When Things Are Rotten
I hope you are well and that your life is filled with happiness. But I also know there are times in every life when things are rotten.
Sickness, sadness, loneliness, loss, injustice, betrayal, abandonment—these are unavoidable in a fallen world. No amount of money or power can prevent the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Sooner or later things are rotten.
We need to look to Job.
God Himself observed about Job “that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8).
This gave Satan his opening. Of course, Job is blameless and upright, he says. You’ve made him rich. Take his riches away “and he will curse You to Your face” (1:11).
Satan received permission to reduce Job to poverty. Marauders plunder his herds, killing his servants. Fire burned his flocks killing more servants. And all his children died in the rubble as their house collapsed.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,” said Job, “and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The storyteller adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:21-22)
See, God said to Satan. Job is still blameless and upright.
“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. Take his health “and he will curse You to Your face” (2:4-5). Again challenge accepted and Satan ruins Job’s health.
As Job sits destitute, scratching his sores with broken pottery, he’s confronted with four ways of dealing with life when things are rotten.
Mrs. Job, as you might imagine, shared her husband’s fate. She too was destitute and mourning her children. God, she concluded, is a monster. He punishes the righteous. “Curse God and die,” she counsels. Since there’s no point in being good, give up.
When things are rotten and God seems to have given up on us, and we’re tempted to give up on God.
Job’s response is worthy of prolonged meditation—especially in our comfortable American bubble. After telling Mrs. Job not to be a fool, he asked, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10). God deserves our love and devotion because He is God, not because of the goodies we enjoy. We have no right to happiness, comfort, health, or riches in this life.
“In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”
Next three friends came to comfort Job. For seven days and seven nights, they did just the right thing: they sat with Job mourning with him in silence.
While Job broke the silence by cursing the day he was born (Job 3), the three friends were quick to respond with prudential wisdom: We don’t know what you did, they insisted, but you obviously sinned grievously. That’s why God is punishing you.
That makes sense. As one of Job’s friends put it:
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. (4:8-9)
If you rob a convenience store, you go to jail. While in jail, don’t blame God. You do, in fact, need to fess up, come clean, go to confession, and serve your time.
Job’s friends tell him that if he’ll only fess up, God will forgive him and restore him.
But we have God’s testimony that Job is blameless and upright. Job’s sin did not create this problem. In fact, you could argue that his righteousness created the problem. In any case, Job has nothing to fess up and by the end of chapter 31, Job and his three friends are all talked out.
Then, furious with Job’s claim of innocence and with the three friends who offered no resolution, a fourth friend spoke.
Job, he said, buck up and stop whining.
First, he noted, can’t figure out God and His ways. He’s good and does what’s right, true. But we shouldn’t expect to understand Him. Second, while you may be innocent of great evil, you’re still a sinner under God’s judgment. Third, God uses suffering to get our attention, to correct our faults, to bring us back. God is using your suffering for your good, Job, so buck up.
On the one hand, it’s all true. God’s ways are inscrutable and “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Sometimes we just need to stop whining.
On the other hand, if I’m ever destitute, sitting on an ash heap covered with sores, and scratching myself with broken pottery, I’d prefer you not rub it in my face. It seems rather cold comfort when things are rotten. Job offered no response.
Job’s final comforter is God. And rather than a gentle, “Tut tut. There there now,” God let Job have it with both barrels:
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. (38:2)
In chapters 38-42, God talked about Himself and His glory revealed in that creation. He challenged Job to compare himself with his Creator.
Here is what God didn’t say. He didn’t explain. Job never found out why things were rotten. God didn’t contradicted Job’s claims to goodness and faithfulness. And God didn’t condemned Job for saying life is unfair. Life is unfair and God doesn’t tell us why.
Job looked up at God and he was satisfied.
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (42:5-6)
The story of Job has a happy ending. Job was more blessed after this suffering than he was before it: more wealth, more children, and many years to enjoy it all. He got everything except answers to his questions.
And while that’s great for Job, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes the poverty lasts, the sickness is unto death, the rotten things stay rotten.
So What Do We Do?
We can give up — curse God and die. We should probably examine ourselves and fess up — a good idea even when things are great. And “Buck up and stop whining,” is good advice for most of us.
But the only fully satisfying response when things are rotten is to look up. As scholar Francis I. Andersen wrote in his commentary on Job:
God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith, to learn to love God for Himself alone…. To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight. He does not say in the end, “Now I see it all.” He never sees it all. He sees God (42:5). Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole of our life-story.
Even when things are rotten.
Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”