Editorial | To Understand Each Other
Constructive, functional relationships, building up each other in love, is intended to be the parade example of true Christianity. By such love and unity we could convert the world; so the Lord taught in John 17. But we see broken down relationships and failed dialogue on every hand amongst us as believers. Sadly, this is how it has always been amongst the body of God’s people. On one level, the speeches of the book of Job are a worked example of how dialogue and relationships break down between believers. It could be argued that the Bible is full of examples of failure, so that we might learn to do better. I suggest that the “sons of God” we read of in Job were the believers of the time who gathered together; they included Job, the friends and the ‘satan’ adversary, a fellow worshipper who doubted Job’s integrity. He thought probably Job only believed because God had materially blessed him. And so God gives Job into the power of this satan but He sets clear parameters. Job is “perfect” before Him, a “man of integrity”, and although all can be taken from him, God promises that his life will not be taken away. Job begins perfect and ends perfect, in God’s eyes. The whole drama is for the sake of the friends, and that Job through suffering for them might finally save them. The righteous suffered as representative of the sinful worshippers, and thus became the prototype for the “suffering servant”, the Lord Jesus, of Isaiah’s prophecies. The friends came to “comfort” Job over his calamities; but after sitting in silence with him for seven days, they ended up getting angry with him, and finally the relationship between them and Job breaks down completely, and they end up in silence again at the end of Job’s last speech. What went wrong? In the New European Commentary on Job, I’ve given actual chapters and verses for the following summary.
Straw man images
The friends were convinced Job was suffering because he had sinned. They therefore created a straw man image of Job as a big time, secret sinner who had now been caught out by Divine judgment and unless he admitted that, he was going to die. They developed an image of ‘Job’ in their minds as a self righteous, impenitent hypocrite and their dialogue with him was controlled by that image. So convinced were they that their image was correct that they twisted his every word to confirm to that image. They ‘felt’ things about what he was saying which were untrue. Thus: “Why are we counted as animals, which have become unclean in your sight?” (18:3). Job has not treated them as animals. They have themselves proclaimed all men as ‘unclean’ by birth (15:14), and yet they decide Job has called them unclean and they object to it. They transfer their feelings about themselves back onto him. They may posit that all men are unclean, including themselves; but if Job is even supposed to have said this then he is to be condemned. This again is an example to us of what happens when dialogue goes wrong. The dialogues begin and end with Job and the friends in silence. The implication is that all that was said had been better not said.
They decide Job must have committed various sins; and what began in their minds as suspicion became for them absolute truth about him. They insist he must have refused help to the poor, which was the opposite of how Job had been (29:12 cp. 20:19). Job engages with what Bildad says about this and denies it (29:12; 31:17). Their obsession with their straw man image of Job leads them to keep droning on about things like the greatness of God, which Job is not at all in disagreement with. And so their arguments contribute nothing to actual understanding of each other. We see the same today. One party goes on at length about a position which their opponent agrees with, because they are failing to understand ‘the other’, but are arguing against a straw man position.
Not engaging with what’s been said
As the speeches of the friends continue, they engage less and less with Job’s actual words; although he does with theirs. They argue against their perceptions of his position, ignoring him as a person and the actual words he says, and dealing in vague generalities. This again is typical of the breakdown in meaningful dialogue which we see all around us, whereby the participants become confirmed in their positions and build up an image of their opponent in their mind which gets progressively awful and also the more confirmed as true in their view.
In Job 18, Bildad doesn’t even engage with Job’s words, but rather just vents his anger in this speech, threatening Job with all manner of condemnation; and the longer he rants on, the more convinced he becomes that Job is ‘wicked’ and doesn’t know God (:5,21). This is the problem when we don’t engage with the words and arguments of another, or pay mere lip service to doing so; we can fall headlong into a feeding frenzy of angry accusation, resulting in doing what God condemns - condemning our brother, imputing sin rather than righteousness to a person we have created in our own minds, who merely bears the name of the one who began merely with a theological difference with us. Hence Elihu laments that the friends hadn’t answered Job’s words (32:12). Job begs to be listened to and engaged with: “Listen… Hear me… After I have spoken, mock on” (21:2,3). Let us not catch ourselves thinking “I know what you think, because… you’re from the X ecclesia, you’re a white man, I remember many years ago you saying you believed Y”.
This lack of engagement with each other leads to both Job and the friends repeating themselves. In Job 25, Bildad is merely using the previous arguments of Eliphaz. This is another sign that dialogue has failed - when one side starts quoting the words and arguments of their own side, rather than engaging with the actual words of the other side. These dialogues are recorded to teach us how not to dialogue, and to see the extreme consequence of refusing to even want to understand each other.
Their desire to be ‘right’ led the friends to misrepresent Job’s words (22:15-20) to fit their own agenda and straw man image of Job. Job has said that he felt as if God were tearing him apart like a wild beast (Job 16:9); but Bildad twists this in Job 18:4, or simply misremembers it, to Job saying that he was tearing himself apart. Elihu misquotes Job as saying he is more righteous than God (35:2). The friends became so certain they knew what Job thought that they put words in his mouth he never said; and then proceed to ‘quote’ them and demolish them (e.g. 22:13), often sarcastically. The descent into sarcasm is a sure sign that genuine dialogue is over.
Forgetting the parameters
The reasoning of the friends consistently departs from the parameters set for their relationship with Job by the prologue. Job was there declared righteous, not suffering for personal sins, and his life would be preserved. His suffering was for their benefit as the observers. But they repeatedly claim the very opposite, straying from the original issues, and are sure he is about to be killed by God, because he is “wicked… Godless” (20:5). All our dialogue is to be framed within the parameters defined by the ties that bind; the ‘other’ is your brother, your mother, your husband, your fellow member of Christ’s body, esteemed as “better than ourselves to be”, with the love which seeks to believe good rather than evil and dialogue must not be conducted as if those parameters aren’t there. Those parameters cannot be ignored just because a pre-existing agenda has become the basis for so called dialogue, and the other party must be condemned at all costs. Elihu seems to suggest that unless Job makes use of Elihu’s offer of being a mediator/’interpreter’, then he is going to die the death of the condemned (33:6,23,24). But this again misses the point of the parameters set in the prologue. Job is not going to die as a result of his sufferings. Elihu is not going to prove Job’s saviour, nor shall our dialogues of themselves save ‘the other’.
Repeating the same arguments
We the audience become almost bored by the way the friends keep on claiming that ancient sage wisdom is the source of truth, and any new revelation must be wrong just because it is new. But this sense of weariness at their repetition is intentional. We are led to realize that indeed, dialogue cannot progress if the participants simply return to the same old arguments all the time and refuse to engage with the responses. This repetition of the same arguments leads to the friends dogmatically asserting what they had previously begun by surmising. This again is how relationships go wrong when there is no actual engagement with what the person really is saying and their actual location in reality.
Making men offenders for a word
Job did say wrong things; but he makes wonderful statements of faith too. In 19:2529, Job declares his ecstatic joy at the prospect of his personal, future salvation, but Zophar is so proud and angry that all he can do is lash out at Job straight afterwards (20:1), totally ignoring Job’s faith, hope and appeal. God’s final judgment is that Job has spoken what was right about Him. We are stunned. For Job has shaken his fist at God at times. God overlooked all that, and looked to the essence. We need to do likewise, not paying attention to every word spoken, recognizing humanity in both ourselves and others. Which is how the story ends.
How it ended
At the end, God did engage with the words and arguments of Job and the friends; and Job’s response to Him constantly quotes God’s words. This is what restoration is about engagement, fellowship, and seeing each others’ face with joy, praying for and enabling each others’ salvation, as Job did for his friends. This is the final “end of the Lord” in the story of Job, and of our lives; but we can live the spirit of it now.
Blessed is the man whom Thou chasteneth, O Lord
Not only knowledge, but also every other gift, which we call the gifts of fortune, have power to puff up earth: afflictions only level these mole-hills of pride, plough the heart, and make it fit for wisdom to sow her seed, and for grace to bring forth her increase. Happy is that man, therefore, both in regard of heavenly and earthly wisdom, that is thus wounded to be cured, thus broken to be made straight; thus made acquainted with his own imperfections, that he may be perfected.
| Francis Bacon