Job and Retribution Theology

One of the
strongest impulses within most of us is the belief that good people are rewarded,
and bad people are punished. There is an immediacy to it. When bad things begin
to happen to us, we quickly ask, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” When
someone else is suffering in life, there is a natural tendency to see them as
getting what they deserve. We love stories of “good people” who win the
lottery. We like to believe it is because they deserve it. As a pastor and leader in the church, people often come to
me for counsel and many times they speak of a feeling that they are being
punished for wrong they have done. Even Jesus’ own disciples assume this “retribution
theology” when they ask Jesus about their encounter with a blind man. “Who
sinned, this man or his parents that he has been born blind,” they ask (John
Jesus immediately corrects them and says neither, and yet you and I still tend
to think that this is the way the world works. Proponents of the Prosperity
Gospel use our natural tendency and try to convince us that this is indeed the
way the world works.[2]
The Book of
Job in the Old Testament is designed to help us understand the true way God
functions. The preface of the book of Job is where we must begin and be certain
to understand that Job is considered by God himself to be “innocent and
virtuous” (1:8; and 2:3) long before and even after the calamities come upon
him. The Accuser believes that if Job lost all that he had, and if his health
was taken away, he would no longer be innocent, virtuous, and faithful to God.
But God allows the Accuser to take away all of the good in Job’s life and still
Job remains faithful, virtuous, and innocent.
The rest of
the book is an explanation of the common understanding of retribution theology
which Job’s friends and even Job seem to endorse. There is this sense in which
humans are forever believing that if someone is suffering, they must have
sinned; and even when the evidence suggests otherwise, we will continue to believe
in this retribution theology.
Now some
reading this article will argue that, indeed, retribution theology is the way
in which God functions. They would show proof-texts from the book of Proverbs,
or Deuteronomy 27, 28 (which connects obedience to God’s law with rewards and
disobedience with curses) and tell us that is precisely how God functions.
However, Tremper Longman III explains it this way.
“…one of the important contributions of
the book of Job…is to undermine the idea that retribution theology works
absolutely and mechanically. Sometimes sin does lead to negative consequences,
but not always. Similarly, sometimes proper behavior leads to positive
outcomes, but not always. Job serves as an example to warn against judging
others on the basis of their situation in life.” (p. 67).
God never
fully answers why Job suffers. God simply appears before Job and it is clear to
Job that God is the only wise one. Job “repents” at the sight of an
all-powerful God. But his repentance is not from
“sin that led to his suffering in the first place. In the
dialogues, Job has grown increasingly impatient… He concludes that God is
unjust. At the end of the story, he changes his attitude and behavior (he
repents, in other words) toward God, now that he has not only heard about him
but also seen him (42:5).”[3]
Thus, the other key learning from
the Book of Job is that, regarding suffering, “…the ultimate resolution is
patient suffering before a wise and powerful God.”[4] We
may not understand it ourselves, but we can trust the wisdom of our God as we
go through the sufferings of this life. Job is an important book that teaches
about wisdom and suffering. May we read it carefully and mine all of the truths
it has to offer.

Here and throughout this article, I rely heavily upon Tremper Longman III’s
excellent commentary on the book of Job and particularly the essay contained
within it entitled “The Theological Message of the Book of Job.” Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament
Wisdom and Psalms)
, Baker Academic, 2012 Commentary by Tremper Longman III.
[2] Longman p. 66, 67.
Longman p. 65, 66.
Longman p. 68.

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