Going to College So That We May Learn to Live Well

The least important of all the the reasons for going to college and trying to get an education is that it will help one to earn a living. … There may be other reasons for going to college, but unless the chief reason is to learn what needs to be learned in order to live well, in order to lead a decent human lie, then one might have been better off, perhaps, not to have gone to college at all.

~Mortimer J. Adler, Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Given what goes on at most colleges, Adler is right. Students often see college as a time of experimentation rather than formation, and the experimentation that goes on is destructive to the soul. Better not to go and save one’s soul.

The Challenge of Job

Job-s-Depair,-by-William-BlakeWhat are we to make of the Book of Job? Ostensibly, it is about the problem of pain and suffering; the problem of why good people suffer and bad people prosper; the problem of how God could be omnipotent and just given the evil in the world. No doubt, the Book of Job is concerned with good, evil, suffering, and God. Popularly understood, the book of Job is one of “theodicy,” that is, the theological and philosophical attempt to harmonize God’s goodness, His power, and the existence of evil. Yet, is the Book of Job a “theodicy”. Does it intend to provide an answer to these problems? Is so, what is that answer? If not, what then is the purpose of Job? A brief examination of the text reveals that if Job is a theodicy, it is a remarkably poor one. What then is its value?

In the opening of the book of Job, the common assumption that God blesses the good and curses the wicked is affirmed. Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away evil” (1:1 ESV). Consequently, he is extremely blessed, enjoying a large family, a great estate, and renown across the land (1:2-3). Then, in a heavenly scene unbeknownst to Job, the accusation is brought forth that Job only worships God because God has blessed him. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:9-10 ESV). Job is then stripped of his family, his possessions, and his health. He is left with the conundrum: “what have I done to deserve this?”

With the entrance of Job’s three friends is the reaffirmation that only the wicked suffer and only good prosper. Job is suffering, therefore he must be wicked. Job maintains his innocence despite his circumstances heightening the dilemma of suffering. In a fit of rage, the young Elihu, accuses Job precisely of not producing a theodicy. “He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2 ESV). Elihu then affirms yet again the belief that no one is truly innocent, so Job should repent.

God finally responds to Job in a series of rhetorical questions, the effect of which is to demonstrate to Job that despite the apparent injustices, God is in control of the universe and is just.  Job responds first with silence, then with repentance.  Finally, God restores Job above and beyond his state prior to his suffering.

Where, then, is the theodicy in this? Job is given no explanation as to why he is suffering. No explanation is given generally as to why good people suffer or why wicked people prosper. No justification is offered as to how God’s omnipotence, goodness and the existence of evil might be reconciled. The problem of pain and suffering is left completely unresolved. In fact, in light of God’s response to Job, the book seems to argue that no such answer is even possible.

If the purpose of Job is not one of theodicy, what is its purpose? While Job does not offer a solution to the problem of evil, what it does do is dispel us of the notion that when we are prosperous it is because we are righteous (and vice-versa) and when we suffer it is because we have done wrong (and vice-versa).  The book of Job shows there is no “quid pro quo” karmic relationship between our good deeds and prosperity nor our evil deeds and suffering. It rids us of the notion that suffering is a sign of God’s judgment.

So why do we suffer? The Book of Job does not say. What it does though is provide us with a framework for how we respond to such seemingly meaningless suffering. The solution is not to be found in philosophical and theological argument, the gulf between God and man is simply too great for such explanations to be truly satisfying. The solution is found in God Himself. In the end, Job recognizes that his complaints against God were not based on a full knowledge of God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).

Finally, the Book of Job should rid us of the myth that the Judeo-Christian religion is “escapist”.  That it is wishful thinking in a good, all-loving God who will save us from our pain. The message of Job is not that God will save us from suffering, but that in the midst of our suffering, God is there. God Himself is the answer to the question. In the face of God all questions evaporate. This is how someone like St. Thomas Aquinas can look back on his work and refer to it as “straw” after having an encounter with God. Then, and only then, we can affirm with Job, “I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).

The Dramatic Irony of Job 9

In the ninth chapter of the book of Job, Job imagines what it would be like if God were to come and hear his complaint. He considers both what God would do, and what his response to God would be. Then, after several cycles of speeches between Job and his friends, God does, in fact, come “out of the whirlwind” (38:1 ESV) and answer Job. Ironically, the hearing that Job receives is exactly what he said it would be, but not nearly in the way or for the reason he thought. Furthermore, Job’s response to God is also exactly what he predicted, yet again, not in the way he anticipated. In the end, Job’s speech in chapter nine and the actual unfolding of the events presents a prime example of dramatic irony.

In chapter eight of Job, Bildad assures Job that God is just (8:3) and would not punish Job without cause. Therefore, Job should repent, and God would forgive him (8:5). In Job’s response to Bildad, he insists that such an encounter would be useless. “But how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times” (9:2-3 ESV). God is simply too powerful for Job, how can a mere mortal contend with the one who “removes mountains . . . who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars. . .” (9:5-7 ESV)? Not only is Job acutely aware of God’s power, he is also mindful of God’s wisdom. In a debate with God, what could Job say? Job insists that God would outwit him by getting Job to prove the opposite of what he believes! “Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me” (9:20 ESV). Job sees that the result of such an encounter would render him speechless: “he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness” (9:18 ESV).

The reason Job thinks he will not get a fair hearing before God is because he insists he has done nothing to deserve his trouble (i.e., he has not received a fair treatment so far, so why expect it in the future?). “If I summoned him and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice” (9:16 ESV). The problem, as Job sees it, is that there is an infinite gulf between God and man. “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both” (9:32-33 ESV). What he needs is someone equal to both God and man who might reconcile the two. At this point in the speeches, Job sees no such solution, yet later he will assert that because God is, in fact, just, such a one must exist (cf. 19:25).

So Job, insistent on his righteousness, is left with the conclusion that because God is in control of the whole universe and because He is far beyond the wisdom of man if God comes to him, Job would be silenced and have no answer.

The irony of Job’s speech is that this is exactly what happens, but not in the way or for the reason Job supposed. In God’s opening speech to Job He affirms Job’s statements (cf. 9:4ff) that God is in control of the universe (38:4f), the seas (38:8f), the movement of the sun (38:12f), light and darkness (38:19f), the seasons (38:25f)—God even affirms that he “binds” (38:31) the constellations Pleiades, Orion, and the Bear that Job had observed were created by God (cf. 9:9). God points all this out with the use of rhetorical questions: “where were you?” etc. The effect of this series of questions is to ask Job, “You say you know these things, but do you understand?” This is the heart of Job’s problem. He recognizes the power and wisdom of God, but has applied it in a limited way.

Job’s response to God’s questioning is exactly what he had predicted: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (40:4-5 ESV). While Job had asserted that he would be silenced by God because God would outwit him, what happens is that Job is silenced because he realizes he has spoken rashly. Job comes to see that he has far less knowledge of the situation than he supposed. It is as if God is saying, “If you have understood the gulf that exists between us, why do you presume to find fault with me?” Job agrees, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).

It is in this way that Job can continue to maintain his righteousness and yet not make a complaint against God. The solution is not a philosophical justification of Job’s sufferings, but rather a personal encounter with God that ends in trust: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5 ESV). That is, though he cannot see his unrighteousness he trusts in God’s goodness. He concludes, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6 ESV). This comparison between Job’s words and the results reveals a dramatic irony that resolves the tension of the conflict, and elucidates the meaning of the book.

Is the Book of Job a Theodicy?

No, the book of Job is not one of Theodicy, for Job never receives an explanation for his suffering (Ch. 40-41), which is the nature of Theodicy, justifying the ways of God to man.  Rather, the “wager” (if that is even the right word for it), initiated by God, (1:8) sets up the drama to address the issue of what our response ought to be when faced with seemingly meaningless suffering.  Job has done everything right; he is “blameless and upright” (1:1). God himself says that Job has done nothing to warrant his sufferings:  “He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason (2:3).

What this does then, is dispels us of the notion that when we are prosperous it is because we are righteous (and vice-versa) and when we suffer it is because we have done wrong (and vice-versa).  The book of Job shows there is no “quid pro quo” karmic relationship between our good deeds with prosperity nor our evil deeds with suffering.

Therefore, the reason God enters this “wager” with Satan is to teach both Job and the reader what the response ought to be to suffering (42:1-6), whether we understand it or not.