Godtalk: Why bad things can happen to good people
One of the most consoling texts of the Hebrew scriptures is the Book of Job, which concerns itself with the theme of why bad things happen to good people - a question to which, intriguingly, it refuses to offer up simple, faith-based answers. The point of the Book of Job is his ultimate recognition of the inscrutable mystery of God's ways and in his penitent recognition of God's sovereignty.
While he cavils at God's providential ordering of men's affairs and beats his fists in vain against the gates of heaven he finds no peace of mind or respite for his tortured soul. But when he humbly acknowledges that the right relationship of man to God is one of unquestioning obedience and acceptance of the world as it is, his troubled spirit is at rest and adversity or success has now no power to smite him down or raise him up.
He has learned that it is not through material things that man fulfils his being but in dependence and trust in God. The book is teaching us that suffering tests the quality of our faith. The epilogue, Job's final restoration to prosperity, gives the conclusion that he had emerged triumphantly from his testing time and receives his reward.
Certainly the book offers no satisfactory solution to the problem of pain or of the moral order of the universe. It would, however, undoubtedly warn us against the danger of equating the religious orthodoxy of our time or any time with the mind and purpose of God.
Job's well-meaning friends are so concerned to defend what they believe to be revealed truth that they bludgeon him into refuting a God whom his conscience rejects as a caricature of the God whom the prophets had proclaimed.
The author would also teach us to see in Job the eternal rebel that is in us all, bewildered by the apparent injustice of things as they are and tempted to claim that we could have ordered them better. Job's real sin is man's perennial sin of self-sufficiency, his partial and myopic view of life which sees no farther than his own concerns and questions the whole structure of God's government of the universe on the basis of his own limited experience.
In the end Job wins through from his despair to a true knowledge of God, when he recognises that the God he has been arraigning is a God of his own making. He finds peace of mind and spirit in a humble acceptance of his proper place in the scheme of things as a creature living by faith under a sovereign Creator whose ways are beyond man's understanding.
The paradoxes of the ways of God are part of the mystery of our being, and though we may see kinship between Job, Jeremiah and the Suffering Servant in Second Isaiah, it is only in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ that the afflictions of Job reach their proper evaluation. We have reached the heart of the message of Job when we can simply echo St Paul's words: ‘… I am convinced that neither death, nor life …nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Rom. 8: 35-39.
Peter Knott SJ