challenge of the original contest: Job’s faith. Would he cling to faith when every self-interested reason for doing so was pulled away? “He will curse you to your face,” Satan had gambled. And he lost. Job’s character held up.

God does have some words of correction for Job, and the message expressed in splendid poetry boils down to this: Until you know a little more about running the physical universe, Job, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe. God criticizes Job for only one thing: his ignorance. Job made his judgments on the basis of incomplete evidence—an insight that those of us in the “audience” had seen all along.

His lecture delivered, God sets about restoring double all that Job had lost. Some people like to dwell on the good-news account of Job’s restored fortunes. They emphasize that Job underwent trials only for a season before again receiving material reward.

True, God did reward Job lavishly. But the thrust of the book convinces me that faith, not rewards, is the main emphasis in Job. I say this carefully, but from God’s viewpoint, Job’s material prosperity was insignificant in comparison with the cosmic issues involved. Oh, pain? I can fix that easily. More children? Camels and oxen? No problem. Those rewards on earth were peripheral to Job in exactly the same sense that they were later peripheral to the apostle Paul, who prayed that “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).

Faith, Not Pleasure

Because of the unique angle of vision afforded us in Job 1–2, we can see in the saga of Job far more than the exaggerated trials of a sad, old man. Without knowing it, Job played a key role in a cosmic struggle, and his example has much to teach us.

I began this article by saying that I once thought I knew what Job was about: the problem of suffering. Now I realize that what I, and many others, do to the Book of Job is a paradigm of what we do to life in general. We take a book about a battleground of faith and testing and turn it into a book about suffering.

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Job’s true crisis was a crisis of faith, not of suffering. And so is ours. All of us at times find ourselves in Joblike circumstances. We will not likely face the extreme disasters that befell Job, but a tragic accident, a terminal illness, or a loss of job may have us shaking our heads and asking ourselves, “Why, me? What does God have against me? Why does he seem so distant?”

At such times we focus too easily on our circumstances—our illnesses, our looks, our poverty, our bad luck—as the enemy. We pray for God to change our circumstances. If only I were beautiful or handsome, we think, then everything would work out. If only I had more money. Or at least a job. If only my sexual desires would somehow change, or at least diminish. Then I could easily believe God. But Job teaches that at the moment when faith is hardest and least likely, then faith is most needed.

When tragedy strikes, we too will be trapped in a limited point of view. We, like Job, will be tempted to blame God and to see him as the enemy. Job had asked God poignantly, “Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands?” (10:3). But the view behind the curtain in chapters 1 and 2 reveals that Job was being exalted, not spurned. God was letting his own reputation ride on the response of a single human being.

At the very moment when Job felt most abandoned, at that moment God was giving him personal, almost microscopic attention. God seemed absent to him; in one sense, God had never been more present.

I hesitate to write this, because it is a hard truth, and one I do not want to acknowledge. But Job convinces me that God is more interested in our faith than in our pleasure. That statement does not fit with the cloying, teddy-bear image of God often preached in evangelical churches. And I would not reach such a conclusion if Job stood alone. But think back to how God allowed some of his other favorite people to be treated.

Abraham had a test of faith surely as severe as Job’s: he himself was called upon to commit the tragedy, to sacrifice the son for whom he had waited many decades. David? One need only read Psalm 22 for an insight into his experience with the silence of God. The pattern is defined in a comment from 2 Chronicles about the favored King Hezekiah: “God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart” (2 Chron. 32:31).

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Of Cosmic Significance

Why does God permit, even encourage, such tests of faith? Could it possibly matter to God whether one man or one woman accepts or rejects him? Elihu, the last and most mysterious of Job’s comforters, voiced such a question scornfully to Job:

If you sin, how does that affect him?

If your sins are many, what does that do to him?

If you are righteous, what do you give to him,

or what does he receive from your hand?

Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself,

and your righteousness only the sons of men

(35:6–8, NIV)

The opening chapters of Job, however, reveal that God had much at stake in one man’s wickedness or righteousness. Somehow, in a way the book only hints at and does not explain, one person’s faith made a difference. A tiny piece of the history of the universe was at stake.

And that, to me, is the most powerful lesson from the Book of Job. Like Job, we live in ignorance of what is going on “behind the curtains.” Job teaches us that the little history of mankind on this earth—and, astonishingly, my own little history of faith—is enclosed within the drama of the large history of the universe. We are foot soldiers in a spiritual battle of cosmic significance.

For Job, the battleground of faith involved lost possessions, lost family members, lost health. We may face a different struggle: a career failure, a floundering marriage, sexual orientation, a face or body shape that turns people off, not on. Regardless, the message of this book calls for the hard-edged faith that believes, against all odds, that one person’s response of obedience does make a difference.

Job presents the astounding truth that our choices of faith matter not just to us and our own destiny but, amazingly, to God himself and the universe he rules. The Bible gives further hints, only hints, into this mystery:

• A statement by Jesus in Luke 10 that while his followers were out announcing the kingdom of God, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (10:18).

• An intriguing whisper in Romans 8 that we on earth will be agents for nature: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (8:19).

• This phrase from Ephesians: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (3:10).

• A simple assertion from the apostle Peter that “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12).

Such veiled hints echo the central message of Job: How we respond matters. By hanging on to the thinnest thread of faith, Job won a crucial victory in God’s grand plan to redeem the earth. In his grace, God has given ordinary men and women the dignity of participating in the redemption of the cosmos.

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No one has expressed the pain and unfairness of this world any better than Job. But behind those words of anguish lies a dimly shining truth: Job—and you and I—can, through obedience, join the struggle to reverse that suffering.

The pleasure that Job enjoyed in his old age is a mere foretaste of that which is to come. Job’s doubts were silenced by a vision of God answering him from a whirlwind. Ours, too, will be silenced by revelation, when we see him face to face.

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