For mankind, justice is closely linked to getting what you deserve; what we sometimes call a quid pro quo, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is the cause and effect which makes up so much of our legal system and is in keeping with our Judeo-Christian values. It is retributive justice, and it is why we are so offended if we see someone getting away with doing something. It defines, in many ways, the moral meaning of life.
This is justice on the penal side. What about the other side is well? Do I deserve blessings? Do I merit goodness? Can I expect God to bless me when I’m being good? Is there a moral meaning to life, or does good stuff and bad stuff just happen, without meaning in life? The story of Job is laced with these questions. It’s one of the most interesting books in the Bible. It is also one of the oldest and is written both in prose and in poetry. It is the story of us all: “Why am I suffering? I don’t deserve this injustice.”
Perhaps of all the Bible characters, many of us might most closely identify with the character of Job. We identify with his joys and his sorrows. But most of all, we identify with his frustration at the silence of God to the great questions of life. Like Job, we want answers; but the book of Job is not a book of explanation: It is a book of deliberation, contemplation, and illustration. Ultimately, it is a book of questions, not answers. It addresses many of life’s questions but leaves you to find the answers for yourself.
What is the justice of God? What does mankind considered to be just? What does God consider to be just, and are they the same thing? The book of Job begins like a Dickens novel. It is for Job the best of times and the worst of times:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1)
We don’t know where Uz is. There’s no historical record. There’s no archaeological evidence of where the place called us is. You might say he was the first Wizard of Oz. In the story as it unfolds, we see what his possessions were and the great wealth that he has. Then:
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. [This is not the same Satan we normally think of as the progenitor of evil. This is a different meaning, but we’ll leave that for for another time.] The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)
A central question that’s raised here is this: Is there such a thing as disinterested faith? Will people go on believing in God when they are not rewarded; or more accurately: Will people follow God or have faith in God when they are experiencing sorrow and injustice? Job is the most righteous man on the earth, facing the most unrighteous lot in life. So what does he do in response to his unspeakable loss?…
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God. (Job 1:20-22)
Notice that Job’s response to injustice was to worship. The response to injustice in the book of Nehemiah was also worship. Job’s wife, however, is something else. She and Job had lost their wealth, their children, and their servants. It’s a pity in retrospect that Job didn’t lose his wife and his friends as well, because they, as we shall see, were not very helpful. His wife said to him:
“Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10)
His friends then came to visit him and they found him in such distress that…
…Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great. (Job 2:13)
The message of Job’s friends, which takes up a whole section of the middle part of the book, is essentially the same argument that Satan made, that God and human beings give to each other what they receive. I give good to God, God gives good back to me, I give evil to God, God gives evil back to me. They probably should have remained silent because it’s quite clear from the end of the story that God did not believe and did not appreciate their view of His justice. “Since you’re clearly getting bad from God, Job, you must have been a sinner. You’re getting justice from God. You’re getting what you deserve.” But Job knew in his heart that this was not true and he strongly resisted this argument. He realized that the quid pro quo of justice is not what God’s type of justice is. If you’re looking to understand the justice of God, you’re going to be disappointed. It doesn’t matter what you do: The world makes no moral sense.
In Matthew 26, we see the story of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus. The disciples object to the expense of the perfume. But in verse 11 of Matthew 26 Jesus says: “The poor you have with you always.” Why doesn’t Jesus just eliminate poverty, do away with it, eliminate it and completely eradicate it? Is it disturbing to know that the world has haves and have-nots? That injustice is part of the human condition? What does it do to the notion of what our response to injustice should be?
In the discussions between Job and his friends, each pushes his own viewpoint on the cause and effect of God’s justice. Job is puzzled but he is unbent. In verse 13 of chapter 13, he says: “Be silent before me so that I may speak.” He’s now responding to the to the arguments of his friends. “Then let come on me what may. Why should I take my flesh in my teeth and put my life in my hands? Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him. For also this will be my salvation for a godless man may not come before His presence. Listen carefully to my speech and let my declaration fill your ears. Behold, now I have prepared my case. I know that I will be vindicated. Who will contend with me? For then I would be silent and die.”
That is the answer to Satan’s challenge. Job acknowledges the greatness, the majesty, and the mystery of God but he maintains that he has not sinned and does not deserve this injustice. Then, in a sudden turnabout, God shows up in a thunderous whirlwind. In rapid succession, He fires off 77 questions to Job concerning the credentials to be God. The details of his creative power (chapter 38) and the details of his actions in nature (chapter 39) make two powerful statements. First: “I’m God and you’re not”; and second: “You cannot accuse Me of being indifferent to My creation, since I know everything about the creation, and I indeed have engineered at all.” This was the same interpretation Jesus applied in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:26 where he talks about the sparrows of his creation: “Look at the birds of the air that they do not sow, neither do they reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more worthy than they?”
Job is blown away by God’s response and humbled to the point of contrition. He becomes dismissive of his concept of injustice and the fact that he has been treated poorly. He says:
Then Job answered the Lord and said, “I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” God Displeased with Job’s Friends It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. (Job 42:1-7)
There is much more here—a lengthy explanation of how Job intends to litigate against God for justice (Job 9:13) and arguments all around by all the participants about God’s justice, about the quid pro quo, and about the cause and effect of how God’s justice system works. What thoughts do you have about God’s justice from what we read in the book of Job? When God talks about justice, how is it similar to our concepts, and how is it different? And why doesn’t God just do away with all injustice? Why not be miraculous and rid rid us of this curse, this scourge, forever?
Beverley: I think there’s a spiritual component that is very different from the penal system that we have. And the contrast is hard to wrap your hands around. God clearly says that in the spiritual realm we don’t deserve anything good. So anything that we get is purely grace. We have a hard time dealing with that. But on the other hand, something that I cannot understand (and I guess I never will until Jesus explains it to me Himself) is why God would saddle Himself or tie His hands with a dependence on mankind to represent Him. The poor you will have with you always, because we are to be his hands and feet. But He’s Almighty God and yet He chooses to tie His own hands with the unreliable and ungodly bunch that we are.
Clinton: It seems to me if the poor you will have always, then it follows that [you will have the] marginalized always. And you just can take it to whatever level you want to take it. But it’s almost inevitable that there will always be the poor, the marginalized, those who aren’t treated, those who are treated unjustly, etc, etc, etc., because that’s the nature of the world in which we live. And so the question is really: Whose burden is it to correct the situation? Is it the burden of those people entrusted by God, with so much in such terrible hands? Or do we rely on God to do something drastically? How far does the individual go to right a situation which is inevitable? And how far does the individual leave it to God to right a situation which is inevitable? What do we do?
Beverley: I think we have an obligation to right wrong. That’s what the scripture clearly teaches. But God chooses to limit Himself. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to say, but He chose to limit Himself by depending on us and we are not reliable. So is it a test of us, those of us who respond in the way He wishes or those who fail to respond in the way that He wishes? We mark or define our future or our spiritual end by the route we choose.
Donald: But I ponder “the poor will always be amongst you.” We know what poor is. If you’re hungry, that is poor. However, poor is also a judgment. Because there are people who have less than others. There will always be people who have more, too. When we talk about poor are we talking about wealth? Are we talking about life? Our conditions? Our health? What are we talking about when we say poor?
Someone afflicted with poor health is poor. But unfortunately, when we think about poor we think about it from a financial point of view, it seems like. In many ways I think cleanliness and hygiene and food and those kinds of things are really fundamental, because in my travels, I have always come away thinking I am very blessed, but I do not want to impose what I think is “the” way of life for another group of people, my life for another group of people. I have taken hundreds of young people into Africa, and they come away thinking that their $40,000 a year education allowed them to get there. They are certainly blessed. But who is more blessed, the people visited—who have peace and a different social network—or we, constantly on our phones and trying to stay busy and failing to keep up with this and that?
Beverley: I think you can define poor however you want, as poor health for instance. But when we say poor, we’re talking about having the basic necessities of life. If you don’t have the basic necessities of life, you’re poor, everybody knows that and I think everybody will accept that. Now, if want to talk about poor health, then we’re really talking about health. But “the poor” are people who don’t have the basic necessities of life, the poor you will always have with you, those who don’t have what really is basic to an adequate existence.
Donald: Are we talking about hygiene and food and warmth?
Beverley: Whatever contributes to adequate existence and health. If you don’t have water to drink and bathe, you don’t have housing, you don’t have food, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’re searching the garbage heaps for scrap to keep the hunger pains away, you’re poor. Now you may have poor health as a result of that. But I think we can all agree what poor means. Now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy, because you may have love and you may have family structure, but that does not defeat the definition of poor. But if you include love, social networking, and care, you can have a person of great wealth that doesn’t have those things.
Rheinhard: Going back to Job: The bigger picture is that Job didn’t know the arrangement between God and Satan. He was he was left in the dark, pretty much. I think it’s God prerogative to allow this to happen. In the end, God comes through and saves Job. Although God gave power to Satan to cause Job much harm, we can see that Satan has limitations in how he may interfere with our life. He cannot just do anything he wants if we are close to God, if we are connected to God. I think this is the lesson: That Satan cannot touch us unless God allows it; that although bad things can happen, in the end, God will save his people.
Jay: Job’s friends’ interpretation of justice, that God is a just God and can do no wrong, meant that if bad things were happening to Job, it must be the justice of God. As things unfold on this earth, we as human beings apply God’s justice to them. We try to define the things that happen to us as being the result of God’s justice or not, and I think that takes us back to our misconception that good things happen to people who follow God and bad things happen to people who don’t. So if you have difficulties in your life, if you’re poor, well, this must be the justice of God.
I think this was the mindset of the Pharisees. “Oh, you’re sick? Well, that’s God’s justice because you’re a sinner. Oh, you’re a leper? Well, that’s God’s justice because you’re a sinner. Oh, you’re a beggar? That’s God’s justice because you’ve got some kind of sin in your life.” Jesus seems to want to turn that around. And we—society—don’t overtly relate those two things as black and white any more: “Hey, you’re sick, you must be a sinner! Hey, you’ve got difficulties in your life so there must be something going on.” But there’s no doubt that when things aren’t perfect or right, we tend to think “Whoa, if I could just get myself in line with God a little bit better here, this will turn around for me.”
Beverley: You can visit someone who is terminally ill and suffering, yet walk away feeling uplifted and blessed by what they have to share with you and say to you. There are individuals it seems who, when pressed on all sides, draw closer to God. It seems logical that as Satan said, “They love you because you bless them and they hate you if you take away the blessing,” but I haven’t experienced that in my own life. The people who have blessed me the most in terms of my interactions with them, and have inspired me, are those going through very hard times, yet uplift me. I walk away feeling “Wow, this is just amazing. I am blessed.” God chooses our circumstances and He knows why. We don’t know why. Maybe He gives me a hard time today because He knows, a year from now or six months from now I’m going to meet somebody I can uplift with my experience. Or there is someone He is inspiring to come and intervene in my life because I’m having a hard time. And again, He uses us human beings as His emissaries.
Donald: How does Daoism fit into this conversation?
David: It introduces something we’ve forgotten about, apparently: The Beatitudes. It’s the poor who are blessed by virtue of being poor. As Beverly said, when you’re with poor people, you often get the sense of blessing, of grace. The message of Daoism fundamentally is, go with the Way, go with God, no matter what. And there is grace.
Beside my my Daoist tendencies, I’m also a process theologist. Beverley wondered why God uses us to be the vessels to bring his plan to fruition. Process theology is the simple belief that God is both a Being—he exists, always has, always will—and is also Becoming. I believe that through us God can Become—can reach his full potential. It is a kind of cyclical process [as a postscript, I would amend that to quantum process], with Alpha and Omega marking both the beginning and the end of a cycle. In other words, they are One. We’re partway through that cycle and we are getting better at helping God to Become. The widow in Israel today is nowhere near as destitute as the widow in Judea 2000 years ago. Humanity has gotten better at following the Golden Rule, despite all the mayhem we see around us. There is spiritual progress. God is Becoming. But the process has still got a long way to go.
Jay: Is there a contradiction between being blessed and being poor? How quickly we as human beings want to set up these contrasts and, in my opinion, mess them up. There are two really troubling Beatitudes. One is “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—that’s weird. The other one is “Blessed are the persecuted”—that’s weird too. Yet theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The idea of justice is tied to that, which I think the story of Job highlights. What we perceive as God’s justice sometimes we mess up, especially in light of the haves and have-nots. The have-nots are getting the justice they deserve, and the haves are getting the justice they deserve. We tend to think that way, whether we admit it or not. If things are going well in our lives, we believe we have God’s blessing. God’s justice, the quid pro quo relationship, is: “Hey, I’m in line with God and God is saying, Good job! Here’s a new car! Here’s a good marriage! Here’s a healthy person!” That concept of justice is very different. When you tie it to these two Beatitudes it really chains around [?], potentially how you want your life to look.
Kiran: Without the sense of pain, we would do dangerous things and end up with amputated legs and hands. Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in David and Goliath about how poverty is necessary for people to become growth minded. Every culture has rags to riches mentality, and people in poverty have the drive to become rich, and then they work hard, they are more productive compared to people who are extremely wealthy, while their children don’t understand the value of working hard and then eventually become poor.
According to Gladwell, the right balance between wealth and poverty in the United States is an annual income of about $75,000, an income group that does much better in terms of their children’s education—providing opportunities for them, and so on. So when Jesus said “the poor will be always with you” it’s like having no pain and therefore doing dangerous things. It’s like having leprosy. When you have leprosy you don’t feel pain so you don’t treat your body well and then eventually lose your fingers. To have a growth mindset, whether it is wealth, whether it is morality or anything else, having a sense of lack is essential. Maybe that is why we have poor among us.
Clinton: It seems to me there is great danger in finding virtue in poverty and suffering. There is a tendency, a temptation, to justify poverty. The Bible is fairly replete with the notion of retribution. You reap what you sow. Is God involved in that process of sowing and reaping or are you on your own? It seems to me the Bible is very clear that whatever you sow, you will reap.
There are two points I’m trying to make: One, the temptation to justify or find virtue in things that are bad (because it makes you humble) so let’s keep them poor so they can be humble and have a desire to want better; and second, that there’s a theology of retribution in the Bible: Whatever you sow, you reap. Is God involved in that process or are you basically on your own?
Jeff: I don’t think the Beatitudes is a prescriptive narrative per se. I don’t think this is God saying: “You should be poor in spirit or you should be persecuted.” Rather, it’s descriptive: “These people are blessed. They’re not in my bad graces because they’re in this position, but rather they are blessed.” It is true that the Bible is replete with retribution and cause and effect, but it’s also replete with instances where the sense of prosperity, of well being, is depicted in a desirable light; that prosperity is something God wants to give to you and is something we should try to achieve. I don’t think the Beatitudes are saying you need to try to be poor, but rather I think it’s in some ways a rebuke to the haves who say these are not unblessed people.
Beverley: When I am experiencing a bad time in my life, regardless of what it is (illness or financial poverty or whatever) God has allowed that experience in my life so that I can become a better person. That’s Becoming. And on the other hand, a rich man who planted and reaped a plentiful harvest so that his barns were insufficient to store all the grain so he built more barns and sat back and relaxed and enjoyed the good life was “becoming” mean. And so God cursed him, telling him “You’re foolish. You should have shared your bounty but instead you wanted to store it. You’re becoming negative.” So our experiences—of abundance or scarcity—set the direction in which we set sail and determine what we will become. That’s why God allows them in our lives, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, because He then is ultimately having us make choices to become who He intends for us to become.
Clinton: So we’re on our own.
Beverley: No, you’re not on your own because again, He gave us choice at the beginning. That’s another thing I don’t understand: Why in the world would God give mankind the choice to reject Him? It just blows my mind. But that’s what He chose to do. And so we have to exercise those choices and we have the choice. We can exercise it to become a negative person or we can exercise it to become a positive person. He says that He needs love and He doesn’t want to compel us so He gave us this choice we use to define ourselves.
Anonymous: I believe what’s happening is God’s justice. What’s happened, everything that happens to me or to the whole world is justice, because God is in control. Whether we understand that or not doesn’t change the fact. And His way of justice is completely different than we understand justice. Justice is not man’s thing. We don’t understand justice. We don’t know how to practice justice. It’s just something not for man. So whatever God allows to happen, that is justice to me.
Beverley: That doesn’t mean that you just sit back and sit on your hands and say, “It’s God’s business” and just let it go. You see somebody hungry. That’s injustice. So you don’t have any role to play in feeding the person. Or you see somebody has some other problem and you just say “That’s God’s justice.” That’s the problem I have with that notion. Because He clearly teaches that we are His hands and feet on this earth, and He expects us to reflect His character in our lives. We can choose not to, but that’s His expectation. Our eternal salvation is based on how we handle that option.
David: Justice is basically love. It’s the heart of what Jesus said: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself—the Golden Rule. So we know what justice is. God has told us and we hear it inside ourselves. The inner spirit tells us in no certain terms. We know that to love your neighbor as yourself is the right, the just way to be. What we don’t know—this is the point of the story of Job—is that we can’t possibly understand God. We think we can.
As well, we tend to conflate the material with the spiritual. If you look at the Bible as a book of questions—spiritual questions—then (like Job) you can reach some kind of enlightenment. You won’t get answers per se but, like Job, you’ll feel some sense of enlightenment; though that does not mean you will understand in the intellectual sense.
Whether you have material wealth is utterly irrelevant. It’s what’s happening to your spirit that matters to God. So the poor in spirit are always among us, but not necessarily the materially impoverished. In many parts of Scandinavia now the poor are no longer among them, thanks to enlightened and effective social welfare. In Helsinki, I have personally observed people who appear to be poor alcoholics hanging around the railway station for warmth and companionshop, taking furtive swigs from a bottle. In a sense, they’re paid to be that way by the state: They get generous welfare benefits that keep them alive and in liquor. So material poverty is not the point. It’s irrelevant. It’s spiritual poverty that matters.
Donald: The rich can be empty, devoid of love. We envy Hollywood stars but quickly realize how empty they are. I’ve had occasion to reach out to someone who did not eat for a month—not because he was poor, but because he drank to the point where he could not eat and needed hospitalization. Now, I could say he brought it upon himself, but I don’t think that’s where you leave it. That person is poor. It has nothing to do with his financial situation. He has plenty of money for booze. But he can’t find his way into living the life God designed for him. So, I think we need to be very careful of thinking that poor means something financial. Because if you’re spiritually poor or you’re love poor, that’s a terrible place to be. To die alone in your own bed with no one around you, with no one to care… that’s poor.
Beverley: We talk about “love deficits” and we just throw out words such as “poor.” I think 10 people would give 10 different definitions of “poor.” So, we do have terminology that we use for these conditions. Some people are extremely wealthy but on drugs and strung out all the time. The word love has so many definitions that we have to define it closely.
Donald: I think that seven of the 10 will think “financial deficit.”
Beverley: That’s where it’s used most and if it’s thinking about somebody who doesn’t have emotional health, we define it, we say it in specific terms. We don’t just say the word “poor”. But I agree that somebody who’s a drunk and won’t take in nutrients is poor in “X” and I would define “X”—I wouldn’t just leave the term there.
Clinton: I think my takeaway is to imagine (and I think God gives us the power to imagine) ourselves in partnership with God. Existential problems and spiritual problems are intertwined. Our role is to be in partnership with God to help to fix those problems. I don’t want to say: “Okay, you’re poor, you did it to yourself, and therefore it is justified that you remain poor.” I think God is calling us to partnership. And I think what we need to do is to imagine that partnership with God so we can “become” (Adventists might call it some kind of a sanctification); so that we can be more like Jesus Christ. And it seems to me that that partnership will inspire us to be the hand of God, the ears of God, the feet of God.
Poverty is not something we can justify. If people are happy and poor, then leave them alone. Happiness is a virtue greater than economic wellbeing. We could do that because we’re in the spiritual realm now and if you’re in the spiritual realm, everything that makes you happy, makes you virtuous, makes you dependent on God. It is a wonderful thing. Let it stay right there. Don’t touch it, because you are on your way to him. I’m not comfortable with that idea. So I think if we see ourselves in partnership, then I think the partnership is that we have a job to do, and God is going to do it. Not necessarily by us, but through us.
Don: I’d like to be in in partnership with God, but I think God is so utterly irresponsible here. Why doesn’t he stand up and eradicate poverty himself? He’s got a lot more power than I do.
Beverley: He wants you to become more like Him.
Jay: That seems very inefficient and ineffective to me though. I’m a pretty bad vessel. I think God’s got a lot more power, a lot more know-how, and a lot more effectiveness than I can muster.
Clinton: He’s trying to help you. He’s willing to do some messy stuff to get you on board.
Jay: He’s willing to be less effective out of love for me? That’s what you’re saying.
Clinton: Whatever He has to do, He’s right.
Beverley: And He made that choice at the very beginning.
Jay: And that’s the choice that is troubling. I agree there’s definitely something that God is trying to do through us, that we’re a vessel, a vehicle. Where I really struggle with that, especially the idea of justice and passing along justice, is: Why am I so quick to mess it up? A stronger word would be: Why am I so quick to pervert it? It seems as if human beings have a tendency to pervert what God’s justice and or love and or grace is. If that’s just the process, then I guess that’s just the process, but that’s a pretty troubling thing
Don: We will have more thoughts on justice from Job next week.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai; edited by David.