A good idea from ... Job

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The Independent Culture
WHY DO some people have happy lives and others disastrous ones? Why are some people rich and others poor? A traditional way to answer the question, associated as much with the Old Testament as with Conservative governments, is that good things happen to people when they are good (hard- working, righteous etc), and bad things (poverty, unemployment) to people when they are bad. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Bible assures us that the godly person "shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water ... and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The ungodly are not so: but are like chaff which the wind driveth away."

Given that this is obvious nonsense, the Bible does fortunately include a far more convincing explanation for why innocent people suffer and fail to prosper. Written in the 4th century BC, the Book of Job tells the story of a righteous, God-fearing man from the land of Uz, who seemed to have been rewarded for his goodness because he was very rich and had a large loving family. But then disasters began to rain down on him. The Sabeans stole his oxen, lightning killed his sheep, the Chaldeans raided his camels and a hurricane killed his children.

He was thrown into despair. Why had God allowed such things to befall a righteous man? His friends knew why. Job must have been sinful, he must have done something wrong. Job's friend Bildad the Shuhite told him, "God will not reject a blameless man."

But God stepped in with a superior, more consoling answer, in the shape of a set of questions to Job. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? ... Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? ... Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens? ... Do you give the horse his strength, or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?" Here were attempts to remind Job of the range of things which God controlled. He did not only think of man, he was looking after horses, the frost and so on. While Job had an assured place in God's world, all things did not converge on him. It was impudent of men to insist at all times on interpreting their fate egocentrically - to decide that everything which happened to them was done with reference to something about them. When a hurricane destroys a house, it is not necessarily because its inhabitants were bad.

Though God's answer was designed to increase Job's faith by teaching him that he was not the measure of the universe, it remains useful even to atheists struck by misfortune. It suggests to us - in paranoid moments - that we cannot always explain our destiny with reference to our moral worth. We can be cursed and blessed for reasons which have nothing to do with us. Events which appear to have singled us out may be obeying their own capricious laws. When the Chaldeans raid our camels, when lightning kills our sheep or we are sacked, we do not always have to blame ourselves. We may have been caught up in the path of large, impersonal forces, which know nothing about us. It may not make our problems go away, but it can assuage a bitter sense of responsibility for failure and disaster.