The “patience” of Job?

The story of Job is one of the most fascinating in all of Scripture. He is the poster child for undeserved suffering. Whereas the laments of the psalmists often leave it unclear whether their troubles are, at least in part, due to God’s anger at sin, there is no such ambiguity with Job: God declares him to be “blameless and upright” (Job 1:8, NRSVUE).

So Satan, always the one to cast doubt on the truth, makes a bet with God: He’s only faithful because you’re so nice to him. Let him suffer instead, and he’ll curse you to your face (1:11). God takes the bet, and allows Satan to afflict Job. Through it all — the loss of his children, his possessions, and finally his physical health — he maintains his integrity, refusing to curse God for his misfortune even when he is covered from head to toe with oozing sores, even when his wife tempts him to “Curse God and die!” (2:9).

Some of his friends come to sit with him in his suffering. For an entire week, they all sit in silence. But then the lament begins. Job still doesn’t curse God, but instead curses the day he was born (Job 3). This is too much for his friends, who look to him as an example to others of stoic faithfulness. They take his complaint as sinful and hypocritical:

Your words have supported those who were stumbling,
    and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
    it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence
    and the integrity of your ways your hope?
(4:4-6)

Job knows he’s done nothing deserving of such punishment, and wants his day in court. But his friends, unable to imagine that suffering on such a scale could be undeserved, assume that he is guilty of some terrible unconfessed sin. The debate goes on and on, with God joining in. God never quite answers the question of why Job was allowed to suffer so (Well, you see, Satan and I had this bet…). Instead, he overwhelms Job with the evidence of his sovereign majesty.

And that, it seems, is enough; it is a testament to Job’s faithfulness that he accepts that only God is God, and he is not. He therefore repents of his impertinence:

I know that you can do all things
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. …
I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me that I did not know.
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself
    and repent in dust and ashes
. (Job 42:2-3,5-6)

God reprimands Job’s friends and restores Job’s fortunes, blessing him far beyond what he had before. And in the end, Job dies happy and fulfilled, “old and full of days” (42:17).

. . .

This ancient story would have been well-known among those to whom the apostle James wrote his letter. As we’ve seen in recent posts, he scolded believers from both the merchant class and the upper crust for their behavior. In particular, he excoriated the rich for the unethical and abusive way they were treating the poor who worked for them.

His words to the poor, naturally, were more encouraging. He told them to be patient, to endure in the face of their unjust suffering. And in case they needed an example to follow, he held up both Job and the prophets:

As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed, we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the outcome that the Lord brought about, for the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:10-11)

It’s from the King James Version of verse 11 that we get the phrase, “the patience of Job.” To a modern reader familiar with the story, that might sound like a bit of an oxymoron: Job doesn’t really seem “patient” in the way we typically understand the word. That’s why contemporary translations opt instead for “endurance” or “perseverance”: the underlying Greek word conveys the sense of bearing up under a heavy load.

Faithful endurance, in other words, doesn’t have to mean uncomplaining stoicism. Nor should we be too quick to judge the faithfulness of others who complain about their suffering. Remembering the story of Job means holding fast to the sovereignty of a God who can be trusted to be compassionate and merciful. We may hope for the outcome that Job eventually enjoyed, but may have to struggle and complain our way through a season of immense suffering.

What matters throughout is that we continue to do the right thing for the right reasons. As James suggests, we can learn a similar lesson from the stories of the prophets. And in the next post, we’ll explore one such episode in the life of the most revered prophet of all: Elijah.

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