The psalmist wrote that the righteous person “meditates on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:2). A wise rabbi advised, “Turn it and turn it.”1 (That is, turn the Old Testament law over and over in your mind.) Those authors believed that God speaks to us through the Bible in new ways when we reflect on it deeply and repeatedly.
Søren Kierkegaard once retold the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Genesis 22), each time with new details and from different vantage points.2 In this way, he brought insight to a troublesome biblical teaching. Each successive narration brought a fresh understanding and a richer appreciation of the text.
The life of Job is a narrative that gives me pause. Such pain, such loss! And yet, such faith! How can we understand this narrative, and how is it relevant to us? We want to understand not just Job’s life but life in general for the people of God.
First Narration—Job was a devout and faithful man of God. Because of his righteous life, God blessed him with everything a good man could want. Job lived in the sunshine of life. His days were filled with rejoicing, doing good deeds, and receiving honor from his friends.
One day, his little kingdom fell apart. For some reason, unknown to Job, he began to lose it all. First his wealth was taken; then all of his children were killed; finally Job himself was stricken with a repulsive disease. Yet, Job remained faithful.
Because of his faith, God rewarded him in the end and Job got it all back. His wealth returned twofold; he sired more children; his illness left. Job had come through his trials.
The lesson is that if we remain true to God, even in times of stress and loss, he will bless us with the good things of this life. We may walk through the dark valley for a while, but there will be blessing in the end. God is good and will bring us once more into the light. So hang in there and keep the faith. This too will pass.
Second Narration—Job was a devout and faithful man of God. He had all of the signs of blessing that people of his day recognized: many cattle, many children, and a healthy, long life. But one day he began to lose it all. First his wealth disappeared; next his children died in an earthquake; finally, his health was crushed beneath the punishing pain of illness.
Yet, Job remained true to God and refused to curse him. He questioned God about his suffering; he tried to make God see that a terrible cosmic mistake had been made: Job was righteous, not wicked; others were supposed to have these problems, not him. Yet Job did not abandon his faith in God even though he could not understand why he had to suffer so much.
In the end, he received wealth again; other children soon came; his health returned. Yet Job was never the same. He could not really “get it all back.” Nothing brought back his dead children. He had others, but that was not the same. His physical health returned but his psychological health was never right. You don’t experience that kind of loss without emotional scars.
As he lay awake in the darkness, he still wondered why God had allowed him to suffer so. His faith was shaken to the core. He could never again believe that the good were blessed. The lesson he learned was that being righteous would not protect him in this life. The good suffer along with the bad.
He still believed in God, but his self-confidence was gone. He now knew he was susceptible to the same pain, tragedy, and loss as the worst sinner. He spent the rest of his days full of questions and with an uneasy faith.
Third Narration—Job was a devout and faithful man of God. He enjoyed all of the rich blessings of this life: wealth, family, good health, honor, and respect. One day, it was all taken from him. His wealth vanished like a vapor; his children’s lives were snuffed out; and soon his body felt the torture of an excruciating sickness.
A parade of friends came to Job and instructed him on his faults. They told him he had only himself to blame. His wife urged him to curse God and die. Although Job could not think of any specific thing that had caused God to strike him down and thought he had been unjustly singled out for punishment, he refused to denounce God. He desperately sought answers for the way things were but heard only that God’s ways were beyond his comprehension.
In the end, he agreed that God was mysterious and deep. We cannot understand God; we can only believe in him and love him. And then Job uttered one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). Suffering coaxes us to throw away our immature ideas about God. It leads us to abandon any hedonistic or selfish motives for faith.
Job had learned the most difficult lesson of any child of God in any era. God is not our cosmic butler; not our supernatural bouncer or bodyguard. God is rather our creator, our redeemer, and our eternal love. Serving God and believing in God may involve great blessing and a happy life, but it may also be accompanied with enormous hurt. For most of us, life will alternate somewhere between the two.
God’s ways are inscrutable and mysterious. This is the true God; all others—those we “hear about”—are idols. Our proper response is to love him because he is God and be blessed with the relationship rather than living for the reward.
These are my three readings of the book of Job. Each one represents both a phase of my life and a new understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian faith. This is how the story of Job’s life has enriched my own.
1Mishnah Avot 5:25.
2Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, “Prelude.”
David A. Fiensy is a professor and dean of the graduate school at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson.