By Cade Campbell
I love the Old Testament book of Job. It has a lot to say about a believer’s perseverance and about God’s wise and sovereign rule over all things. And of course it says a good bit about suffering. It also says a lot about not being an insufferable know-it-all masquerading as a theology nerd – or a disembodied (i.e. apart from life in the local church) discernment blogger. In other words, it’s a book of wisdom that seems tailor suited for seminary students. And, if we’re honest, it may be tailor made for students like myself who identify as Calvinists. We don’t, unfortunately, have the best reputation for humility with those we disagree with.
I’m saying all this in love. I’ve sometimes gotten all A’s in being a little brat; ask my wife. I know that all too well. The problem is I oftentimes want to think I know all, all too well, and I’ve found that Job is a book that’s really good at knocking the know-it-all out of me. That’s because Job had the know-it-all knocked out of him, or whirlwinded out of him; God did show up in a tornado after all. God’s work in Job’s life was an act of merciful humbling. Job had (or at least thought he had) all of life (especially his life), including the hidden decrees, ways, and works of God all figured out.
But Job was wrong, he just wasn’t wrong in the way we might expect. He wasn’t wrong like his three moronic friends who had been listening to too many prosperity preachers’ podcasts. He wasn’t wrong in the details of his diatribe. Technically he really was right: He hadn’t sinned. He wasn’t being punished. God was the one behind and overseeing his suffering. All of that was right on the mark. Job just made the mistake of using his theological precision as a pretext for calling him to the carpet, demanding God give an account of himself, to defend himself, to report in for a Job-evaluation (pun intended). In other words, Job’s problem wasn’t theological error; it was orthodox idiocy. He didn’t have a problem with heresy; he had a problem with humility. He was right. He was just right in the worst sense of the word.
You remember the story. Job had everything: He was rich. He was powerful. He had a picture-perfect family. He was a gazillionaire. And he was righteous, really righteous. He was the most pious man on earth. He loved God. He obeyed God. There was literally no one else like him in all the world.
Then he lost everything. All his property: Gone. All his money: Gone. All his kids: Gone. All his health: Gone. In a moment he went from being a godly billionaire of impeccable integrity with a picture perfect family and no worries to being diagnosed with terminal cancer at his kids’ funeral while reading an eviction notice from the bank informing him of his bankruptcy, his complete financial liquidation, and the imminent foreclosure and seizure of his home and properties. Then just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, his wife walked in the room and told him to go kill himself. She was a nasty little nihilist. Seriously, she made Jack Kevorkian look like a candy striper.
Job was having a bit of a bad day.
And then, just when you really thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, he heard a knock at the door and opened it to find his three golf buddies feigning pity while holding lukewarm casseroles their wives had defrosted and sent over with a sympathy card. Job let them in and they wouldn’t leave. They camped out on his couch for a week, only to then decide that it was time for an intervention. They had been reading up on the latest theories on the intersection of disease, disaster, and doctrine, and they were pretty sure their divinity degrees qualified them to diagnose what was wrong with Job’s life. He needed to have a Bible study, and so for over thirty chapters these three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) unloaded theology lectures on their “friend.”
This was their take: God blesses good people (outwardly and always). God punishes bad people (outwardly and always). Job used to be blessed, therefore Job used to be good (with the emphasis on “used to be”). Job was now being punished, and so therefore according to all the rules of the universe Job must be a rotten, filthy pervert who secretly indulged in sin leaving him open to God’s retributive justice. These cheery grief counselors unpacked a theology of karma with a sadistic saintly-smile.
But Job would have nothing of it. He insisted they were wrong. He insisted they didn’t know what they were talking about. He insisted that he was innocent – wrongly accused. He wouldn’t give an inch. He wouldn’t confess to a transgression. He pleaded not guilty. His conscience was clear.
And he was right. But that’s where he took a wrong turn. The whole experience started to get to him. He came dangerously close to saying God made a horrible mistake. He didn’t know what was going on, but he believed that God was punishing him and he insisted that he was being punished unfairly.
Up until then he had maintained both his innocence as well as his total trust in God. Yet in the fury of the theological debate with his friends, Job overplayed his hand. He made a jump from insisting on his innocence to implying God’s guilt. So he demanded God give him an audience. He crossed his arms and dared God to have the almighty gumption to come and face him like a man. He essentially screamed to the heavens with a raised fist and said, “You get down here! You’ve got some explaining to do!” He aimed to put God on trial, and he intended to be the judge. He wanted to take the ruler of the woods to the woodshed. He thought the Almighty needed an attitude adjustment. If God was going to run the world, then he better check in with Job over at the HR Department to make sure he was doing it right. Job is the ultimately frustrated theology student. He thought of himself as an expert on God, but God wasn’t playing by his rules.
Then Job gets what he’s been asking for.
But instead of getting what he deserved, he got grace.
God showed up in the form of an EF-5 tornado and gave Job an education he never forgot (Job 38-42). Instead of God in the dock, Job finds himself pummeled under a blistering cross-examination. Job is forced to endure an oral examination that puts every doctoral program in the world to shame, and in that exam Job’s life was transformed, not by being able to explain God but by being given the mercy of encountering God. Instead of giving Job an answer to his questions, God graciously gives Job a revelation of his majesty. Instead of answering for himself, God condescended to display his glory, sovereignty, strength, love, and wisdom.
So Job repents. Job replies to God, “I have spoken once…but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:5). Job basically says, “I made the big mistake of opening my big mouth and talking about things I have no business lecturing on. I’m an idiot. I won’t do it again.” Job learns the lesson that Orual learned at the end of C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, where she whispers, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” God utters no answers to Job. God just shows him that he is the answer, and in seeing God Job is miraculously and radically redeemed as he moves from a life of theological theorizing to deeply theological worship. In the process he teaches us how to avoid his errors through living in the light of theological humility.
Humility is something we all desperately need. Don’t misunderstand me. Theological humility is not doctrinal cowardice. It is not the antithesis of conviction or confidence. It is not sniveling or shallow. It is not tepid or trembling. It is not acceptance of false-teaching. It is not politically correct ecumenism. Theology must be robust. Doctrine must be biblical. And yet as a new semester begins, and as college and seminary students step back into the classroom, we all need the reminder from Job’s tragedy that true knowledge of God is not necessarily affectionate adoration of God. We need to be reminded that knowing God is not synonymous with knowing about God. Instead of merely having the right answers and reading the right books, theological study and theological precision should always lead us to be wholly/holy captivated by a grand vision of God’s glory.
That’s why Job’s story is so valuable. It teaches us that theological orthodoxy is never an excuse for theological snobbery.
Job confronts theological snobbery by teaching us to resist the temptation to relish in someone else being called to the blackboard, especially if that someone else happens to be God.
Job confronts theological snobbery by grounding our daily lives not just in theological debate but in theological doxology – even when theological disagreement and debate are absolutely necessary.
Job confronts theological snobbery by warning us against using our Bibles as a pretense for self-justification, of arguing ourselves out of an argument.
Job confronts theological snobbery by displaying to us the grandeur and power of the God we know through his self-revelation.
Job confronts theological snobbery by insisting that a calling to proclaim God’s truth is never a calling to coordinate God’s plan.
And finally, Job confronts theological snobbery by turning both our theological astuteness and our God entranced worship away from ourselves and away from our own circumstances and to the mission of being God’s witness to a watching world.
That’s the surprising twist at the book’s end. God isn’t satisfied with just showing up and showing off, and he doesn’t just leave Job in the dust of humility. He pulls him into the ministry of theological education for the purpose of missiological passion. He turns Job’s eyes back to the theological thorns in his flesh…his friends.
And God doesn’t tell Job to pummel them. He doesn’t tell him to gloat over the glorious vision he’s been given. He isn’t to puff out his chest and pridefully proclaim, “I told you so.” He’s called to the ministry of reconciliation, to serve God in seeking and praying for their salvation. God confronts the theological sins of his friends but uses Job as an instrument of their redemption. Job is called to pray for them and God’s mercy is granted in response to Job’s request (Job 42:7-9).
Let’s be like Job. This school year may we all be known not merely for a commitment to theological truth, but may we also be known for our God-entranced lives. And may we also be known as men and women who respond to theological error not just with Facebook comments, blog posts, and deriding comedy. May we, like Job, respond to theological error (whether it be in the form of outright heresy or unintentional or immature ignorance) with passionate pleadings to God to powerfully save those who are his. That is, after all, part of what it means to speak the truth in love.
Cade Campbell (M.Div, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and his wife Amy are natives of Mississippi. He serves as the Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.