Growing up around my father’s family, one of the rites of passage was playing cards, specifically poker, with the grown-ups. Most of the kids in the family learned to play solitaire, rummy, Tripoley, and other card games before graduating to playing poker. As kids, we would get a deck of cards and learn the various hands you could get, try to strategize by learning each other’s tells or trying to count cards in our heads. My grandmother, who was bed-ridden, would sit and play cards with me for hours if I wanted and I could always count on my cousin to play, especially if he thought I had any money. All that was fun, but you knew you had reached the big time when you could sit down with the adults around the table and play for real money.
My big day came when I was about twelve years old. My parents had carried my sister and I to visit my father’s uncle Charles. Like most of my dad’s aunts and uncles, he was close to Charles and even worked with him for the better part of thirty years. We had simply driven up for a visit but in that family, if more than three or four people are around they almost always managed to find their way to a table to talk and if they talked long enough someone would notice the cards and then, a game happened.
They sat around a simple round kitchen table, my father, his uncle, and three of my dad’s cousins, playing what they called penny poker – most of the stakes being pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. They probably hadn’t been sitting there long when walked in from playing outside. Most of the time I wouldn’t ask to play because they usually didn’t let us kids play but I had a five-dollar bill in my pocket and I could already see my winnings in from of me. I started by asking my dad and he, of course, said no but his uncle heard the conversation and asked me if I had any money. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a crisp, folded fiver, what we always called silent money. My dad’s cousin Michael spoke up and said, Sit down and we’ll teach you how men play cards. I got a chair and sat down next to my dad thinking this was a great day in the life of Michael Jarrell. I am playing poker with the grown-ups.
As I pull the chair up the table, my dad looked down with that stern sort of Dad look and said, When you run out of money, you have to give up your chair. I looked around the table at my dad’s cousins who were smiling like a pack of Cheshire cats and my uncle who gave a look with one raised eyebrow like he was saying, You hearing this? I nodded and got down to business, tossing my quarter in for the ante and taking the first five cards I ever held, playing poker like a man does.
The problem was, I was getting beat like a boy does. I lasted a grand total of about five hands before my five dollars was spread out among my dad and the others at the table. As the last cards fell on the table and I knew I was beaten, my dad’s cousin James said something like, “I guess you didn’t want that chair much.” I was hoping for a reprieve or an advance on my allowance, but my dad nodded, and I knew that was the end of that. Five hands and my first experience of playing cards like a grown-up was over.
Everyone at the table had kind of chuckled when I lost, and I began to wonder if a conspiracy was afoot. As I got up and walked outside, I began thinking to myself, This is unfair! I barely got a chance to play! They ran me off! Did they let me play just long enough to get rid of me? Probably not. They didn’t have to. Everyone at that table had been playing cards together since before I was born. The truth was, most of them could feel whether a hand was good enough to win, especially with each other. Truth or not I was convinced that I had been unfairly, unjustly deprived of my grand opportunity to take my first steps toward professional gaming immortality…in the way that only a twelve-year-old can.
Losing five-dollars in a game of penny poker is small potatoes compared to the suffering some have seen; but do you ever feel like that, like people or circumstances or life or God is being unfair? That last one is a hard one to think about but how many times in life have we said, “Why me, Lord?” We wonder if the pain, the frustration, the anger, the emptiness ever ends. In the deep recesses of our souls, we question and think to ourselves, “How could God do this? Why would God let this happen? Is God really God if he won’t do anything about it?” Millions have asked these questions, some finding solace in the answers they found some never find a satisfactory answer. We are going to spend the next few weeks learning some perspective on the problem of evil.
The problem of evil is at the core of our story as Job was dealing with it. I imagine, in his mind, by the end of chapter three in the story, Job is seeing the problem quite clearly, more than he wants to see it. The story sets this up by saying Job was a righteous man, with the first verse of the story,
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
This declaration sets the stage for everything that happens after this in Job’s story: the heavenly wager, losing his children, his livelihood, his wealth, his physical suffering, his connection to his wife and friends because of that loss and suffering, his connection to God. All of this is happening in what seems to be an unjust manner to someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it. Why would a good and just God allow a person to suffer needlessly?
This is a question that has dogged theologians, philosophers, and believers from the time we began to use our heads as more than a hat rack. Many theories have been offered, debunked, rebunked, and offered again. For some, God is God and no other answer needs to be given. He created it he can do what he wants with it. Sovereignty means being able to define good and bad any way you want, and the creatures created by the Creator can deal with it. But some would ask, What kind of God allows suffering, murder, genocide, abuse, starvation, and the other ills of the world? What kind, indeed. If God is a God of relationship and the greatest commandment is about loving God and loving others, what kind of love is being expressed by one who could stop the suffering that he allows? Some philosophers have said that if God has knowledge of all things past and present and allows bad things to happen to people, he is evil and if he does not have all power he is a limited expression of a god. We can see how the problem is set up by looking at the beginning of a common argument on the problem of evil.
- If God exists, God is omniscient, or all-knowing.
- If God exists, God is all-powerful.
- If God exists, God is morally good and loving.
- Evil and suffering exist in the world.
This is the part where things can get muddled in a hurry. God is all those things from 1 through 3 but 4 is very real in our scripture and our world. In the story, there is a sort of heavenly wager that takes place in chapters 1 and 2. In the first chapter, Job is presented as a man who is blessed of God for good reason: he is faithful to God. Because of that faithfulness, God has allowed/caused all of Job’s ventures in life to prosper. He has a large family with sons to carry on the family name. He is wealthy with large herds of animals and many servants. He was considered, the greatest of all the people of the east.
The wager comes in as the Adversary or the Accuser comes before God with all the other heavenly beings and questions Job’s faithfulness by saying, Job is only faithful because God has been good to him. The idea is commonly known as retribution theology. If you are good, God will be good to you. If you are bad, God will allow/cause bad things to happen to you. The Accuser wants to put this theological idea to the test with the greatest of all the people in the east. Realistically speaking, if the greatest loves God only when things are good what hope is there for the rest of mankind. The wager is that Job will lose his faith and curse God to his face if all the things he has been blessed with are taken away.
And then, bad things happen, bad things man.
First, Job loses his livestock – essentially his wealth – when the Sabaens and Chaldeans attack, kill the servants, and take off his oxen, donkeys, and camels. While that was going on, fire from heaven burned up all of Job’s sheep and the people tending to them. And finally, the house where Job’s children were having a feast collapsed on them and killed them all. His wealth, livelihood, and legacy all gone in the span of a few moments.
I can’t speak for you, but this would have wrecked me. It would be difficult, but I could live with losing the wealth. But losing your children…that might be a bit more than I could take. Yet Job responds by tearing his robe and shaving his head (both signs of repentance) and falling on the ground to worship. He declares, Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
When the heavenly beings meet again, Job is the central topic of discussion as God says, Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason. I want you to notice that last sentence. There are two things we will come back to there over the next few weeks:
- Job persisted in his integrity
- The Accuser incited God against Job for no reason.
So, God allows the Accuser to be Job’s personal tormentor with the caveat that Job’s life must be spared. The Accuser gets to work on Job by giving him loathsome sores from head to toe which Job scratched off with a broken piece of pottery. Job has no sense of a heavenly wager, no voice in the deal between God and the Accuser, he is simply the unwitting object in a celestial chess match. He is simply suffering body and soul for everything that has happened and is continuing to happen.
But what about us? We have all had our Job moments haven’t we, all had those times in life when it seemed like the rain cloud followed us no matter where we went, a downpour of pain and hurt with every drop. Can we say God is good at those moments? Can we be like Job and not sin or charge God with wrongdoing?
The One Point: Things, stuff, life happens to all of us. What are you going to do about it? How will you respond?
Atkinson, David. The Message of Job. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1991.
Beebe, James R. The Logical Problem of Evil. n.d. https://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/ (accessed October 10, 2018).
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.
Epicurus, Sextus. “Concerning God.” In Faith & Reason, edited by Paul Helm, 38-40. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Greene, Joel B., and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Janzen, J. Gerald. Job: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.
Mohn, Elizabeth. The Problem of Evil. 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=03ed9c6a-c807-4de4-a590-d3ef65e25688%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=87995384&db=ers (accessed October 10, 2018).
Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons Indexed by Number, Title and Scriptural Reference. Sarnac Lake, NY: Cedar Eden Books, 2014.
 Job 1:1
 (Epicurus 1999, 40)
 (Mohn 2017)
 Job 1:3
 Job 1:11
 Job 1:21-22
 Job 2:3