In recent weeks I’ve had several opportunities to teach the Book of Job in churches holding a winter Bible study. Most of these have come during the season of Lent, when Job seems particularly appropriate.
Lent is a time when Christians are called to meditate upon Christ’s suffering, and many observe it by giving up something cherished as a way of indicating commitment and sharing, in a small way, the sufferings of Christ.
Job’s suffering was of a different nature, as he lost everything — from his livestock to his children to his health — through no decision of his own. According to the story, Job is a man of absolute integrity and blameless living, but he falls victim to a divine gambit between God and a member of the heavenly court called “the accuser.” While God took great pride in Job’s righteous living, the accuser charged that Job’s worship was not really pure, but that he served God only for what he got out of the relationship. God allowed the accuser to strip Job of both health and wealth to see if his devotion would hold true.
As Job struggles to make sense of his staggering losses, three friends come by to commiserate with him. As time goes by, however, their compassion gives way to accusation. Locked within their allegiance to strict retribution theology, they try to convince Job that his misfortunes must be God’s punishment for unconfessed sin. Chapter after chapter, they insist that Job’s fortunes can be restored and he can be blessed more than ever if only he will repent of his presumed wrongdoing.
Pondering this ongoing interchange leads a thoughtful reader to note that if Job had surrendered to his friends’ advice and sought forgiveness of unknown error as a means of being healed and having his fortunes restored, he would have been guilty of precisely what the accuser charged him with — serving God only for what he could get out of it.
Job refused, preserving his integrity. He clearly was distraught with God, but he refused to jump through a faulty theological hoop in hopes of getting a blessing from God. Job refused to worship God under false pretenses.
Job’s response challenges contemporary readers to ask whether we also serve God with unselfish devotion because we believe God is worthy of worship and that we share in God’s work — or whether our worship grows from more selfish motives.
Do we serve God mainly for what we get – or hope to get – out of the relationship? Do we profess faith and seek baptism primarily because we want to avoid hell and gain heaven? Do we worship and tithe and serve in hope of gaining God’s favor and being rewarded with prosperity? When we pray, is it primarily for protection and blessing?
Ultimately, if we had no promise of eternal life and no assurance of a connection between spiritual devotion and physical prosperity, would we still serve God?
It’s a troubling question, but one that thoughtful worshipers must ask. The season of Lent is a most appropriate time to do so.