The undisturbed esteem my downfall a disgrace such as awaits unsteady feet; yet the tents of robbers are prosperous, and those who provoke God are secure, whom God has in his power.
This is from Job’s reply to his friend Zophar’s first speech in Job chapter eleven—when the hero is told to go and make himself worthy so that he may be able to hope in relief from God. How does that expression go? You know, the one about God helping those who help themselves? In 11:13-15 Zophar says:
If you set your heart aright and stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, remove it, and do not let injustice dwell in your tent, surely then you may lift up your face in innocence; you may stand firm and unafraid.
Worded another way, Zophar tells Job to get his ducks in a row and then approach God. Mind you, this is dissimilar to Jesus’ teaching to make amends with others before you attempt to make amends with the Almighty. Put down your sin, sober up, block those internet sites, push back from the table, stop wasting money and get out debt…then come before God and approach the mercy seat, because, as Zophar says in verse eleven, “God knows the worthless and sees iniquity” and will not ignore it!
Sadly, Zophar’s way of thinking about the things of God—about faith—isn’t easy to miss today in congregations all across the fruited plain. And it’s understandable why this is so, since we live in a staunchly meritorious society. Growing up, I remember seeing commercials for Smith Barney: “We will sell no wine…” Sorry, wrong company, same spokesperson. “At Smith-Barney, we earn it.” “We earn it.” Three words—and such a simple sentence—that sum up an attitude of success and satisfaction. Drinking a cold beverage following a day of working in the sun—eating a meal with friends after giving the hours of your day to your boss—“These people appreciate me.” “I’ve done that, so I can get to do this.” Clearly, we earn it culminates in, “We deserve this.”
In Job’s day—as well as in ours if we’re being honest—worldly success was the mark of blessing. It was a sign to all that you were favored by God, that you were something special, someone to look up to, and to emulate. Job had been one of those, but now, he was downfallen, disgraced, and a “laughingstock.”
“Through your effort, Job,” explains Zophar, “you can stand tall again. But if you don’t do this, you are lost.” Zophar is expressing here that most ubiquitous of human practices: self-justification—the hallmark of the meritocracy. We reckon ourselves the masters of our own fates and that we are deserving because we have made the correct choices. And because of this, we deserve our blessings. But those who don’t make the same choices, what about them—about the ones that are prosperous and living “guilt free”—well, that just proves that the world is unfair and that everyone—except of course for those like us—will one day get their comeuppance. Zophar is undoubtedly happy that Job was getting his, I think.
This doesn’t sit well with Job, though, and in chapter twelve he raises a serious challenge to Zophar’s meritorious faith and what is said to result from it: robbers prosper, thugs rule with impunity, rich and poor are treated differently by those charged with impartiality…And they all do this in the presence of God in whose power they reside. Essentially, Job is asking Zophar here if worldly “blessing/comfort” is truly the sign that he thinks it is.
Job goes on to say that every animal, all nature, and the whole earth knows that God has created all things and is present in all circumstances: through drought and times of plenty, through ease and difficulty, though injury and health, God is God, and what God has decided to do, who can withstand?
“In his hand is the soul of every living thing and the life breath of all mortal flesh,” Job says. “He makes nations great and destroys them, spreads people abroad and abandons them. He takes understanding from the leaders of the land, makes them wander in a pathless desert. They grope in the darkness without light; he makes them wander like drunkards.” (Ahem) No matter what Job does, no matter what befalls him, God is still who God is. I AM.
Is Job calling God capricious? Are we merely pawns in divine game of chess? No. Job is simply reminding Zophar and all the rest of us who tend to forget that God is the hero of this story. God is the cause and the effect. The Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end. And because of this, no matter the circumstance, God is always God, and God will always save: It is the nature of love, to meet each of us wherever we are, no matter the state that we are in, so that we can live in hope. Perhaps that’s why James tells the church in Acts 15:19 and 21 that they “ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God…For Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town, as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath.” Their story is not our story; their encounter is not ours; but their God and our God are the same, and in God, we are one people.
In Acts 14 we hear Paul teach that, “it is necessary for us to undergo hardship to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And later in todays reading from Acts, in chapter 16, the apostle is on the receiving end of a serous beating, mistreatment, and incarceration for daring to free a slave girl from the power of a demon. And what results from this hardship? The kingdom of heaven grows with the salvation of the jailer and his house.
“Zophar,” Job says, “how can I possibly arrange my ducks in any formation that would earn me a blessing?”
In Acts 14 we see Paul and Barnabas returning to Jerusalem in great success from their mission to the Gentiles. Countless souls have been shown salvation and have accepted the love of God into their lives. Countless souls saved for the sake of victorious kingdom. And none of them had ever followed the law—most had likely not even heard of the law of Moses. Yet in spite of this, they had experienced the Spirit of God firsthand. To the self-justifiers in the Jerusalem’s church, this could not stand.
“Have them do this, and they will be saved—be blessed by God.” So many millennia later, Zophar lives! “Those Gentiles can’t have a life with God, they just can’t be saved by grace, they have to do something.” They can’t even celebrate the ever increasing victory of the cross because they have to win the point.
Peter and James come to the rescue here, both explaining that God’s initiative to save the Gentiles cannot be thwarted. What God does, God does. This diving action, as confusing as it may appear, is the grace that goes before; this is the grace that justifies; and this is the grace that shapes our lives into the image of Jesus Christ.