The recent “debate” about the existence of God, stimulated by a Stephen Fry’s comments on the situation, and a response by Russell Brand, led to an interesting thread on a friend of mine’s Facebook post about it. Another of her friend’s raised this point:
“Having been brought up in the church I'm aware that I can't be completely detached from my heritage when writing or talking about such things, but the first thing that made me questions whether there was a god was Job. God, if he existed, allowed his wife and children to be killed to test Job's loyalty. .. my wife and kids are not replaceable. ... I find that version of god infinitely objectionable which ultimately led me to believe there is no higher force. ”
He went on later to say:
“Even reading the Old Testament god is horrific to people that are an imperfect people, I would never do. I'd like to believe in god. I'd like to belive that god is not just [evil] Unfortunately I just can't.” (Parenthesis is my paraphrase)
He raises a point which many people, even committed Christians, struggle with. If God exists, and He is the loving God that Christians say they believe in, then how could He allow all the suffering we see around us, and how could He be so cold hearted and apparently unfair and uncaring in the story of Job? Even if, as some do (I don’t), you take the story of Job as simply an allegory to teach us about the sovereignty of God, it seems highly objectionable, doesn’t it? After all, Satan appears to “trick” God into allowing all sorts of terrible things to happen to Job and his family, and God just goes along with it, seemingly without caring.
But let’s take a closer look at things.
Firstly, people who object to Job often seem to assume the best of Job’s family, and the worst of God. (ie. That Job’s family are all innocent victims of the Devil’s plot, and that God is either uncaring, or too proud, to protect them from becoming “collateral damage” in his wager against the devil.) That starting point is what causes a lot of the difficulty that people have with the story. If, indeed, it were that simple, then the obvious conclusion is that God is an evil monster, or at best a callous overlord. But what if things aren’t so simple?
We don’t know an awful lot about Job’s family from the Bible, but we do have some clues to the fact that they are probably not just the innocent victims of Satan’s plot that we might assume.
“His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.” (Job 1:4-5)
Most parents know their kids pretty well. Sure, we have blind spots, and because of our parental investment in them, we always choose to believe the best of them as far as possible, so when the passage tells us that Job was worried that they had sinned during their birthday feasts, it’s a pretty good clue as to the likelihood that this had happened. Notice too that they didn't invite their righteous father to the party. In the culture at the time, to invite your siblings, but not your parents, to celebrate your birthday with you would have been highly significant, and incredibly disrespectful and insulting. The fact that his children do this is significant. They didn’t care how it looked – they didn’t want their righteous dad there to observe and spoil whatever they were doing, because they knew he wouldn’t approve.
Now we don’t know enough about them to speculate about what they were doing, but we do know enough, even from the passage, to know that God wouldn’t remove His hedge of protection from them if they WERE innocent victims. So from what we know of God from the rest of Scripture (which is vastly more than we know about Job’s children) – ie. That he is holy, loving, yet also just – and what we can glimpse of perhaps the nature of Job’s children, it is only fair to assume that the reason God removed His hedge of protection from them was that perhaps they had finally transgressed so far that God would no longer protect them from harm even for Job’s sake.
Notice something else important – it is not God who is plotting their harm, it is Satan. Even though Satan tries to incite God to raise his hand against them, God refuses to be baited, and rather removes His protection from them, and allows Satan to do what he will with them. Could God have prevented the wind that blew their house down onto them? Yes – if He hadn't removed His protection from them. Did He kill them and want them dead to make Job suffer? No. That was always Satan’s plot.
Job is understandably devastated by what happens, and yet he doesn't blame God for it. That’s often the natural reaction to trials in the lives of anyone who believes in God – to implicitly or explicitly blame Him for their circumstance: "Why God? Why did you allow/cause/not prevent this from happening to me/those I care about?"
Yet Job doesn’t! He doesn’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but he does know God, and he also knows his children. So he takes the position we should – not to assume the worst of God and the best of the family he loves, but to trust that, no matter what has happened, God is just, and loving, and worthy of his praise.
Now Job’s wife is angry! She can’t believe that Job can still trust God after what He has allowed to happen to her children, and even Job (between the children dying and her conversation with Job, God allows Satan to attack Job directly, but doesn't completely remove his protection from Job). She says what many people who don’t know God or understand him do:
“His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”
But this, too, shows us something about God, and His love for Job. He doesn't remove his hand of protection from Job’s wife – He doesn't allow Satan to attack her, because He understands she is hurting and angry because of the death of her children, and the loss of their wealth. In fact, He blesses not only Job, but her, too, at the end of the story with more children, and greater wealth. Does that line up with the perception of a monstrous, evil God? Surely if He were that, He would smite her for her words against Him? And yet He doesn't, because He understands her pain, and Job’s, and the fact that she is speaking from that pain.
There’s a lot more to the book of Job – his friends misunderstanding of him, his own questions, doubts, and fears, and his response when we see him finally come face to face with God. But they go beyond the scope of the initial objection raised, and would require a commentary of length to do justice to. I hope what I have written here helps to remove some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that raise objections to what happens at the start of the book of Job.