I like some books of the Bible much less than others.
Take Ezekiel. I dislike Ezekiel. Paradoxically, it manages to be both trippy and tedious. It also paints an uncomfortably harsh picture of God.
Then there are the books I love, like Job and Ecclesiastes. Job is a meditation on punishment, pain and the authority of God. Ecclesiastes describes a philosopher’s search for the meaning of life. (Ecclesiastes is not to be confused with Eccleston, who played the Ninth Doctor in Doctor Who.)
These books fascinate me. They put the story of Scripture on hold to ponder some of the deep questions that have frustrated, tantalized and challenged thinkers for millennia: Why do good people suffer? Is God fair? What matters in life? What is the outcome of death?
These books come to the same conclusion, broadly speaking.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Job. At Satan’s request, God torments a righteous man named Job as a test of faith. Will Job remain faithful to God through his afflictions, or will he curse God for making him suffer?
Job’s friends arrive and say some stuff. Job says some stuff. A bystander named Elihu says some stuff. And just when the reader thinks everyone has finished talking, God himself shows up to say some stuff.
Job’s questions remain: “If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you?”
Now that God has revealed himself to speak directly to Job, it’s time for answers.
Except it’s not.
God’s response to Job is to emphasize his own absolute power and authority over everything. From lightning bolts to ostriches, God has it all under control. Even though God answers none of Job’s questions, he resolves them. Job acknowledges God’s greatness, and God goes on to restore Job’s life.
While the book of Job ends on a comforting note, it’s not a very satisfying one. Job lived happily ever after, but he never (as far as we know) discovered the truth behind the cosmic contest that caused his suffering. Job’s agonies remained a mystery to him for the rest of his life.
The book of Ecclesiastes ends on an even gloomier note. Its author comes to the conclusion that life is beyond understanding, and it’s best simply to live and to work and to be happy. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” he declares. “Everything is meaningless!” Remember, this is the Bible I’m quoting here; these statements seem strangely agnostic to be included in the Word of God.
In the end, as we live in world we can’t understand, we’re left with one guiding principle: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”
I like Job and Ecclesiastes because they’re honest. They’re not bright, cheerful Sunday School lessons that pretend to make sense of everything. They struggle to find meaning in a world that seems meaningless, and conclude it can’t always be found. The most sensible option is to trust someone to whom nothing is meaningless: the God for whom there are no mysteries.
I once wrote a post for this blog, one of the best I’ve ever written, in which I admitted I have my doubts about Christianity. Some things don’t make sense to me. I’m a Christian anyway because these doubts are outweighed by evidence supporting the twofold idea that God is and that he is good.
God hasn’t answered my doubts and questions—but he has resolved them. Like Job and the author of Ecclesiastes, I must believe that God knows what he’s doing, even when I haven’t the faintest clue.