Could it be that first Biblical story is not the story of creation, nor of the fall, but that of Job?
If the book of Job predates all other books in the Bible, as some contend*, it would mean that the great Judeo-Christian tradition begins with theodicy: why do the righteous suffer? It begins not with exterior fascinations such as, “why is there something instead of nothing?” but rather with this deeply, truly human, interior cry of the heart.
The Bible describes Job as a “blameless and upright” man, rich beyond measure in family and possessions, who lost everything in a single day. Desolated and sitting on a trash heap outside the city, vexed with a terrible disease of bodily sores, Job is cursed by his wife and his friends. They accuse him of harboring secret sin (for why else would God allow him to suffer so violently, so humiliatingly?) and write him off as the accursed of God.
Those familiar with the story know that Job was the centerpiece of, let’s call it, a ‘cosmic wager’ between good and evil—between God and the Satan—over the genuineness of human faith.
Should Job fail to give God glory after losing all of his earthly blessings, Satan would win the wager. Job is God’s showpiece, the finest example of piety and faith, making his life the perfect arena for this battle to take place. We learn that Job’s suffering is not proof of his guilt, as his friends claim, but the very opposite: it is proof of his close proximity with God. He is in fact an archetype of the Son of God who would suffer for all mankind on the cross—the very Christ who left the glories of heaven to suffer on the “ash heap” of the world.
Most are familiar with the story, but many are not content with the answer it seems to give. Surely, many have reasoned, Job is the story of how God once worked with mankind but not anymore. The situation has changed. Right? Because Christ suffered for us we no longer need to suffer, or so it goes with some pop-theology today.
Nevermind that Christ promised those who live godly would suffer (2Tim 3.12), somehow, if we are more faithful, more pious, maybe if we… tithe more?… we can escape suffering in this world and leave the story of Job behind us.
Trying to rework the plain understanding of Job not only results in additional suffering—psychic suffering after expectations have been dashed by unexpected tragedy—but it results in additional verses of the Bible suddenly becoming cryptic.
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,” Says Christ to Peter and the other apostles, “but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22.31).
Gosh, what could this verse possibly mean?
It means that Job was not a one-time, cosmic battle scene. The testing of faith applies to all the apostles, and especially to Peter who had the strongest faith, thus Christ prayed for him in particular.
Just as the Satan went after Job because of his great faith and piety, he demands to test the apostles (to sift them as wheat). Between the story of Job and the apostles is seems that this phenomenon is not an Old Testament truth but a Biblical truth that applies to believers in all ages.
At least that is what the Apostle Peter took from it.
St. Peter’s own letter to the Church (the book of First Peter) is from start to finish a description of the sufferings that result from genuine faith, as well as an encouragement to endure them with rejoicing: “In this you greatly rejoice… you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1.7).
Believers in Peter’s time were every bit as mystified by the suffering of the righteous as we are today. “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you” (1Peter 4.12). There is nothing strange about it in terms of a consistent message from the tradition.
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1Peter 5.8). Just as the Satan was found in the book of Job walking up and down the earth, taking note of God’s servants (Job 1.7), here, after all these ages, he is found still chained to the same assignment.
Christ did not stop the Satan when he asked to sift the apostles. Instead, Christ prays that their “faith would not fail” (Luke 22.31). In like manner, either does Peter pray that the devil would be dismissed from his ancient post, but rather encouraged the Church: “May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1Peter 5.10).
What is it about us that requires suffering to “perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle” us? This is the true mystery, and the answer is intricately woven into the nature of our fall. God’s Bride was not made for suffering; She was made for paradise. Death and suffering are our enemies, but God in his ineffable wisdom has turned our enemies, bent on our destruction, into a means of our perfection.
Suffering need not chase us away from God, need not tempt us to curse God, but should rather tempt us to run all the harder to God, knowing that suffering works the perfecting of our faith.
(*There is currently no consensus on the date of authorship of Job. It is generally considered to have been written around the exile or post-exile period.)