BIBLE STUDIES ON SUFFERING

© copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002

9. SUFFERING AND OUR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

A STUDY IN THE BOOK OF JOB

The focus of attention in the book of Job is on two key subjects: Knowledge of God and Faith in God.

These two go hand in hand. The first determines the second. The second confirms and has the potential to expand the first. Unless we have both we will never come anywhere near finding a livable response to the question 'Why do the righteous suffer?' Unless we have both we will be no better off than people trapped in the various ideologies briefly presented in the study on what people say about suffering. Suffering, apart from knowledge of and faith in the true God, renders life absurd and meaningless.

While the book of Job only gives us one answer to the question 'Why do the righteous suffer?' (that Job's suffering is instigated by Satan and permitted and limited by God), it does have much to say about knowledge of God and faith in God. When we have a Biblical understanding of these two, then we are set free from the necessity of having a specific answer to the 'Why?' question.

A. How the three friends tried to answer the 'Why?' question.

Each of the three friends answered the question in terms of their personal approach to knowing God:

[1] Eliphaz - based his knowledge of God on dreams/visions and experience: 4:12-13; 5:1-7; 15:17-26; 22:15ff.

[2] Bildad - based his knowledge on tradition - that which had always been taught: 8:8-10; 18:4.

[3] Zophar - asserts the impossibility of man knowing God (the 'I'm-no-theologian-but-I'll-say-what-I-think-anyway approach): 11:7ff. He does acknowledge that God could give knowledge of himself to man (11:5-6a), but anticipated that God's self-revelation would ratify the traditional opinion (11:6b; 11:11).

Such are the opinions of the three friends concerning the knowledge of God. Their faith in God was based on and restricted by that knowledge.

Their faith was this: God would work as they had always understood his manner of working. He would not work in a different way to that in which men had known him to work. His manner of working in the past, according to their knowledge (that is, according to dreams, experience, tradition, and the 'I'm-no-theologian approach) was that prosperity and long life were the lot ordained by God for the righteous, and suffering and calamity the lot ordained by God for the wicked. Their faith was that God was at the moment working in this way in the life of Job.

At first they were a little bewildered because they had thought Job to be righteous, but rather than cast aside their knowledge of God and change their idea about God, they decided they must have been wrong about Job:

[1] Eliphaz started of rather conciliatory and hopeful but progressed to extreme condemnation. Compare 4:3,4 & 6 with 15:2-6 and 22:1-20.

[2] Bildad, began hopeful of restoration, but progressed to including Job among the wicked who deserve punishment, then as involved in the general condemnation of all mankind. Compare 8:5-6 and 20-22 with 18:5-21 and 25:4-6.

[3] Zophar alone asserted from the outset, without doubt or qualification, that Job's suffering was because of sin (11:6b, 13; 20:1-29). He speaks of the short-lived prosperity of the wicked, obviously including Job in that category. Note that he ran out of arguments before the others, not surprising when you consider the basis of his knowledge.

B. Job's response to the three friends

Job refused to accept as absolute the knowledge of God and the criteria for that knowledge, asserted by his three friends.

  1. He was well aware of the prevalent view of the way God worked (16:1; 31:2-3).
  2. He refuses to accept that this is what's happening to him (6:24, 28-29; 12:5-6; 19:2-3; 21:7-34 - a lengthy rebuttal of the general opinion; 24:1-25 - where Job meditates on the lot of the poor and the wicked, and concludes that it is only in death that God will sort everything out).

C. Where does true knowledge of God come from?

[1] From experience ...? NO. Experience is personal and subjective. It varies from person to person. Our interpretation of experience is also subjective and relative: it varies according to our presuppositions, our expectations, our feelings, the state of our health or our finances, our role satisfaction, and even the weather. Experiences happen, that cannot be denied, but how experiences are interpreted is what is in question. They can never teach absolute truth.

[2] From traditions ...? NO. Traditions are simply the build up over time of human ideas. They are either formal (as in some church traditions) or informal, as in personal habits and beliefs, or family or community traditions. They have no built-in authority to teach absolute truth.

[3] From the I'm-no-theologian approach ...? NO. This approach is restricts knowledge of God, and thus God himself, to limits of the human mind. It also denies that God has revealed himself.

In all of these approaches man thinks that he can, one way or another come to true knowledge of God by his own understanding. Each of them depends on us being able to find and interpret knowledge (truth about God and his working) for ourselves. The assumption that we can do that is foolish, idolatrous and non-biblical. It fails to take into account [1] the utter otherness of God, and [2] both the finiteness and corruption of the human heart and mind. God is infinite. He is not something that we can compare to something else that is known and understood. He is beyond that (Isaiah 40:12-31). We know that the human heart and mind is sinful and deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) and has distorted all that God has revealed (Romans 1:18-31; Eph 4:17ff). We know also that Satan has blinded the human mind so that left to itself it cannot know the truth about God (2Cor 4:4-6).

Thus Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar failed to correctly understand what was happening to Job because their knowledge of God and his government of the world came from within the limits of their finite human understanding and was corrupted and distorted by the sinfulness of their hearts which always idolatrously fashions a god after the image of man. Job, having previously believed as they did, now sees that this interpretation of God and his working cannot be true. He does not know what it true. But he now knows what is not.