As a person who firmly believes that calamities, tragedy, and disease do not come from God—nor does He passively chose to allow them to just “happen”—I am often presented with this question: “What do you do with the story of Job?”
This question comes up because when one reads the Biblical story of Job the narrative speaks of a heavenly meeting between a satan (literally an advasary) and God—where God seems to hand over some type of earthly permission to this spiritual adversary. This permission then, apparently, gives the satan the ability to bring destruction and suffering upon Job’s life. By employing this stand alone literal interpretation of the text, not taking anything else from the rest of the Bible into account, it certainly appears that God holds all the authority over Job’s life and circumstances. God could have prevented Job’s destruction but we seem forced to conclude that God chose not to. Thus, given this interpretation, we must concede that God Himself, albeit indirectly through the authorization of Satan, is actually the end-responsible party for Job’s tragedies.
This line of thinking all stems from something we the in the church call the “Sovereignty of God” – an all-encompassing umbrella doctrine that confidently asserts that God maintains the right to do whatever He wants, however He wants, whenever He wants over any part of creation, without the need for any consent of creation. And because God is sovereign over EVERYTHING, then that would of course include any and all of Satan’s activities as well. We then read the book of Job with these sovereignty-of-God glasses on and, in turn, apply this concept to our own lives.
Maybe God is allowing Satan to mess with my life? He did it with Job so maybe He’s doing it again to me? Maybe God wants me to suffer for a particular reason? Maybe I did something bad and He is judging me? Or, maybe He is using this to teach me a lesson? Maybe God is purposefully allowing me to be harmed for later outcome of greater good? Maybe God is letting Satan hurt us for a mysterious reason and God just isn’t telling me exactly why?
For the purpose of this blog series we will consider the story of Job to be representing real and literal historical events and persons. In part 3 we will briefly discuss the potential for the Book of Job to be interpreted figuratively. We will also be considering the adversary mentioned in Job as being a real spiritual agent whom we usually identify traditionally as Lucifer, Satan, the Enemy, and the Devil.
THE TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATION OF THE STORY OF JOB AND THE DEVIL
The way we have traditionally interpreted Job’s story has had a profound influence on our beliefs about God’s character, how we think Satan and God interact with each other, and why we think God sometimes allows suffering to exist. Here is the traditional line school of thought:
Humans regard world disasters and personal suffering as inherently bad. That’s why we express our grief, send out thoughts and prayers, and deploy disaster relief teams all over the planet to those that are experiencing tragedy. It’s the same reason we seek out doctors and medical treatment when our bodies and minds aren’t functioning in the ways we think they should. Human beings intrinsically do not see tragic circumstances as something good. To quite the contrary, we put forth our best efforts to undo the damage caused by disaster and suffering.
If we truly believed that disasters and illnesses were something good from God, or that something good will eventually come out of them, then we would welcome suffering and disaster, and accept them as positive experiences that benefit us(of course we acknowledge that the benefit may take time to be realized). If this were our actual belief, we would not resist or be upset with disasters, we would welcome and embrace them. We might not be happy with the pain and suffering they cause, but we would have assurance knowing that good was on the horizon. But obviously we do not truly believe this. We do not hear too many people with cancer celebrating the fact that a group random overly active cells in their body are trying to end their lives. Nor do we hear people rejoicing when their loved ones are hurt, afflicted, or killed. We as humans, as if it were etched into our very human nature from the moment we were born, avoid disaster at all costs. And, when it strikes, we always intervene to work as hard as we can to eliminate and mitigate its effects.
At the same time, we firmly believe that if a God does exist, then He is inherently good. And not just sometimes good, but good all the time. In fact, we are taught to believe that God is the ultimate definition of good and the fountain from whereby all good emanates. The Bible declares that God is all good (Psalm 92:15, Mark 10:18, I John 1:5).
An example of how we see God’s goodness is found in our belief in an afterlife and what we believe that this heavenly existence will be like:
For many Christians they believe that upon their death our all-good God will transport them to a type of “heaven” where they will all sit on puffy white clouds, play harps (or for me play golf), and live eternally in a place completely absent from suffering (Revelation 21:4).
And by this notion we agree that God is good because we also wholeheartedly agree that suffering is a completely undesirable experience. We don’t want to live with suffering—we all want to be released from it. That’s why we as Christians love the idea of a heaven–because heaven is a place where we have been told pain and suffering do not exist. And so, this gives us hope, knowing that one day we will suffer no more and live eternally free from pain.
The idea of any all-good God extends into our present, everyday lives as well. This is why we use prayer. We pray for His protection from bad circumstances and disasters. And when we do encounter suffering, we again pray to God for the suffering to be removed. Why? Because I believe that at our core all of us really do think He is a good God who measures and values goodness in the same way we do.
I don’t think that our resistance to suffering is a learned experience. It’s not something that we are taught. It is a primal and universally shared experience across all of life on earth, from the smallest in the animal kingdom to the largest. Nobody wants to suffer. This is in our DNA.
And, just as we would never want our own children to have to suffer we also think God should want the same for us.
When life goes well, we are full of faith and are quick to say, “God is good!”. But when things do not work out, it brings a cognitive dissonance with our belief that our sovereign God is good. We are then left trying to understand the why’s:
Why did this negative experience happen?
Why didn’t God intervene and do something?
Why does a good all-powerful God allow bad things happen to good people?
The typical response to the “whys” is for us is to blame our unfortunate circumstance on some sort of divine plan derived from God’s masterful sovereignty. This becomes our antidote for making sense of the tragedy and suffering we experience. This becomes our “go-to answer”, especially for those in the church, as to why our prayers are not answered. We assert that God, who we also assume masterminds every event on earth, must have either delayed, refused, or chosen not to act in our circumstance because of an unseen, mysterious, heavenly purpose. God’s mysterious will or unknown divine purpose is blamed for our suffering. God becomes the scapegoat for our pain and His unmatched sovereign eminence becomes the pastors’/priests’ reasoning for why God allows suffering.
While for some of us this may not sit right, many others embrace this mindset, believing that through this line of thinking it at least gives us a plausible answer to all the crazy crap we go through. And I would agree, having an answer for something that for us seems to be totally pointless and unnecessary suffering certainly feels better than having no answer at all. It also helps us leave God’s good character somewhat intact rather than hold Him responsible as a worker of purposeless evil deeds.
It is in this context where the Book of Job is most often referenced. Christians will cite the story to say that God will purposefully use suffering, and even Satan at times, in order to bring about a greater good for which His ultimate purpose is either veiled, unfathomable, or beyond the realm of our own understanding. When we suffer, God is said either to be refusing to interfere or to be actually allowing suffering based upon His higher heavenly method of producing good. Suffering then is justified because it is a means to an end. A means to bring about the hidden purposes of God’s goodness.
Then finally, this is regurgitated from church pulpits where pastors and priests encourage us to rest, accept, and be passive in our attitude toward suffering. We are assured that God is doing a work in us that has eternal value and great purpose regardless of the final outcome to us. We are encouraged to surrender, stop fighting, and trust God in what He is doing to us even though we don’t understand what His purpose may be while we suffer.
This is how we have interpreted the story of Job and how we apply it to our day-to-day lives.
Despite the mass Christian acceptance and widespread proliferation of this traditional view, I still continue to believe that God never purposelessly afflicts us with suffering. I hold this belief more strongly now than ever before even as I have been wrestling with a progressive infirmity of my own for the last 3 years.
With that said, let me now present a different option for how to understand Job. As I do this you will see how my integration of the Book of Job, while still holding onto it as a God-breathed, authoritative text, fits perfectly well with my belief that God doesn’t author or allow our suffering.
But first, since I write for an audience from broad backgrounds with varied levels of Bible familiarity, please allow me to give a brief overview of the story of Job so we are all on the same page.
AN OVERVIEW OF JOB
Job is a book that addresses an age-old human question: why do bad things happen to good people.
The story begins with a meeting taking place in the spiritual realm—the realm that we usually consider to be heaven or where God’s divine presence and council of spirit beings exist. The scene opens with angels coming to present themselves to God. And unfortunately for Job we see that Satan has come along with them. What ensues is a dialogue between God and Satan where we see Satan raising a complaint about Job. God puts forth that His servant Job is perfect, a person who is righteous and blameless before Him, whose character and actions are worthy of no judgement or condemnation. Satan then makes the accusation that Job is only serving God because of the prosperity that God has provided – AND – because of a special barrier of protection God had extended around him. Satan basically accuses Job of only loving and serving God because God is good to him.
Perhaps a modern example of this would be for one friend to accuse another friend that the only reason that his wife stays with him is because he buys her nice things and because she is nice to her and protects her. Stop being nice and save your money and see if she still wants to be with you! See if she will still love you then? Does she only love you for the benefits that you provide, or does she really love YOU and who YOU are regardless of her circumstances?
Satan then proposes a test. He makes that claim that if God were to take away everything from Job, then he would turn and instead curse God to His face. So, in response, God accepts the challenge, and Satan leaves to carry out his dirty work. However, God tells Satan that he can do whatever he wants to Job with only one caveat: Satan can’t touch Job himself. Job’s person is to be left alone.
Life gets bad for Job. Real bad! All of his grown kids die in a house that collapses from a freak wind storm and all of his livestock are carried away by the neighboring enemy tribesmen. Job has nothing left except his own life, and his health.
What is Job’s response? He attributes everything that has happened to being ordained of God and says,
“…The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
But contrary to Satan’s testing Job still worships God and does not get angry at Him.
Frustrated, Satan goes back to God and makes another case. He argues that since humans are inherently selfish, and because Job himself was spared, the original test didn’t go far enough. So, Satan proposes another challenge to God: if Job is attacked personally, surely he will curse God to His face! God accepts the challenge and tells Satan that he can do anything he wants to Job but he must spare his life and not kill him off.
Satan then afflicts Job with sores all over his body. The illness is excruciatingly painful and physically incapacitating. Job is reduced to a life of scratching/popping skin blisters with a broken piece of pottery and sitting among ashes in mourning.
Some of Job’s friends eventually show up. After a week of silent morning together Job breaks his silence and begin cursing the day he was born. He wonders why God continues to give life to him in light of the pain he is enduring. He wonders why God doesn’t just kill him and get it over with. What then follows are 35 poetic chapters of back and forth dialogue between Job and his friends. During these chapters Job continues to maintain that he has remained sinless and is undeserving of any punishment. Job characterizes God as an adversary who is out to get him for no good reason. On the contrary, Job’s friends contend with him and insist that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this punishment. They insist that God is righteous in the matter and only does good to those who do good and only does evil to those who do evil. The debate over why bad things happen to good people is intense.
Job asks, Why are you doing this to me, God? I’ve done nothing wrong to deserve this level of treatment! Why is this all happening to me when others who are far worse than me are not punished!
Job’s friends continue to say that, Calamities are for sinners. Fess up Job, you must have sinned somewhere. Turn back to God and repent from your deeds and He will cease from causing you harm.
Job argues that life in general just sucks because, whether one lives a good or bad life, God will still afflict them either way. Yet at the same time Job’s friends maintain God’s good character and keep grilling Job in an effort to uncover hidden unconfessed sin(s).
In chapter 38 God finally shows up. Speaking out of a fierce wind, God first addresses Job’s own conclusions about his circumstances. Over 4 chapters, and through a series of dramatic comparisons matched between God’s divine knowledge and majesty in creation against Job’s humble human existence, God rhetorically tells Job that he doesn’t have everything figured out. God says that Job’s conclusions about Him are wrong.
But, despite the four chapters where God finally speaks on the matter God still never offers Job an exact reason for Job’s sufferings. God only emphasizes that Job’s understanding is feeble compared to the light of God’s wisdom and power. God’s rebuke is that Job’s understanding of the circumstances is incomplete due to a lack of knowledge. And because his knowledge is incomplete, Job isn’t coming to the correct conclusions.
In seeing his lack of both knowledge and omnipotence Job repents and agrees that he has spoken about things relating to God that he does not have full insight into. And, in addition to proving that Job didn’t have enough knowledge to come up with correct conclusions about God, God also goes on to say that his friends have not spoken correctly about Him either.
Good news comes in the final chapter. After God rebukes Job and his friends for coming to incorrect conclusions about Him, God eventually restores twice as much back to Job as he had before. His livestock is multiplied far beyond his former holdings, he has more children (including three very beautiful daughters as the text adds), and he lives to a ripe old age.
At least the story ends on that good note.
But, what is strange is that despite God’s long response to Job and his three friends, He never gives a reason or purpose to why this event even happened in the first place.
This leaves us with a mystery…
THE TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND SATAN
The questions that this story produces in us are somewhat obvious:
What was God’s purpose in having Satan afflict Job?
Why didn’t God just deny Satan’s request?
Why would a loving God even entertain such an idea of harming Job?
If God is all powerful, at all times and over everything, why didn’t He wave a magic wand and just make Satan disappear forever?
What the heck kind of a weird relationship do God and Satan have???
The book of Job in itself does not provide resolution to any of these specific questions. In reading this book as a stand-alone text we are left only to speculate. It seemed like God was in full control, but yet allowed this event to transpire. And building off that presumption religion has created the aforementioned, unseen-mysterious-heavenly purpose doctrine. God must have willed/allowed Job’s suffering for an unknown reason that was inherently good. This in turn helps us cope with our own struggles as we try to navigate a life where bad things happen to relatively good people all the time.
And I agree. If the book of Job, and all the other content we find in the Old Testament for that matter were our only guide on the nature of God and Satan’s relationship, then yes, the unseen-mysterious-heavenly purpose doctrine seems to be the best explanation for suffering. It acknowledges our lack of knowledge as puny humans and exalts God’s unmatched wisdom and pure heavenly purposes above our own – which on their own are two points that I even agree with.
I used to believe the traditional understanding about Satan myself. The church I grew up in believed that God allows Satan to carry out vicious acts in our lives in order to build our character and/or test us. In church we were taught that God allows Satan to put us through trials and tests so that we can be more conformed to the image of Christ, to perfect us through suffering, and that for some of us it will be only through hardship that we will learn to trust God and be purified from sin.
The church also reinforced the message that sometimes we just don’t know what God is up to. His grand and wonderful purposes are sometimes hidden. The church of my youth further held that our response to this vagueness shouldn’t be one of hopelessness but rather that we should to trust him in that He is in 100% control of all world events and is doing the right thing according to His plan and all-knowing wisdom.
I was taught to never question or fight against what was happening in my life. Everything was being ordained by God, whether that be directly from God or from Satan.
So then, the traditional view of God’s and Satan’s relationship can be summed up as this:
God has unilateral control over all of His creation at all times. Including Satan. God claims to be all good yet allows Satan to sow destruction in the earth. God must be allowing Satan to do these works in order to bring glory to Himself, to test our faith, to perfect us, or to bring about a greater good. We must embrace whatever circumstance that is occurring in our lives, knowing that it wouldn’t be here unless God hadn’t allowed it for some purpose. That purpose may be unknown to us, but since nothing on earth takes place without God’s consent, our circumstances must be here for a reason. God has full control over Satan at any time but chooses to allow Satan to act in the world to accomplish God’s ultimate good—there is an unseen-mysterious-heavenly purpose in God allowing Satan to work evil.
ONE LAST NOTE: HOW IS SATAN’S RELATIONSHIP TO GOD UNDERSTOOD IN THE JEWISH AND ISLAMIC TRADITIONS?
The concept of Satan, along with the existence of evil spiritual agents (demons, jinns), is not unique to the Christian faith. Judaism accepts the same Old Testament that Christians do as their sacred writings. Those from the Islamic traditions have a very similar concept as well.
There are many branches of Judaism, just as there are many denominations of evangelical Christian churches. For the bulk of 21st century Jews, the archaic concept of a real living spiritual agent known as the satan has been replaced with the idea of Yetzer Hara. In this concept, every person is born with both an inclination to do good and an inclination to do bad. Each person has the choice to act upon either impulse. The bad impulse is the thing we need to fight against because the innate human propensity to only serve itself. That inner propensity is the true satan.
For mainstream Judaism there is no spiritual entity know as Satan, or demons for that matter, but all references to opposing spiritual forces of darkness in the Bible are merely metaphors or personifications for the evil already present within us. Some Rabbis go on to teach that this inward satanic force is a great blessing from God in that it helps humans to strengthen character and build spiritual muscle.
Mainstream Jews do not have to contend with the person of Satan. For them Lucifer doesn’t even exist.
NOTE: There is a notable sized branch of ultra-orthodox Judaism known as the hasidics. In Hasidic Judasim they do affirm there is a real spiritual agent known as Satan. However, Satan is just another non-important member of God’s divine council that functions in a God-given accusatory role much like a prosecuting attorney. Satan is and has been empowered by God to carry out God’s own purposes. They are not really in opposition as they are technically on the same team.
Overall, except for a few far radical branches of Judaism, proposing that God has some opposing force who actually contends with Him would be blasphemy. No one contends with God. God has no equals. No one is even close to strong enough to thwart His will or power.
This is also much like the mainline Christian thought.
The view of Satan in Islam isn’t that much different from Christianity.
They would more strongly affirm the existence of a real spirit agent, called “Iblīs” or “Shaytan”. In their tradition, Satan had a fall from grace similar to how Christians believe that the Devil was once good but had fall from grace.
But, as with Judaism, Islamists would disagree with the notion that Iblis and the other evil jinn are actual opponents of God. Everything that happens in life to followers of Allah is ordained by God. If evil forces are getting in your way, it is ultimately God’s sovereign ordained will:
“Secret counsels are only from Satan in order that he may cause grief to the believers. But he cannot harm them in the least, except as Allah permits. Therefore, let the believers put their trust in Allah..” Qur’an 58:10
For all practical purposes, there is no substantial difference between how God and Satan exist in relationship to one another in the world compared with any of the other Abrahamic religions:
God’s allows Satan (whether a real person or not) to carry out divine purposes. God has Satan 100% in control and nothing happens in Satan’s kingdom without there being a degree of sovereign, God-breathed authorization. The Devil may be employed to build character or strength in resisting him, yet sometimes even God’s purposes in using evil for good many not be known. We just have to trust that God is sovereign and give praise to Allah, Yahweh, or Jehovah either way, knowing that all things are happening due to His providential will.
Up to this point we have laid out the following:
- a brief summary of the story of events in the book of Job
- how the traditional interpretation of the Book of Job impacts our lives.
- how the traditional interpretation of the Book of Job has influenced our understanding of what the relationship between God and the Devil is like
- what Mainline Christianity’s view of the relationship between God and the devil is, at least at a rudimentary level, nearly identical among other popular Near East religions.
- that Christianity and the other two major Abrahamic religions view Satan’s role as nearly the same.
Now, I’d like to challenge these traditional understandings and present an alternative viewpoint. This is a viewpoint that can only be understood by actions and words left behind for us by a man named Jesus of Nazareth. This man, who claimed both to be sent from God and to be equal with God didn’t view the relationship between God and Satan in the same way that our traditional understanding of Job does. This man didn’t believe that God used Satan as a tool to bring about character building or refinement of the soul. This man didn’t believe that God used Satan as a tool to bring His secret, heavenly purposes.
Instead, this man WAS God’s secret, heavenly purpose revealed in flesh. And when God’s ultimate purpose walked the earth, He took a strikingly aggressive, take-no-prisoners, slaughter-them-all attitude toward Satan and his kingdom.
Through the examination of the life of Jesus that will follow, one can be left with no doubt that a great paradigm shift in power between God and the kingdom of darkness needed to occur, and indeed did occur, through Jesus’s sacrificial death. This power inversion occurred in the life, work, and death of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the pages of New Testament.
The life of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament forces us to see the Book of Job in a different light. And it is only through this Light that we will ever see the relationship between God and Satan for how it really is.
I invite you to journey with me and explore the amazing transformative revelation that Jesus left us in regard to the relationship between God and Satan.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!