I used to think that I pretty much had the Book of Job in the Bible figured out. I remember a children’s book about Job that narrowed it down to: Job went through some really tough times and terrible losses. Yet, never did Job stop trusting in God. Therefore, God blessed Job and restored everything he had lost, and then some. That’s pretty much the basic plot, right?
But then I met Job. In Africa. In fact, I met several Jobs. No, I’m not smoking anything. I mean that I met some people very much like Job. They were all fairly tall and thin, with very fine features. They are members of the Fulani tribe, like this person you see here, leading cows somewhere in Burkina Faso. You find the Fulani in a belt running just south of the Sahara Desert, from Senegal to Cameroon, in the middle of the continent. Like Job, they major in livestock, mostly cattle. No pigs, though. They’re mostly Muslim. In Job chapter 1, we read that “He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.” The Fulani would be very impressed by that, and be glad to claim him as one of their own.
The Fulani would also enjoy the Book of Job. They like poetry, oratory, stories and dramas, especially long epic poems about their ancestors, and about history, genealogy, debates and mysteries. That’s often true of people who move with their livestock in the scrubby, dusty, sun-baked grasslands on the edges of a desert like where Job lived. Following animals around all day will either encourage a rich inner life of creativity and concentration, resulting in great powers of memorization, poetry and oratory, or it will drive you batty with boredom.
The book of Job reads to me like one of those long epic, dramatic poems or dramas that the Fulani love, with wonderful, poetic turns of phrases and imagery that people with the patience born of life in the raw would appreciate. That’s why we modern Westerners, who expect and get instant gratification and entertainment from our technology ready at hand, have shorter attention spans, and prefer action and images to poetry and oratory. That’s why we may unfortunately find the Book of Job tedious.
The Fulani would be all the more impressed by the description of Job as God-fearing, generous, virtuous, faithful to his wife, a devoted family man, a loyal friend, a competent and capable rancher, a winsome, poetic orator, and a wise counselor to the community. That would be their definition of “righteous,” too.
But then disaster strikes, when Job’s livestock are stolen or killed, and then his children die. It’s a time of terrible testing for Job, said to result from a contest between Satan and God, to see why Job is such a righteous, God-fearing man.
But to the Fulani, Job and his faith would not be the only things being tested. As we read or hear the story of Job and the debates that ensue between Job and his “comforters,” we and our own faith are also under the spotlight. Where is Job, and where are we, on the journey of faith that St. Bernard of Clairvaux described as, “The Four Loves?” The first of the Four Loves is Love of Self for Self’s Sake. That’s where we all start. God gives us such love of self as a survival instinct. It makes us run out of the way of oncoming trucks and get our flu vaccinations every year. But if we remain our first and only love, then life lacks meaning, and our love of others is shallow, mercenary, and won’t stand up to hard times.
Bernard’s Second Love is Love of God for Self’s Sake. In our initial stage of faith, we trust, obey and love God because of the loving and lovely things God does for us. That’s the kind of love that Satan accused Job of having. But it’s not bad, either; God is not shy about appealing to our self-interest. But such love alone won’t stand up to those times when it seems like God is not loving us as we understand love. Like what happened to Job.
But if our faith endures such confusing, mysterious and difficult times, then we grow into the Third Love: Love of God for God’s Sake. We love God for who and how God is, whatever the cost. Like when Christ appeared in a vision to St. Thomas Aquinas and asked him, “What reward would you like for your faithful, tireless work on my behalf?” St. Thomas replied, “No reward, but you, O Lord.” Even when Job’s trial gets worse—when his own body is afflicted with boils and sores—Job demonstrates this Third Love, Love of God for God’s sake, when he says, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in him.”
But Job is no stoic, silent sufferer. His story doesn’t encourage us to be, either. Right after Job says, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in him,” he says in his next breath: “I will surely defend my ways to his face.” Job trusts and loves God enough even to argue, challenge and question God and lament his losses. But Job’s cry of Why! is the “Why?” of the open hand, not of the defiant, clenched and upraised fist.
Get to this Third Love—love of God for God’s sake, even when God doesn’t make sense, and a gift comes, the Fourth Love: Love of Self for God’s Sake. I’ll tell you what that’s like if ever I get near that stage.
The Fulani might see the faith of Job and their own on trial. But a Fulani person might also ask, “So, what did Job’s relatives, his friends, his clan and his community do about his sufferings and losses?” They would be on trial, too. Interdependent and interrelated people living in harsh conditions on the edge of survival know that the clan or the tribe is no stronger than its weakest link. One person’s setback could make everybody vulnerable. So, a righteous Fulani won’t leave sufferers and the bereaved on their own.
Our Fulani friend might quote us this West African proverb: “Just as other people’s hands carried us into this world, so will other people’s hands carry us out of this world.” Just as we can’t deliver ourselves at our births, and just as we cannot bury ourselves upon our deaths, nor can we get through any stage of life in between on our own. We are all debtors, beholden to others, even to others who have already passed on, and, therefore, to those yet to come. There is no such thing as a self-made person. Not to Job, nor to the Fulani.
At first, Job’s community steps up to the plate. Three friends, and then a fourth, come to keep Job company and mourn with him, in silence. That’s the Fulani way, too. “If you care, you’ll be there.” But a righteous Fulani would also give Job some sheep, goats and cows to get him back on his feet. Someone might even say to one of his own children, “You’re going to live with Uncle Job, to collect firewood, cook and draw water for him, until the next rainy season.” That would not be charity so much as it would be a balancing of accounts. For a righteous, God-fearing man like Job would surely have done the same for his friends and relatives going through hard times, including those who came to sit and mourn with him.
But Job’s community fails their test when his friends start prodding and poking and pushing Job to confess what he did to deserve such suffering. Then a debate ensues, in which Job’s comforters, so-called, argue that, since God is just, then life is always fair, and therefore, suffering and disaster only come to those who deserve them somehow. Job sticks to his guns, laments his losses, pleads his case, and challenges his debate opponents in the poetry slam that ensues. In that way, Job is a model of how a saint can trust and love God, loving and trusting God enough even to be honest and forthright with God.
A Fulani livestock herder would see something else going on here besides a fierce debate. He would recognize the fear that is driving Job’s community to interrogate him, even scapegoat him, and therefore add their own punishment onto the punishment they think he has deserved from God.
Here’s the insidious logic behind that fear: If Job has done something to deserve such terrible punishment, then might not helping Job draw the same punishment toward ourselves? If Job’s sores, his sufferings and his devastating losses are due to some moral and spiritual corruption of his, hadn’t we better make him admit it and correct it? Maybe, punishing him ourselves will earn the favor of the god whom Job offended? Or, at least, let’s find out his crime, so we don’t do the same, and get the same terrible punishment? Failing that, hadn’t we better remove him from among us, or worse, before we too get infected by his moral and spiritual corruption?
Job knows what’s going on, that he’s changing from a pillar of the community to its whipping boy, from its superhero to its scapegoat. In chapter 19, he says: “… my acquaintances are completely estranged from me.
14 My relatives have gone away; my closest friends have forgotten me.
15 My guests and my female servants count me a foreigner; they look on me as on a stranger. 16 I summon my servant, but he does not answer, though I beg him with my own mouth. 17 My breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. 18 Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear, they ridicule me. 19 All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me.”
That’s an old, old story. In times of confusion, loss and danger, people will often look for scapegoats and sacrifices on whom to discharge their tension and fear. It explains the rising tide of antisemitism today. And that just at the very time when everybody needs to link arms and pull together. How much of today’s polarized politics is a cycle of mutually-reinforcing stereotyping and scapegoating for the crime of stereotyping and scapegoating each other?
If we were to ask a Fulani herder what he would contribute to the debate between Job and his comforters, we might hear at least two things: One: He might quote the common West African proverb: “Man proposes and God disposes.” In other words, Let God be God, and let us mortals be just mortals. Wisdom is not just about knowing what we can know; it’s about knowing what we cannot know. So, accept the limits of human understanding. Accept that certainty is not ours in this world, certainty about why anyone suffers or prospers, nor about what God is doing and why. Certainty is for God alone.
But uncertainty doesn’t let us off the hook of responsibility. In a world without certainty, we can still have confidence. Confidence about what is the right thing to do. Confidence to act upon it. Confidence that once we take a step and try out the right thing, we’ll learn what the next step is, and how better to do it, and what not to do.
The second thing our Fulani friend would say to Job and his comforters, so-called, would be, “Whenever we point one finger at someone else, at least three fingers are pointing back at ourselves. God alone is righteous. Why then aren’t we just as amazed and preoccupied by the mysteries of undeserved goodness, grace and love, as we are by the mysteries of unmerited suffering? So, don’t just point fingers; hold out your hand, to help someone back up on their feet. Instead of casting blame, take some responsibility.”
But I doubt that our Fulani friends would weigh in on one side or the other of the debate between Job and his comforters, so-called. Nor will I. Let’s not join either side of the debate either, because neither side wins the argument. If anything, both sides get their come-uppance when God shows up, in chapter 39: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.”
To Job’s comforters so-called, who tried so hard to defend and explain God, God tells them, in chapter 43: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt-offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.’
Why are they in such hot water? Because God does not need anyone to defend him and his ways as much as God wants us to demonstrate him and his ways. Job’s story tells us not to be overly impressed with proclaiming God’s Word without being doers and demonstrators of God’s Word. Hearing Job’s friends do the former without doing the latter would strike our Fulani friend as comical, but in a tragic and frightening way, like watching Charlie Chaplain in an old silent movie waltz blindly toward a banana peel on the floor or an open manhole in a street. You laugh and you cringe at the same time.
And so it goes with politics, government, the church with our differences and debates, with people arguing each other into immovable deadlocks, or into brick walls at the ends of dead end alleys, in which both are right and both are wrong, fighting each other with partial pieces of truth, and no logical way forward. Not as long as we are only asking, “Which of us is right? Me and my political or theological tribe, or them and their political and theological tribe?” Not as long as we’re trying to fit life and God into neat categories that we can own, control and fully understand.
Yes, in the end, Job endures and gets back all that he lost, and then some. But no one gets a watertight, fool-proof, one-size-fits-all answer to questions like, “Why does a good God let bad things happen, even to good people?” No one gets an answer by which they can say, “See, I was right and they were wrong!”
The only answer that Job and his comforters get to the mysteries of God is God. God breaks in on their deadlock and dilemma as the resolution to their debate, a resolution that is personal, not just verbal, a resolution that is relational, not just intellectual. God alone is the resolution to all the deadlocks and debates about God, a resolution that restores the adversaries in such debates, but which also breaks them.
God restores all that Job lost, God restores Job to his rightful place in the community, and his relationship with his comforters and friends. But God’s personal in-breaking also shatters and humbles. God shatters everyone’s pretension to certainty and simple answers, any point of pride by which anyone hoped to justify themselves before God. Of what value would it be if we even could know all of God’s ways and God’s Word without letting God make himself known to us like he did to Job and his comforters? Why would we even think that were possible? Job’s story tells us not to seek the counsel of God for ways through life’s demands and dilemmas ….without seeking God.
Not only for Job and his comforters is this true. If we take Job’s story to heart, all of our tribal political and theological banners are torn to shreds by the stormy in-breaking of our undomesticated God. The whirlwind that accompanies God’s in-breaking must necessarily topple the Towers of Babel that people are still building in order to ascend to heaven on our own virtue, wisdom and smarts. God alone is the answer to all our irresolvable mysteries about God and his ways in the world. God alone is the resolution to our deadlocks and dilemmas. There is no way through humanity’s deadlocks and dilemmas from our side of the brick wall at the end of our dead end street. The only solution is God himself breaking through from the other side. So, in every time of discernment, difficulty and dissension, don’t look just for answers; seek The Answer, the One who is in himself, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Invite him, and let him break in as the answer to our deadlocks and dilemmas. But know that, even while God’s in-breaking will save us, it will also humble us; it will cause us simultaneously to rejoice and to repent, like the old hymn says, “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”
And yes, now I’m talking about Jesus. He is the answer to the deadlock that neither Job nor his comforters could have foreseen. God has broken through the human dilemma and deadlock most powerfully in a way that seems to us most weak and least powerful: in Jesus, the Crucified. Through Christ, God has broken into the human dilemma and through our dead ends not in a way that answers all our curiosity and questions about suffering and injustice, but in a way that shares our suffering and our experiences of evil and injustice. It is as though, through Christ, God has joined Job on the ash heap of suffering and humiliation, where Job scraped his sores with broken pieces of pottery and lamented his terrible losses, doing for us what Job’s comforters failed to do for him.
As wise and wonderful as many of their traditions and stories are, our Fulani friends might say, “A God like that? Who joins us in our sufferings? Never saw that coming.” Well, nobody would, not by conventional human wisdom. But Job’s story tells us that God doesn’t demand of us that we understand God and defend God, God’s wisdom and God’s ways. We can only get so far doing that before our own wisdom fails and we hit a dead end. Our calling is to trust God, like Job did, and to demonstrate God’s wisdom, like Job’s “comforters” failed to do.