Monday, February 12, 2018

Job and Retribution Theology

One of the strongest impulses within most of us is the belief that good people are rewarded, and bad people are punished. There is an immediacy to it. When bad things begin to happen to us, we quickly ask, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” When someone else is suffering in life, there is a natural tendency to see them as getting what they deserve. We love stories of “good people” who win the lottery. We like to believe it is because they deserve it. As a pastor and leader in the church, people often come to me for counsel and many times they speak of a feeling that they are being punished for wrong they have done. Even Jesus’ own disciples assume this “retribution theology” when they ask Jesus about their encounter with a blind man. “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he has been born blind,” they ask (John 9:2).[1] Jesus immediately corrects them and says neither, and yet you and I still tend to think that this is the way the world works. Proponents of the Prosperity Gospel use our natural tendency and try to convince us that this is indeed the way the world works.[2]

The Book of Job in the Old Testament is designed to help us understand the true way God functions. The preface of the book of Job is where we must begin and be certain to understand that Job is considered by God himself to be “innocent and virtuous” (1:8; and 2:3) long before and even after the calamities come upon him. The Accuser believes that if Job lost all that he had, and if his health was taken away, he would no longer be innocent, virtuous, and faithful to God. But God allows the Accuser to take away all of the good in Job’s life and still Job remains faithful, virtuous, and innocent.

The rest of the book is an explanation of the common understanding of retribution theology which Job’s friends and even Job seem to endorse. There is this sense in which humans are forever believing that if someone is suffering, they must have sinned; and even when the evidence suggests otherwise, we will continue to believe in this retribution theology.

Now some reading this article will argue that, indeed, retribution theology is the way in which God functions. They would show proof-texts from the book of Proverbs, or Deuteronomy 27, 28 (which connects obedience to God’s law with rewards and disobedience with curses) and tell us that is precisely how God functions. However, Tremper Longman III explains it this way.

“…one of the important contributions of the book of Job…is to undermine the idea that retribution theology works absolutely and mechanically. Sometimes sin does lead to negative consequences, but not always. Similarly, sometimes proper behavior leads to positive outcomes, but not always. Job serves as an example to warn against judging others on the basis of their situation in life.” (p. 67).

God never fully answers why Job suffers. God simply appears before Job and it is clear to Job that God is the only wise one. Job “repents” at the sight of an all-powerful God. But his repentance is not from

“sin that led to his suffering in the first place. In the dialogues, Job has grown increasingly impatient… He concludes that God is unjust. At the end of the story, he changes his attitude and behavior (he repents, in other words) toward God, now that he has not only heard about him but also seen him (42:5).”[3]

Thus, the other key learning from the Book of Job is that, regarding suffering, “…the ultimate resolution is patient suffering before a wise and powerful God.”[4] We may not understand it ourselves, but we can trust the wisdom of our God as we go through the sufferings of this life. Job is an important book that teaches about wisdom and suffering. May we read it carefully and mine all of the truths it has to offer.

[1] Here and throughout this article, I rely heavily upon Tremper Longman III’s excellent commentary on the book of Job and particularly the essay contained within it entitled “The Theological Message of the Book of Job.” Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), Baker Academic, 2012 Commentary by Tremper Longman III.
[2] Longman p. 66, 67.
[3] Longman p. 65, 66.
[4] Longman p. 68.

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