Job, broken friendships and reconciliation
Yesterday I posted this tweet: “Job chapter 42 is hope for broken friendships. God can reconcile. It does include some honest revisiting of the past.” Some friends then asked me to blog about it. So here goes.
Job was a godly man. Both the author and the Lord himself make that clear up front (1:1, 8; 2:3). In fact, it was Job’s faithfulness to God that got him into trouble (1:8; 2:3). So the entire book must be read with Job’s integrity in mind. Even in his extreme suffering, Job never gave in and turned against God (2:9-10).
Job’s three friends were, at first, appalled by the catastrophic destruction of his life. They came together to comfort him. They wept. They sat speechless. They didn’t know what to say (2:11-13).
But after a while, they thought of plenty to say. Chapter after chapter, they went on and on needling him with insinuations of the deep dark secrets that must be there, to account for what had happened to him. They were like the soothing voices of the torturers in the Spanish Inquisition: “All this pain can be over so soon. Just come clean. Confess your sins to us.”
Job’s friends lived in a psychological world of crime-and-punishment. They probably subscribed to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They were good theologians. Paul quotes one of them approvingly in 1 Corinthians 3:19. But the gospel had not yet softened their inmost moral instincts. So functionally, without realizing it, they reverted to justification by works alone. Job had to be guilty at some level, and was now getting his comeuppance. It never occurred to his accusers that maybe these events in Job’s life were part of a great battle being fought in the heavenlies.
Apparently, Job’s untidy realities were threatening their tidy notions, and they transferred their anxieties to Job as their scapegoat. After all, if God could body-slam Job for no visible reason, what might that imply for them too? But if they could successfully find fault with Job, then their glib moralism could continue undisturbed, they could go on feeling good about themselves, feeling in control, and they wouldn’t need to trust God with some extremely difficult mysteries in life. These three men needed Job to be in the wrong somehow, in order to justify themselves.
To his credit, Job never caved to his accusers. He was not claiming to be a sinless man. He was only insisting that he had committed no sin that could explain the destruction of his life. His friends kept insisting there was no other way to explain it all. The friendship imploded. One wonders if they had really been friends all along.
Chapter 42 resolves the story. In verses 1-6, Job has his own moment with God, when he bows more deeply than ever before. He stops hoping for an explanation from God. He reproaches himself even for expecting it. He says a profound “Yes” to this: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). So God accomplishes a work of renewal in Job’s heart. But God does not say to him, “Job, you know very well why I did all this. You sinned here, and here, and here. Remember?” God never joins with Job’s accusers. God is not the Spanish Inquisition.
In verses 7-9, God confronts Job’s friends. Surprisingly, God does not say to them, “You have not spoken of Job what is right.” God says, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” The debate was really about God all along. The real question was not, What kind of person is Job? The real question was, What kind of person is God? They had been saying, in effect, “Job, we represent God. He is like us. So if you satisfy us, you will satisfy God.” What arrogance.
So God turns the tables on them. He commands them to take a sacrifice to Job, who will act as their priest and pray for them and get them off the hook with God. Now we realize how important it was for Job’s three friends that he not surrender and agree to their accusations. When their day of reckoning came, they needed a true friend to stand in for them and pray for them. By holding onto his integrity, Job was ready to serve them when everything in their relationship with God was on the line.
So they humbled themselves and came to Job, and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer for them. I don’t know if their theology changed at this point. But I am guessing their hearts changed. I have a hunch that, for the rest of their lives, they were more cautious, more restrained, more self-aware, as they formed opinions about suffering people.
In verses 10-17, after Job prays for his friends — that sequence of events is significant — then God restores Job’s fortunes. God was compassionate and merciful (James 5:11), Job was compassionate and merciful, and his life ended really well.
The book of Job warns every one of us to be aware of our sinful inclination toward opinionated grandiosity. Suffering is often a social reality as well as a personal reality. We see people suffering. We are tempted to blame, to stigmatize, to accuse. When that judgmentalism pours out of us in words against them, we risk sinning as Job’s friends did — speaking against God himself, oblivious to the real battle above.
When we ourselves are the ones suffering, and our friends betray us, our suffering intensifies with the added burdens of isolation and shame and loneliness. The Lord then calls us to forgive them, even as we ourselves have been forgiven for our many betrayals of the Lord (Colossians 3:13). Not that this forgiveness is easy. But it is the Lord’s call upon us. This deep forgiveness is internal to ourselves, way down deep, whether or not our tormentors admit any wrong.
But if the friendship is to be restored, then Jesus explains how that can happen. Not that this is easy either. But it is our Lord’s path to restoration: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). John Stott, in his book Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation, writes about this verse:
“We are to rebuke a brother if he sins against us; we are to forgive him if he repents — and only if he repents. We must beware of cheapening forgiveness. . . . If a brother who has sinned against us refuses to repent, we should not forgive him. Does this startle you? It is what Jesus taught. . . . ‘Forgiveness’ includes restoration to fellowship. If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love but its shallowness.”
Much more could be said about the path of restoration the Lord gave us in Luke 17:3, which functions as an addendum to Job chapter 42. But these four steps are clearly set forth: (1) a brother sins against us, (2) we rebuke him in a careful, restrained way, (3) he repents and owns up and makes it right, and (4) we forgive him — restoring the friendship and bringing great glory to God.
The book of Job is intended to create among us a gospel culture of humble restraint, a readiness to trust and to comfort when we cannot understand why a friend’s life has just imploded. Other passages, like Luke 17:3, help us repair and restore a gospel culture after it has been damaged by rash judgments. In it all, the primary question is always, What is God really like? Am I being fair, not only to this other sinner and sufferer, but to the Lord himself? Am I representing him truly? Or by my mercilessness am I becoming the photographic negative of Jesus? And what is it going to take for everyone involved, especially ex-friends, to reconcile and rebuild and bring great glory to God?
The Bible has spoken to these vital matters.
This post was originally published on The Gospel Coalition