In the face of tragedy, we seek answers. Like Job, we feel justified in going directly to The Source and asking why He has done what He has done. Like Job, people will bring up divine justice and providence: those who suffer are being punished by God for their sins. But, like Job, we know that this is not true. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people — the Psalms have many such laments — and so it cannot be because of divine punishment. Job did not sin; to put it bluntly, he was given to suffering for no reason. One might say that in Job’s case, as in the case of many people, one’s righteousness is the source of one’s suffering as one is persecuted by the wicked, as one is further tested by God, as one lags behind while bad people take short cuts to success.
Okay. Let’s turn to a new page. Most people know the story of Job. Job, a very righteous man, was quite successful and blessed, presumably because of his righteousness. Satan contended that Job was righteous because he was so successful and secure. Were he in a different condition, he would certainly not be so devout and faithful to God. God let Satan test Job. God said that Job would remain faithful in the midst of suffering. As Satan inflicted suffering on Job, Job’s friends, who came to mourn his losses with him, informed him that these sufferings were undoubtedly punishments for some sins he must have committed. They exhorted him to confess his sins and reprent and return to faithfulness to God. But Job insisted on his innocence. He said, “Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God may know mine integrity” (Job 31:6). We know that Job is right and his friends were wrong. Eventually, God does appear. And Job’s prosperity is restored and all is well. God wins. Job wins. Satan loses.
But there is one element that makes the example of Job, and the book named after him, so vexing, perplexing, confusing, and frustrating. You see, Job gets what he demanded: God appears. God says: “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me” (Job 38:3). It seems that the time for Job’s exoneration has come. All Job has to do is answer God’s questions. But God asks nothing about Job’s righteousness or lack thereof. Instead, He asks: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding” (Job 38:4). God even challenges Job: “Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct [him]? he that reproveth God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2). And in this — after God’s long series of questions basically asking how Job can challenge or question God who made everything and who did mighty wonders — Job provides a model for how we should respond, and indeed the only way we can respond: “Then Job answered the Lord, and said, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once I have spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:3-5).
God never directly addresses the actual issue at hand. He answers it indirectly, by essentially saying that His ways and thoughts and deeds are beyond our ability to grasp or comprehend, and so we ought not to question whatever God may do for only He knows why and only He can know why.
God sharply scolds Job’s friends because they unjustly found Job guilty, essentially, where he was guiltless. And, moreover, because they assumed to know why God does what He does. In fact, they found Job guilty because they assumed to know the way God works.
So, the central issues in the example and book of Job — why do bad things happen to good people? why do the righteous suffer? where is God’s justice? where is divine providence? — are answered quite pithily: the ways of God are inscrutable. That is all God gives us.