Misreading and mistreating those who mourn.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 April

Job 4–5

After Job suffered the tremendous disaster of having his children, employees, and livestock all killed in one day, three of his friends came and sat shiva with him. Jb 2.11-13 For a week they said nothing.

Then Job vented for a chapter.“Wish I’d never been born; Jb 3.3 why didn’t I die at birth; Jb 3.11 I wish I were dead.” Jb 3.20-22 The usual stuff people say when they’ve suffered an earth-shattering loss, particularly when loved ones die. Stuff we’re supposed to listen to, sympathize with… and watch these people in case they actually try to act upon any of it. (Half the time they’re all talk, but sometimes they’re not, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.)

But you know how humans are: We try to fix one another. We don’t leave it in the hands of professionals, who know how to guide people to make good choices. We tell ’em, “You know what you oughta do,” and tell them so. Or worse, we try to do it for them.

So in Job, here’s where all the bad advice begins. The first to talk was Job’s friend Elifáz of Teyman (KJV “Eliphaz the Temanite”). Therefore he’s gonna get picked on first. It is, as the LORD told Elifáz at the end of the book, wholly inaccurate information about the LORD. Jb 42.7 Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my fellow Christians proclaim all same foolish things. It’s like they never even read this book… well, beyond the first chapters and the happy ending.

Job 4.1-6 KWL
1 Elifáz of Teyman replied. He said:
2 “Are you too weary for anyone to prove a thing to you?
Who’s able to stifle your sayings?
3 Look, you’ve strengthened many, and made weak hands strong.
4 Your sayings upheld the stumbling and strengthened bent knees.
5 But now this comes to you, and you’re ‘weary.’ It smites you and you panic.
6 Wasn’t your fear of God overconfidence? Your path of integrity your hope?”

There y’go, Elifáz. Start smacking him while he’s down.

Before this disaster, Job was a great man, a wise man, full of good advice, ready to help people when they were in need. Then disaster struck, and he understandably fell to pieces. “So where’s your God now? Where’s your faith? Did you even have faith before?”

Okay. In the Christian life, sometimes we’re gonna go through crises of faith. Which is totally normal: When we don’t know any better, we mistakenly put our faith in the wrong things. Rituals instead of relationship, things instead of people, feel-good ideas instead of truth, “I now know best” instead of “I’m wrong but Jesus is right,” putting people on pedestals where they don’t belong, declaring doctrines non-negotiable when they totally are, and conversely prioritizing favorite attitudes over the real non-negotiables.

In order to set us right, sometimes the Holy Spirit has to smash these idols. Which will really discombobulate us. We thought God gave these things to us, or wanted us to believe or have them, or would never interfere with such things… and how mean it was of him to take ’em away. Like pouty children, sometimes we even don’t care to talk to our Father for a good long time afterwards.

But this wasn’t at all what Job was doing.

Job hadn’t made an idol of his kids, employees, and livestock. He didn’t turn on God; he’d made a big point of saying such behavior was stupid. Jb 2.9-10 Job had integrity: He didn’t follow God only when times were good. We get like that. We love him when we’re prosperous, but when times get rough we’re no longer sure he’s around—or if he even exists. Job wasn’t going through any such crisis of faith. But Elifáz’s words suggest that’s what he assumed was happening. He totally misread the situation.

Now if you’re an immature Christian, I get why you’d be worried people would ditch their faith. Because immature Christians will ditch their faith. ’Cause they’re immature. Don’t have a lot of faith to begin with. One little trauma and they’re outta here. They tried Christianity, but it seems it didn’t work for them. They’re like seed which never took root: Easily plucked.

Whereas mature Christians never do believe God abandoned us. Yeah we’re in mourning; yeah we might be seriously disappointed—largely in ourselves, ’cause we realize we must’ve misunderstood God again. But we learned long ago God’s real, and present, and how to follow him in both good times and bad. Same as Job.

The other thing. When immature Christians offer advice, in part they’re attempting to comfort people, but to just as much a degree—if not more—they’re trying to address their own doubts and fears, and defend their own worldview. It’d comfort them. That’s why they figure it’ll work on you. Like when your alcoholic friends come over and say, “I know you’re down, but look!—it’s wine o’clock! Let’s get you loaded,” and won’t take no for an answer.

Now y’notice if you refuse your alcoholic friends, and tell ’em their solution is no solution at all, they get so offended. Like I said, they’re also defending their own worldview. Rejecting their advice means you rejected their beliefs, their identity, them. They get outraged. So, you’ll notice throughout Job, did Job’s friends. Things regularly to the point where they were no longer comforting him, but straight-up rebuking him for rejecting their beliefs as wrongheaded and immature: He’s the wrong one.

God willing, such people will grow out of this behavior someday. But then again some alcoholics never do hit rock bottom.

So, step one, folks: Get a proper read on the situation, okay? And if you’re too easily offended when people won’t take your sage advice, you’re not as mature as you think you are. Best you don’t yet take the position of lead comforter.

“You’re not innocent. Nobody’s innocent.”

Ironically-named prosletyzer Ray Comfort likes to try to argue people into Christianity. One of his pet peeves are the pagans who figure they’re getting into heaven because they’re good people. Comfort loves to take such people down a few notches, and prove they’re not. To Comfort, one single sin is like a single bacterium of anthrax in a bottle of water: Would you drink it?

If Comfort never read Job 1, he’d similarly have a big problem with Job. See, Job felt he was a good person. And in Job’s case, we actually know he wasn’t wrong, ’cause the LORD himself said so! Jb 1.8 But to a lot of people, Christians included, there is no such thing as a good person. Total depravity, y’all: Didn’t Jesus himself say nobody’s good but God? Mk 10.18 We’ve all sinned; Ro 5.12 nobody’s righteous; Ro 3.10 nobody’s exempt but Jesus. If Job thought he was a good man, he was wrong, wrong, WRONG. And needed to be knocked off his high horse. Therefore every single one of Job’s friends took a shot at it.

Job 4.7-11 KWL
7 “Now remember: What innocent man was destroyed? Where are the right-minded hiding?
8 As for that: I see how those who plot evil and sow trouble, reap it.
9 By the Deity’s breath they’re destroyed; by the Spirit’s anger they’re done.
10 A lion’s roar, a great cat’s voice—but if the young lions’ jaws are broken,
11 the lion without meat perishes, and the lioness’ children scatter.”

In Elifáz’s limited experience, good people didn’t suffer. Only evil people did. People who made a whole lot of noise about themselves, kinda like roaring lions, might claim to be good people and big deals, but karma’s gonna get ’em in the end. God’s gonna make sure of it.

Elifáz particularly knew this to be true, because he once had a spooky dream about it.

Job 4.12-21 KWL
12 “A word was stolen for me. My ear took a whisper from it.
13 In bothersome thoughts from visions at night, in the sort of coma men fall into,
14 fear and trembling met me. My many bones felt dread.
15 A spirit went past my presence. The hair of my skin stood up.
16 It stood. I didn’t recognize the appearance of the form before my eyes. Silence.
I heard a voice: 17Is a human righteous to God? Can people be clean to the Creator?’
18 Look, God doesn’t trust his servants! He charges his angels with error!
19 Now look at those who live in brick houses! They’re made of dust!
They’re crushed like moths, 20 stepped on between morning and evening,
never put to anything important, destroyed forever, 21 their bowstring never strung.
They die—and not in wisdom!”

Well gee, this sounds like special revelation: God prophetically sent one of his angels to inform Elifáz that he considers humans unrighteous, unclean, untrustworthy, disposable, worthless, and foolish. Thing is, does any of this vision sound at all like how Jesus claims his Father thinks of us? Doesn’t it sound way more like how the devil thinks of us? Wasn’t this Satan’s entire argument to the LORD against Job?—“He’s nowhere near as good as you think he is.”

See, if you don’t understand God’s character, nor his gracious attitude towards the humans he created, you’re gonna fall for any false prophecy the devils try to slip us. You’re gonna preach your own pessimism instead of God’s grace. Yes, both humans and angels make mistakes. But God forgives. He wants a far better relationship with us than a distrustful, wary, distant one. Can a human be righteous to God? When we put our faith in him, Ro 1.17 like Job put his faith in him, of course we can.

Yeah, we still need to fight sin. God offers to help. But in the case of believers who insist, “I am fighting sin,” what business do we have calling them liars, and claiming total depravity has spoiled any fruit the Holy Spirit produces in their lives? Unless we have proof they’re lying hypocrites—which really isn’t that hard to obtain—we have no basis, and therefore no business, in claiming their sins are behind their suffering. Job’s friends had no evidence to back their objections; just a bullheaded insistence they had to be right. It only made them all the more wrong.

Social Darwinism in the scriptures.

The next chapter begins with Elifáz expressing his utter lack of patience with the unwise.

Job 5.1-6 KWL
1 “Please call out. Is there any answer? To which holy man will you turn?
2 Fools get killed in anger. Morons die in jealousy.
3 I saw a fool move into town. Suddenly I cursed his house:
4 ‘His children aren’t worth saving! They’ll be crushed by the gate, with no rescue!
5 The hungry eat his crops! He harvests himself thorns. Thieves trample his strength!’
6 Evil doesn’t come out of the dust. Soil doesn’t grow trouble.
7 It was Adam who grew trouble. Children of flame fly high.”

Job may appeal to anybody—qedoším/“holy ones” might imply holy people, or holy beings like angels; could go either way, but I went with “holy man”—but Elifáz is pretty sure nobody who really understands how God works is gonna show Job any sympathy. The way God works, Elifáz insisted, is that the truly righteous and the wise get God’s blessings. Whereas those who aren’t really all that righteous, die. Those who aren’t really all that wise, die. Or otherwise lose all their stuff and become destitute, just like Job. Good fortune only follows those who deserve it. Not those who don’t.

In our culture, we call this social Darwinism: Just like animals battle for survival, and only the strongest and cleverest survive to pass down their genes, so humans likewise battle one another for survival, and only the best and brightest of us earn success and prosperity. Everybody else? Unfit. Undeserving. In fact social Darwinists consider it a crime to help them out: Let them die, lest they pass down their substandard genes.

Yeah, it’s a graceless, and therefore godless, point of view. Runs totally contrary to the Law, which defends the weak and needy from those who’d exploit them; runs totally contrary to the gospel, ’cause the good news of the kingdom is especially for the poor. But wealthy people wanna defend their wealth, and those who covet the wealth they hope to someday have, wanna defend their covetousness. Hence social Darwinism has made a whole lot of inroads into popular Christianity, whether it’s disguised as “good stewardship” or the prosperity gospel. And even though the term has only been around since economists started appropriating some of Charles Darwin’s views, it’s nothing new. We find it right here, in Job, in Elifáz’s lack of compassion towards the needy, the destitute, the unwise, and Job.

Yeah, it looks like Elifáz believed God’s on the side of the needy, ’cause we find he brings up some of the proper biblical ideas in the rest of his tirade. Stands to reason: Edom was right next to Israel, and Elifáz likely heard their interpretation of God all his life. He wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with what the Law and Prophets revealed about the LORD. But unlike an inspired prophet or poet, Elifáz’s theology wasn’t consistent. In one verse he browbeats the needy Job for not deserving God’s grace. In another, he praises God for granting grace to the needy. Like the LORD said, Elifáz didn’t get God right, so if you expect his advice to form a systematic whole, you’re expecting far more of him than y’oughta. There are plenty of good reasons we shouldn’t quote Job’s friends.

Job 5.8-16 KWL
8 “I seek God, however. I put my cause before God.
9 He does great, unsearchable, wonderful, innumerable things.
10 He gives rain to the earth’s surface. He sends water down the streets.
11 He puts the low on the heights. Mourners are exalted and saved.
12 He ruins the plans of the shrewd: Their hands can’t do anything right.
13 He catches the wise when they get shrewd, and their advice gets twisted.
14 Their days blend into darkness; night feels like noon.
15 He saves the needy from the sword of their mouth, from strong hands.
16 The poor have hope. The wrong-headed can shut up.”

See, the thing about bad advice is there’s often a lot of good-sounding advice mixed in there. Elifáz’s statements do actually include valid statements about God—like the fact he does great things, and saves the needy and mournful. But there’s a whole lot of chaff mixed in with his wheat. A whole lot of weeds on his lawn. The good stuff gets undermined by the bad attitude. Much like popular Christianity, where the social Darwinism and graceless politics can ruin our testimonies altogether.

“God’s giving you a spanking. Lean into it.”

Christians frequently teach, ’cause it is in the scriptures after all, that because God loves us, sometimes he disciplines us. Dt 8.5, 2Sa 7.14, He 12.6 Like a parent who punishes their kid lest they grow up wrong, or do things to harm themselves, God corrects us when we go the wrong way.

Here’s the problem: Not every disaster which befalls us is “God’s discipline.” But for some Christians, it’s precisely how they interpret every negative thing in life. Broke a nail? God’s discipline. Burnt the toast? God’s discipline. Dinged the car? God’s discipline. Got leprosy? God’s discipline. Got raped? God’s discipline. It’s all God expressing his displeasure towards us, in an escalating fashion. You suffer because you’re bad, and you know what you did.

So their advice, same as Elifáz’s, is to bend over and take the paddling. ’Cause it’s done out of love.

Job 5.8-16 KWL
17 Look: The human God corrects is awesome! Don’t reject the Almighty’s teaching!
18 When he gives pain, he treats it. He smites—and his hands heal.
19 He rescued you from six troubles. The seventh evil won’t even touch you.
20 In recession, he rescues from death. In war, from the sword in one’s hand.
21 Hide from tongue-lashing. Don’t fear violence: He‘s coming.
22 Mock at violence and recession. Don’t fear wild animals.
23 For you have a relationship with the field stones: Wild animals will help you.
24 You know there’s peace in your tent. You take stock of your pasture and miss nothing.
25 You know you have much seed. Your offspring is like grass in the earth.
26 You come to the grave vigorously, like growing stacks of wheat at harvest time.
27 Look at this. We sought it out, so hear it. Know it.”

It ignores the fact, as taught in Ecclesiastes, that a whole lot of things in this fallen world are totally meaningless. Bad things do happen to good people. The best and brightest will occasionally lose, Ec 9.11 and of course everyone, without exception, dies. God mitigates the meaninglessness, but he hasn’t banished it altogether. It’s not all part of his secret evil plan; he doesn’t suborn the evil so he can use it to toughen us up.

But if you have a simplistic, immature, impatient, graceless worldview, of course you’re gonna try to reduce theodicy to simple platitudes, and mock people for not believing them as fervently as you do.

This idea of “Just trust God hard enough he’ll rescue you from every little thing” is entirely contrary to Jesus’s promises that in this world we’ll find suffering. Jn 16.33 That if we obey and revere him, he guarantees us a trouble-free life and lots of money; and in kingdom come we’ll get big fat mansions. It also turns God into a major cosmic child abuser: Displease him and he’ll kill everything and everyone you love? Isn’t he supposed to be good?

…Well, believe it or not, not everybody believes God is good. And next theodicy article, I’ll discuss them.