God’s Goodness to Job

At the beginning of last year, I wrote a song as a reflection on all the things God had done in my life the year before. The refrain went: “Oh, the goodness of the Lord is before my eyes, all my life.”

I was reminded of it this last Sunday.

The sermon at church was on the book of Job, and afterwards, my six-year-old niece, Abby, asked me what the pastor had been talking about. Our conversation went like this:

“Well,” I said, “Job was a man in the bible and all his possessions were destroyed, and his kids were killed, and he got very sick.”

“And Satan did that?”

“Yeah, God gave Satan free reign with everything Job had. But Job still kept his faith in God. Which is why we still read his story today, and will probably keep telling it for all of eternity.”

“And his wife didn’t believe in God?” she asked.

“No, she did believe in God. But when she saw all of the bad things that had happened to them she couldn’t believe that God was good anymore, so she told Job it would be better for him to die than to go on living.”

“And how was God good to Job?”

” . . . ”

It was a long silence, but I did end up giving Abby an answer. What I wonder is, what’s your answer to that question? It’s an important one. Is God still good when His goodness is not visible?

And how is He good?

It’s not just the question of a six-year-old, or Job’s wife, it’s the question of our world. Look at everything that’s happening, how can you still believe there is a good God?

The goodness, kindness, and gentleness of God have marked my life in extraordinary ways, but the hardest lesson of my spiritual life was having to choose Him when His goodness was nowhere to be seen.

Which is why it’s also a profoundly personal question. Moses doesn’t exactly describe what he saw on the mountain when God “caused His goodness to pass before him.” Maybe we all would have seen or experienced something different. And maybe we all do experience the goodness of God in unique ways, which is why it’s so crucial we tell, or sing (if you’re me and sing everything), or write about it — like David did in Psalm 23:6.

In the last chapters of Job, God has a conversation with Job. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful portions of all of scripture, because in it God describes Himself — He literally goes on and on about Himself. But the key is not just that God answered, not even that God defended Job, but that He stayed with him, and heard everything both Job and his friends had to say. He never left him for a moment.

What I told Abby was that the goodness of God to Job was His relationship with him.

But that’s my answer because that’s my story as well. In this video the preacher and writer, Bob Sorge, gives his interpretation of God’s goodness to Job, based on his own testimony and experience. It’s well worth a watch:

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The Bloodstained Dreamcoat (Joseph)

Owen Jones - Joseph dreams of stars
This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Genesis 37, 39-41.

I want to clarify something I said in my last post about having “to choose between ‘a good life’ and a God life.” Though that is the choice as I saw it then, it’s also a false dichotomy. The “God life” is a very good life, and a good life can be a very hard one. Hitching your wagon to His star will not keep you from suffering anymore than hot-tailing it in the opposite direction will. And I think this is important because, as I get older and see more and more of my friends choosing other lives than the God one, the number one deciding factor is always disappointment. It’s sickness, failure, bankruptcy, loneliness . . . In short, they expected something better from God than what I got.

I’m not talking about presumption. I’m talking about justifiable, even biblical, expectations. The kind of things we teach our children, and preach from our pulpits. If I wait upon the Lord, He will show me His will for my life. If I steward my business well, God will make it profitable. If I save myself for marriage, God will bring me a worthy husband. If I marry the one God tells me to, we won’t have any trouble having kids. If the Lord has promised, He will fulfill. If I delight myself in Him, He will give me the desires of my heart . . .

It’s different for every person what will test their faith to the breaking point, but I believe we all get there. The five thousand were disappointed when Jesus refused to give them more to eat. The rich young ruler turned away after God didn’t “meet him where he was at.” And even John the Baptist was offended when the kingdom he’d heralded didn’t keep him from being imprisoned . . . or beheaded. Ouch.

In the face of personal failure and unfulfilled promises in my own life, my faith survived. I got up, I dusted off the ashes, and I continued to follow. But something else in me died: my ability to dream. I could still believe, but I could no longer hope. I knew that God was wholly good, but I doubted that he was fully powerful. Otherwise, why had He failed to come through?

Owen Jones - Joseph cast into the pit

When God began to encourage me to dream again, I asked Him to tell me about Joseph. Why, if God was going to give Joseph dreams, did He show him reigning? Why didn’t He warn him about the years in slavery, about his life as a prison warden? Not only did God not warn him about that, He gave him a dream calculated (strategically, I’d say) to aggravate his brothers’ resentment of him. Next thing he knows, he’s pleading for his life from his own family, he’s facing the prospect of starving to death at the bottom of a pit, and then his identity is stripped off his back and his life is sold for petty cash.

I was talking with some friends about this series the other day and joked that, though Ezekiel is one of my favorite bible characters, I’d have to call a post about his life “God is Mean Sometimes (Ezekiel).” I’m not usually one to skim over hard verses. I kind of enjoy reading Revelation, I actually love the God of Job. But the God of Ezekiel baffles me.

The way God treats Joseph baffles me, too. Take for example his second dream: “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Jacob scolds him for this. “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”

Will they? When does that happen? Like the sheaves of grain in the first dream, Joseph’s brothers bow down to him as ruler of Egypt. But by then, his mother is already dead. In fact, she was probably already dead when Joseph had the dream. So it’s possible Jacob is talking about Leah here. But based on where she was buried, it’s likely she was also dead long before Joseph was released from prison.

And Joseph himself also baffles me. What was it about him that let God know he could gamble on Joseph’s faith and win? What do we even know about Joseph before his young life is in ruins? (My only answer is this must be the greatest testament to the buoyancy of children who are deeply loved by their fathers!)

Owen Jones - Jacob blesses Joseph

During those years, through betrayal after betrayal, how did Joseph keep up faith that God had not betrayed him as well? In a way, God had betrayed him. Joseph himself says that it was God who arranged for him to be sold into slavery. It took 25 years for him to know why. Maybe during that time he just thought, “Well, I got it wrong. God doesn’t speak through dreams after all.” But we know he didn’t because it was eventually his faith in God’s interpretation of dreams that got him out of prison — as simply as it had gotten him in. What if somewhere in all that time he had just given up on dreams? Where would we be?

We can’t know what was going on in Joseph’s heart or head. We don’t have eighteen chapters of him ranting, like Job. All we know is that at the very end of everything his answer is, “Am I in the place of God? . . . God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

And all I know is my faith would not have withstood that test. Sitting there amidst the ruins of my hope, I’d tell God this. “I’m not him. I’m not like that. You gambled wrong.” I wasn’t a phoenix who would rise from the ashes.

Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” When thousands turned away from him, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” And Peter answered, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.”

So this is the part of the post where I’m meant to solve the riddle. But I don’t know the answer yet, I’m still learning to dream again. I know it’s there, somewhere just out of my reach. I know it has something to do with Peter’s answer to Jesus (I’m going to talk about Peter and the other reason we turn away from God in another post). And I know it has something to do with that second dream, the unfulfilled one, the impossible one, where they were not sheaves on the earth, but stars in heaven.

Eyes Wide Open (Balaam)

This is a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Numbers 22-24.

This is a story I often come back to. I pour over it. I angst about it. I just don’t get it. I find preachers and biblical commentators to be widely dismissive of Balaam, but what I read here is the account of someone who had an actual relationship with God. He speaks with God, he hears from God, he believes God, and he obeys God. That’s a lot more than I can say about a lot of Bible characters, and many believers I know.

But most telling of all, I think, is the fact that God honors what he has to say, as Balak testifies, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” It sounds a little like what Jesus says about the believers in the New Testament. And God doesn’t actually deny this, though I’m sure he’s not intimidated by it. He seems to be operating under the same assumption.

Balaam's Ass

Conversations With Donkeys

Balaam, however, is actually not very interested in God’s honor, though he is intrigued by the prospect of being honored by Balak, which he rightly interprets to be financial honor. So, he says the second time Balak comes for him, maybe God has something else to add. After all, sometimes “You shall not” means, “Sure, go ahead.”‘

The point here is that no, it doesn’t. Ever. But Balaam’s heart is not actually after God’s heart, and he’s interested in finding out what he can get away with. Perhaps he can find a way to cash in without disobeying. God finds this mindset so perverse, he actually tells Balaam he can go and sends an angel to kill him on the way, but his donkey sees the angel and detours.

Yes, you read that right. Balaam, soothsayer, holy-man, prophet for hire, is saved by the spiritual awareness of a donkey. Whether or not donkeys make for good protagonists (Eeyore?), this one seems to be a pretty stand-up character. His anger somewhat abated, God again allows Balaam to go on, and Balaam is good on his word to both God and Balak, he speaks only what he hears from the Lord.

What God is Not

The next bit is a kind of tedious kingly rigmarole. It’s like a case study in “determining” the will of God when you already know the will of God. Balaam and Balak prance around, building altar after alter, sacrificing bull after ram, testing the theory that God will let them curse just a portion of Israel, or perhaps if they get just the right angle . . . In short, testing God. And there is nowhere in the Bible that’s a safe thing to do.

Balaam hits the nail on the head when he says, “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?”

Balaam isn’t dumb, nor is he inexperienced in holy matters. He understands that God has already made himself clear on this one. He spoke with Him, he spoke with a donkey, he spoke with an angel, and unlike Zechariah, he doesn’t need anymore signs. So, different from his first two prophecies, which start with a psalm about God’s constancy and incontrovertibility, he starts the last two with an ode to his own spiritual prowess:

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor, the message of the man whose eyes see clearly, the message of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who bows down with eyes wide open.”

No, Balaam is no dupe. He makes it clear he’s not a fool for God, but he knows it’s unprofitable to go against Him. So he worships, but never lets his vision be clouded by love. Or so he thinks. The God he loves, Peter tells us, is money. He’s nearly tripping over himself in his mad pursuit of it.

Seeing Clearly

If your vision is bad, Jesus said, it doesn’t matter if your eyes are open. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Balaam knew what was good for him and he never went against God (though he does “let it slip” to Balak that the Israelites have a few areas of weakness, resulting in the death of 24,000 of them). Balaam never speaks anything but what the Lord tells him, yet he’s held up as a standard of a false prophet by Peter, Jude and even Jesus himself. The truth of his prophecies didn’t seem to matter compared to the falseness of his heart, proving the maxim, “If wrong our hearts, our heads are right in vain.”

Faith vs. Encounter

So what’s the rub with Balaam? Why does his story haunt me? What keeps me coming back to this wayward prophet who spoke rightly and loved wrongly?

My heart breaks for Balaam. His relationship with God is, like I said, more than I can say about a lot of believers, but it’s exactly what I can say about a few. They spoke with God, they heard Him, they believed in Him, and it wasn’t enough . . . 

Knowledge failed. Encounter failed. Why?

This is something I’m writing about not because I understand it, but because I don’t. Far from having the answers, I’m still struggling to ascertain exactly what the question is. How could you know God . . . and not know Him? How could you speak with Him . . . and not love Him? Once you’ve seen . . . what else is there?

Last week I talked about the allure of certainty, and how it can never satisfy. Zechariah sought for certainty, but it wasn’t given to him. Balaam had certainty, but it didn’t help him. But there is a kind of certainty that pleases God. It’s called faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure. Faith is certainty without sight.