(This essay was started 29/6/14 and completed 21/8/14).
Before even starting, it must be made clear that this author has very minimal background in developing themes from biblical stories in the written form. I have indeed explored the seemingly more relevant topics revolving around the current ‘Science versus Religion’ encompassing field of apologetics, which I am certain consists of a particular name. But for a turn, I will explore another rather modern field in today’s Christian world of evangelism and ecclesiastical attempts (i.e. relating to churches), through my interest in the story of Job in the Bible.
For most people the story is rather well-known and often-highlighted example of God in suffering. In fact that would only be one simple application of this story. As a brief summary, the main character in the story, Job, is a righteous and wealthy man who is struck by death, disaster and disease because of Satan challenging God about the extent of Job’s righteousness. The accuser maintains that Job will surely curse God to the face if God took away all of Job’s prosperity (and later, even health). Most of the chapters revolves around Job and his three friends who have come to him in his grieving, seeking to provide an explanation for his circumstance (though they fail miserably). It ends with God speaking to all of them, reaffirming Job’s righteousness throughout the plight while rebuking his friends’ lack of wisdom in this matter; God also restores Job’s health, riches and family. Job lives to see his children to the fourth generation.
Firstly, one distinction between two words which I would like to make is that between ‘prosperity’ and ‘blessing’ (two words I will be using much of indeed). Prosperity is “a successful, flourishing, or thriving condition”1 whereas a blessing refers to “God’s favour and protection”2. Now, there are a number of ways to see their correlation: firstly, it can be said that prosperity is possibly a manner in which God can express his favour and protection, and that prosperity is therefore a subset of blessing. In other words, prosperity is a rather material sense of God’s favour and protection, as compared to other ways God can bless individuals (as I will discuss later). Therefore blessing is not exact or identical to prosperity. This distinction is rather crucial to my later demonstration of relationships between differing concepts.
Conversely, equating suffering with punishment is erroneous and the consequences dire. Perhaps this is the main theme in Job, as can be expressed by the idea ‘divine retribution’. However one must note that this term entails several changes to many possible meanings of ‘identical’ or ‘equitable’, in that a relationship between the two terms is implied. However, of course, in this sense, if A and B are equal, A necessarily means B or B necessarily means A (where A and B are events or circumstances, as is relevant to this discussion).
Divine retribution is the very prominent concept of (negative) morality causing (negative) circumstance in the presence of divinity. By morality I would mean simply moral choices of an individual (in this case, immoral or negative choices), and circumstances refers to the earthly situation that the same individual undergoes (or is suddenly placed in). Divinity, of course, refers to the theistic God who is perceived to be the main agent in the relationship. Note also, that there are several variants of the component known as ‘morality’ – some see that ‘unrighteousness’ can be a description of an immoral individual who has rejected good for choosing evil (and over the course of time, many evil choices are made). In essence divine retribution can be applied not just to a single immoral action, but to what can be seen as the root cause of immorality – a wicked or unrighteous heart straying from God.
For an individual A:
Sinfulness (of A) > Punishment (by God) > Suffering (circumstance) > Pain (of A)
This belief of sin resulting in suffering was commonly held by many pre-Christ believers in God, namely the Israelites. Rightly so: many of the calamities striking them were a result of their turning away from divine instruction. Such calamities include the 40 years of desert-wandering, the destruction of Sodom, and countless other recorded events happening to both individuals and Israel.
I now turn my attention to the grand inverse way of thinking that is equally, if not more, common in today’s society. By inverse, I mean that the exact relationship as described above is now all positively termed, and seems equally coherent at first glance. I term this the ‘prosperity gospel’, as it sums up the wrong ideals and messages that are sent by many a preacher in modern churches to their congregations. Most people updated about the religious scene internationally will be either vaguely or intimately familiar with this idea, either through research or experience.
For a diagrammatical reference, the ‘prosperity gospel’ is presented as below:
Holiness (of A) > Reward/Blessing (by God) > Prosperity (circumstance) > Happiness (of A)
One is able to take the meaning of each of the above terms to be the opposite of those in the ‘divine retribution’ cause-effect process.
It then follows that there are implications that arise from taking the above two relationship-processes seriously. The applications can be derived by selecting just one of the terms in the relationship and deducing what is the supposed reality.
Firstly, for divine retribution: if there is Sinfulness, one will be Punished by God, causing great Suffering and Pain. Such a claim is made to warn believers not to fall into sin, otherwise great calamity and disaster await. Looking in the opposite direction, if there is Suffering and/or Pain of an individual, it is definitely the Punishment of God (since all evil in the world has to be allowed to take place by God) for one’s moral evil or Sinfulness. Of course, now that these two statements are laid out in a form suitable for application, it is perhaps more apparent what the assumptions made are. They are, respectively: 1) that immorality and unrighteousness always result in (earthly) suffering and pain; 2) all (earthly) suffering and pain is a result of an individual’s sinfulness or spiritual distancing from God.
Secondly, for the ‘prosperity gospel’: if one is Holy, God will surely Reward and Bless this individual in the form of (earthly) Prosperity that results in Happiness. If one is Prosperous, it is a result of God’s Blessing, which means the individual must be Holy. The assumptions are respectively: 1) God’s Blessing can only come in the form of earthly Prosperity; 2) all (earthly) Prosperity necessarily comes from God.
While I will not do an entire run-through of Job’s story, I think it is important we select several hard facts about what happened to Job, from his initial wealth through to his suffering and finally to his being rewarded by God, so as to assist in debunking the above myths and assumptions. Furthermore some of these presuppositions are held by Job’s friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) who are later commanded by God to make a burnt offering with Job as their intercessor, “for only to him will I show favour”.
The first fact is that Job was counted as righteous by God throughout the story – from His initial state of prosperity and great wealth and happiness, to his family calamity, loss of riches and disease, then also when his wealth is restored and even increased at the end of the story. Job was a man ‘blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil’ (Job 1:1).
The second fact is that suffering was brought upon Job as a result of Satan’s accusations and challenges to God in the heavenly realms (1:6-12, 2:1-). “But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” Here, the real cause of Job’s suffering is stated very clearly. Perhaps even clearer in 2:3, “…And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
The third is a generalization of the presuppositions that Job’s friends made to attempt to explain Job’s suffering. All of their accusations point towards the idea of divine retribution: that Job has sinned, and brought suffering upon himsef. Eliphaz: “… who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). Or Bildad: “See, God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:20) All this is also rephrased by Zilphar: If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear.…Your life will be brighter than the noonday” (Job 11:14-15, 17). At the end, God rebukes, “…you and your two friends…have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”
Perhaps it has become rather apparent, so I will be phrasing truths gleaned from Job’s story in succinct paragraphs as such:
First, earthly Suffering and Pain are not necessarily a Punishment from God for sin and wrongdoing. That a righteous man as Job can be subject to such an experience proves this beyond doubt. There are many reasons for Suffering and Pain here on earth. This is not to say that sin does not carry eternal weight in terms of separation from God and suffering in Hell.
Secondly, God does not give the Righteous Blessings in one form, that is earthly and material Prosperity. Many verses in Psalms, Proverbs and elsewhere are often phrased in the form “Blessed is he who…”, for example, “… takes refuge in [God]” (Psalms 34:8). If we maintain that Job has stayed true to the end, it would imply God’s blessing was always with him (Matthew 5:6 or the Beautitudes in general), because Job maintained his standing of righteousness before the Lord. It then follows that his blessing must have arrived in other forms than earthly or material prosperity.
Thirdly, the complicated causal and effective network that is being revealed means that there is no conclusive symptom of sinfulness or righteousness in the life of His people by looking at earthly experience – Suffering and Prosperity namely. And this means that the case differs from person to person. While Job’s friends may have spoken certain truth, their misplaced trust in the one-size-fits-all argument for Job’s unrighteousness was their downfall before the Lord.
Finally, from 1 and 2, since it is not definite that Suffering or Prosperity be traced back to Righteousness or Sinfulness, then it serves to say that it will not always flow the other way round. The causality is not a law: it is a possibility. So we can only definitively determine righteousness (or unrighteousness) at Judgment: where only those whose sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb can be counted righteous before God. All other attempts will fail – those who do not know Him, those who reject Him.
It remains to be seen how this integral truth of the anthropo-theistic life must be applied to believers (mostly) and especially the church and its doctrines. It is of utmost importance to set straight the character and nature of God while also maintaining that His promises of abidance, grace, eternal reward and punishment, and strength. If we have strayed, like Job’s friends, let it be our first duty to acknowledge our grudges against and our misconceptions of God – just as Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar required Job to make offerings on their behalf for the words that outraged and did injustice to a loving, compassionate God. All who have seen the light of the matter, let us call on each other to check our beliefs against God’s word – for we are all called to full-time ministry for Him, to surrender this life to His plan and His kingdom come. Not just pastors, preachers, evangelists, but believers, even non-believers whose hearts are open to hear – the truth will set us free. Let us go forth declaring the goodness and grace of our Lord Jesus even in trial and suffering.
As a last comment on this short discourse on prosperity, blessing, one’s walk before the Lord, suffering, and pain, perhaps I may humbly remind all: we live in a time transformed by Christ’s power on the cross, and His life-giving Spirit. The Son who propitiated God and justified us before the throne; the Counsellor who renews us daily and empowers us for a holy life. That is what makes the difference – we know His power triumphs over all, and placing righteousness as our priority pleases the Lord. May we also remember that our experiences do not have to determine our outlook: one word I have not used is Joy. That this Spirit of joy can so fill us with praises, is the same Spirit that turns our eyes to the Lord when we are tempted, weary, tested, suffering, tried and persecuted. Let us say, “Blessed be Your Name”, whether the “sun is shining down”, or whether we are on the “road marked with suffering”.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)