He who coined the phrase “the patience of Job” was a liar. In his suffering, Job faces the judgment of a God he knows to be righteous yet who acts inexplicably, a God from whom there is no appeal. Job is anything but patient.
On the other hand, Job is every bit like us, especially when we are suffering, lost and exhausted; when counselors, co-workers, priests and friends simply do not get it; and when sound theological observations do not erase the dread fact that our “days are swifter than a runner; they flee away; they see no good” (Job 9:25).
I sometimes “see no good” because I cannot discern a point to suffering nor find an explanation for it. The problem of Job is not that everyone in the book is wrong about God. The problem is that everyone – Job and his odious friends – is right about God. Everybody in the book believes in the one, just God. Everybody’s theology is sound. What makes Job’s life an uncomfortably familiar train wreck is the fact that Job’s friend Bildad is technically correct: “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation” (Job 8:5–6).
Really? When I am suffering, and there is no one to live inside that suffering but me? When I pray and scrape and beg, but nothing happens? In such circumstances, I believe in God with the technical precision of a medieval Schoolman, but I know him only by his absence, the way one understands the word air while being asphyxiated.
Novelist John Irving praised Craig Nova’s The Good Son (1982), noting that its “characters are as vivid with suffering and with spirit as recurring dreams.” Irving’s passing reference—“vivid with suffering”—has stayed with me for decades. (Indeed, as has Nova’s novel. The Good Son is one of the best novels of the last quarter of the twentieth century and one of the best American novels about fathers and sons ever.)
Job is “vivid with suffering.” What makes his suffering so vivid is that the idea of suffering as redemptive (see Isaiah 52:11-12) is not something that Job and his friends even consider.
Today, as recipients of the Gospel, we are supposed to “get” that suffering can lead to redemption. Yet, in our blindness, do we truly get it? Do you get it when a parent heads off into dementia and the mind hiccups like a broken appliance, when old poisons and forgotten losses seep through the brain? Do you get it when your business crumbles or your retirement savings evaporate; it’s too late to start over, despite what everybody cheerfully says; and you look into your spouse’s eyes, trying to “appeal for mercy to my accuser” (Job 9:15)? Or when it finally becomes clear that your addicted child will live and die a stunted life, no matter what you do?
A commentator on Job points out that “[t]here is a vast area of human suffering which is neither penal, nor remedial, nor redemptive. It is just meaningless. The answer to the question, ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2f) is ‘Nobody sinned.’” In my depths, do not speak to me of how redemptive suffering can be.
Yet, who in history was most “vivid with suffering,” and most perfectly so? Jesus on the cross. Job never gets an answer, not really. In the transaction on the cross, however, we have our answer because God’s son—the only “Good Son”—took on our sin and died for us. We live in Job’s condition, but we are saved by Christ’s transaction.