About five years ago I was standing in line for coffee in the Vancouver airport as I waited for one of those really early flights that I avoid whenever possible. The sun still wasn’t up and I didn’t want to be. In a complete fog, I glanced around and did a mental double take. The man standing right in front of me looked like an actor from one of my old favorite TV shows—let’s call him John. (No, that’s not his real name.) As we started chatting he asked me what had brought me to Vancouver. When I told him that I was an Old Testament scholar and had been attending a seminar he just looked at me for a long moment and then said, “I’d love to talk to you about Job.” My heart broke. I don’t care who you are or what you do—anyone who wants to talk about Job with a complete stranger is probably in a really bad place.
When you think of Job what comes to mind? His story? The way he lost everything? His friends’ unhelpful words? The way everything was ultimately restored? Or maybe you don’t know much about the book, but instead think of that famous phrase “the patience of Job.” If you’ve (tried to) read Job lately, though, you would be justified in asking where that description comes from—and you wouldn’t be the first. Once you get past the opening narrative (Job 1–2) to Job’s dialogue with his friends, Job seems angry, frustrated, demanding—anything but patient—whether it was with his circumstances, with his friends, or with God. The phrase actually comes from the KJV’s rendering of James 5:11:
Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
What?!?! This translation may raise as more questions as it answers! First, who says “ye”? Second, Job doesn’t seem particularly patient when you read beyond that introduction into his conversation with his friends. Where on earth did James get that idea? Third, what is the “end of the Lord”? Finally, how is God “pitiful”? Does the translator mean the same thing we do by it? While consulting a commentary is a good idea at times like this, in this case just checking a translation that uses more contemporary English can really help:
As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (NIV)
Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (NRSV)
OK, that makes a bit more sense. There’s really quite a bit to unpack here, but for now let’s focus on Job’s endurance or perseverance. While James specifically uses Job as an example of endurance in the face of oppression by wealthy landowners, Job’s original situation was more personally focused. He lost almost everything: his possessions, his health, his entire family except for his wife and, if we’re honest, still having her may not have been all that helpful (Job 2:9). These two different contexts—communal and individual—suggest that Job’s endurance might be a model for us whether we are facing social or individual issues.
So, what is it about Job that we are to imitate? What in his endurance or perseverance could lead to James suggesting he was “blessed”? We might say that the blessing was in Job’s eventual restoration, but this conclusion wouldn’t necessarily fit with James’ other example: the prophets who spoke in God’s name (James 5:10). Some have suggested that we should imitate Job’s tenacious clinging to what he knew to be true. This may be partially right, but since Job’s understanding of the world and of God was being turned upside-down, I think there’s more to it than that. Time and time again we see Job challenging God and His justice as he talks with his friends. Job isn’t focused on clinging to his theological understanding. What Job is clinging to is his knowledge of how he has lived his life, the reality of his suffering, and his perception of God’s injustice.
While holding onto our faith and a belief that ultimately God will right every wrong may be part of James’ message, when we consider James 5:11 in the light of the book of Job I think we may see another response that we should imitate. Job persistently sought God. In spite of his grief and anger, in spite of his pain and suffering, in spite of God’s silence and perceived injustice, Job kept seeking:
I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. (Job 30:20–21)
Job craves relief; he wants understanding; he insists on justice; he demands that God explain Himself. Job crawls right up to the line of sinning in what he says (Job 2:10). But he keeps seeking God. Job’s loss has taken him to a place where his understanding of God is no longer adequate, but that doesn’t matter. He persistently seeks an audience with the only one who can resolve the dissonance. Job seeks the One that he holds accountable for his suffering (Job 16:7–14).
You may know the story: God eventually shows up. He responds to Job, but He doesn’t answer Job. Instead, God questions Job, confronting him with the reality that we all face sooner or later: God doesn’t fit into any of our neat theological boxes. God’s answer doesn’t turn the world right-side up, but Job finds comfort anyway. Maybe the blessing James mentioned is found in an encounter with God that brings a new understanding of the God that we worship.
We can tackle God’s response another day, but for now let’s focus on what happens next: God affirms Job’s speech. This is the same God whom Job has blamed and attacked, and if you’ve carefully read all that Job has had to say, you’re doing your own double take. You know the backstory (Job 1–2): God didn’t attack Job in anger (16:9); God didn’t marshal his terrors against Job (6:4). What is God affirming in Job 42:7, then?
After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Elihaz 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.” (NIV)
Here, scholars have noted that the Hebrew word that is translated “about me” (’ēlay) can actually be translated two different ways: “about me,” which you see above, or “to me.” The latter may actually fit the context of the book better: Job is the only person to engage with God. Job’s friends talk about God and His ways in abstract theological terms. Job himself talks to God from the midst of his personal experiences.
This understanding of God’s affirmation in Job 42:7 fits well with Scripture’s invitation to live lives of unceasing prayer (Acts 1:14; Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17). This invitation isn’t to continually talk to God—sometimes words fail us. Sometimes the pain and loss are too great. No, this is an invitation to a life lived in constant communion with God and, as in any relationship, it’s important to be quiet and listen too.
Talking to God is a part of a prayerful life, though, and Job models one possible portrait of what this can look like. Just like Job, we can endure and persist, seeking God no matter the darkness we or our loved ones walk in. While it has become somewhat cliché to say this, Job shows us that we can be honest with God. God can handle our reactions when the loss is too great or when everything that we thought we knew about God and the world has been turned upside-down.
When the pain is agonizing, keep seeking God’s presence. When life doesn’t make sense, keep asking. When the loss is unbearable, keep making space for God to speak into your darkness. When God seems distant, keep looking for His fingerprints and listening for His whispers. You may see His hand in a small act of kindness by a stranger or a sunset. His voice may echo in a song on the radio or the quietness of a friend who simply sits with you, saying nothing. His gift may be in a single good night’s sleep. Endure. Persist. Seek. As you are able, speak. Find the blessing of God’s presence.
Thinking back to John, we never did have that conversation about Job. After he ordered his coffee—and yes, he was that actor—we went our separate ways. I wound up spending that flight home praying for him and wondering what I might have said if I had had the chance. At times like that, though, maybe it’s more important that we listen and carry those who are hurting into the presence of God, praying for them in case words have failed and they can’t do it themselves. Pray for God’s comfort. Pray for God’s presence—because at the end of the day Job didn’t get the answers he wanted. God’s presence was what made all the difference.