Jef Caine – Graphic Designer
It’s the classic trump card in any discussion about the existence of God; If God is so powerful and so good, why do bad things happen to good people?
The book of Job is a classic reflection on the problem of suffering. While the narrative elements of the story are somewhat well known, the majority of the book is comprised of dialog between Job and his friends. All the narrative parts most of us are familiar with (God’s strange deal with the Devil, Job’s family and possessions destroyed, scraping sores with broken pottery) take place within the first two chapters of the book. After this, it’s a long verbal back-and-forth for the next 35 chapters.
The sad irony in Job is that his friends are not very good friends. Certainly they come with the best of intentions, but their continual need to find some sort of explanation for Job’s suffering only adds to his grief. In fact, they do their best work as comforters at the very start of their visit.
When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:12-13
Choosing to mourn with their friend, sitting beside him and saying nothing is the best thing they could do for him. Unfortunately, once Job lets out a bitter lament it breaks the ice and allows Job’s friends to take a stab at explaining all this. The reader is then subjected to 35 chapters of poetic and philosophical wheel spinning that inevitably defaults to victim blaming. Job must have done something wrong to deserve all this punishment; there is no talking the friends out of this worldview.
The tragedy for us today is that victim blaming is still alive and well. “He had it coming.” “What was she doing in that part of town in the first place?” “If it were me in that situation, things would have been different.” In search of answers to injustice, we often conclude that the sufferer must have done something to deserve it.
God, of course, has the final say on the matter. Why do bad things happen to good people? If the answers are anywhere, perhaps they are in the back of the book. But if you know the book of Job you know God doesn’t really answer the question. Rather he riffs on the complexities of running the universe and shows off his dinosaur collection. We get some beautiful imagery about the untamed beasts of God’s wild world but we don’t get an answer to the problem of suffering. In fact, the only moral judgment we get from God is directed towards Job’s friends.
After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” Job 42:7-8
Who sinned in this story? The people who judged the sufferer. There has got to be a lesson in there somewhere.
We even see victim blaming in the New Testament with the man born blind. Once again, the wisdom of the day is convinced someone must have done something to deserve this.
As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” John 9:1-5
Jesus gets closer to answering the question here than his Father did in the Old Testament, but he quickly shifts the subject away from blame and towards action. It’s our natural tendency to try to find an explanation for things. This usually results in playing the blame game. But God is not interested in such things. God is playing the restoration game.
Next time you see a friend who’s suffering, take a lesson from Job’s friends. Cry with them, sit silently, tear your clothes if you’re into the theatrics. Whatever you do, don’t offer unsolicited diagnosis. Even if you’re right, victim blaming never ends well.