I grew up in a denomination that had a high regard for what the Bible taught AND for what we thought the Bible should have taught.
Author Phillip Yancey had a similar experience. He described his childhood church this way: “They wouldn’t go bowling because liquor was served in bowling alleys and they wouldn’t go roller skating because it looked like dancing.”
The underlying message was this: If we get everything right, God will be pleased with us and will bless us. We even sang hymns that reinforced it …
When we walk with the Lord, in the light of His Word
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey
Not a shadow can rise, Not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, Not a sigh nor a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey.
But there were times I had trusted and I had obeyed and the shadows didn’t go away. I still had doubts and fears. If making Jesus smile was the secret to driving away the clouds, then I wasn’t making him smile.
And if Jesus isn’t smiling at you, then he must be frowning.
This line of thinking wasn’t unique to my childhood. Not even unique to Americans. It’s human nature.
Religious or irreligious. Christian or non-Christian. Most everybody believes this: good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
When those gets reversed, we get confused. Such is the story of Job.
According to Job’s friends, there was a simple explanation as to why Job was suffering: he was reaping what he had sown. In their mind, God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
Let’s listen in as three different friends take turns telling Job what his problem really is. The first one to speak is named Eliphaz.
5 But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed. 6 Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? 7 “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? 8 As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. 9 At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more. — Job 4:5-9
Next up: Bildad.
1 Then Bildad the Shuhite replied: 2 “How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind. 3 Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? 4 When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin. 5 But if you will seek God earnestly and plead with the Almighty, 6 if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your prosperous state. — Job 8:1-6
Next in the parade of stars is Job’s friend Zophar.
13 “Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, 14 if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, 15 then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear. 16 You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. 17 Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning. 18 You will be secure, because there is hope; you will look about you and take your rest in safety. 19 You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid, and many will court your favor. 20 But the eyes of the wicked will fail, and escape will elude them; their hope will become a dying gasp.” — Job 11:13-20
All three of these friends are saying the same thing: God is punishing you because you’ve sinned and it’s up to you to fix your own problems.
How does Job respond? With a bit of sarcastic humor …
2 “Doubtless you are the only people who matter, and wisdom will die with you! — Job 12:2
1 Then Job replied: 2 “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you! 3 Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? — Job 16:1-3
The advice Job receives from his friends is simple: work harder to be better. Then God will bless you. This advice leads to two problems.
The hammer of self-righteousness.
God calls us to live righteous lives. A simple definition of righteous is this: to do the right thing for the right reason.
In other words, I obey God’s command to not get drunk because I want to honor him.
A self-righteous approach would be this: I’m not getting drunk because I want to prove I have more control over my actions than you do.
In both cases, I didn’t get drunk. If the end result was all that mattered, then God should be pleased either way.
But that’s not how God thinks.
Legalism allows you to look good on the outside and not be changed on the inside. Legalism allows you to claim “I’ve never killed anybody” while still hating people in your heart.
The myth of self-sufficiency.
Self-righteousness and self-sufficiency go hand-in-hand. Rather than encouraging Job to rely on God, his friends were actually encouraging him to rely on himself.
“Job you need to do this. Job you need to stop that.”
On the surface, it seems logical: if you created all your problems, then surely you must be able to fix them all, too.
Legalism says God will love you if you change. The gospel says God already loves you and he will change you because he loves you.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved … 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. — Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9