I love the book of Job in the Old Testament, so today I want to share some thoughts I wrote four years ago (with a little add-on here and there and of course some general editing).
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One of the things writers talk about is creating stories organically. The alternative is to force a story to become what you want it to become by reducing it to a formula. Organic stories are the ones that seem real, that last long after you’ve closed the book, that affect you rather than merely entertaining you.
There is no one key to writing organic stories, but they must have characters that seem like real people with believable motivations, realistic emotional patterns and true-to-life psychological mechanisms for handling problems.
The formulaic characters are little more than place holders. In a formulaic romance, for example, insert heroine on page 1, the opening paragraph; slot in romantic lead in chapter 2. Almost it doesn’t matter who these people are. They will have some problem that keeps them apart for a third of the book, then they will begin to draw close, only to run into a wedge that drives them further apart for another third. When all seems hopeless, after the heroine experiences the black night of the soul, the two resolve the conflict and come together. Or something like that. You get the gist. There’s a pattern, one that romance writers are taught in writing workshops to follow.
I’m not trying to pick on romances. I think westerns can be just as formulaic and so can mysteries. Character X discovers crime Y with suspects A, B, and C. With a little detecting, he uncovers clues 1, 2, and 3. A formula.
I don’t know enough about any of these genres to say whether there is a way to write them organically—to make them come alive and therefore to separate them from the pack. I do know that readers of formulaic books have a hard time remembering if they’ve already read Busted, Bashed, or Butchered. (I just made up those titles, but that kind of title connection in a series is another part of the formula). Even by reading the back cover, readers can draw a blank. Is this the book they read? It sounds vaguely familiar, but so do the other two.
What does all this have to do with God and the book of Job?
As I’ve been reading Job once more, and I’ve been struck with the fact that Job’s friends saw God as a formulaic figure. He was as good as programmed, in their minds, and had to act in manner y if person A did action B. In other words, they were not seeing God as organic—alive and relational. They were talking about Him as if He were an it, a force, a thing they could predict. Perhaps a thing they could manipulate.
While Job was wrong to complain against God and to accuse Him of wrong doing (which is why he repented in the end), he nevertheless got it right that God is a free and independent person, transcendent, able to act however He wants to act. He’s organic. He’s more than that, of course, because He’s sovereign.
In the past some professing Christians have accused traditional, Biblical Christianity of putting God in a box. Let him be organic, in other words, by which they mean, let him bend with the culture—change to fit the changing times.
Well, funny thing. The most organic thing a person can do is reveal who he is. “You want to know me? Let me tell you about myself so that you’re not reading your own thoughts or feelings or motives into my actions.”
This, God chose to do.
However, instead of embracing His story about Himself and His relationship with humankind, many people, even “religious” ones, decide they get to say who God is and what He is like. What these people are doing is “re-imaging” Him into the formula they’ve created.
That what Job’s friends did.
They determined that God dealt with people in a formulaic, foreseeable way. He punished sin by bringing suffering down on the sinner. He rewarded those who lived righteously by giving them prosperity and long life.
Consequently, they left no room for God to do anything else with an unrighteous man other than bring disaster down on his head. And since disaster hit Job five fold, he was clearly, according to their formula, an unrighteous man.
People today do essentially the same thing. God is loving and kind and forgiving and tolerant and an advocate for peace. Therefore he would never send people to hell, order the death of . . . well, anyone but most certainly not a whole nation, though He said they were people who lived in debauchery. Above all, the loving and kind and tolerant God would never punish the entire human race because one person ate a bite of forbidden fruit. That’s not God, they say. (I mean, it’s just fruit!)
Maybe punishing sin is not the formulaic God these progressive Christians have concocted, but the organic God who is sovereign, just, and good, can do and does do all the things He revealed in His word. And more.
He’s not bound by a formula. He can, and did, take the form of a mam. He can, and did, live a sin-free life. He can, and did, sacrifice Himself to pay for the sins of the world. Why? Not because we did a satisfactory quota of good deeds, certainly. He, being living and self-existent, chooses to do what He chooses to do.
Consequently, He treats people differently. Moses’s sister Miriam, for example, rebelled against Moses and God struck her with leprosy for a week. Aaron, their brother, also rebelled along with her, but God didn’t strike him with leprosy. Aaron’s sons, however, God struck down because they sacrificed “strange incense” as part of the worship ceremony. Aaron, years earlier, had fashioned a golden calf, and didn’t suffer any consequences until the end of his life when he also was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
The point is, God isn’t limited by our expectations. He can forgive the repentant, even someone like King Manasseh who had instituted child sacrifice, though undoubtedly Job’s three friends would have demanded that He strike the man down in the midst of his wickedness.
But God, who is merciful and all-knowing and just, can be trusted to do what is right with the lives and souls of the people He created. He doesn’t have to fit the formula Job’s friends created—in fact, He doesn’t. Theirs was a works theology—do the right things and God has to bless. Stray from His demands, and He will rain suffering down.
They didn’t understand what it meant to believe God to be sovereign, to trust Him to do what is right, even when His action is surprising and unexpected and even sometimes painful. They didn’t know Him and love Him. They more nearly knew about Him and used Him—in Job’s case, to chastise a man suffering horrific loss. With friends like them . . .