As we saw last weekend, the book of Job begins and ends with a short story. And that short story is about a wager.
The wager occurs in connection with a conversation between God and "the Satan" (literally, "the accuser"). God is proud of the faithfulness and righteousness of Job, but the accuser challenges him: Job, he says, worships God "for nothing," since God has blessed Job with possessions, family, and health. Take away the "rewards," and he will no longer follow God, since he no longer has any reason to do so.
God then agrees to allow Job's family and possessions to be taken, as proposed by the accuser. However, when Job remains faithful, the wager escalates. "Skin for skin!" the accuser shouts. Harm Job himself, he reasons, and Job will turn. Thus, not only are Job's possessions and children taken from him, but also his health.
The question at issue in this wager is simple: is Job capable of following God willingly, even where he does not benefit from doing so? The circumstances in which Job is placed create the perfect "test." Since Job's family and possessions are taken from him, he has no reason to believe his faithfulness is being rewarded. Likewise, he has no reason to fear punishment from God. Everything is already lost.
Three points about this wager:
First, the wager is not about Job's righteousness, so much as it is about God's "faith" in Job. Job believes in God, but – more importantly – God believes in Job. The divine hope is that Job will willingly and freely follow God regardless of the circumstances. The Satan, on the other hand, hopes that Job's devotion will vanish when he can no longer discern that he will benefit from his relationship with God.
Second, it is not only Job, but all of humanity that is on trial. Job is merely the archetype for all of us. Later, as the poetry in Job gathers momentum toward its mind-melting conclusion, we will see that, from the beginning, God has been "wagering" on humanity, hoping that we will all come to follow God freely.
Third, because it is about all of us, the wager makes us aware of the difference between "true"/authentic religion and "false"/Satanic religion. In Job, "false"/Satanic religion is any system of faith that requires promises of rewards and threats of punishment to be effective. Authentic religion is any system of faith that allows humanity to freely approach God, without coercion.
And there you have it. At stake in Job is the question of whether humanity is capable of following God purely because we choose to do so or whether we must be lured (or beaten) into submission.
I think that the poet would have a lot to say about some of the discussions that are occurring between Christians in our day. Here are a few examples:
- Prosperity. Some Christians have become critical of what they call a "prosperity gospel" that is being embraced by some churches. In its strongest form, the prosperity gospel asserts that God is certain to provide great reward to anyone who tithes and gives freely, but not all people go so far to say that this principle is absolute. The poet, I think, would question these claims in their strongest forms.
- National Exceptionalism. Some Christians embrace the idea that God can and does favor groups and nations that properly worship God over and above other people and nations. They claim that their nation's power and success is a result of God's favoritism. Again, I think the poet is pushing back against this concept, asking us to reconsider whether we are exceptional simply because we are wealthy and powerful.
- Hell. Some Christians are beginning to question the concept of hell, as it has been traditionally understood by the Church. In response, supporters of the traditional concept of hell often argue that people will not follow God unless they are motivated by the prospects of punishment. I believe that Job is also speaking directly to that debate, reminding us that God's desire is for us to worship freely, and not because we are coerced to do so. (The recent controversy over Rob Bell's book Love Wins illustrates just how strongly people feel about this issue – on both sides.)
Here are some issues, then to consider:
- In what ways do systems of rewards and punishments still influence our approaches to faith?
- Is the fear that people will never follow God without promises and threats legitimate? Or do you think that such fears come from our darker side (or "the Satan")?
- How does all this fit in with God's promise to enact justice, setting the world straight? (the poet will eventually have something to say on this point, by the way)
- What does a life of authentic faith (unmotivated by promises of prosperity or threats of punishment) look like?
[Note: many of the ideas that are at work in these posts are inspired by and/or come from Gustavo Gutierrez in his book On Job. If these posts interest you, I highly recommend the book.]