Divine Revelation Fundamental to Suffering Well

INSIGHTS FOR CONTEMPORARY COUNSELING FROM

THE BOOK OF JOB

The thesis of this paper is that divine revelation is fundamental to that true transformation of the individual, the appeasement of that troubled soul when it gazes upon the sovereign wisdom and power of God displayed therein.  If the righteous sufferer is to be comforted and planted in the everlasting soils of divine communion, he must see God.  Thus, revelation is fundamental to counseling Job through the experience of his suffering because it manifests God, and in so doing, the character of God which teaches Job that God is greater than his circumstance of affliction.  Indeed, the circumstance is a tool in the hand of the Almighty.  Insofar as one’s counsel is derivative of this Word, the counseled heart will see with new eyes.  This brief sketch of Job’s experience and the insights attained from it for contemporary counseling will accord with the following outline: first, a description of Job’s predicament; secondly, a description of poor counseling exemplified in the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar; thirdly, whether we can learn anything from Elihu as distinct from the three friends; and lastly, the place and content of good counsel, the Word of God and the essential attributes of God set forth within.

The Predicament of Job

Job is presented by the narrator, and by God Himself, as an exceptionally pious man.  His life was blameless, his heart upright.  The centrifugal force of his existence was God.  He not only attended to his own piety but to that of his ten children also, that they might walk in communion with God.  This he did “continually” (Job 1:5), “unremitted in his pious care.” Thus, “this man was the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3).  It follows, then, that he had much to lose, suffer, and learn at the allowance of the Almighty.  One day as the sons of God are presenting themselves before Him, Satan finds his way into the procession (Job 1:6).  It is the  LORD who interrogates Satan.  It is God who presents Job to the adversary (Job 1:8).  From this, God sets in motion the meticulous providence through which the main point of the book will be displayed: God, as the object of faith, is worthy of worship in and of Himself, and the practice of righteousness that exercise of the soul in response to the unfathomable value of God aside from His many benefits.  The suffering of Job and his questions that follow are the consequences of this primary reality.  What is observed in the prologue about God, then, is what God begins to move Job to see through the instrumentality of suffering: God is sovereign, wise, and powerful, and that is enough to comfort the suffering, body and soul.

Job’s Physical Suffering

Satan afflicts Job under the sovereign command and boundaries established by God.  Four waves of affliction come crashing down upon Job’s heart.  Sabeans fall upon some of the livestock and kill his servants (Job 1:15).  Presumably, lightning fell from God and consumed the sheep and still more servants (Job 1:16).  Some Chaldeans raided Job’s camels and took them, while murdering his remaining servants (Job 1:17).  Lastly, the children, which he so deeply cared for and ministered to continually, died when a great wind came across the wilderness and collapsed the dwelling that housed them (Job 1:18-19).  Job’s grief is understandable, but by worship he attests to God’s sovereignty.  Job is, then, covered from head to toe with loathsome sores (Job 2:7).  So miserable is this suffering, now compounded upon that which came before, that Job sits in ashes and scrapes his body with a broken piece of pottery in order to open the sores for some relief (2:8).  Later he includes that his flesh is clothed with dirt and worms, that his skin hardens and then breaks out afresh.  His days seem hopeless (Job 7:5-6).  His kidneys are slashed open, and his gall pours out on the ground.  He has sewn sackcloth upon his skin as it breaks apart.  His face is red from weeping, and his eyelids are covered with deep darkness (Job 16:13-17).  His only companions are three antagonist’s, jackals and ostriches (Job 30:29).  He has been utterly forsaken (Job 19:13-19).  Even his wife, in her agreement with Satan that the fear of God is limited to temporal benefits, bids him to give up his integrity, to curse God and die (2:9).  Still, Job does what Adam should have done by rebuking his wife and holding fast to God (2:10).

Job’s Spiritual Suffering

While the physical suffering of Job draws us into a horrific awe, the book of Job spends the majority of its content on the spiritual suffering of Job, or the inner turmoil evident in his dialogue.  Central to this suffering is his question over the justice of God.  He knows two seemingly incontrovertible facts: he is righteous but he is suffering.  The combination of these two realities did not find a place in Job’s or his friends theology, at least originally.  Job’s suffering forces him to reconsider the traditional doctrine which posited that the wicked suffer and the righteous are blessed, and this not generally or ultimately, but mechanically, such that it was plausible to argue from effect to cause.  Job was suffering, therefore he had sinned.  By this equation, God’s sovereignty is severely limited, and the folly of pure human wisdom revealed.  Job’s anguish of soul concerns the overcoming of this ideal and the attainment of some wisdom that we expand ancient wisdom traditions.  At this point, it will be helpful for the purpose of counseling to identify some of the soulish struggles and intellectual considerations that this suffering brought to Job.

First, this suffering causes Job to be nearsighted (Job 3).  Job can only see what is presently before him and what has been in his past (Job 29).  He cannot see beyond the adversity.  The world seems upside down to Job.  The light and life that are supposed to bring joy and gladness and life, instead bring sighing and groaning, fear and dread.  So it seems to Job that God keeps him alive in order to bring more trouble.  Undergirding this, however, is the experience of his present condition.  What he articulates has not been his life experience.  What is encouraging about Job is that he does not stay in despair of life, but moves forward in his argumentation for the restoration of life, and thus he is distinguished from another Ancient Near Eastern literary piece describing a dispute between an Egyptian man and his ba over the value of suicide.  Job is not suicidal, but determined to be justified and restored to life.  If anyone is going to take Job’s life, it will be God (Job 6:8-9).

Secondly, Job understands the words of a despairing man to be words of wind (Job 6:23).  This will merit a return under the next heading, but it is instructional for understanding the words of the afflicted.  In the moment of suffering, even the most sound theologian will speak words that are rash and do not correspond with what they do in fact know to be true.  They are not words with gravity, but words of wind; not words that capture the theology of the man but the moment in which he finds himself.  It does not mean that they need theological rebuke, but patience.  Soon after, as the Lord grants peace, they will often rebuke themselves and reaffirm what they hold to be true.  Suffering creates words that are not worth the weight of wind or time spent in reproof.

Thirdly, Job believes that there must be a cause, though it is not a cause to be found in him (Job 9:17).  One of the first inclinations of the suffering soul will be the search for causality.  The temptation when one does not find it in himself, is to find it in someone or something else.  In counseling, it is pertinent to bridge the gap between an unknowable cause and the purposeful wisdom of God that beckons trust.

Fourthly, Job desires to be left alone, to have God depart from him (Job 10:20, etc.).  It is not in being away from God that one finds comfort, though it may seem that way, when again, one perceives correctly that God has ordained the suffering, while, perceiving incorrectly, that God employs the suffering as a means of “getting you” or “sticking it to you.”  This perception of God would make you want to get away from him.  Because it is false one, nearness to God in suffering is our comfort and not our despair.  Job knows this (Job 13:15).

Fifthly, and ironically, Job also despairs in his alienation (Job 19:13-19).  The sufferer desires helpful, hopeful, and compassionate fellowship.  In Job’s case, however, everyone with whom he would have a close relationship has deserted him at the sight of his suffering.  There is no one to share in his troubles (Phil 4:14), no one to appropriate “the ministry of presence.”  It is our damnable habit as men to forsake those that are suffering, though when it befalls us we are the first to desire some comforting company.  We should make it our ambition to visit the suffering with the intention of being for them what is required by their suffering.  Redemption is the cure for our ills.

Lastly, suffering makes that which is temporal seem ultimate and eternal, and eternality is often forgotten.  For this reason, Job treats the prospering of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous in absolute terms without any category of eternal justice (Job 21).  His suffering and, perhaps, a lack in the progress of revelation, contribute to an ignorance of final retribution against the wicked and vindication for the righteous, and as such, that prosperity often serves as judgment and suffering as blessedness.

It must be said that though Job undergoes this battle in the soul, he yet endures it by faith.  Three times (Job 9:33; 16:19-21; 19:23-27) he makes mention of an arbiter, mediator, or redeemer, and in so doing moves increasingly close to the Christian conception of the Lord Jesus Christ – one who can lay his hand on both man and God (Job 9:33).  Job commits himself to God, holding fast his integrity (Job 31).

Poor Counsel: The Inadequacy of Human Wisdom

Before Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are set forth as exemplary of the poor counsel and the inadequacy of human wisdom, it must be admitted that they begin well (it is their theology and their hot heads that go awry).  Each man came from his own place, taking the initiative to visit Job in his suffering.  Having made an appointment together, they aim to show him sympathy and to comfort him (Job 2:11).  They identified fairly radically with Job’s pain, evident in their ritual of lamentation (Job 2:12).  Moreover, they patiently sat with him in silence for seven days and seven nights, giving Job the prerogative to speak (Job 2:13).  In these ways, their example is commendable.  Unfortunately, hot heads, unteachable dogmatism and theology are a dangerous mixture in counseling the broken heart.  Job’s three friends are exemplified by this, serving as “archetypes for the traditional thinking current in the ancient Near East.”

These friends combine to posit three fatal flaws in counseling the afflicted.  They shall be briefly discussed now.  First, the friends have an incomplete theology and lean heavily upon human wisdom traditions rather than the revelation of God (Job 5:1-7).  The main problem of many contemporary counseling models in the church is their movement towards anthropocentric counsel and, as a consequence, away from theocentric counsel grounded in the special revelation of God.  Human wisdom becomes the logic of counsel, but it is devoid of counsel.  In effect, it presents at best an incomplete theology, a theology that cannot see beyond its finitude.

Secondly, and as an example of the first, their counsel hinged upon the principle of retribution, but as they did not seek to understand Job or God, that principle, though true as far as it goes, was rendered mechanical.  Thus they argued from effect to cause.  Job is being punished and, therefore, Job has sinned.  They had no place in their world view for a righteous sufferer.  But “retributive justice is not the only principle on which God runs his world.”  Indeed, the wicked do sometimes prosper in this life (Ps 73), and the righteous do often suffer (Heb 2:10).  It is telling that in their adherence to human wisdom, they actually fell in accord with the suggestion of the Satan: there is no such thing as a disinterested righteousness, a righteousness appropriated because of living faith that clings tightly to God alone.  There is no such thing as what Job is describing.  Their ill-advice follows suit: repent and God will restore your prosperity (Job 8:5-7; 11:14-20).  But Job is not interested in prosperity; he is interested in the restoration of the integrity that he holds.  Human wisdom falls short of that wisdom found in God and afforded to us in His revelation (Job 28, 38-41).

Lastly, as a matter of practicality, their counsel came in the wrong package.  As it turns out, their dogmatism could not handle the refutations of a righteous sufferer.  Hence, they turned to a frustrated sort of defense.  Instead of understanding the sufferer (Job 12:5), they shot their arrows at him (Job 16:12-13).  And because they did not set themselves to understanding or to wisdom, and allowed their hot heads and pride to prevail, Job comments about them that they were liars (Job 13:4a), worthless physicians (Job 13:4b), wiser in their original silence (Job 13:5), teaching “maxims (that) are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay” (Job 13:12).

Elihu: A Movement in the Right Direction?

Elihu is one of the most debated figures in the entire Bible.  At issue is whether he advances the dialogue or not, whether he joins Job’s three friends or not.  Andersen holds Elihu to be a human adjudicator who joins the friends in a false indictment of Job, who “sees little but sees it clearly.”  Janzen sees Elihu as an example of a young Israelite prophet who, as juxtaposed with the earlier friends, claims inspiration, but whose claim is inevitably subverted, leading Job to the only source of true revelation. This paper will agree more with Dumbrell, that while Elihu is young and bombastic, and still initially hung up in the realm of human wisdom, he does advance the dialogue by introducing an updated view of suffering and by his preparatory work for the content of the Yahweh speeches.

There is no doubt that Elihu makes big claims and doesn’t start very well.  He is clearly young and exuberant in his passion of God.  Unfortunately, youth and passion without the experience of suffering often result in one becoming quick to anger and quick to speak.  He goes awry in accusing Job of that which the reader knows Job to be innocent of committing.  On the other hand, he does confront Job’s own words and interact, albeit in anger, to them, which is a contrast from Job’s friends.  He has respected Job by waiting his turn.  But most importantly, Elihu finishes his discourse with a new word concerning suffering: it is not always retributive, but redemptive, even sanctifying (Job 36:15-16).  Moreover, his last chapter might as well be one of Yahweh’s speeches.  Elihu speaks quite wonderfully to the calculated, controlled, ordered providence of God over the creation, and as such the notion of God’s arbitrariness or aloofness, or that of a chaotic principle in the cosmos is finally addressed and refuted.  God is active in governing the entire cosmos.  He is wise and powerful and purposive, and therefore, suffering is not without purpose and goal, and God must be glorified.  Essential to this is his movement from mere human wisdom to theology implicit in revelation, that is, to the source, object, and vision of true comfort, namely, God.  Thus, he concludes well: “stop and consider the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14).  It matters not that Job has already done this (Job 26).  Such counsel is always wise counsel.  In the end, Elihu is brash and imperfect, but he serves as an advancement over Job’s three friends and in the story as he points Job to God and His impending revelation.

Revelation: The Manifestation of Yahweh’s Counsel

Divine revelation is fundamental to the transformation of the individual.  Ultimately, it is divine revelation that Job needs.  One of the fascinating aspects about Job is that he has known this from the beginning and has asked for it.  In chapters 38-41, Job gets what he, indeed, what all men should hunger and thirst for: the revelation of Yahweh, that which is now called the Bible or the Word of God wherein He has made Himself manifest for humanity.  This is precisely where Job’s friends failed him.  Their arrows were arrows of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom and human traditions.  As such they could not rise above their own finite understanding into the mind of God on such issues as the righteous sufferer, much less the divine prerogative to effect circumstances that result in the suffering of the faithful with the purpose of displaying His wisdom, power, and value.  But this is where revelation leads; this is where the Yahweh speeches direct Job.  And this is where God’s people must direct one another today, to a proper vision of God that begets a God-entranced world view which governs the lens through which we behold all things.  Scripture is the source of this counsel.

Yahweh “answers” Job with a two pronged theophany: God is meticulously and providentially wise, and God is the Almighty in control over all that man fears and cannot restrain.  The product of this is that God is absolute in His sovereignty, that He transcends and rules over those aspects of creation that favor human beings and those that do not.  Moreover, God is purposive, and thus, Job can take comfort in this, that while he may not have an answer for his experience of suffering, he knows that it is not in vain but used by God for a specific end – Job’s good and God’s glory.

Several reflections follow from these observations.  First, the book of Job teaches us that Scripture is the source of biblical counseling.  Secondly, as Scripture is the source of biblical counseling, it is incumbent upon the counselor or discipler to speak and live what accords with that revelation, for it sets the necessary vision of God on display.  Thirdly, discernment beckons us to make two things known from Scripture to the suffering sibling: God’s wisdom and God’s power, for his absolute sovereignty in the dispensation of the two of them in every possible scenario of creation assures the righteous sufferer that all will be well (Rom 8:28).  The righteous sufferer, or any sort of evil and suffering is not a matter of arbitrariness or chaos in the universe, but a sure matter that is under God’s absolute control, a circumstance designed to educate, sanctify, wean from this world, and ultimately, show both to our own selves and the onlooking world that God is worth fearing, revering, loving, and worshipping for the sake of God.  Fourthly, that it is this majestic, massive, glorious, true, divinely revealed vision of the Lord God Almighty that satisfies the despairing heart in the midst of the affliction.  When Job is appeased, it is not because he has been healed or restored or prospered.  The Job in chapters 1-37 is the same Job in chapter 42:1-6 – a Job in the midst of suffering.  Nevertheless, Job is counseled by the revelation of God’s majesty.  It overwhelms his suffering and enables him to view it with eyes that see God and His infallible purpose (Job 42:1).  Fifthly, the progress of revelation further enlightens the counselor as he seeks to apply the book of Job to the righteous sufferer.  Ezekiel 14:14 sets forth Job as a beacon of righteousness.  James 5:11 commends Job’s steadfastness, and the purposive, compassionate and merciful nature of the God of Job.  By these texts, the sufferer can be exhorted to that which is most important: the maintenance of a righteous a life and of steadfastness as a response to the divinely appointed affliction in light of the sure mercies of God.  It is well, then, that they should draw near to God who stands as their only true refuge.  Sixthly, and lastly, the Scriptures of Job invite us to direct the righteous sufferer to the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Son of God was the sinless sufferer.  He put on flesh to identify with Job, with humanity, in weakness, suffering, and death.  But, alas, He has arisen from the dead and stands as Mediator between men and God forever as One who has put His hands on the both of us in order to reconcile us.  He, then, was Job’s and is the church’s ultimate object of hope in the midst of suffering.  Scripture beckons us to join Him outside the gate with the knowledge that He will deliver us from our suffering and bring us into the new creation where there will be no more tears, nor death, “neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Conclusion

Job is a righteous sufferer.  His need is the need of the church today as she seeks to counsel and disciple her members and those outside of her community: the God of the Scriptures.  Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and to some degree, Elihu, fail in this blessed stewardship.  Job remains steadfast in his desire for revelation, and revelation from God is what he finally receives.  It is not, then, programs, pills, psychotherapy or positivity that are useful, much less, fundamental to the transformation of the heart of the individual believer.  Rather, divine revelation, and that alone, is fundamental to this glorious end.  May God grant His church grace as she endeavors to counsel by the Scriptures to the effect that her disciples may all testify, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).

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