Job's Lament: Suffering and Existential Despair in Christian Theology
The Lament of the righteous Job and the Philosophy of Suffering in Existentialism
The book of Job confronts its reader with a series of existential questions; as a narrative about the undeserved trials of a blameless man, it inquires not only into the meaning of existence itself but also into the meaning of seemingly meaningless suffering – which can lead to a dilemma of existence. Throughout history, this dilemma of existence has reared its head in the writings of philosophers, theologians, and poets alike.1 With the rise of Existentialism2 in the 19th and 20th centuries, man’s search for meaning shifted away from God and back toward himself. As a result, his view of life took a decisive turn toward despair and absurdity.3 Interestingly, the bulk of the book of Job seems to be dedicated to these very themes, leaving one to wonder about the existentialism of Job. While the book of Job offers its readers many existential themes, its implicitly proposed solution to the dilemma of existence greatly differs from the solution of the Existentialists. Modern man is thus confronted with a paradox: he can choose either the self-sacrificing path of Job which leads to life or the self-creating path of the Existentialist which leads to death.4 One is heaven, the other is hell.
Summary of the Book of Job:
The book of Job begins with an image of a God-fearing man named Job; a man whose beauty of soul is described by his blamelessness, righteousness, and truthfulness.5 As an indication of his virtue, Job was greatly blessed with livestock, wealth, and children6 – but even in the face of his prosperity he was not carried away by arrogance or forgetfulness of God.7 When confronted with Job’s righteousness, the devil8 spews venomous calumnies, complaining that Job’s virtue is a direct result of his blessings and protection by the Lord.9 Thus, “in this way blessed Job became the intermediate subject of the contest between God and the devil.”10 So the Lord gave him over to be tested.11 All at once, suffering befell him: “this was the first time such a thing happened to him, everything befell him at once, allowing him not even to draw breath.”12 His livestock, servants, and children were all taken from him in a manner that gave “the indication…that God was the one at war with him.”13 But even in the face of all this, “Job did not sin against the Lord or charge God with folly.”14 Instead, he fell to the ground and worshipped.15
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It is not as though Job was indifferent to his loss. He was shaken to the core by his sorrow, even though, as Søren Kierkegaard put it, he “did not express it[...] in many words.”16 Rather, his lips were formed to reveal the content of his heart – a heart plowed by sacrifice, seeded with gratitude, and watered with worship:17 “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return…the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away…blessed be the name of the Lord.”18 The athlete had been tested and found worthy, for
with these words the struggle was decided, and every claim which would demand something from the Lord, which He did not wish to give, or would desire to retain something, as if it had not been a gift, was brought to silence in his soul.19
In this way, when “he fell to the ground…[he] also brought the devil down,”20 according to Saint John Chrysostom, for he prostrated “not [out of] sorrow alone but [in] worship as well.”21 Likewise Saint Gregory the Great comments: “by his humility, struck down the enemy in his pride, and by his patience, laid low the cruel one.”22
Consider Job’s despair of the vanities of the world: he knew that “before long [he] was bound to be parted from these things,” that they “were not [his],” but rather were a gift from God.23 Notice also how, even “at the moment when the Lord took everything, he did not say first, ‘The Lord took,’ but he said first, ‘The Lord gave.’”24 And with a grateful heart pierced with sorrow, Job worshipped.
Kierkegaard draws out the importance of Job’s worshipful word, which “does not lie in the fact that he said it, but in the fact that he acted in accordance with it.”25 In this sense, Job was not only grateful in word, but also in deed. He lived this anaphora: for even before anything was taken from him, he gave it back to God. It was in his prostration that he proved himself, and his anaphora, to be authentic.
But Job’s trial does not end in worshipful silence. In fact, the book takes a startlingly turn in chapter three, when Job, in the company of his three kingly friends, “open[s] his mouth”26 to break the seven-day silence: “May the day perish on which I was born…for it would have removed sorrow from my eyes. Why did I not die in the womb? Why did I not perish immediately when I came from the womb?”27 This lament of existence might seem chillingly incongruent with his prior worshipful silence. But it is not offered out of caprice, as some might suggest. Rather, it is Job’s attempt to disclose his internal torment to his consolers.28 As Saint Gregory the Great comments, if he had cursed his existence “under the influence of passion” it would not have been the first curse, for he would have also cursed when his children died and later when his wife advised him to do so.29 Further, Saint John Chrysostom notes that this lament is not an indication of a change in his disposition or a faltering of faith; Job did not offer these words “in a spirit of impatience,”30 as Saint Gregory the Great elsewhere comments, but rather as a kind of consolation for his pain.31 Job’s friends are caught off guard, nonetheless, and they rebuke him; after all, they reasoned, he is getting what he deserves, because they could not fathom that a righteous man would be given over to suffering and misfortune.32 Thus, Job, who is made “God’s accuser,”33 endures the “insulting language of his comforters,”34 who implore him “not reject the chastening of the Almighty,”35 which came about because of some hidden sin.36
After enduring the loss of his possessions,37 the corruption of his flesh, and the words of his friends, one would think that “blessed Job ought to have been praised by his Judge for great power of constancy.”38 But that is not what happens. Instead, the Lord appears to him in a whirlwind39 to “reprove him with strict justice…lest his very victory should lay him low with the sword of pride.”40 The Lord then “relate[s] to [Job] His own [Divine] virtues”41 – virtues which Job could never attain42 – in order to humble him before restoring to him a double portion.
The noble athlete accepts even this rebuke – and in this way the rebuke becomes for him a benefactor, “for as a ductile tube is lengthened by being hammered, so was he raised the higher in praise of God, as he was smitten with heavier chastisement.”43 Furthermore, it was in this rebuke that he saw and heard the Lord. As a result, he humbled himself in repentance,44 recognizing again, as he had both before and during his trials, that man exists for God.45
In this way, the story of Job moves from the existential why (which is assumed in Job’s faith at the beginning of the book) through the theodical why (which is discovered) to the doxological imperative: man is a liturgical being who is created to worship God – for all that belongs to him is a gift from God. He is thus called to live an anaphora: to give back to God what He has given him. And when he does, God restores to him a double portion. In gratitude and repentance, then, Job was able to bear the sufferings of the cross as a type of Christ; as a result, of his sacrifice, he received not only a double portion of all he had before, but also hope in a resurrection.
Summary of Existentialism:
By the 20th century, philosophy had reached a breaking point. With the devastation of two world wars and the great depression, modern man found himself stripped of Leibniz’s positivism and thrown into a life of Voltarian candidness.46 As a result of the death of God,47 a prophecy then reaching fulfillment, the meaninglessness of life gripped modern man with startling severity,48 forcing him to cultivate a garden49 of new values in order to imbue his life with new meaning – and to redeem his own sufferings.50 This quest of meaning-making fell to a motley lot who took up the mantle of Nietzsche with a double-portion of individualism.51 Cultivating Nietzschean seeds with intellectual rigor, Existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (the French Existentialists) believed that man had been “deceive[d]…about the value of existence,”52 not to mention its purpose.
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