Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 18

Job’s Response

Struggling with Pain and Theodicy

Jerry A. Gladson

01.  Introduction

On the darkening, rainy night of April 29, 2011, as people huddled in basements and closets, a powerful, churning EF-4 tornado, with 175-mile-per-hour winds bore down on the small northwestern Georgia town of Ringgold. At about 8:30 p.m., it angrily smashed the McDonald’s and BP Service Center, flattened a three-story Super 8 Motel, and turned a Ruby Tuesday restaurant into kindling. It engulfed Christopher Black’s home, instantly killing him and his wife, Pamela, and their two children, Kelsea and Cody. The tornado, one of thirteen to strike Georgia that April night, left eight dead in Ringgold and scores of others missing.

Tornadoes—terribly destructive forces—belong to what philosophers call natural evil. Natural evil includes floods, hurricanes, storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, bacterial and viral dis-eases, and other deadly natural forces outside human control. In natural evil, the problem of theodicy—the conflict between God’s goodness, power, and justice—is an integral part of the structures of creation. “God, why did you make things so?” we scream. “Why did you create natural forces so destructive?”

Long before Gottfried Leibnitz (1646–1716), coined the word theodicy, people struggled valiantly to understand why they suffered. Theodicy comes from two Greek terms, Theos, “God,” and dikē, “justice.” It refers to the contradiction between the reality of evil and suffering, on one hand, and belief in God’s goodness and power, on the other. If God is good and loving, it seems, God would want to remove or at least, limit the suffering. If God is all-powerful, God must have the power to do this. Yet evil—horrible evil and suffering—continues unchecked. Tornadoes slam into unsuspecting, idyllic towns and villages. The one who stilled the windstorm on Gennesaret—“Peace! Be still!”—now seems to stand apathetically aside and allow nature erratically to destroy.Mark 4:35–41.

This problem of theodicy consists not only in natural evil, but also in moral evil, the evil we do to ourselves and others, and in metaphysical evil, evil that seems built right into the tooth and claw of a flawed world.

Christians naturally look to the Bible for help in this difficult problem. And the Bible’s classic treatment of the problem of theodicy is the book of Job.

Job clarifies and illuminates, yet it also mystifies and obscures. Scholars have long debated what Job is about. Is it the “first mature theodicy” in the world, as Elton Trueblood claims?Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1973), 234. Or is it perhaps not a “reasoned” theodicy at all, but rather the story of a man whose loss propels him on a desperate search for God?Francis I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), 64. To try to justify God—what a theodicy normally tries to do—would be an “act of arrogance” for the Joban poet, claims Samuel Terrien. Job doesn’t propose such a vindication of God.Samuel Terrien, Job: Poet of Existence (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1957), 21.“Job offers no justification for suffering from man’s point of view,” agrees Robert Gordis.Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 156.

Rather than settle on a single issue, Carol Newsom mentions the different voices within the book that offer their own perspectives on Job’s situation. Each contains valid insights, a “grain of truth,” we might say. Not all the voices command equal validity. Although the Divine Speeches in Job 38–41 assume a place of honor, she claims, the truth “is not to be found either in the triumph of one voice over the others or in an emerging consensus. It is to be found in the intersection of the various voices in their mutual interrogation.” The book, to her, leaves matters open-ended.Newsom. “The Book of Job,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Leander Keck, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 4:337–38. (Quotation on 338.)

Fortunately for our purposes, we don’t have to decide whether Job has single or multiple emphases. The problem of theodicy runs all through it. In the opening narrative in Job 1–2, Job is an innocent sufferer who has done nothing to warrant his sufferings. He is the victim of unjust forces beyond his control. Throughout the book the question of injustice hovers near the center of attention. While the book takes up a number of themes, at one level—perhaps a primary level—it concerns the problem of unjust human suffering. The problem of theodicy is a major concern.

02.  Job’s Setting

Job belongs to Biblical wisdom literature. It stands with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and a few psalms as a distinctive approach to life alongside the prophetic, priestly, legal, and narrative traditions in the Old Testament. Concerned chiefly with how a person successfully negotiates everyday life, wisdom literature unsurprisingly turns to large, pivotal issues such as theodicy and the meaning of life.

Job protests against a rigid notion of retribution. Wealth, honor, and long life come naturally to those who live faithfully, many believe, while poverty, shame, and death fall upon the unfaithful. We even think this way today: Why am I suffering? Why is this happening to me? Some in Job’s world had unfortunately turned retribution into an inflexible axiom.

The book seems to have originated between the seventh and fifth centuries BCE. These were years marked in Judah by difficult, agonizing questions about God’s justice and innocent suffering in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. While Job contains no historical reference to this dark, tragic period, the book may well have been written as a response. It stands as a vivid example of innocent suffering and may have been a model for the suffering Judah had to undergo. Its actual author(s) or editor(s) are unknown.

03.  Four Approaches to Theodicy in Job

Job becomes the subject of a wager between Yahweh and the SatanThe Satan is a literal translation of the Hebrew (Job 1:7, etc.). This expression is not yet the proper name later given to the devil, or Satan, in Christian parlance. The Satan appears here as an accuser who is responsible for bringing inequities to God’s attention. He is something like a DEA agent. as to whether Job disinterestedly serves God: “Does Job serve God for nothing?” (Job 1:9, NRSVUEAll Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Abruptly, the Satan is allowed to destroy Job’s family, property, wealth, and finally, his health, in order to break his fidelity. Job doesn’t budge.

The prologue in Job 1–2, however, raises hard questions about God’s character. What is the relationship between God and human beings? Does God test people’s faith through cosmic experiments? Why does God allow evil forces to wreak havoc? This story so carefully crafts theodicy that it places in jeopardy the benevolence and sovereignty of God. Does this opening narrative indicate how God treats human beings? If so, how dare we presume God is loving and compassionate?

Curiously, while the prologue offers some support for an account of evil involving the demonic, its explanation of Job’s plight is never again appealed to in the book. Job never learns he is the object of demonic abuse, occasioned by a wager between God and the Satan.
This prose prologue is matched by a closing epilogue in Job 42:7–17, which in turn sandwiches a long, bitter debate between Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and later, Elihu, and the Divine Speeches (Job 3:1–42:6). The theology of the epilogue resembles that of the prologue: God materially, socially, psychologically, and spiritually blesses those who remain faithful. Such retributive theology—and the theodicy behind it—this poetical section questions, particularly in Job’s complaints.

The dialogue between Job and his friends unfolds in three formal cycles. Typically each cycle, except the third (Job 22–27), contains a speech from Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, whereupon Job answers each in turn.

Tragic Theodicy: Job’s morose complaint opens the first cycle (Job 3). Here occurs the insistent “why”: Why was I born? Why did I have a mother? Why have I life in my misery (Job 3:12, 16, 20, 23)? All questions that are at the heart of theodicy. Job eerily voices a tragic view of theodicy in this speech.See also Job 4:17–21; 5:6–7; 6:1–13; 7:11–21; 9–10; 12–13; 14:1–6 for other statements of the tragic view both from Job and his friends. The tragic view isn’t really an answer to the problem of theodicy. It is a cynical response that life is ultimately deficient. There is nothing to be done but to accept it: “Life sucks and then you die.” This and other slogans summarizing each of the approaches to theodicy in this article are from a presentation in the 2011 Richmont Graduate University class, Theodicy & Trauma, by Andrea Farnham, Ann Keller, Ben Merrill, and Heather Willard, and used by permission. Some forms of process thought embrace elements of a tragic view in that they see the universe, along with God, evolving from chaos to order in an ongoing process possibly never to be finished.

Free Will Theodicy: Quick to respond, Eliphaz insists human suffering results from moral failure. He says, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). Here is a response repeatedly offered to the problem of theodicy: human suffering is directly attributable to human behavior. This is the notion of retribution.In this cycle, see Job 4:7–11; 5:1–5; 8:4–7, 11–22; 11:13–20. Transgression leads to calamity; piety to peace and prosperity. Since retribution implies human freedom to choose good or evil, retributive thinking suggests a free will explanation for the problem of theodicy: “Suffering is the result of people making bad choices.” By making choices, people set in motion consequences that lead to bane or blessing. “When souls become wicked,” C. S. Lewis writes, “they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men.”C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Macmillan, 1940), 89.

Divine Mystery Theodicy: The first cycle leads Eliphaz and Zophar to advance another approach to theodicy, which plays a huge role in the book of Job: an appeal to the mystery of the Creator.See Job 5:8–16; 9:1–10; 11:7–12.

Can you find out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? (Job 11:7)

Divine mystery embraces retribution, Zophar claims. Job’s sin must lie in the depths of his being, or God would never have exposed it.

Educative Theodicy: Eliphaz, who sets the friends’ main tone, advances still another approach to theodicy: Life’s wounds are divine discipline. “Do not despise the discipline of the Almighty,” he admonishes (Job 5:17). In human suffering God is using musar (discipline), which is a chastening, corrective restraint, Eliphaz argues, intended to lead Job to repentance and relief. This is a rudimentary form of what we now call an educative, pedagogical, or soul-making theodicy, encapsulated in our slogan, “no pain, no gain!” James, the New Testament’s only wisdom book, invokes this theodicy: “Whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). The only difficulty is that, while an educative theodicy contains an element of truth, it doesn’t explain Job’s sufferings.

In this first cycle, then, at least four approaches emerge to the problem of theodicy. A theory of retribution, with its assumption of human freedom as the source of suffering, the tragic view, the view of suffering as a form of divine discipline, and the mystery of God, are all given as explanations for Job’s plight.See for retribution (Job 15:17–35; 18:5–21; 20; 21; 22:1–11; 24; 27:7–23; 29–31); discipline (Job 22:21–30; 23:10–17); tragic view (Job 15:14–16; 16:6–17:16; 19:1–22; 25); divine mystery (Job 22:12–14; 23:1–17; 26; 28. These rudimentary notions translate in later history into the free will, tragic, educative, and the divine mystery approaches to theodicy. Despite lack of a formal theodicy, the book of Job virtually touches on “every argument that has been adduced in connection with the problem.”Marvin Pope, Job, Anchor Bible, Vol. 15. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), lxxiii.

Following Job’s tragic plea for a divine verdict of innocence (Job 29–31), Elihu, unmentioned before, falls back on the same explanations for Job’s sufferings (Job 32–37). Elihu is furious at Job because “he justified himself rather than God” (Job 32:2). He condemns Job because Job sets forth an anthropodicy (justification of humanity) rather than a theodicy ( justification of God). Similarly, he blames the friends because they “had found no answer [to Job], though they declared God to be in the wrong” (Job 32:3, emphasis addedJob 32:3 should read “they had declared God [not Job] to be in the wrong.”). The friends, he thinks, end up blaming God for Job’s problems rather than Job. These lines are very close to an explicit reference to theodicy long before this term was coined.

Among the four speeches credited to Elihu, the third (Job 34) reads like an impassioned theodicy. Elihu asserts God’s righteousness and justice. God impartially governs the world, judging wrong and exalting the right. “His eyes are upon the ways of mortals, and he sees all their steps” (Job 34:21). Elihu defends God: “God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice” (Job 34:12).See Elihu’s use of divine mystery (Job 36–37); retribution (Job 35); divine discipline (33:12–33; 36:5–16, 18–23).

Job’s friends, blinded by their idea that divine retribution inexorably grinds out punishment for wickedness and the good life for piety, have mistaken Job’s troubles for an indication of undisclosed wickedness. This ironclad linkage of a person’s situation with morality has left them unable to appreciate Job’s true dilemma. In defending their dogma, like many religious extremists, they have closed their eyes to human anguish. They have failed to show compassion. By attributing Job’s plight to Providence, they have come perilously close to justifying evil. They arrogantly assume God’s ways are an open book.

That God’s ways aren’t an open book seems to be the message of the Divine Speeches. There are two speeches interspersed with two interchanges with Job (Job 38:1–42:6). The first speech (Job 38:1–39:30) bursts over Job in a storm of rhetorical questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4); “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain?” (Job 38:25); “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?” (Job 39:26). Questions range over the natural world. Yet, these questions puzzle us. They seem to spin in an entirely different direction than the previous dialogue.

04.  Job’s Response

In response, Job relents: “I am of small account; what shall I answer you?” (Job 40:4). Job, in view of the divine interrogation, now must admit his own ignorance of God’s ways.

The second Divine Speech singles out the mysterious Behemoth and the Leviathan (Job 40:6–41:34). The Behemoth is often identified with the hippopotamus; the Leviathan with the crocodile. They seem to represent more than these conventional creatures. They occupy a liminal place. This liminal quality of the Behemoth and Leviathan elevates them to a mysterious, even sinister role, in the creation. They belong to an element in creation beyond human comprehension. Why would God create such terrifying beings?

The Lord asks Job:

Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified? . . .

Deck yourself with majesty and dignity . . .

Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
and look on all who are proud and humble them . . .

Then I will also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can give you victory (Job 40:8, 10, 11, 14).

God satirically chides Job for questioning divine governance. If Job can bring the proud to judgment, then God will acknowledge Job’s contention. “If Job could do what he charges God has neglected to do, then he could save himself.”Pope, Job, 320. Cf. Job 9:22–23. Strong antidote for Job’s claim to understand the meaning of divine justice! Divine justice, to put it another way, lies beyond human understanding.

Locating divine justice above human understanding may be the significance of the Divine Speeches. The speeches constitute an appeal to the mystery of God, including Job’s plight. Job concedes his own ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me that I did not know” (Job 42:3). Job humbles himself before God, and is subsequently restored in the epilogue (Job 42:7–17).

05.  Counseling and Spiritual Direction

Job’s “answer” to the problem seems to be that theodicy belongs to the mystery of God. In all his pleadings, Job never doubted God’s power. He did doubt God’s love, righteousness, and fairness. He had plummeted into despair. The friends’ solutions, replayed again and again throughout history, were just excuses to Job. Job finally realizes he isn’t in a position to judge God or to hold God to account. To try is arrogant. This humble approach is enough for Job. He finds relief. He bows reverently before the mysterious God.

The ancient book of Job, noblest text in Biblical literature, offers a paradigm for approaching the problem of theodicy. The literary and theological labyrinth of Job may, in fact, mimic the complex problem of theodicy. Just as the various theodicies placed on the mouth of Job’s friends had little or no reference to Job’s real situation, so our carefully formulated theodicies may have little application to troubled persons. Although carefully crafted theodicies contain truth—some of it valuable—often the best course is that of faith in the mystery of God.

John Swinton is right: the real problem of theodicy is not lack of explanation, but an “ability to separate human beings from God.” He states that our role as counselors is “helping people respond to the experience of evil and suffering in ways that are faith-enhancing rather than faith-destroying.” Such counseling helps people live faithful lives despite the presence of evil—even deadly tornadoes.John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 76, 84–85. (Quotation on 76.)

The life of Jesus, particularly his cross, teaches us that the best response to suffering is presence. In his earthly ministry, Jesus not only became present to suffering, but he participated in it: “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death,” Paul writes, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). From within the experience of the cross—its horrendous, unendurable suffering— emerged wondrous life. The cross became the triumph over evil from within its clutches. Bearing the sin of the world unto death, Jesus broke the bonds of sin and made life available to all. Now—in Christ—suffering and death aren’t bleak dead ends, but rather portals to a brighter life. Herein lies the promise of pain. The one place in the world where we don’t have to hold back our pain is Jesus because he already has experienced it. “The most blessed hours of life are not those we spend on sunlit heights,” Helmut Thielicke reminds us, “they are the hours of pain in the depths if only these hours are spent under the eyes of Jesus.”Helmut Thielicke, The Silence of God, G. W. Bromiley, trans. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1962), 39. Through our sharing in suffering, we can, as paradoxical as it seems, find in pain the promise of pain.

In the innocent sufferer Job, we catch a glimpse of the promise of pain exposed from within pain itself. Thus, across the centuries the book of Job speaks. Theodicy is ultimately in the hands of the all-wise, loving, beneficent Creator who reveals God to the suffering through the solidarity of the cross and its suffering Redeemer.


Jerry A. Gladson, Ph.D. (Vanderbilt), is Minister Emeritus of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Marietta, Georgia. He now serves as adjunct professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, and Richmont Graduate University, Atlanta. The author of eleven books, his latest is The Strangest Books of the Bible (Xlibris, 2010). He and his wife, Laura, a licensed psychologist, live in Kennesaw, Georgia.