Sameer Yadav graciously sent to me his article titled, “A Joban Theology of Consolation“, published in the Harvard Theological Review, Volume 117, Issue 2. Not only does his reading of Job bring great consolation to me personally, it brilliantly foregrounds a key aspect of unmerited suffering and evil; namely, that there may in fact be no rhyme or reason for it though we can (and should) find consolation from it. How? By confronting the enormous gap in our epistemic abilities to justify God in the face of indiscriminate evil. The confrontation, however, is more than a passive admission of our intellectual limitations. Instead, it is met with an active pessimism out of which comes an even-handed realism. This matter-of-factness, Yadav claims, serves to increase our experience of compassion and comfort.

There were not a few moments of clarity for me as I read through the article and I wish to capture some of them here. My hope is that Yadav’s project obtains a wide readership, a responsible understanding of Job, and, most importantly, a substantive increase of consolation and compassion for us all.

The article abstract reads …

Contrary to much of the commentary tradition, the book of Job is not primarily a discourse on how to properly speak (or withhold speech) about God in the midst of innocent suffering, nor is it aimed primarily at offering up the character of Job as an exemplar of how to suffer correctly (or incorrectly). Neither is it a treatise about human submission to (or rebellion from) God’s mysterious sovereign prerogative in permitting evil. It is instead a theological exploration of the dilemmas and demands of consolation that confront us given the inexplicable enormities of human suffering. Its unifying aim is to confront us with multiple voices that pull us into an open-ended—and decidedly pessimistic—reflection on what innocent suffering reveals to us about our creaturely limits and the fragility of our hope in God, features of the human condition that require our capacities for compassion to exceed our capacities for theological sense-making.

One perspicuous moment for me was how much I can (should?) learn from Job’s conversation partners who labor long and hard to provide him counsel. Specifically, I am quick to position an existential crisis within the construct of God’s sovereignty as if God’s control is a panacea or heuristic that somehow offsets the genuine pain and sorrow of suffering. Rather than entering into the lament, seeing it for what it is and longing for compassion, I find it easier to just frame it under the rubric of God’s providential (even if ‘permissive’) plan. But this will not do. How dare I claim “It’s all good” (or anything of the sort), when instead I should see sorrow in affliction as a reminder that all of life is unreliable, tenuous, insecure, sketchy. Anywhere, anyone, anytime, tragedy can happen. Forgetting this by wielding the sword of God’s control assumes I am in some objective position that I in fact do not have. It even approaches a naive optimism that can result in a false hope. Put differently — and in the strongest of terms — “those who must defend at all costs the justice of divine providence against human despair turns those who speak it into enemies of those who suffer horrendous evils. To lack God’s wisdom, understanding, and power, and yet to ‘take God’s side’ is to betray one’s own humanity” (pp 192-193). Moreover, Yadav opines that

It is not Job’s arguments, but Job himself, the concrete reality of his existence, that exposes what is actually motivating his interlocutors. This is most clearly stated in Job’s reply to Eliphaz: “you see a horror, and you’re terrified” (6:21). The problem with Job’s abasement is that if it is truly unmerited, truly inexplicable and indiscriminate from our point of view, and truly an experience of the sort that warrants the kind of despair Job expresses, then it can strike anyone, anywhere. This would force Job’s friends to recognize themselves as inhabiting the same uncontrollable and chaotic world that Job inhabits as one that makes them equally vulnerable to his fate, and this terrifies them. Their dialect of divine providence has been constructed precisely in order to impose order on the chaos and render the uncontrollable wilderness into a safely domesticated space with clearly demarcated boundaries to keep the malign providences of God at bay. They have supposed that by claiming representation over God’s moral governance to reprove Job’s despair, they can themselves become immune to despair. But this is an illusion…” (p 193)

Rather than being carried along by some glib recurring trope, “God’s got this!”, Yadav insists that we offset this sanguine approach with a healthy dose of pessimism, which, ironically, could lead to hope rooted in a raw realism. Listen carefully:

Whatever metaphysical judgment we make about the goodness of the world — even if it is the goodness of the world to come — we must still do justice to the misery of the suffering here in the world we now inhabit1 …. Sometimes the things that don’t kill us also do not make us stronger but critically injure us, leaving us permanently maimed. Suffering does not always hold the promise of a good received, and some lives can be and often are reduced to such wretchedness that they truly no longer merit the desire to live them, even if being robbed of that desire is not reason enough to end our lives. For some of God’s creatures, at this very moment, the most basic goods of life are irremediably and irreparably closed off to them. This does not mean that hope is non-existent in such circumstances, because there is also a distinctly pessimistic form of hope … the hope of longing in the face of the uncontrollability of the world is sometimes desperate hope, of the sort that does not permit our judgments to run so far ahead of the experiences of suffering that they are left behind, minimized, forgotten. (pp 200-201)

Despite taking their best shot at explaining why he is so profoundly afflicted, Job refuses to accept any comfort from his dialog partners. At every turn, Job pushes back on their counsel. Yadav’s analysis of their extended exchange is, in my estimation, undeniably keen and especially insightful — even serving as a warning to those of us who claim to know the ways and means of God in permitting innocent suffering.

“We could aptly summarize the target of the dialogues with Job’s human interlocutors as a theology of meaning-making in suffering that is underwritten by a kind of toxic positivity about the human relationship to God’s providential guidance of the world to its intended ends. This toxic positivity insists on making all suffering productive and castigating all those who despair as blameworthy for failing to appropriate the meaning that might relieve them of their own misery. On the Joban perspective, such a positivity emerges not from faithfulness to God but as a defensive strategy of terror management. It is a distinctively theological form of spiritual bypassing, where a doctrine of providence is wielded defensively in order to sidestep one’s unresolved terror about one’s own susceptibility to horrendous suffering and death. Ironically, it turns out that Job’s comforters were never engaged in an honest attempt to comfort Job in his unspeakable degradation in the first place. They were instead seeking to comfort themselves with the illusory fantasy that their own life in God’s world is not in fact like that of the zebra among predators but more like tourists on safari in the Land Rover being safely transported under the protection of God, their armed guide.

When God intervenes on this dispute, therefore, we find Job in ever increasing desperate need of the empathetic consolations he has been denied, and as readers we are now poised to find out whether he will receive it from God. He won’t.” (emphasis original, p 194)

Finally, but certainly not lastly, our author maps out a “Joban figure” in Jesus, seeing in Job’s life a Christ-like figure. He provides five points of possible connection between Job and Jesus, two of which I’ll mention here and ones that I find particularly intriguing. First, “on a traditional incarnational christology, Jesus’s own suffering, dereliction, and death can be understood as divine solidarity and sharing in the fragility and finitude of innocent suffering that marks the human condition.” Second, “in his own scarred resurrection body and its promise for our own, Jesus offers a distinctive kind of hope compatible with Joban “pessimism,” one that retains the wounds of past loss, weaving it into a newness of life capable of future flourishing yet without forgetting, minimizing, or reappraising evil of past suffering” (p 202-203).

Yadav sums his project clearly and wonderfully:

The unifying purpose of the book is thus neither to defend God nor commend (or condemn) Job, but to draw its readers into an open-ended and transformative reflection on what innocent suffering reveals about our creaturely limits and the fragility of our hope in God, features of the human condition that ought to illicit and motivate empathy and compassion. (p 198)

To be sure, Job is Scripture’s most enigmatic book. To read it responsibly is no small task. While “A Joban Theology of Consolation” is much larger and richer than what I’ve captured here, I believe it has helped me see the value of a pessimistic reading of Job that is grounded in realism while avoiding a naive optimism. In reading Job responsibly it is my hope that I can avoid “theological sense-making” and instead find a surplus of compassion and consolation to guide and govern how I engage the unmerited pain and suffering of life.

About the Author

Sameer Yadav is a scholar of Christian mysticism and religious experience, race and religion, and theological method.  His research is interdisciplinary, engaging the historical, sociopolitical, philosophical, and moral dimensions of Christian faith and practice.  He is the author of The Problem of Perception and the Experience of God (Fortress Press, 2015), as well as many articles in academic journals and edited volumes.  Currently he is working to complete two books: God and Race (Cambridge University Press, co-authored with Brock Bahler), and From Story to Doctrine (Baker Academic). Works in progress also include a project on Job and Christian pessimism, another on Howard Thurman’s mystical theology, and a third on Christian social ontology and antiracist theologies of “peoplehood.” He earned his B.A. in philosophy from Boise State University, an S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School, and a Th.D. in Theology and Ethics from Duke Divinity School. He currently serves as Associate Professor, Department of Religion at Baylor University.

  1. Elsewhere, he says, “Job is restored but his children are still dead” (p 198). This point is often missed and has huge implications for how we apply the book of Job to human suffering. ↩︎

On a view not unlike the one presented here, see also “Learning to love: The surprising joy of memorising Job“.

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