God gives and takes away?

May 12, 2007 at 4:14 pm 1 comment

I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard people explain suffering with a line like this: “God gives, and He takes away.” At funerals, for example, or whenever people are faced with major loss, there’s an inclination to assume that God was behind the loss. (Christian radio stations reinforce this idea whenever they play Matt Redman’s ”Blessed Be Your Name.”)

What’s interesting about the “God gives and takes away” idea is that it is a biblical concept, but totally lacking context. If you take the statement at face value, you’d think God actually does give and take away. Which is actually the opposite of the biblical message.

Job: A case of mistaken theology

So, what is the context?

Well, the wording comes from the first chapter of the book of Job.

Job, an upright and blameless man, has just lost his wealth (his camels, sheep, oxen, donkeys, and servants), his family (ten sons and daughters), and his health (he’s been afflicted with boils). Tearing his robe and shaving his head, Job sits down in the dust and utters these grief-stricken words:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)

Job assumes, in other words, that God has caused his loss, that he is suffering from “the arrows of the Almighty” (Job 6:4).

What is fascinating about Job’s words, however, is that his theology is all wrong: It’s not God who has given and then taken away.*

The first chapter of the book makes this clear: Job’s sufferings are actually caused by the “Adversary,” Satan.

You likely know the story: Satan comes to God and issues a complaint that Job only fears God because God protects him, not because of the relationship itself. If adversity came, says Satan, Job’s loyalty would vanish.

So God permits Satan to test Job and discover Job’s real character. It is Satan, not God, who causes Job’s calamities, and God only allows the trials to prove His own character and the character of Job.

Blaming God

Job, poor guy, is unaware of the background story, and he interprets the scourging as coming from God Himself. Job’s friends think likewise: Suffering, they assume, comes from God; consequently, Job must be undergoing discipline for his sins. As Job’s friend Eliphaz puts it:

Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. (Job 4:7-9)

Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal. (Job 5:17-18)

Interestingly, Job’s friends all have a strong sense that God actively controls nature and determines when disaster (or blessing) will befall certain individuals. Elihu, for example, plods through an extensive account of God’s control over all manner of natural wonders to bolster his case that it must be God who is disciplining Job (see Job 37:6-18).

Setting the record straight

The important point here is that no one questions God’s agency in causing Job’s trials. All assume that God must ultimately be responsible.

But is this true? No.

As Job maintains throughout his ordeal, it does not make sense that God is punishing him for sin, because Job is an innocent, righteous man. Throughout the book, Job maintains his blamelessness, and he repeatedly verbalizes his wish that he could stand trial before God and make his case for his innocence.

Job’s friends rebuke him for his impertinence, but in the end, Job is vindicated—by no less than God Himself. God expresses displeasure to Job’s friends, for, as He tells them, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8). Job’s friends sounded pious (theologically astute, even), but they had painted a quite inaccurate picture of God.

The point?

It is false that “God gives and takes away.” This sentiment represents Job’s distorted understanding, not the accurate picture of God.

Likewise, it is false that natural or personal disaster must be ordained by God, and it is false that trials necessarily come as a punishment for sin.

Perhaps, then, a caution is in order about quoting Job’s words as a theological model for ourselves.

*I forget who crystallized this point in my mind, but I should at least acknowledge that my thinking here was prodded by some other now-forgotten person.

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“Humbled under the flails of God” On God’s sovereignty

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Marie  |  October 25, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Hey Jamie,

    Thanks for this and for pointing out the error in Job and his friends’ mode of thinking. You’re right; context is everything, and their backwards-thinking was corrected by the Almighty Himself in the last chapter. But yes; that phrases HAS given birth to a false premise. Explaining how we know from the book of Job itself that God in fact WASN’T behind it and DOESN’T cause pointless suffering goes a long way in trying to understand tragedies like miscarriage, stillbirth and genetic diseases that seem to make no sense. Not that we will ever fully grasp what His purposes are or how He can be glorified in suffering (this side of eternity, anyway) but we can at least grasp that He does not arbitrarily “give and take away”.

    Reply

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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