Lessons Learned from the Book of Job
by Louis Herrey
”No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted… All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God.” (Orson F. Whitney, in Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 98.)
The book of Job is part of the so called ’wisdom literature’ of the Bible. The text is composed in beautiful Near Eastern prose, and is a tale of a man who has a dramatic encounter with God’s justice, to say the least.
The story of Job is so exasperating in nature that some scholars have put a fiction stamp on it. I see it differently. It is true that we are uncertain of authorship as well as time origin, but we can clearly note that other biblical authors see him as a historical figure (Ezekiel 14:14-20; James 5:11).
In addition, it seems to me that an authentic characterization of Job is a necessary component in the Bible’s design to convey God’s deepest ’wisdom’: namely the reality of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:24). To put it plainly: Job’s life and struggle is clearly mirrored in the life of the Savior himself.
Here are just a few important observations:
Job was the most “upright man” on earth (Job 1:8), yet he suffered the most.
Job’s suffering is a shadow of Christ’s future suffering (Job 16:9-13)
Job didn’t deserve his suffering (Job 2:30), neither did Christ. But both remained faithful.
Job and Jesus were disfigured by their suffering (Job 2:12; Isa 52:14).
Job testifies of the reality of the resurrection, and declares: ”I know my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25-27).
Job was raised up from suffering after he interceded for his friends (Job 42:7-10). Jesus was raised up as our great Intercessor (Hebrews 7:25).
As much as I would love to delve deeper into the topic of finding Christ in the scriptures – something I consistently badger my Institute students about – I want us to look more closely at the man Job today, in particular what lessons we can learn from the existential questions that trouble him.
Life’s difficult questions
As stated, we find a shadow of Christ in the person of Job. But although Job is a close contender for a perfect human being, but he is still not Jesus. At times the natural man in Job is clearly present, especially in his frustration with God’s display of justice. Job simply cannot understand why a loving and just Creator would let good and righteous people suffer.
Ever asked that question?
As we are about to discover, there is a lack of understanding on the part of Job. There is something he doesn’t comprehend about the ways of God. But what about us? Do we believe our Heavenly Father is fair? Do we believe the world is operating under the hands of a just God?
And to repeat that critical question: Why do innocent people have to suffer?
I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I would nevertheless like to explore these questions with you today. So let’s move on to the story.
The suffering of Job
Under circumstances that are a bit unclear, the Lord and Satan have a conversation about Job. Satan (‘the accuser’ in Hebrew; Job 1:6) makes the straight forward claim that Job is righteous simply because of the blessings God bestows him. Take away those blessings and Job will surely curse his Maker. To prove Satan wrong God settles an agreement with him to let Job be tested.
The test begins with Job, the wealthiest man in the land, loosing everything. Property, cattle, children. Everything. But does Job curse God for it?
”Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Next, Job is smitten with severe physical affliction, with boils covering his entire body. Upon seeing this Job’s wife utters: ”Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God and die.”
But again, Job refuses to accuse God. Instead he reproves his wife and adds: ”What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9-10).
Jobs friends try to comfort him
Seeing the grief and agony of Job, three of his friends arrive to offer their comfort (Job 2:12). Now, in what will become a long series of back-and-forths (chapters 3-27), Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar take turn comforting Job. That’s the idea at least.
But these comfort sessions become more like debates in the end, providing no solace for Job. Although presenting the best contemporary views on Diety, in the most poetic language of the time, the trio only aggravate Job even more. Why? Because their comforting words, in fact, serve more as accusations.
Here is how they reason:
There has to be an explanation for Job’s suffering.
So let’s start with what (we think) we know about God: He rewards people for their righteousness, and punishes others for their disobedience.
There was a time Job was truly blessed. We know he was righteous then.
Now he is being punished. That must mean he is disobedient somehow.
As his friends, we therefore need to call Job to repentance (Job 11:6; 19:27-29; 22:9, 23).
This doesn’t sit well with Job, however. He is firm in his claims of innocence before God (Job 10:7) – and remember, he really hasn’t done anything to deserve these trials. He is running out of patience with his friends. In Job’s mind they are ”physicians of no value” and ”miserable comforters”, only there to ”vex [his] soul” (Job 13:4; 16:2; 19:2).
Job is now trapped on an emotional and spiritual rollercoaster. On the one hand he is frustrated with God; while Job’s flesh is rotting away, he asks why God is targeting him (Job 7:5, 20). On the other hand, Job shows gratitude that the Lord has ”preserved [his] spirit” (Job 10:12). Next, he is questioning the resurrection, and wonders why God is persecuting him (Job 14:14; 19:22), followed by a of hope in a Mediator in heaven (16:21), and a Redeemer to save him:
”For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).
Wasn’t Job okay then? I mean, with that beautiful expression of trust in his Savior and with such a convincing testimony of the power of the resurrection, couldn’t we conclude that his spiritual foundation was solid?
Well, kind of.
I am confident that Job did find solace in his hope of a glorious awakening in Christ. Certainly, his faith in the Savior and His atonement gave him strength beyond his own capacity, much like other followers of Christ will experience in life.
But this knowledge, this faith, didn’t solve everything for him. Yes, Job received a strong spiritual affirmation during a very difficult time – and I think many of us can relate to that – but even though such an affirmation will surely help us move forward, life is still going to be hard. And there will still be unanswered questions.
This is the part where I sympathize the most with Job. I make no pretense to know all of his thoughts, but it seems to me that while his heart is full of love for his Redeemer, his mind is full of confusion; he wants to trust God, but he just can’t understand Him. He is trying to make sense of what is happening, but even though he serves others unconditionally (Job 29 and 31) and does everything right, everything goes against him.
Where is God? Why is He not answering?
”I cry unto thee, and thou dost not hear me: I stand up and thou regards me not. Thou art become cruel to me: with thy strong hand thou opposest thyself against me” (Job 30:20-21).
Enters a fourth friend, the young Elihu. He proposes a somewhat different conclusion than that of the first three. Perhaps, he states, the Lord gives us trials as a way of warning us from committing future sins, and that suffering ultimately builds our character (Job 36:15-16).
This is actually not a bad observation. And normally, Job would probably be more open to such a proposition. He had, in fact, made a similar claim earlier: ”when [God] hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
But now, Job simply cannot take it in. He is done. No words, no matter how wise or eloquent they are, can penetrate his weary soul. God is just not answering – although Job is practically demanding it at this point (Job 31:35).
He can only conclude, contrary to his friend’s opinions, that his Creator does not always rule the world according the laws of justice. Or even worse, could it be that He is not a just God at all? Why else would he let the innocent suffer?
God answers Job
At that moment of deepest despair, the Almighty finally answers Job. But not in the way he anticipated. God begins by rebuking Job for speaking ”words without knowledge” (Job 38:2).
Then several questions are asked of the suffering man, such as: ”Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”; and ”Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in search of the depth?” (Job 38:4, 16).
This is followed by what we could call a cosmic virtual tour. God goes to great lengths to teach Job many intrinsic details of His workings, in heaven as well as on earth. And again, God delivers His message in the form of questions: ”Who hath… [caused] it to rain on the earth?”; ”Canst thou… loose the bands of Orion?”; ”Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth?”; ”Hast thou given the horse strength?” (Job 38:26-27, 31; 39:1, 19)
And just as Job had demanded an answer from God, the Almighty delivers His final question in similar fashion: ”Shall he that contends with the Almighty instruct him? He that reproveth God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2).
Are we happy with God’s answers?
Many years ago, when I read the book of Job the first time, I was a bit bewildered. Two thoughts ran through my head: 1) Why all these question from God?; and 2) Why is He not answering Job’s questions?
Let’s look at nr 2 first. Beside Job’s obvious wish of being physically healed, he also wishes to know know why God, who is meant to be just and fair, would plague him with such suffering.
These are the burning questions, right? Is the Almighty truly a just God? If so, why does He let innocent people suffer?
Why did my husband have to die of cancer? Why did my wife turn so harshly against the Church? Why am I in a wheelchair? Why are children being abused? Why does my daughter get hate messages online? Why do innocent die in war? Why do we HAVE wars? Why will no one marry me? Why do I have this depression? Why do I feel so lonely? I don’t deserve any of it.
It’s true, you don’t deserve it (speaking of things that affect you beyond your control). But if you come to this Bible text looking for an answer of the cause of your suffering, and why God doesn’t remove it, you will be disappointed. The Lord won’t give you – or Job for that matter – an answer. It’s nowhere to be found in this book.
So that’s it? God doesn’t explain why He does the things He does? He doesn’t give a reason for Job’s trials? (Feel free to insert your own name instead of Job.) No, in most cases He will not.
But what if there is an answer – another answer? An answer we might not see because we are busy asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places.
Lately, as I have been studying the story of Job, I realize that I have in the past been too preoccupied with the ’theodicy problem’ – this is what we have been discussing here: why a good and just God can permit evil or tragedy to exist – so much that I have missed the valuable lessons that lie at the core of this book.
Now, these reflections are not written in stone, and they are my own (although some thoughts may certainly be shared by others). But I hope these words will offer you an additional dimension when tackling life’s difficult questions.
Lesson #1: God wants us to see Him
The first lesson I learned from the book of Job derives from question nr 1 above: Why is God asking all these questions to Job? (Again: insert your own name if you wish.)
When the Lord shows Job the wonders of all His creations it seems to me that He wants Job to step outside of himself, to increase his perspective. God wants him to understand that life is much bigger – and God’s plan so much greater – than the things within Job’s personal realm, and that what is happening to Job is wonderfully interlinked with other events of the universe.
In simple terms: Job just didn’t have the whole picture. And because of that limitation he constantly asked ”Why doesn’t God see me?”, when he should have been asking ”How can I better see God?
That the Almighty saw Job, there is no doubt in my mind. He was always there. Job just couldn’t take notice of it. It’s not that he was self-absorbed, because we know Job wasn’t. God himself said that he was the most ”upright man” on earth, and he always looked after the needy (Job 1:8; 31:16-19). In the eternal scheme of things Job will certainly have his reward.
But it’s the focus on ’reward’ that is Job’s problem. And ours. God wants us to see Him in the truest sense, as Lord of heaven and earth who holds all things in his hands, someone who can open the doors of opportunity and growth for us if we just learn to trust His ways. Too often we reduce God to a deity with the simple task of being a ’rewarder’ of good deeds; I will do THIS, God, and in return you will give me THAT!
In his book ‘The 7-day Christian’, Brad Wilcox expounds this idea when he writes that “many people see God or religion as a vending machine where you insert coins and receive a blessing or are saved from trials.” And when we don’t get what we want from the machine we raise a clinched fist and say: “Why me, why now, why this.” I completely subscribe to the author’s conclusion: “If we recognize that God is not a vending machine or a servant who comes when we summon him, we can learn that he is a teacher, and his goal is not always to make our lives easier, but to make us better.”
Job seems to get this now. ”I have uttered that I understood not”, he replies, ”I have heard thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee” (Job 42:3-5; italics added).
Lesson #2: God wants us to trust Him
Since we already concluded that we usually don’t know why suffering comes our way, what is it that we do know? In Nephi’s words, although we don’t know the meaning of all things, we know that God ”loveth his children” (1 Nephi 19:17). Joshua knew that the Lord would never ”fail [him] nor forsake [him]” (Joshua 1:5). And Job said with conviction at the end: ”I know that [God] canst do every thing” (Job 42:2).
In my own words, I think the Lord is trying to tell us:
I want you to know I am here, and I love you.
When life’s bitter storms hit you, and you don’t understand why, I will calm the winds.
I will not always give you intellectual answers, but I will give you my Spirit – which is my presence.
I am here to lift your feeble arms and comfort your broken heart. To give you strength. To give you hope. That is my grace, and that will be enough.
Job was looking to find justification, but he found grace. Job was looking for an answer, but he found God. You see, the book of Job is not a book about answers. It’s a book about trust. I never saw it before, but it’s clear to me now: The book of Job shouts from its pages: Trust in the Lord!
Once I heard a rabbi give a sermon on Job. To paraphrase him: ”God can give us everything we ask for. He could if he wanted to, right? So why doesn’t He? I’m not always sure. But I am sure that God can also give us other things: the strength to endure, the ability to grow, and possibilities to become better people through our trials. These are also gifts.”
God wants to mold us. Sometimes this molding will hurt. That is why He needs us to ”be still” and let Him do his work (D&C 101:16). That is why he needs us to trust him.
Isn’t this what President Russell M. Nelson has been trying to tell us all along: Let God prevail.
Lesson #3: God wants to bless us
You would think this is an obvious one, right? The Lord is our God. We are his children, His covenant people. When we keep His commandments He is bound to bless us (D&C 82:10).
But the thing is, we don’t get to define what those blessings are. God does.
We mistakenly equate blessings with prosperity. Yes, this could be part of it, as we find at times with the people of the Book of Mormon. Who is not acquainted with these words: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land (2 Nephi 4:4). We often see how Nephites and Lamanites alike prosper when they are righteous, receiving temporal blessings such as lands, food in plenty, and wealth.
However, blessings of the Lord are more spiritual in nature than temporal. Wealth is not the be-all and end-all of God’s reward for his children on earth, but rather, as Helaman puts it: ”peace and exceeding great joy” (Helaman 3:32).
Job’s friends – and I suspect Job as well – had the idea that wealth and a care free life is the price for righteous living. Even if this seems be the case for some, they are wrong. True religion is not based on the so called ’prosperity theology’. We don’t subscribe to the idea that material wealth is a sign of divine favor. That is a dangerous idea, leading to the judgment of people’s piety based on the size of their bank accounts.
Truthfully, we don’t know if wealth, for example, is a blessing. Again, the Book of Mormon makes it clear that some people became prideful ”because of their exceedingly great riches” while others remained ”exceedingly humble” (3 Ne 6:10, 13). So the important factor is not what you get from the Lord, it’s how you receive it.
But what about Job, you might ask, did he not in the end get richly rewarded for his faithfulness? Isn’t that a sign of God’s fairness. Well, Job certainly obtained great wealth and prosperity at the end of his life – double, in fact, of what he had before (Job 42:10). But how do we know that that was a blessing based on his righteousness. We automatically make that assumption. But in fact, God never says it.
The only thing we know for sure is that Job is given a gift from the Lord. But we are never told the reason why. Could it be because of his righteousness? Of course, that’s a possibility. But to make that claim a certainty, it follows that we must be consistent in our reasoning: then Job must have been unrighteous when he was ’cursed’ by God. But we know that wasn’t the case; he was righteous. Even the Lord himself said so.
The point I am trying to make is this:
Just as Job never knew the reason for his suffering, he never knew the reason for his prosperity either. Both things were given from God. And since they came from God – who is all knowing, wise, loving , and just – shouldn’t we regard both things as gifts?
I don’t know if Job truly understood the powerful significance of his earlier words: ”the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). At the end I am sure he did. But in any case, he was completely right: whatever the Lord is giving us, we need to received it as a gift – a blessing. Perhaps Joseph B. Wirthlin stated it best in his 2008 October General Conference address: ”Come what may, and love it!”
Lesson #4: God wants us to grow through trials
Lately I have made Job 1:21 my mantra. I love the simplicity of those words, yet the powerful impact they’ve had on my life. Whatever the Lord will give me – seemingly good or bad – I will take it. And I will ”[bless] the name of the Lord” for it.
Again, it’s all about trusting the Lord. If I trust him in good times, why can’t I trust him in bad times? ”What? shall [I] receive good at the hand of God, and shall [I] not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
Does that mean I am always joyful about my circumstances? Does that mean I always understand why things are happening to me? No. But as I stated earlier, it’s not knowing God’s reasons that will help me through difficult times, but knowing that He loves me. It’s understanding those ”tender mercies of the Lord”, if you will, that has helped me feel ”the power of [His] deliverance” many times in my life (1 Nephi 1:20).
Because honestly, what is it I really need the most to endure and thrive all the way to the end? Is it God’s theoretical justifications as to why He acts as he pleases. Or is it His love and devotion? Given the choice, I will always choose the latter. Sure, the Lord could give me both. But then, how much of my life would be a life lived in faith?
A part of the Lord’s answer to Job that’s often overlooked is found in chapters 40 and 41. They speak about two mythological creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. In the past I wondered why God would mention these to Job. After all, it seemed as if the Lord was almost bragging about the ferocious power they possessed (Job 41:8-9). And He created them!
Then it dawned on me that even though these creatures could be considered monsters, yet they are not. They are not evil. They are simply a representation of the chaos and struggle of life. But what does that mean? It means they are in a symbiotic relationships with nature. It means that in our universe, good and evil are intertwined. And we can’t change that. We shouldn’t want to change that.
The Lord wants to make that point very clear to Job: He wants the creatures there, the chaos and struggle. ”None is so fierce that dare to stir [them] up: who then is able to stand before me?” (Job 41:10). In other words, don’t interfere with the order of God! It will not serve you well.
A person who truly felt the fury of these ’creatures’ was Christopher Reeve, the now deceased but former successful actor. Most of you may be aware of his accident falling off a horse. It made him completely paralyzed. At first, experiencing this dramatic change made him wanting to commit suicide. His problem, however, was that he was physically unable to do it. He needed the help of his wife. ”I will help you”, she said, ”but first, let’s talk!”
She then proceeded to ask him some questions about his life, past and present. Among other things, she asked him what impact he thought he now had on people around him. Eventually Christopher came to realize that his life did have a meaning, that his was the calling to help others in similar situations. In his earlier life his focus was success, money, and fame. Now it was serving others and inspiring those with difficult struggles in life. He wanted to live to do that.
I never wish for anyone to experience the suffering of Job. Nor that of Christopher Reeve. But I will never forget the words the actor uttered shortly before his death: ”I like myself better now than before the accident.”
In the spirit of those words, and in connection to what has been said already, we should thoughtfully ask our ourselves:
Is it trial or success that is the blessing?
Is it disease or health that strengthens us?
Is it sorrow or joy that humbles our soul?
Is it perhaps all of it?
On a bulletin board above my desk I have nailed many family photos. Behind every photo there is a story – a story of good and bad all mixed together.
Our youngest son had just put his hockey helmet on when I snapped a photo. Judging by his excitement it looks like he died and went to heaven. He had dreamed about this moment all of his childhood, but was repeatedly disappointed by his parents who couldn’t make this a possibility for him. His sadness then made his gladness now so much greater. And it triggered him to work harder than ever to secure a permanent spot on the hockey team – which he did.
There is a beautiful family photo on a sailing boat. Everyone looks happy. I remember we really were. We had just rented this boat, but not long after the start of our maiden voyage we ran aground. Panic arose onboard, and even though I tried to calm things down, our daughter screamed: ”We’re going to die! We’re going to dieeee!!! As fate would have it, no one died that day, and we were assisted by some friendly fishermen to some nearby docks. Our smiles of relief in that photo – and gratitude of being safe – have direct correlation with the earlier chaos at sea.
Our oldest son is smiling in one of the portraits. There is a calm aura centered around his face. A year earlier has was fighting for his life at the hands of heart sergeants. When I see his image I realize that I can’t separate it from the past; because of his pain then, his joy is so much more authentic now. And I can promise you: his parents feel the same.
Failure and success, suffering and prosperity, sadness and joy – it’s all intertwined. The God of love – whom we trust, and who prevails over all – made it that way.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
In his young adult years Louis Herrey worked in the music industry, winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1984. After his service in the Utah Ogden Mission, he received a bachelor’s in teaching (Social Sciences). Brother Herrey’s first teaching assignment was at the Gothenburg International School, after which he was employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a Seminaries & Institutes Coordinator. He has held this position now for 21 years. Last year he also started teaching BYU Pathway Institute courses. Brother Herrey currently serves as a counselor in the Stockholm Sweden Mission and as a Primary teacher. He lives in Kungsbacka, Sweden. He is 54 years old and married to Angelica. Together they have 3 children.