Several days ago The Great Antagonizer posted a critique of the “God works in mysterious ways” meme, explaining how it functions as religion’s rhetorical “get out of jail free card” when bad things happen to good people. It reminded me of how the Bible’s Book of Job answers the question: a terrible answer, but kind of a funny story (in a perverse way), and one that sheds light on some of the inner workings of religious faith.
The story is pretty simple. Job is “blameless and upright” (1:1), and well-to-do. But when God boasts of Job’s righteousness to Satan, the devil in unimpressed:
“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? …Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (1:10-11, NIV)
Not one to back down from a dare from the devil, God allows Satan to kill off Job’s kids, ruin his fortune and wreck his health. Job and his friends spend most of book arguing about whether or not Job deserved what he got.
Growing up, I was taught to be impressed with the moral message here, and indeed there is something to said for it. Much like today, the book’s original audience believed in a god who intervened in human affairs, and who punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous. So it was natural to think that Job must’ve done something.
That idea isn’t necessarily religious. It’s rooted deeply in our fear of uncontrollable circumstance. Read any hard-luck story online about someone who’s unemployed, uninsured, sick, or homeless, and the comments are sure to be filled with conservative bile in the form of heartless dissections of the person’s circumstances and decisions, all centered around one idea: They deserved it. This wouldn’t happen to me.
To its credit, the Book of Job is honest that bad things really do happen to good people, and that we should be slow to judge a person in their misfortune. So far, so good.
Then the narrative grows more daring. Though Job doesn’t curse God as Satan hoped, he boldly insists that God “has denied me justice” (27:2 and elsewhere) and dares God to answer him and accuse him (31:35).
All this is a setup for God’s grand entrance in Chapter 38. God replies to Job (in part):
Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his? Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor, and clothe yourself in honor and majesty. Unleash the fury of your wrath, look at all who are proud and bring them low, look at all who are proud and humble them, crush the wicked where they stand. Bury them all in the dust together; shroud their faces in the grave. Then I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you. (40:8-14)
God’s full reply continues along the same lines. He basically says, “Job, can you kick ass like I can? No? Well, then shut up!”
And then God refuses to explain anything.
In my home church, God’s reply was always treated with reverence (naturally), as if it were a good, intelligent answer and not the petulant reply of a bully who admits to Satan (but not to Job) that “you [Satan] incited me to ruin him without any reason.” (2:3) The pastor’s interpretation was, God’s ways are higher than our ways; it’s not our place to question God.
But I sometimes wonder if the book’s anonymous author was as awed with God’s righteousness as many present-day clergy claim to be. God’s boasting goes on for page after pompous page… but we, the readers, already know that the plot is nothing more than a dare, a double-down when God was called out on his earlier boasting.
God comes off as simultaneously powerful and small, like a toddler with a machine gun. He’s determined to impress the hell out of Job and his friends, but is unwilling to answer a simple question — perhaps because he doesn’t have an answer that won’t sound childish and petty. The writer seems to be saying with a shrug, That’s just who God is. What can you do?
In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him seven sons and three daughters, the same numbers that were killed to test Job’s mettle. In God’s view, apparently, children can be swapped out like spark plugs, and Job either wasn’t bitter with this arrangement or else knew when to keep his mouth shut.
In the current issue of The Humanist, Greta Christina writes about the double trauma of a bout with cancer and the death of her father. Hard as it was, she never felt a longing to recapture her former religious belief:
It can be hard to accept that we often have little or no control over what happens to us. But when I compare the idea that “Yeah, sometimes life sucks, and I have to deal with it as best I can” with the idea that “an immensely powerful being is fucking with me on purpose and won’t tell me why” I, for one, find the first idea much more comforting.
Ideas aren’t true or false based on whether or not we find comfort in them, but the Book of Job helps us recognize “God works in mysterious ways” for what it is: a way of stifling the questions that come when one tries to reconcile an all-powerful divine being with the happenstance of life.