Job and the Nearness of God

A well-dressed man kneels in the dirt, sobbing. The bodies of his children lie nearby, crushed in the collapse of his great wealth. Nothing is left but the tangled ruin where, just an hour ago, his life had stood.

It is a scene rich in irony, still more ironic because he does not know it is a scene. He is, for now, alone on stage, unaware that thousands of faces crowd the night, watching him.

He is one man, but he is also mankind — the towering accomplishments and shocking vulnerability, the verdant love and eviscerating loneliness, the pious humility and ruthless humiliation. He is not an aberration but an exaggeration, an ordinary man in the grip of extraordinary circumstances.

We take a few lessons from Job’s story. That bad things happen to good people. That bad friends are worse than no friends. That God prefers honest challenge to flippant loyalty.

But the real point of Job’s exceptional story is that it is not exceptional. His fall from riches to rags was sudden and dramatic, but the story is not his fall or even the injustice of his fall, but the fact that heaven is watching.

Job blames his disaster on God’s absence, but it has more to do with God’s presence. He longs for God to appear in his story; it does not occur to Job that he might figure prominently in God’s story. He expects from God something distant and definitive — a verdict or an explanation — not a live audience to his suffering.

For Job, as for us, Earth feels like the real thing. A place where success feels like divine blessing and disaster feels like judgment. A place where stories have morals and justice prevails. But Earth is not that kind of place, or not always. Life hurts, and it hurts more if we expect to understand why.

Job does not understand why, and that hurts most of all. He is the kind of man who needs to understand. The dissonance between his idea of God and his experience on Earth cannot be resolved. He has lost the world and, still worse, he is losing his worldview.

We call this crisis the problem of evil and it begins with the idea of a distant God.

“Look up at the heavens so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him?… If you are righteous, what do you give to him?”

These questions make sense, and Job’s friend asks them with cynical confidence, blind to the cloud of witnesses surrounding them, blind to the Creator who bends near, listening.

That’s the shock of Job’s story and the shock of the universe — not that God touches us, but that we touch God.

When David stared at the moon and stars, he asked God, “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” These are reasonable questions and yet, a thousand years later in David’s own city, God hung bleeding.

He is not the God we would expect, bored by our insignificance, annoyed by our failures, delivering tidy judgments from a safe distance. Not a God “who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” For reasons we don’t easily understand, he kneels beside us in the dirt, unseen but tender to our suffering.

Job, who had much to complain of, is transformed by a glimpse of God, a glimpse into a world more real than Earth. He still does not understand his suffering and God does not explain it. Instead, God deepens the mystery by asking questions of his own.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design.”

The thing too good to be told, I think, has much to do with this moment, in which God may seem distant, distracted, or insensible to your suffering. You may be alone on stage, yet you are not alone.

——————

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

-Psalm 8:3-4

For we do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.

-Hebrews 4:15

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

-Job 42: 5-6

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

-Hebrews 12:1

GK Chesterton, Introduction to the Book of Job: https://www.chesterton.org/introduction-to-job/

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