The Book of Job Gives Us Good News for an Unfair …

Life is unfair, and that is a problem.

All humans seem to have an “unfairness radar” that goes off whenever we encounter senseless injustice. From trite examples provoking our frustration, such as someone cutting us in line, to those that deeply grieve us, like a young mother of three fighting terminal cancer, we mourn with an acute sense that the world is not as it should be. Or consider unfairness on a global scale, as the news barrages us with unrelenting reports of armed conflicts and natural disasters—as we struggle to register the staggering counts of individual lives upended or ended by relentless forces of harm.

Last year, a terrorist attack by Hamas in Israel killed 1,200 unsuspecting people and made another 253 people hostages, followed now by over 31,000 reported deaths and an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In the same year, a series of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria killed nearly 60,000 people, injuring and displacing millions more. This is not to mention the over 3 million COVID-induced deaths, which have been reported globally in the few years since the pandemic sent the entire world into a frenzy. And the fallout of these events will continue to reverberate throughout bereaved and unsettled communities for a very long time.

We often cope with injustices by looking away and medicating with distractions, since sustained eye contact with misfortune is uncomfortable. Or we may—sometimes rightly, sometimes self-righteously—angrily blame the various parties involved, desperately trying to account for the unaccountable. We are gratified when any positive changes result, yet we are also aware of how powerless we are to reverse the diagnosis, divert the bullet’s path, or end the suffering across the sea.

And in all this, we wrestle with a God who could have intervened but did not.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center study, conducted in light of the coronavirus outbreak and other tragedies, over 60 percent of American adults had given thought within the past year to “big questions such as the meaning of life, whether there is any purpose to suffering and why terrible things happen to people.” For millennia, difficult circumstances have led people to ask questions about the nature of the Being responsible for the nature of reality as we experience it.

How could an infinitely powerful and thoroughly good Creator God be governing this world, as the Bible claims, when the world seems to be in such a messy state? Especially when those who are innocent and faithful to him suffer inexplicably? At the very least, shouldn’t God spare them from the unfair arithmetic of having good things subtracted and bad things added to their lives?

As formidable as these questions are, I am heartened to know the Bible takes them seriously and refuses to offer tediously thin answers. In fact, the Book of Job confronts the issue of unfairness head-on, and with admirable honesty. Rather than abashedly apologizing for an incompetent deity, it boldly commends a tenacious trust in the Creator of this good yet groaning world. And in the process, it points ahead to the figure of Jesus as God’s ultimate answer to the question of unfairness.

Many of us are familiar with the book’s premise: Job is the paragon of piety, living with genuine allegiance to God and enjoying a superlative level of flourishing (1:1–5). However, he is suddenly struck with a comprehensive loss of his wealth, children, and health—“without any reason” (2:3). Two chapters in, the rattled reader surveys the once rich yet still righteous Job, now sitting alone with torn clothes on an ash heap, miserably scraping the boils off his skin with a broken piece of pottery.

In this way, the book deliberately sets up an abrasively incongruous situation: What happens if the most righteous person imaginable is subjected to the most devastating suffering imaginable—just short of losing his very life? Is living in allegiance to God worthwhile amid such baffling, offensive unfairness? What does it take to sustain gritty trust in God when it seems he’s abandoned you?

After Job’s stalwart initial responses to his calamities (1:20–21; 2:10), three of his friends come to comfort him, at first sitting by in sympathetic silence (2:11–13). And then the verbal floodgates open. As the four of them launch into protracted debate cycles (3–27), the dialogue devolves into futility and animosity as Job’s friends have no room to be mystified by his plight. Surely, they contend, actions and consequences exhibit reliable correspondence. Do good, and you get good; do bad, and you get bad. It only seems fair, right?

They think Job’s woes indicate that his character must be compromised by some secret sin, and that he would be restored if he would only make a penitent return to God. Their rigid paradigm for how God orders the world lends them a neat explanation for suffering and a guaranteed way out.

But Job is far from convinced. Like the reader, he knows that he has done nothing to deserve this suffering. There is no explaining away the unfairness. Hovering on the brink of death, Job rails against God, whom he regards as responsible for his anguish and for allowing such a breakdown of justice in the world. In his experience, it feels as if God is rushing on him like an attacking warrior, piercing him with arrows and slashing him open (6:4; 16:6–17; 19:6–12).

These are raw, audacious words of accusation. But for all his brash speech, Job is no angry atheist. He addresses God persistently and directly, refusing to turn his back on him—even as he vacillates violently between despairing of an adequate response from God and confidently anticipating it. After all, where else could an ostensibly God-forsaken God-fearer turn but to God himself?

Eventually, Job’s friends’ attempts to make sense of his plight are exhausted, and Job seems to be more frustrated and alienated than he was before. His longing for God’s voice to enter the fray has become unbearable. And, at long last, after 37 restive yet disorienting chapters, God answers from the whirlwind (38:1; 40:6). Evidently, God’s silence did not mean either absence or apathy since it’s clear he had indeed been listening all along. His eloquent speech borrows language from the human debates but cuts through their impasse with his reorienting perspective.

Yet God’s answer to Job is surprising and may even seem callous and irrelevant. Feeling no need to excuse or explain why Job is suffering, God instead launches into soaring poetry. He rebukes Job for speaking beyond what he understands in a way that maligns God’s way of sustaining and governing his world (38:2). God then paints a portrait of his creation, which is emphatically brimming with life and masterfully superintended by his benevolence. And he underscores how humans, with their narrowness of comprehension and control, are vastly inadequate to be gods over such a creation.

The Creator has crafted the sort of world where boisterous animals can frolic freely (38:39–39:30) and rain falls even on desolate land where no one lives (38:25–27). And although this world contains forces of chaos, far too wily for humans to handle, they are ever under God’s thumb (38:8–11; 41:8–11). Indeed, God reliably secures order and justice in his world—banishing the wicked with morning light as effortlessly as one shakes out the folds of a garment (38:12–15; 40:10–14).

What has all this poetic whimsy to do with Job?

In his perplexity and pain, Job had extrapolated something about the character of God based on his experience, imagining a deity who could be malevolently capricious toward him and the world. Yet God challenges that presumption: Is Job really in a position to indict God, dictate the terms of their encounter, and demand that God justify his suffering? Dispelling any delusion of entitlement, God makes abundantly clear that he is responsive but not coercible. And rather than letting our human experiences interpret God’s character, God invites us to flip the script.

In other words, the Creator is wise, sovereign, good, and just. That is the starting point. As his creatures, humans are simply not privy to everything he knows and does. God allows the mystery of his comprehensive design and hidden activity to persist, when all we can see from our vantage point is the unfairness of a given circumstance.

So the crisis of decision for the boil-covered, ash-bound Job hovers in the air as he is left to answer the same questions that unfairness surfaces for all of us: Are we (still) willing to trust God when he tells us he is not accountable to us? Can we be satisfied with the assurance that God knows what we cannot understand and governs what we cannot control?

Job is. Now “seeing” God for himself, Job has been satiated by God’s answer (42:1–6). As Bill and Will Kynes write, “In the midst of such a personal struggle we don’t need a theology seminar, we need a word from God himself. Job felt personally betrayed by the treatment he was receiving, and more than anything, he longed to meet with God.” In the end, the bracing “realness” of an encounter with God, who shows up for his servant, is the only thing capable of lifting Job from desolation to renewed hope and trust.

But then something else, quite unexpected, happens: God beckons Job to pray for his three friends so that God’s dangerously hot anger toward them may be quelled (42:7–9). But—the disgruntled reader protests—how can God possibly expect Job to intercede for these conspicuously un-interceding friends who deserve judgment for their failure of friendship toward their suffering companion? And can God’s mercy, mediated by his suffering servant Job, actually accomplish justice?

Apparently, it can. Job prays for his friends, and, because of his obedience and God’s favor toward him, they are spared. And then, in a stunning sweep of divine mercy—while Job is still in the process of interceding for his friends and securing their forgiveness—God restores Job’s fortunes, leaving him with “more than” what he had at the beginning (42:9–17).

As it turns out, grace is also unfair. Or, rather, grace at first seems unfair to humans who assume that the world works based on you-get-what-you-deserve logic. Actually, grace is the ordinary fabric, the natural operating system, of an existence designed and inhabited by the God of superabundant generosity.

Journeying with Job from chapters 1 to 42, I cannot help but sense the theological inertia of the entire book moving inexorably toward Jesus, the ultimate righteous sufferer, consummate friend who intercedes, and God’s decisive answer to all injustice. But while a virtuous Job suffered unwittingly, just short of death, through no fault of his own—thinking God had become his enemy—the perfectly righteous and blameless Jesus knowingly walked into the forsakenness of a sinner’s death, through only the fault of our own.

Jesus was not merely a man who prayed for his failing friends—he is the Son of God who died for friends whose failure had earned their death. God himself bore the crushing unfairness of our death so that he can be eternally “unfair” in his grace toward us by giving us life we could never demand or deserve.

In the end, Job’s solace was God himself—being satisfied by God’s long-awaited answer, by “seeing” him (42:5). In the same way, Jesus is the One who answers humanity with his very presence with us and for us. Our soul-deep solace is seeing the God who answers unfairness by climbing inside it, dying because of it, and transforming it by his resurrection to hand it back to us as his grace.

Without minimizing what remains harrowingly unfair in this world, Jesus addresses it by arranging the unjust discrepancy of his innocent suffering to be our only hope. Alongside Job, we struggle with pain and loss that defy human calculus—but then again, divine generosity also confounds our math. Why should the Creator send showers on a wasteland (Job 38:25–27) and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45)? Why should the Father send his willing Son to save rebellious sinners?

When we grapple with inexplicable suffering in our lives, we want a “Why?”—but like Job, what we really need more than anything is a “Who.” We need to see God answering us with himself in the person of Jesus. And because he already has, when our hearts cry out with longing to see him with our own eyes, we can be assured that in due time, we too will behold our God and end up somewhere inconceivably “more than” where we started (1 Pet. 1:3–9; 5:10).

Ellie Wiener is currently working on a dissertation on the Book of Job as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

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