December 2023
Job and the Deadly Spiritual Equation

At the heart of Job is a deadly spiritual equation that still haunts us. The truth is well beyond and above us, and thank God it is.

Job is one of my favorite books of the Bible. That usually catches people by surprise. Why would a book about a holy man falling prey to Satanic torment be something you want to read? Despite the initial fear the book induces, it's extremely comforting and relevant for our understanding of trauma and suffering. Job shows that the worst still leads to the best. And of the many ways in which the book is still relevant, there's one that stands out to me because of how prevalent it is in our times. It's what I call "the deadly spiritual equation."

The Deadly Spiritual Equation

The deadly spiritual equation won't sound so deadly, but if you follow through to the end of the article, you'll see why it is. The equation has two sides, depicted below.

Doesn't look so bad, does it? On one side, of course, Scripture teaches that moral living aligns with God's commandments and character. And God loves to bless those who follow his commands. On the other side, immoral living never ultimately goes unpunished. God is just. So, on the surface, this deadly spiritual equation seems biblical. What's the problem?

The problem is twofold: (1) the complexity of God's providence goes well beyond us and includes our spiritual nemesis, and (2) what happens when suffering comes to the upright? The latter, of course, is what the book of Job is all about. God himself tells Satan and the heavenly hosts that Job is upright. According to the deadly spiritual equation, Job should only receive God's providential blessing. And yet the whole book is about how Job doesn't receive that. He receives torment at the hands of Satan; he receives what looks a lot like punishment to the rest of the world, even to his friends.  

Job's friends maintain the deadly spiritual equation with vigor. Job must have sinned. He must be wicked, because that's how the spiritual equation works. God's punishment (the horrendous suffering of Job) must be the result of immoral living. As readers of the book, we have an insider's perspective. We know that Job is not being punished. We know that he's righteous, by God's own declaration. What are Job's friends missing? And why is this spiritual equation "deadly"?

The Missing Elements

There are two things Job's friends are, the same things missing from the spiritual equation: the presence of Satan and the underlying purpose of suffering in God's world. Both of these elements are brought to the fore by Jesus Christ.

Isn't it odd how Satan only appears at the beginning of the book of Job? He destroys Job's life, drags his head down to the dust, and then he's gone. This isn't arbitrary (nothing in Scripture is). Why is Satan absent from the rest of the book? Why is he absent from all of the discussion among Job and his friends? Answer: the deadly spiritual equation. It has no place for Satan, for the personified presence of evil. Satan is not in the equation. And that's a huge problem, since we know that Satan is the one responsible for all of Job's torment! The cause of Job's suffering, plain as day to readers, is not even on Job's radar. Neither is it on his friends'. For all of them, the deadly spiritual equation is just that: deadly. It's sucking the life out of them, out of their relationships. Isn't that always Satan's goal, to suck the life out of our relationship with God and  with others? Isn't that exactly what he did in the garden of Eden? Job holds up the deadly spiritual equation and turns against God. Job's friends hold up the deadly spiritual equation and turn on Job. Everyone loses. All is broken, until God's voice thunders them into silence and restores what had been shattered.

Job and Jesus

Jesus, as the Son of God, knows that the deadly spiritual equation is the bane of our existence. His ministry leads with the two things the spiritual equation doesn't provide: the presence of Satan (Matt. 4) and the purpose of suffering in God's world.

Jesus confronts Satan out of the gate, immediately following his divine identification at the end of Matthew 3. As with Job, we're told by God himself that Jesus is holy and righteous, but in ways that no reader of Job could ever imagine. Jesus doesn't just have the quality of righteousness through behavior; he is righteousness itself, its ancient, unadulterated source. Satan's assaults on Jesus were thus assaults on God. This was also the case with Job, and with all of God's people assailed by Satan, for God is one with his people (John 17). That's why Jesus can say to Saul on the Damascus road, "Why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:4). Saul had been persecuting Christians, but Jesus equates that with persecution of himself. That's how closely he identifies with us! In the desert temptations, Jesus confronts the devil with the one thing that can fell him: the speech of God, that power responsible for creating all things and simultaneously responsible for judging all things. Jesus strikes Satan with God's speech, and Satan flees.  

Jesus also reveals the purpose of suffering in God's world: cross-carrying to Christ-conformity. This is fleshed out more by the Apostle Paul in Romans and 2 Corinthians, but it's in Jesus's famous call to his disciples. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). Suffering is a call to realize that more is going on in the world than our contentment and happiness. To suffer well, we have to stare at God and deny ourselves. That is also a type of spiritual death, a death of the old, sinful self. As we deny ourselves, as we die to ourselves, we conform to Christ, who denied himself and died for us. The ultimate purpose of suffering is always Christ-conformity. Suffering doesn't make us less; it makes us more.  

Suffering doesn't make us less; it makes us more.

The book of Job, like every other book in the Bible, is about Christ, about our central need for him in a fractured world. Jesus doesn't just reject the deadly spiritual equation; he turns it on its head. Here's what the equation looks like for him. Let's call it the redemption equation. It's wonderfully insane math.

The redemption equation is desperately needed in the book of Job. And it's desperately needed for us right now. Without it, the deadly equation will sap our spiritual life of all vigor and hope.

But where does Satan come into the redemption equation? Is he missing? No. And yes. Jesus dealt Satan a deadly blow. The devil is mortally wounded, though even more deadly in his desperation. But he can do nothing (please hear this!) to disrupt the equation. He can't press us with fear of punishment; Jesus took that on. He can't shame us with a poor self-image; we are the image of Christ now. He can't drive us mad with death-threats; Jesus destroyed the power of death. Satan has a front row seat every time the redemption equation is written on a human heart. And he can't do a single thing about it.  

The Deadly Equation Still Haunts Us

Job is relevant for us today because we still don't get it. We still think that if we're suffering, it must be the result of our sin. We know the redemption equation, but we don't bury it in our breast. It drifts in the head but never settles in the heart. But until it does, we're going to be extremely frustrated. We're going to have false expectations of how life should go for us. We're going to be constantly disappointed, quietly accusing God of being unjust. Like Job, we'll be wanting to plead our case to him, even though we know (as Job did) that this isn't right.

We have to remember why it isn't right. God spent everything on our highest good. That good isn't some material or situational blessing; it's the incomparable blessing of becoming more like Christ, the Son of God. And the path to Christ is the path of suffering with him.

We're still at war with Satan, and we're still being shaped to the image of the one who carried his cross up a hill. But we claim the redemption equation. Rather than looking at our suffering and saying, "Why?" we can ask, "How?" Father, how do you want to shape me to your Son by the power of your Spirit? How? Help me see, and make my feet ready to follow your lead.

Long live the redemption equation.    

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