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How the Book of Job Answers the Questions Raised by the Coronavirus
by Will Kynes, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies, Samford University
I was as sick as I have ever been. The sore throat made it hard to breathe. The stomach pain made it hard to eat. The combination of the two made it hard to believe. I had moved to Nairobi to serve in a Kenyan church, but I was too sick to leave the house. Languishing in illness and loneliness, I wondered, Why, God?
Feeling an affinity for its title character, I read through the book of Job and was shocked by what I encountered. It asked precisely the theological questions I was struggling with, but it didn’t answer them the way I expected. Those same unexpected answers can now provide hope to face the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Will I Be Protected from Suffering?
This virus has stripped away the false security we find in our health and finances, leaving an anxious fog in its wake. The narrative opening of Job acknowledges our basic yearning to find protection from suffering; even righteous and wealthy Job feels it. In his anxiety, he offers sacrifices every morning on behalf of his children in the off chance that any have sinned (Job 1:5), apparently thinking sufficient sacrifices will protect him and those he loves from suffering.
Satan, true to his accusing role, points out this apparent chink in Job’s armor to God. He questions whether Job’s faith will survive the suffering he has been so determined to avoid through his sacrifices and substantial livestock nest egg (Job 1:9-11). So God allows Satan to rip Job’s wealth and health from him, just as COVID-19 has done to so many, not because of his unrighteousness but because of his righteousness. The book’s answer, therefore, to the question on all of our minds right now, “Will I be protected from suffering?” is a resounding, “I wouldn’t count on it.” As Jesus declares, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, NIV).
2. How Should I Respond to God?
The book forces us, like Job, to move on from the anxiety-ridden question, “Will I be protected from suffering?” to the faith-building question, “How should I respond to God in the midst of suffering?” Once again, though, it refuses to offer the expected feel-good answer. We like the stoic martyr of faith we encounter in the first couple chapters, who declares, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). This is all we tend to hear from Job. But Job has more to say. He curses the day of his birth, lashes out at his friends, complains (as might we) about his isolation from friends and family, even appears to accuse God of injustice (e.g., Job 10:3), enmity (Job 13:24), and vicious attacks (e.g., Job 16:12-14). Something is not right in the world, he insists, and God must do something about it.
Shockingly, at the book’s end, God declares that Job, not the friends, has spoken rightly about Him (Job 42:7). God doesn’t justify this verdict, but the rest of the Old Testament does. Job joins the heroes of Israelite faith, Abraham (Genesis 18:17-33), Jacob (Genesis 32:6-12, 22-31), and Moses (Exodus 32:1-14); the psalmists who dare to cry ‘Why?’ and ‘How long?’; and prophets, such as Amos, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, in confronting God and demanding that He make things right. And God repeatedly responds favorably to their protests. Reflecting this biblical tradition, Jesus tells a parable of a widow whose persistent pleading convinces an unjust judge to intervene on her behalf, concluding, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?...However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:7-8, NIV).
Job’s initial pious submission is easy to endorse when we consider suffering from the outside. However, as more are drawn into the inferno of infection, it may forge faith and protest together into a stronger theological alloy, which cries out to God in faith to rectify injustice.
3. How Should I Respond to Others?
If we would raise theological objections against Job’s bold protests, the book’s presentation of Job’s friends should caution us. Attempting to console Job, they preach profound theological truths about God’s just punishment of the wicked and sovereign deliverance of the righteous—to a man whom God has allowed to suffer because of his righteousness. As Job doggedly declares the injustice of his situation, the friends turn on him, accusing him of great wickedness (Job 22:5). They feel they must, because if Job is genuinely righteous, their righteousness won’t save them from his fate. Their fear of suffering drives them to blame the victim in order to create a distinction between themselves and Job that can protect them from his suffering.
This same fear is behind my relief when I hear that a young, deceased victim of COVID-19 had some underlying condition that I don’t have. I want to keep their suffering at a distance by putting them in a different category than myself. The book of Job draws us into the suffering of others by destroying these imaginary walls separating us from it.
4. Is This Divine Punishment?
In times of suffering, we can feel, as Job did, that God has turned against us and become our enemy. Some have even attributed this pandemic to divine punishment. But righteous Job’s affliction should make us wary of such conclusions. Thus, when Jesus’ disciples ask if a man’s blindness was caused by his or his parents’ sin, he responds, “Neither...but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3, NIV). Job’s story encourages us to ask, not what sin this pandemic is punishing, but how we might display God’s glory through our response to it.
5. What Does Suffering Tell Us about God?
God’s long-awaited answer to Job also violates our expectations. God doesn’t directly address Job’s suffering at all. Instead, after establishing Himself as the creator of the cosmos (Job 38:4-38), God describes His meticulous care for His creatures: dangerous, unclean, and uncontrollable animals below and beyond Job’s concern (Job 38:39-39:30). If God is good enough to hunt prey for lionesses, feed young ravens, and midwife mountain goats, surely He cares for Job. Jesus similarly claims God’s care for sparrows should dispel fear, since “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31, NIV). Then God turns this argument around. If God is powerful enough to control Behemoth and Leviathan, embodiments of human fear, then surely Job’s situation is not beyond divine sovereignty (Job 40:1-41:34; cf. Romans 8:31-39). God guides Job’s gaze from his particular suffering to the breadth of creation in order to address his suffering, to provide him with hope that also applies to anyone and any affliction.
No one who suffers from COVID-19 is too insignificant for God’s care; none of the suffering we face is too powerful for His control. And yet, people are suffering. Job suffers. Some baby ravens starve. The divine speeches don’t attempt to explain why a good and powerful God allows evil to exist, why God created Behemoth and Leviathan (or COVID-19) in the first place. They redirect our question from why God allows suffering to persist, the answer to which is different in each situation and beyond our comprehension in most, to whom we must trust in every situation, and why this God is worth trusting. Job understands this. He is consoled while still on the ash heap (Job 42:2-6).
6. Will Things Ever Get Back to Normal?
But God does not leave Job on his ash heap. Some find the book’s happy ending disappointingly trite, but it is perfectly appropriate for the good and sovereign God to make everything right in the end. We don’t know when that end will come in the current crisis. But the hope of the book of Job, as of the Christian faith, is that the God who allows our suffering will also eventually end it, that if we emulate “the endurance of Job,” we will see “how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). Job teaches us that persevering through suffering can create a new and better normal, one in which we see the God we had only heard of (Job 42:5) and anxious sacrifices are replaced with deeper trust.
Will Kynes, is the Associate Professor at Howard College of Arts and Sciences’ Biblical and Religious Studies program, Samford University. He received his Masters in literature at the University of St. Andrews, his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, and taught at the University of Oxford. He has an M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored books including My Psalm Has Turned into Weeping: Job’s Dialogue with the Psalms and An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus. He has also edited several collections of essays, including The Oxford Handbook of Wisdom and Wisdom Literature, and published a number of scholarly articles and essays.