The Common Good
November-December 1999

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

by Allan Tsai | November-December 1999

(and other lessons from the Book of Job)

For some of us the unfairness of life is so galling that we can barely hide our bitterness, which often exudes onto others. Our deepest resentment and blame may be secretly directed at God. Perhaps because we fear the wrath, disapproval, or abandonment of God, we hide these dark unwanted feelings even from ourselves. We unconsciously curse God in the darkness of our interior being, believing that as long as we don't know that these feelings exist, then we are not held responsible for them.

But Job's wife was right. At the height of Job's misery, when God gave Satan the freedom not only to take all that he loved and possessed but also to afflict his body with putrefying sores, Job's wife told him to curse God and die. Although her motivations were ambiguous and may have been less than honorable, her disturbing exhortation holds an important and often overlooked truth. Sometimes, we need to take the risk of cursing God and dying.

When these bitter feelings exist, confessing them gives a better chance of healing our soul than hiding them from ourselves or God. Perhaps only with God can a relationship be nurtured and sustained by bitter outpourings of blame, resentment, and cursing.

If we do risk such "unrighteousness," the necessary death that follows may not be literal, but spiritual and psychological. Two deaths are necessary: one, the death of our persona, and two, the death of our image of God. Our secret self-image of being righteous and innocent and our image of God as a god of divine justice based on meritocracy keep us from truly experiencing grace. The death of our perceptions of self and God opens the doorway to grace. This is the great lesson of Job.

Is Suffering Just a Cruel Cosmic Joke?

For many, Job is the archetypal figure of the victim who suffers unjustly. Job undergoes a suffering that comes seemingly out of the blue at the height of his success and spirituality (God praises him before Satan as his best and most faithful subject). He is to be "sacrificed" ostensibly for the sake of proving that God has a loyal subject.

Who is responsible for Job's sufferings is not so clear. Neither God nor Satan come off very well in the story. We are left pondering the mystery of either divine Wisdom or divine Ego in understanding why Job suffered.

We are often perplexed at our own Job-like suffering as well, especially when it comes so unexpectedly and seems so unfair. We wonder if it is some cruel cosmic joke initiated by divine capriciousness. For those of us who feel victimized, grappling with the "unfairness" of God is a necessary and important process.

Job felt entitled to vindication because he was certain of his innocence. His belief in divine justice reflects his faith in a just God and a cosmology of meritocracy where one earns or deserves what one receives. In this perspective, which may be conscious or unconscious, divine justice blesses those who are good and righteous, causes suffering to those who do evil, and vindicates and redeems the innocent. The belief that one could depend on a just God was a significant advance over the notion that the gods were simply capricious. However, reliance on divine justice reveals an underlying cosmology of merit and a lack of experience of grace.

Job can be understood, therefore, as a transitional figure—one that starts with the worldview of divine justice and ends with grace. In his story, we discover that an individual inculturated in an old cosmology can have his or her worldview explode into a new consciousness. This is our hope as well: We, too, as men and women of an old theology, may become people of grace, not based on doctrine but as people who have actually experienced grace in our lives.

In the beginning of his suffering, Job appeals to God's divine justice to rescue and vindicate him. Carl Jung wrote, "The only thing [Job] can be blamed for is his incurable optimism in believing that he can appeal to divine justice. In this he is mistaken, as God's subsequent words prove." God declares the right to be God, the right to act in ways that don't necessarily match the expectations of Job or his friends. Apparently no one can feel entitled to divine justice. Vindication and salvation, if it is bestowed, is given only by grace, which has little to do with being good, innocent, or righteous. God's response to Job foreshadows a profound shift in consciousness from the Old Testament's notion of divine justice based on righteousness to the grace of the New Testament.

Job's friends, initially sympathetic to his misery, chastised him when he complained about God and felt sorry for himself. They could bear his suffering as long as he was suffering humbly and nobly, but when he proclaimed his innocence, they came upon him with vengeance. "Stop whining," they demanded. "It has to be your fault. God is not an unfair God. The righteous are rewarded; the unrighteous punished. This punishment is about your sin, whether you are aware of what you did or not. Search your ways and acknowledge humbly your sin before God. Surely God will forgive you." Like Job, his friends believed in divine justice. Job ended up feeling doubly victimized.

On Not Kicking the Dog

INITIALLY, JOB PASSIVELY accepts his sufferings, not questioning God. He tries to bear up nobly and faithfully until he can do so no longer. He then addresses God directly, an important shift. He holds God ultimately responsible for his suffering. He embarks on a philosophic and legal debate with God regarding justice and his innocence. Although Job is clearly frustrated with God, he does not, according to the text, "cross the line" into cursing God, as his wife suggested, to end his suffering.

Christian theologians generally seem to believe that Job went just far enough in his confrontation with God to remain righteous. They often hold Job up as a model of how to suffer righteously. His style of confrontation with God is civilized and often intellectualized. Many people try to emulate this religious ideal, denying any real depth of negative feelings toward God.

Although this style may appeal to some, it will be inadequate for others. If we exalt Job's style of righteous complaint as the goal, then most of us will have difficulty openly expressing to God our deepest feelings. Our terror of alienating God with our rage and resentment can repress into our unconscious our more dangerous and dark passions.

The danger is that these unwanted aspects of ourselves will eventually worm their way out destructively, often on ourselves, unsuspecting friends, family, or co-workers—like a spouse unable to voice complaints to his or her partner who ends up kicking the dog or becoming self-destructive.

Individuals need to risk being unrighteous in their encounters with God. The full force of feelings from rage, bitterness, and hatred needs to be expressed, especially if we believe that we have been somehow cheated by life or by God. For our own healing, and for the sake of a deeper relationship with God, we must take the risk of revealing our inner world, no matter how unrighteous it may seem to us.

To cross the line into what many consider profane is psychologically a death experience—which can, paradoxically, initiate us into a greater relationship with the divine. To fiercely wrestle with the divine—like Jacob with the angel—is often necessary to come into a deeper experience of grace.

Many vacillate between a cosmology of an unjust God who does not care or a just but failed God who cannot redeem the innocent. We cannot understand our suffering because each of us sees ourselves as fundamentally one of the good people of the world. The story of Job, in part, has to do with the capriciousness of life—that bad things do happen to so-called good people. Suffering comes to any and all, the good and the bad. To this suffering, we must find our own authentic response—not what we imagine we should feel or what others think that we should feel, but what we actually do feel. Job teaches us the necessity of honest expression. A dishonest Job would suffer in silence and false humility, which would please his friends but would have been dishonest to his own soul.

Like Job, those who feel victimized usually do not give up their feeling of victimization simply because others try to belittle them into humbly accepting their fate or accepting responsibility for their suffering. For many, an initial desire to hang onto one's innocence becomes even more determined and tenacious in the face of others trying to take it away through argument, guilt, or coercion. This tenacity is both a blessing and a curse.

Job would not give up his innocence even with everyone telling him to do so. Whether this tenacity indicates stubborn pride or strength of conviction, the importance of respecting the sense of victimization cannot be underestimated. Self-righteousness is always a danger, but for our salvation we must wrestle with God in our own unique way. It is far better to complain and blame God outright than to delude ourselves into believing that we do not have such feelings, if indeed we do.

The God Who Allows Suffering

JOB IS BOLDLY INSISTENT on his innocence, and he never wavered from this stance. Yet when God finally responded, Job became humble. Ultimately he was vindicated. But what was vindicated was not Job's righteousness. Job was chastised for his presumptuousness that his righteousness resulted in his blessings and that his innocence would result in redemption. His friends were operating out of the corollary principle of divine justice: Suffering must be a consequence of unrighteousness. Both are wrong. In the end Job was vindicated by God not because of Job's righteousness, but because God does what God pleases. When it works in our favor, we call it grace. Ironically, Job in his complaints was more pleasing to God than his friends who attempted to defend God against Job's complaints.

Job, in his final confrontation with God, was able to humbly broaden his perspective of God. While it is necessary for us to hang onto our own truth, we must be able to relinquish such a rigid stance when the deeper Self has made itself known.

God vindicated Job by direct intervention. Although this kind of divine intervention is known to take place, most of us mortals must contend with a God who allows suffering in our lives. God will probably not break through our suffering in a dialogue as he did with Job, explain the whole thing, make things right, reward us with a good life, prove our innocence, and chastise our tormentors. This desire for cosmic vindication and blessing is often unconscious, but felt deeply.

Like Isaac, who was divinely delivered from the altar of sacrifice by God, we wish to avoid the sacrificial experience. As Abraham, father of Isaac, raised the knife to sacrifice his son, God intervened and provided a ram for the sacrifice. We too as suffering victims want to be saved from this sacrifice by divine intervention. If cosmic intervention is not forthcoming, the temptation is to seek deliverance from our suffering through the immediate gratification of vengeance. We must resist this ancient path and drink fully the cup in all of its bitterness until our soul burns through into transformation.

To Thine Own Self Be Forgiving

Job came through to the other side of transformation. We can see this in how he forgave his friends and in his dialogue with God. Forgiveness is necessary in any true sense of healing, and its presence reflects a deep transformation. Job forgave his scapegoaters and tormentors not simply out of the largess of his righteousness. Job forgave them because he was changed from within.

Forgiveness is a consequence of a true death experience. When the heart is softened by an understanding that the sin of the Victimizer is but our own shadow, the possibility of forgiveness grows. When Jesus stopped the mob from stoning a woman who committed adultery with the statement, "If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone," he was challenging them to look at the log in their own eye, to look at themselves with compassion—which would lead to compassion for the woman.

In Job's face-to-face encounter with God, he became humbled. His act of repenting in dust and ashes is not false humility. Job is repenting of his sin. A righteous man or woman is not sinless, but rather is one who can come to genuinely see his or her sinfulness.

Jesus said of the woman who washed his feet with her hair, "The one who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47-48). It is those who humbly see their sinfulness and their own darkness that have a chance to experience a measure of grace and forgiveness. The "righteous" do not usually feel the need for forgiveness and so do not experience it. In the acceptance of one's own shadow, one gains the capacity to genuinely forgive others. Our shadow is always knocking at the door; but to embrace this stranger we must risk our self-image of innocence or righteousness, at least before God.

Although Job's act of seeing and repenting made him righteous before God, it was not his righteousness that evoked God's forgiveness. God's forgiveness was given to Job by grace. Through the experience of his suffering, his courage to directly address his God, and by the mystery of grace, Job was transformed. He moved from a cosmology based on divine justice and meritocracy to one of grace.

While grace ultimately comes as a mystery, it seems to honor us when we risk sharing our vulnerability and darkness before God. Even this, of course, is no guarantee. But ultimately we have nothing else to offer but our fragile humanity. In fear and trembling, we must come with who we are, seeking not divine justice, but grace.

Allan Tsai was a Jungian psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)