Saturday, May 14, 2011

What We Don't Know

Even the secular world praises the Old Testament Book of Job as an inspired work of literature. The Liberty Bible Commentary claims, “Scholars agree that it is much easier to praise the work than to understand it.” For Bible commentators who pride themselves in making clear the interpretation of Scripture, this claim has implications. The Book of Job deals with natural tragedies--what they mean, why they occur, and perhaps broader questions of why discomfort, grief, tragedy, and sin could even exist at all. There are numerous scientific descriptions and insights. Job confessed he did not understand many of the wonders described and could not answer the questions posed.

In Chapters 38-39, God speaks to Job out of a violent storm. Earlier Job had lamented his bodily condition and his personal fall from favor. The Lord reviews creation events during the early formation of Planet Earth, asking if he understood those events or even the wonders of animal behavior. Essentially, Job was unable to give a coherent response. Perhaps this exercise was God’s way of showing Job that many of His works and ways will never be fully understood.

The violent storm of Chapter 38 (“whirlwind” in KJV) from which God spoke must have reminded Job of the meteorological disasters which had destroyed his flocks and children. Later, even his body was reduced to a pathetic, pitiful shell of its former self by Satan with God’s permission. Job was a righteous, upstanding man whose deeds did not merit retribution. In modern parlance, it was an example of bad things happening to good people. Many would be quick to proclaim that only an unfair God would allow such injustice. Much modern thinking insists that events should occur only according to our own personal concepts of right and wrong. In our day we seldom hear any of our leaders pleading for wisdom from the mind of God.

Job’s family and fortune fell victim to a probable tornado, a firestorm of some sort, attacks from Sabeans and Chaldeans, and finally, personal bodily disease inflicted by Satan (Job 1-2). These events were permitted by the Lord. If God, the Creator, is in sovereign control of our universe, we must acknowledge that any event is under his purview. Human free will is also permitted by God, operating in every human continually. If asked, every person would choose to retain free will. The same people would likely want God’s system of justice to conform to their own. This is evident in commonly heard statements that a “just” God should do this, or wouldn’t do that.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and floods have occurred in 2011 in our Second Law of Thermodynamics world, along with the far more common tranquil events. The latter outnumber the violent, tragic events by orders of magnitude. The tragic episodes have understandably received overwhelming publicity, riveting our attention for extended periods on those relatively infrequent, isolated events. Human nature craves information about bizarre and fatal incidents. Media reports of the more normal, ubiquitous life-sustaining conditions would be received with a broad, collective, public yawn.

After his possessions and family members were wiped out, Job stated “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” Even after his later loss of health, “Job did not sin in what he said.” After many chapters in which he debated with his friends and with God and finally yielded to God’s sovereignty, his wealth and family were replaced. His initial statement about the Lord giving and taking away could now be reversed. The events of Job 1-2 could now be said to have led to fulfilling God’s higher purpose. We may speculate on what that higher purpose was, but we may never understand it from a human standpoint. Job was not vindicated by his righteousness, but by his recognition of God’s sovereignty. God triumphs over Satan. God triumphs over evil. At the end of time, the triumph is not only in the hearts of believers, but also in an ultimate sense as outlined in the Book of Revelation 21-22.

Within God’s plan there is a purpose for natural disasters, sometimes called “natural evil.” We rightly mourn over their effects. In our wisdom, we would forbid such events. Unwelcome personal difficulties, even tragedies, provide a tempering and refining opportunity unknown to us, but known to God (Romans ). We will never fully understand tragedies such as Haiti, Japan, or Alabama, not to mention lesser tragedies. We could, however, identify with this statement of Job, uttered even before God replaced his family and possessions:

I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:1-6 NIV)