Speaking of God in Suffering—Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In the Book of Job, the question of how we speak of God in the midst of suffering is at the forefront, which is where its significance for liberation theology is particularly found.

Then Job answered the Lord: 
2 ‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 
3 “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 
4 “Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.” 
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you; 
6 therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’ 

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16After this Job lived for one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17And Job died, old and full of days.

The complexities of the Book of Job, in which suffering befalls a righteous man, provides an interesting predicament for liberation theologians. Instead of providing a solely prophetic word on the human response to poverty while building an ethic of action like the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Job adds a dimension of contemplative discourse that invites readers to ask hard questions of God and understandings of theodicy. We see this in Job 42:1-8.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, argues that the Book of Job is not only important for liberation theologians because it shows explicitly how God rescues the poor or explains poverty. While it shows God’s preferential option for the poor, the Book of Job is uniquely important because it teaches Christians how to speak of God in the midst of suffering.

Gutiérrez argues that the Book of Job presents an interesting, complex, and relevant situation for liberation theologians. Seeking to view Scripture and context from the point of view of the poor, Job presents a dilemma for liberation theologians.

Where it was once assumed that poverty and suffering was the fault of the poor or suffering person, as readers see in the friends’ explanations of Job’s suffering, liberation theologians seek to understand poverty beyond this simple and incorrect explanation. Gutiérrez for example, seeks to understand poverty in its structural and systemic dimensions in Latin America.

For Gutiérrez, the abject poverty of Latino/a Americans is undeserved. Instead, the complete dehumanization of a group of people is due to systemic oppression that must be addressed by Christians seeking to embody the love of Christ. Thus for Gutiérrez, “the innocence that Job vigorously claims for himself helps [Christians] to understand the innocence of an oppressed and believing people amid the situation of suffering and death that has been forced upon it” [Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987. Xviii].

The Book of Job tells the story of a righteous man: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He loses everything he has for inexplicable reasons, though his friends try to explain why.

Job is a great example of how suffering and poverty occur to even innocent people without clear explanation. It opens up questions concerning the intersection of God, evil, suffering, and how humans relate to them.

The Book of Job shows Christians how to speak of God in the midst of suffering. Gutiérrez admits that the Book of Job does not offer “a rational or definitive explanation of suffering” [Gutiérrez, On Job, 93]. Instead, he attempts to find “an appropriate language about God that does justice to the situation of suffering.” Job “looks for a correct way of talking about God within the most strained and knotty of all human situations: the suffering of the innocent.”

In this way, Job for this liberation theologian, is a call to take the risk of seeking to understand God in the midst of suffering. We see this shift in Job 42:1-8, where Job realizes the great presence of God that transcends Job’s previously limited understanding of the Divine. This shift is a call for Christians actively to pursue God and not stand on the sidelines in the midst of suffering and ignore it. As Gutiérrez says, “Not to make the effort is to risk succumbing to impotent resignation, a religion of calculated self-interest, a cynical outlook that forgets the suffering of others, and even despair.”

For Gutiérrez, Job begins the book with a disinterested faith, one that is performed for reward to avoid punishment. Through the process of his suffering, Job realizes this is an unfaithful understanding of God and moves into a deeper relationship in which he understands that all being is grounded in God’s gratuitous love as we see in chapter 42.

Gutierrez claims that Job starts off with a disinterested faith. However, by chapter 31, Job has grown in his understanding of God. Whereas the theological framework set up for Job is that the wicked are punished and righteous rewarded, Gutiérrez argues that Job now understands God in a new, more faithful way:

The ethical perspective inspired by consideration of the needs of others and especially of the poor made him abandon a morality of rewards and punishments, and caused a reversal in his way of speaking about God…. [He] finally surrendered to God’s presence and unmerited love. [Gutiérrez, On Job, 93-94].

True justice, the justice that Job desires in the form of his just treatment, is about commitment to the poor. Job not only acts prophetically, but speaks prophetically about God. His concerns do not revolve around his own, personal sufferings, but centers on confronting the injustice others suffer, claiming that uprightness and judgment entails solidarity with the poor [Gutiérrez, On Job, 48].

He then reflects on his own actions concerning the poor. Now that he shares life with the poor, his language for God is “more profound and truthful.” Gutiérrez writes, “To go out of himself and help other sufferers (without waiting until his own problems are first resolved) is to find a way to God” [Gutiérrez, On Job, 48].

Faith is not about rewards and/or punishment. It is more than rules. Speaking of God is rooted in the “universality of God’s agaepic love” which calls Christians into a language in which we recognize first the needs of those that suffer [Gutiérrez, On Job, 94].

As mentioned earlier, the Book of Job is a book not of answers, but a book in which readers are invited to contemplate the issues that it brings up: suffering, evil, human relation to God, God’s nature, etc. For Gutiérrez, this is significant. It is a call to contemplate God’s greater, higher plan.

Gutiérrez writes, “[Correct talk about God] must take as its starting point a recognition of God’s plan and of the fact that because of it the entire work of creation bears the trademark of gratuitousness” [Gutiérrez, On Job, 67]. Correct God-talk bears the love and graciousness of God.

In the concluding chapters of the Book of Job, God finally speaks. God condemns Job’s and his friend’s haughty claims of knowledge of God and suffering. Gutiérrez writes, “What God is criticizing here is every theology that presumes to pigeonhole the divine action in history and gives the illusory impression of knowing it in advance” [Gutiérrez, On Job, 72]. We are to speak of God knowing that God is a present, but also a transcendent God, a God so great that God is beyond the full comprehension of humans. We cannot presume to be more than God.

Job’s concerns now revolve around God [Gutiérrez, On Job, 82]. In chapter 42:2-3, Job responds to God not with a statement concerning himself, but with a profession of faith: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.’”

Job rejects simplistic understandings of God rooted in right and wrong and reward and punishment. A God so great is not chained to such a rigid system of rules and judgment. Instead, “God’s gratuitous love is the ground of all existence” [Gutiérrez, On Job, 84].

This must be recognized in faithful language of God. Then the faithful believer must ultimately surrender to God [Gutiérrez, On Job, 85].

In this manner of God-talk, “justice alone does not have the final say about how we are to speak of God.” Instead, God’s love freely given brings people into faithful relationship with God. Individual relationship with God is transcended. A shallow faith based on understanding God as the rewarder or the punisher is transcended. God becomes all-encompassing and the Book of Job becomes a call to be on the journey of discovering God’s all-encompassing, gracious love.

Therefore, in the midst of suffering like in Gutiérrez’s context of Peru, theodicy questions move from “Why do bad things happen to good people?” to “How are we to speak of the God of life when cruel murder on a massive scale goes on in “the corner of the dead”? How are we to preach the love of God amid such profound contempt for life? How are we to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord where death reigns, and especially the death of children, women, the poor, indigenes, and the “unimportant” members of our society?” [Gutiérrez, On Job, 102].

When one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world is in Memphis, TN among African American women, how are we to be Christ’s hands and feet? How are we in the United States called to respond to abject poverty in India? Job teaches Christians to ask these questions concerning God and the poor.

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