When we read Job's story, there's something in us that wants to look down at his friends. Here they are, sitting with a guy who has lost essentially everything in the world (but not sitting too close because his skin disease makes him unclean), and all they can do is tell him all kinds of things that are not particularly comforting at the moment. All they can do is tell him that he clearly has God all wrong.
All we can do is read their words and think that they are the ones who have God all wrong.
We shake our heads, wag our fingers, and proclaim in a loud voice how wrong they have it, without realizing the irony of the situation - here we are boldly proclaiming that those who are boldly proclaiming we have it wrong...are wrong.
Now, God is going to step in at some point and explain it all to them. He's going to put them in their place. He's going to show them where their theology is hollow, and it may look like God is therefore proving us right. See? we say. They were wrong.
But they weren't as wrong as we'd want them to be, and honestly, we can't really fault them for it.
What Job's friends had right was the law of God. They understood the contractual nature of the law, that tit leads to tat. That one thing leads to another. That in response to all things, there is a response to all things, and that God plays by His own rules. They knew the covenant, as well, and that's what they were basing their advice on. Job just needed to get in the game of covenant, contractual living. This was likely the God that Job's friends had been taught. It was likely the only God they had ever encountered.
In this way, they are much like the Pharisees in the New Testament. They've invested their lives in the law; it's what they know best. It's how they conceive of God. It's how they come in contact with Him. And it's not as wrong as we'd want it to be - there are some very logical explanations for why someone would have a law-based theology, especially in times before the witness of Christ.
What they don't seem to have encountered in quite the same way is the goodness of God, the kind of goodness expressed by grace and mercy. They seem to have dug into the Ark of the Covenant and pulled out the stone tablets, but neglected entirely the throne of mercy that sits over the law. Likely, they simply haven't experienced God's goodness or, if they have, they haven't incorporated it into their theology of Him.
In other words, when we look at Job's friends, we're looking at people who are doing the best they can with the theology they have. Just like we're all trying to do.
It's a powerful lesson for us, particularly because in today's faith, we are still surrounded by Job's friends. Except now, they're our friends. They're our family. They're sitting in our pews. They're living in our neighborhoods. We are surrounded by persons who are doing the best they can with the theology they have.
It's not that they're wrong. Not at all! Or at least, they're not as wrong as we'd want them to be. It's just that they haven't experienced the vast goodness of God in ways that would help to expand their theology. It's just that they don't know beyond what they know. And how could they?
This is precisely why we can't be so quick to judge Job's friends...or ours. Nobody tries to be unfaithful to the Gospel (at least, not many, and the ones who do are easy to spot). Nobody wants to get God wrong. Nobody wants to have a limited idea of who He is. No, the greater our experience of God, the greater our experience of life. Given the choice, none of us wants to live in a box, and none of us wants a God who fits in one, either.
But there are countless persons among us, even faithful persons, even Bible-reading, God-fearing, neighbor-loving persons who simply don't have a theology big enough to incorporate things like grace and mercy and the goodness of God. That doesn't mean we should judge them for that. That doesn't mean we should condemn them for it.
They're doing the best they can. Just like we all are. We're all just doing the best we can.
And if we think they're wrong, well, let's show them a better way. Let's introduce them to a bigger theology. Let's make room in their contract for grace. Let's show them where mercy lives. I love the way that Job responds to his friends - let's be more like that.
If you're not sure what that looks like, stay tuned. We'll look at a little bit of that tomorrow.