How the Book of Job Changed My Life

Alfie Wines left the church as a protest against racism; the Book of Job ignited a curiosity that transformed her life.

Anyone who knows me knows that besides the Triune God, I love my daughter, books, music … and the book of Job. If there is such a thing as a “Job-aholic,” that would be me!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how I came to love the book of Job.

The hiatus and the return

Looking back, I realize several events prompted my love for the book of Job. The first happened in 1978, the year of my return to the church. That was the year my mother passed away. Somehow her passing prompted me, after a ten-year hiatus, to return to church.

My hiatus began in the summer of 1968, following my freshman year in college, just after April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. When I returned to campus that fall, I refused to return to the church I had attended during my freshman year. It was my protest against the racism I saw in the materials published by the white denomination that the Black Church where I grew up used for Vacation Bible School. At the time, I had no idea that my return to church would open the door to a lifelong passion for the biblical text.

Sunday school

Second, I started taking my daughter to Sunday School. By their example, my parents taught me to take her, not just send her, to Sunday School. To my surprise, I loved the Adult Class. My love of scripture began there, in that little room on the left side at the end of the church’s Sunday School classroom hallway. I was intrigued. Before I knew it, not only was I devouring the assigned readings, I began reading other parts of the Bible—mostly Psalms, Proverbs, and the Gospels—too. I realized there was so much to learn!

Life-changing conversations

About this time, I had two conversations that piqued my interest even more. One was with my former husband’s grandmother and the other was with a friend. Grandmother and I had many conversations. I loved talking with her. Her great wisdom and her tremendous sense of humor kept me enthralled. More than once she either gave me something to think about or left me in stitches.

In a conversation that I’ll never forget, she told me about the séance in the Bible. “What? Please, Grandmother tell me no! There’s no such thing as a séance, is there?” I had dismissed Ouija boards in my undergrad years and now she was telling me there’s a séance in the Bible? She directed me to 2 Samuel 28, and there it was. “If a séance is in the Bible,” I thought, “What else is in there?” Fascinated, I had to keep reading. What had I been missing?

It seems that I had been missing a lot. You see, growing up, I thought that things that happened in the Bible were ancient, so ancient that they happened long before and were totally disconnected to anything I’d learned in school, especially world history.

A conversation with a friend helped me understand that I had, indeed, been missing a lot. For example, that the New Testament comes from the period of the Roman Empire. Really? Do you mean to tell me there’s a connection between the Bible and world history? Wow! I loved world history and if there was a connection between the Bible and world history, I wanted to know more.

These two conversations convinced me that I should try reading the entire Bible. I dusted off an unread supplemental college text about the Bible from an undergrad religion class. (Who takes time to read the supplemental readings?) Reading that book helped me understand how the parts of the Bible fit together. My curiosity overrode the skepticism I’d developed about the scriptures during my hiatus. I decided that I would give reading the entire Bible another chance. I trusted historians, didn’t I?1 I decided to trust the biblical writers, too.

The disappointment

There was so much I never heard about in sermons or been taught anywhere else. I found the Bible to be magnificent literature, a fascinating read, especially the drama of the Old Testament. Why hadn’t someone, anyone, somewhere along the way said something about these things? As much as I went to church, Sunday School, Bible Study, worship, and choir rehearsals … “Surely someone along the way would have said something about the breadth of the biblical text,” I thought.

No one mentioned that Genesis 1 and 2 comprise two very different creation stories, the steamy love story in Song of Songs, or the tragic story that led to the abduction and rape of two communities of young women in Judges 19-21. I was disappointed. I felt cheated. Where were my pastors, Sunday School teachers, faith communities? Why had I never been told?

As intrigued as I was, I was increasingly unsettled because I wondered, “Where were the words against racism, against enslavement?2 Where were the words against sexism?” They weren’t there—not in the diatribes of the prophets, or the words of Jesus or Paul? What about all these war stories? I looked, I read, I asked, but the words just were not there. I was stunned … and disappointed. Yes, the prophets wrote about widows, orphans and the poor, but not a word against enslavement. Jesus spoke and Paul wrote about love of neighbor, but where were the diatribes against war and violence, against enslavement, against racism, sexism, classism, and so much more? I was ready to give up on Christianity …  and the church. My newly found love of the biblical text left me unnerved with lots of unanswered questions.

Mother-in-law knows best

About this time, my mother-in-law, a church musician herself, intervened in my life. She knew I grew up playing piano at church (something I said I’d never do again). Not only did she insist that I put my musical gifts to use in a church, she found a position for me! What could I do? She was my Naomi.

At that church, I was “the new kid on the block,” so the job of playing for Sunday night service fell to me. I enjoyed playing for the church. However, I did not like having to go back across town to play for the evening service. That was then. This is now.

Now, I am forever grateful. I am grateful because the pastor did a sermon series3 on the book of Job during the dreaded evening service. All I’d heard about Job was his patience. Yet, the pastor’s sermon series was about Job’s impatience. What? Job, impatient? Most of the book was about his impatience? How could this be? I was hooked. I read, re-read, took notes, and studied. The pastor was absolutely right. How could this be? I couldn’t get enough of Job and his story.

A return to church, Sunday School class, life-changing conversations with Grandmother and a friend, love of scripture, and a newly found love of Job. How was I to know that fifteen years later, I would attend seminary and enter ministry, or that—you guessed it—I would write about Job!

What I learned from the book of Job

1. Honesty before God

I learned so much from reading and studying the book of Job. In many ways, the book changed my life. I love the book of Job because it saved my faith in God. Job’s honesty taught me that I can be a person of faith with questions and critiques, and that I can be honest with God about my questions and my feelings.

While I felt in my spirit that honesty with God is ok, it was good to have biblical affirmation. Like many, growing up I heard that we aren’t supposed to question God. Yet, asking questions is part of life, is part of getting an understanding, which by the way, is highly recommended in the book of Proverbs.4 That was a big relief!

2. Doubt and questions are part of the life of faith

Learning that doubt and questions are part of the life of faith was only the beginning of Job’s impact on my life. I learned that the ideals of the prophets, biblical wisdom writings, Jesus, and Paul provide the ethical basis for social justice in all its forms. While the dynamic of “us/them” has been present since the beginning of time, many of the “-isms” of modern life can be traced to the patriarchy of a much later time, the colonial period, and would not appear in the Bible. As the nation and the world struggle with righting wrongs of racism, sexism, classism, and many others “-isms” it is good to know that social justice with its call for treating one another rightly in our communal life is congruent with biblical principles. God is, after all, a God of love and justice.

3. The power of cognitive dissonance

The book of Job stretched my thinking as I learned the power of cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two or more opposing ideas as simultaneously true. Job’s friends thought in terms of retributive theology (also known as covenant theology, the theology of Moses as seen in the book of Deuteronomy); you reap what you sow. They thought Job must have done something terribly wrong to have lost his household, his children, his health, and to be estranged from his wife.

Job knew that no matter how sincere they were, his friends were sincerely wrong. He knew he had done nothing to deserve these reversals in his life. However, Davidic theology (based on God’s promise to David that his Davidic line would always be on the throne) with its promise of unconditional blessings, didn’t fit his situation either.
Job’s experience taught him that life’s complexity defies the simplicity of both theologies. While both may be true some of the time, neither is true all of the time. Unlike his friends who refused to consider new information, Job was open to new information, to another possibility. Job and his friends taught me to welcome cognitive dissonance as an interpretive lens for reading scripture and for life.

4. Theodicy: What is that?

The book of Job addresses the infinitely vexing, unanswerable question of theodicy: “If God is good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” The book’s creative, metaphorical response to questions about the nature of God, humanity, and life is literature at its best. It’s resounding conclusion—that the answer is there is no answer —continues to ring throughout the ages. Job’s answer became my answer.

5. Cursing the day he was born, but not God

Job cursed the day he was born, he wished he had not been born, and he longed for a reversal of creation. Job did everything but curse God. With all his venting, Job came close, stepping on the precipice of cursing God, but he never crossed it. I can imagine the satan on the sidelines wishing and hoping Job would take that eventful step. One more step and the satan would have won. Neither Job nor the biblical writers wanted to cross that precipice. Job taught me that God can handle my fears, my questions, my doubts, so I need not be afraid to express them.

God and the narrator agree Job had nothing for which to repent, consequently, he did not repent. Rather than repent, he relented. Translations that say he repented miss the nuance of the Hebrew. The book of Job taught me that the English language does not always capture the complexity of biblical Hebrew, so as readers we need to be cognizant of this.

With nothing in his life for which he needed to repent, Job came to terms with the idea that life is full of many unanswered questions, many unknowns, and that is ok. One of the challenges of life is to learn to live with unknowns and unanswered questions. Job taught me how to live with the loose ends in the biblical text, and in life.

7. Keep an open mind

The book of Job taught me there’s a clear distinction between God and my understanding of God. God’s panoramic view of creation in the book’s closing chapters reminded me that God’s love for me, for all humanity, and for all creation is bigger than I can ever imagine.

From Job’s friends, I learned to hold my faith dearly while simultaneously being open so that new information may cause me to change my perspective. From Job I learned to do my very best knowing there will always be something I need to learn, unlearn, and relearn along the way.

8. Ministry to people in pain

One time when I was struggling, I remember being told “You shouldn’t feel that way.” That advice was not helpful. I was feeling, “that way.” I did not need a worn-out cliché. What I needed was something to help me deal with my feelings. The book of Job reminded me that people in pain want to be heard, not lectured, and that silence, being present, and listening are better responses than any cliché could ever be.

9. Social justice is important

As I struggled with the Bible’s failure to address many social justice issues that are of concern to today’s readers, I learned that I had stumbled on issues addressed by Womanism, Feminism, Black Theology, Postmodernism, and many more theological perspectives. It was good to know that I wasn’t the only one concerned about these issues. Job’s care for his community is a reminder of the importance of paying attention to social justice issues.

10. The second naiveté

So, yes, I’m glad I came back to church. I am grateful for those conversations about the Bible with Grandmother and my friend. Yes, I am grateful that I fell in love with the biblical text, that my mother-in-law intervened, that I found myself at the feet of a pastor who sparked my interest in the book of Job. I am glad the pastor changed not only how I read the book of Job, but also how I read the Bible.

Rather than look for easy answers like I did when I was younger, I read from the view of the second naiveté—a perspective that is willing to embrace the ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradoxes of the biblical text. Yes, my encounter with the book of Job changed how I read the Bible, my faith, my outlook on life. Years later, with a Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation and 17 years in pastoral ministry, I am, indeed, forever grateful for it all.

11. Responses to God

Finally, the book of Job taught me each character in the story represents a response to God. God knew the end from the beginning. The satan could not imagine that God and Job, that God and humanity could have a genuine relationship without the abundant blessings God provided. Defeated, embarrassed, and afraid to show his face, the satan dropped out of the storyline.

Job’s wife, who except for his loss of health, experienced the same losses Job did, gave up on God. Job’s friends were stuck. They were unable to adapt to new information or consider other possibilities. Elihu knew there was more, but he limited “more” to the possibility that Job’s troubles were lessons he needed to learn. Job, the exemplar of faith, trusted God and rebuilt his life despite the troubles that came his way. Job taught me that no matter the trouble, rebuilding is always possible and to be faithful no matter what.

Literary excellence, Job, and me

Hats off to the Biblical writers and to the Joban writers!

I am convinced that the biblical writers are theological and literary geniuses. With the finest literary expertise, they grasp the complexities of life, invite their readers to a front row seat, and draw them into the conversation. They weave the realities of life and imagination into a tapestry that captures the heart, mind, soul, and the imagination. The writers of the book Job have no equal. Not only have they taken on the task of dealing with life’s hardest questions, but they have engaged readers, including me, throughout generations past and generations to come.

My favorite book of the Bible: Job

From those days in the early 80’s until now, Job has been my favorite book of the Bible for many reasons. As a piece of literature, its prose and poetry are exquisite. Each character has something valuable to say. The storyline doesn’t sidestep anything.  It covers an agonizing picture of life at its worst.

It is hard to imagine anything worse than the losses Job experienced. Yet, to prove his innocence, in chapter 31 he affirmed his faithfulness by imagining that his life could be even worse. Perhaps we all have experienced the pain of having friends like Job’s friends, even Elihu, who talk too much and understand too little; maybe we have acted like this ourselves. “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Maybe in our most difficult moments sometimes it seems that God has abandoned us and that those closest to us, like Job’s wife, don’t understand. Like people who can say something hilarious with a straight face, the wit5 displayed by Job and his friends as they banter against one another is literary humor at its best. For all these reasons and many more, the book of Job, my favorite, is indeed superb.

Two invitations

An invitation to examine ourselves

The book of Job invites its readers to examine ourselves. Are we, like God, farsighted enough to consider the end from the beginning? Are we like the satan, expecting, hoping for the worst? Are we like Job’s wife, feeling overwhelmed, ready to give up on God? Are we like Job’s friends, stuck, unable to consider a new future story for others or ourselves? Are we like Elihu, open yet limiting the possibilities that lie ahead? Or have we learned to adapt to new information, even when it contradicts what we think we know?  Or like Job, are our hearts and minds open to new things? Are we like Job, committed, determined to trust God, no matter what?

An invitation to enter the conversation

I invite you to enter the conversation and to check out my upcoming book, available on Amazon, God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible, where I discuss my insights and thoughts on the book of Job. Scholarly enough for seminar or graduate study, yet accessible, the book is a good read for seminarians, pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, professors, lay readers, and academicians. Book Clubs and Sunday School/Bible Study groups will find it a good addition to their studies. Believers, non-believers, and inter-faith readers will find it insightful. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in the book of Job or wants to explore the question of theodicy.


Notes

  1. This was long before I understood that history needed to be revised to be inclusive.
  2. This was before I understood that race is a concept that comes to us from the colonial period.
  3. Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church is an African American church in Fort Worth, Texas, where I was a church musician back in the 1980s. The pastor, Rev. A. E. Chew, preached the sermon series that sparked my interest in the book of Job.
  4. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding (Proverbs 4:7 KJV).
  5. Yes, the Bible has lots of humor!
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