“Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?”


An ancient chronicle of suffering teaches us to not misjudge the reasons for affliction, but to look to God in trust.

“Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?”

I think of Job whenever I come face to face with good people struggling to maintain their faith. When I listened to a widower recount how his wife died from cancer, leaving not only a grieving husband but several sons who still needed a mother—I remembered Job. When I heard a young mother share her feelings as she learned that, against all odds, she was carrying her second spina bifida baby—I remembered Job. When another mother told me how her children had been sexually abused by her former husband—I remembered Job.

The Book of Job resolves neither the particular perplexities of these cases nor the general problem of evil. It does teach us, however, about enduring the crises of faith that occur when life seems to lose all moral sense. It does not answer the question, “Why does God permit suffering to come to his children?” But it does answer the question, “How shall we respond?”

Perhaps Job’s example is the most important aspect of the book. For his example verifies, above all, that suffering is not necessarily punishment for sin. It also teaches us about how to “suffer suffering.” (Paul Ricoeur uses this phrase about Job in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Lewis S. Mudge, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980, p. 86.) It warns us against serving up pat explanations to the afflicted, as do Job’s so-called “comforters.” It reminds us to be humble in adversity, since there is much we don’t know. At the same time, it endorses honest questions over smug answers, thus encouraging even those in despair to “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) with their uncertainty.

That the Lord finally speaks to Job holds forth hope to the hopeless, who feel called to believe in spite of their afflictions rather than because of their blessings. It also points all of those who are struggling with similar crises of faith to the only fully adequate source of comfort: revelation from God himself, whose ways are mysterious but who is full of justice and love.

Let us consider three of these points more fully—specifically, what the Book of Job can teach us about the doctrine of retribution, about our relationships with God and our suffering fellowmen, and about the need for revelation to solve Job-like crises of faith.

Retribution

Job and his comforters debate the doctrine of retribution many times. Each of Job’s three comforters—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—presumes that if Job were righteous, he would not have suffered such terrible affliction. Using this false moral arithmetic, they suggest that Job must be sinful and is being rightly punished. (See Job 5:19–27; Job 8:6; Job 11:6.)

But Job has heard all of this before: “Who knoweth not such things as these?” (Job 12:3.) This view of retribution must have been the party line among uninspired dogmatists of the day. Perhaps the comforters’ counsel was based partly on mistaken readings of the prophets who threatened the people with doom because of wickedness. Or perhaps it was extrapolated from such statements as this in Deuteronomy:

“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse;

“A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, …

“And a curse, if ye will not obey.” (Deut. 11:26–28.)

Both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants confirm a correlation between blessings and obedience on the one hand, and punishment and transgression on the other. (See Mosiah 2:24; Alma 4:2–3; D&C 82:10; D&C 130:20–21.) So how can we understand Job’s predicament in connection with scriptures that seem to verify a doctrine of retribution?

First and foremost, Job’s example makes it clear that although sometimes suffering is a punishment, it is not always so. The LDS Bible Dictionary (s.v. “Job”) states that though the book “does not entirely answer the question as to why Job (or any man) might suffer,” it does make it clear that “affliction is not necessarily evidence that one has sinned.” This is a great comfort, especially for the many blameless souls who accuse themselves when tragedy befalls them. When an infant is born with birth defects, or a loved one is killed in an auto accident, some people immediately respond, “What have I done to deserve this?” Job implies that there can be “no-fault” tragedy.

Second, Job’s example warns us against trying to relate people’s external circumstances with the condition of their souls. To do so traps us in an “if/then” fallacy, called in logic “affirming the consequent.” The rules of logic stipulate that “if/then” sequences are not reversible: If a man is wicked, then he may (and ultimately will) suffer; but if he suffers, he is not necessarily wicked.

Third, Job’s example implies that neither prosperity nor suffering can be easily or routinely interpreted. In fact, suffering may prove to be a blessing, and prosperity the trial. From personal experience no less than from scripture, we know that prosperity may test our faith and that suffering may ready us for salvation.

Finally, Job’s example should caution us not to assume that promises made to groups of people automatically mean prosperity for every individual in that group. Individuals often live out personal tragedies quite apart from the general prosperity and happiness of their larger communities. The book of Job tells of the plight of a particular individual, not an entire covenant people. This is significant.

If we look carefully at the Bible or the Book of Mormon or modern Church history, we can find many instances of good individuals who, like Job, suffer. Think of the martyred women and children who were burned before the eyes of Alma and Amulek. (See Alma 14:7–11.) Complicating the simplistic view of retribution expressed by Job’s comforters is the fact that sometimes “the Lord suffereth the righteous to be slain that his justice and judgment may come upon the wicked.” (Alma 60:13.)

Job’s example, then, corrects unwarranted assumptions based upon the true doctrine of retribution. It reminds us that the Lord’s plan of rewards and punishment does not guarantee that only the wicked will suffer, nor does it insulate the righteous from adversity or assure them material rewards in this life. Christ, though blameless, suffered more than has any other man. If the Lord, who was perfect, had to endure affliction, should we, who are imperfect, expect to be spared from it? The only reward for righteousness that the Lord holds out unfailingly to individuals is “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59:23.) But even this peace must be found amid persecutions, not in their absence. (See John 14:27; John 15:20.)

Relationships

Job’s example teaches us about the proper relationships between the sufferer and God, as well as between those who would give solace and those who suffer. It is instructive that the Bible clearly focuses on Job’s relationship with God and the comforters, not on his physical suffering. To be sure, Job’s boils remain etched into our memories, but his physical complaints are not the main topic of the long dialogues that make up most of the book. In fact, when Job finally cries out, after abiding seven days and nights in complete silence, he complains not of boils but of betrayal:

“Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul. …

“Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?” (Job 3:20, 23.)

Job’s physical pain is most embittering to him for what it seems to betoken: a violated relationship. Job’s relationship with God remains at issue throughout the ensuing dialogues.

Also at issue is Job’s relationship with his dogmatic comforters. While Job could have—and should have—received true comfort from his friends (see Mosiah 18:9), what he received instead was glib explanations about why they think he suffers. Job rejects their pious counsel that he accept his calamities as punishment for sin. To accept their heartless pieties, Job would have to confess that he feels deserving of his afflictions—which he does not, and should not, feel. Instead, he stoutly maintains that, weighed on the scales of justice, his suffering is disproportionate to any sin that could be laid to his charge. (See Job 31:4–40.)

Repeatedly, he cries out for an encounter with the Lord. He doesn’t want theology, he wants theophany. Job begs God to come into the dock so that he might prove his own innocence. (See Job 16:21; Job 23:3–4; Job 31:35.) Job vows to entrust his life into the hands of God, who prefers honesty to hypocrisy: “Let me alone, that I may speak, and let come on me what will. …

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.

“He also shall be my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before him.” (Job 13:13, 15–16.)

We sense Job’s powerful integrity and genuine depth of feeling for the Lord—qualities seemingly absent from his coldly “correct” friends. Yet we also sense a measure of pride, even arrogance, that he, Job, a mere man, was prosecuting a case against the Almighty. No wonder Job stands condemned by the Lord in the final chapters of the book as one “that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge.” (Job 38:2.)

But while Job is condemned for attempting to instruct the Lord (see Job 40:2), he is also approved in the end. His comforters, by contrast, are only condemned. The Lord says: “My wrath is kindled against thee [Eliphaz], and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” (Job 42:7.)

How has Job spoken the thing that is right? Perhaps it has been his speeches of repentance. Or perhaps it has been his refusal to pretend he understood what he didn’t understand; he has kept his integrity. He has steadfastly looked to the Lord for answers, pleading for revelation rather than accepting the pat human answers of his comforters.

And how have the comforters not spoken the thing that is right? They have pretended to understand by reason that which they could not know except by revelation—that is, the Lord’s purposes in allowing Job to suffer. They have ceased to pursue answers, complacently assuming their own wisdom was enough. And, most important, they have failed to speak with compassion.

From the Lord’s condemnation of Job’s visitors, we learn much about how to comfort those suffering crises of faith. We learn that it does not help to have all the “right” answers if we do not speak the truth in love. (See Eph. 4:5.) With good cause Job complains to Eliphaz: “To him that is afflicted pity should be shewed from his friend.” (Job 6:14.)

We also learn that we risk divine displeasure when we cease to comfort and start to accuse. The Prophet Joseph Smith warned that those who see suffering come upon others must “judge not.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 162–63.)

From the failure of Job’s comforters, we further learn that the only abiding comfort must come from the Comforter. Job doesn’t need a carefully argued treatise solving the philosophical problem of evil. He needs a renewed witness that God has not forsaken him.

Revelation

This needed witness can come only from personal revelation.

The inability of Job’s visitors to reason him out of his anguish provides a striking illustration of the impotence of unaided human wisdom. Eliphaz proudly discloses the source of his knowledge, and in so doing seems to speak for all of Job’s human comforters: “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good.” (Job 5:27.) They claim no revelation about Job’s predicament, nor are they privy to the Lord’s purposes in this case.

Sometimes we, like Job’s comforters, may be tempted to offer rationalizations about the Lord’s purposes as if our explanations were gospel truth. If we don’t know by revelation that a friend’s daughter died because she was needed in heaven more than here, or that a neighbor’s son was born with a physical handicap so the child’s family could learn to be more compassionate, then we should be reticent about putting forth our reasoning as the Lord’s hidden will. The purpose behind many tragic experiences can be learned only by personal revelation, and this usually comes to the aggrieved party rather than to a well-intentioned, self-appointed comforter.

Sometimes, even having the right answers isn’t enough. Thus, Job’s fourth and final comforter, Elihu, utters speeches echoing sentiments that later issue from the whirlwind. Yet young Elihu’s words have no impact on Job. Evidently who speaks matters as much as, if not more, than what is said. Apart from what the Lord says, the fact that he speaks to Job at all fulfills Job’s deepest need—to be reassured that God has not forsaken him.

To our human witness as comforters, testifying of the ultimate goodness of God, must be added the witness of the Spirit that the Lord keeps company with the afflicted—that he loves us still, even now, in our desperation. Only the Lord can confirm his continuing love, through the voice of the only unfailing comforter—His Comforter.

The book of Job is a profoundly provocative and rewarding book. It refuses to provide us with ready-made answers about why any of us, individually, suffers. It acknowledges how inexplicably cruel life can be. At the same time, it points to a way of enduring adversity. As Samuel Terrien observes, the Book of Job offers “not a speculative answer … but a way of consecrated living.” (“Introduction and Exegesis to Job,” Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954, 3:902.)

In a world that seems not wholly intelligible, there is reassurance in knowing where to find solutions to problems of faith. We should welcome a book of scripture that throws us back—just as Job was thrown back—upon the necessity of seeking understanding through personal revelation from a living, and loving, God.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

John S. Tanner is an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University and a member of the Edgemont Twentieth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.