Job: the Wisdom of the Cross – Interview with Christopher Ash
I can’t think of a better introduction to Christopher Ash’s new commentary, Job: the Wisdom of the Cross, then this promotional video for John Piper’s poetic rendition:
Christopher Ash has put John Piper’s poetry to prose in this wonderful commentary. I often found myself with a new desire to read and study Job as I worked through Ash’s commentary. This is what the best sort of “literary criticism” accomplishes; it inspires you, moves you, and takes you back to the original text with fresh insight and appreciation. This is even more the case here, as Ash not only takes us back to Job with fresh eyes, but draws our eyes to the Christ seen through Job.
Christopher Ash works for the Proclamation Trust in London as director of the Cornhill Training Course. In addition to serving on the council of Tyndale House in Cambridge, he is the author of several books, including Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job and Teaching Romans. He is married to Carolyn and they have three sons and one daughter.
What are the prosperity and therapeutic gospels, and how does the book of Job address both?
Well, thank you for asking. It seems to me that perhaps the most widespread distortion of the Christian gospel worldwide is the teaching that if I become a disciple of Jesus, then Jesus will make me rich and healthy. If I am poor, I will become rich; if I have no job, or a poor job, he will give me a better job; if I am single, he will get me a wife or husband; if I am sick, he will make me better. And so on. This is the so-called “prosperity gospel”. When I live in a society where, by and large, we already have riches (by world standards – enough food, clean water, and so on) and health, the prosperity gospel metamorphoses into its cousin, which I call the “therapeutic gospel”. This teaches that, in addition to health and wealth, if I come to Jesus feeling empty, he will fill me; not only will he give me objective good things (money, wife/husband, children etc); he will also give me subjective benefits, lifting my spirits, making me feel better about myself.
Job pulls the rug out from under both these gospel distortions. It sets before us a conspicuously righteous man (Job 1:1,8; 2:3) who suffers prolonged and intense loss and grief, the very opposite of what these gospel distortions would lead us to expect.
Job could not, you claim, be just any one of us. His suffering and trials are in a class by themselves. What role does Job play in the drama of the human story?
Yes, indeed, it seems to me that Job cannot be “everyman” for several reasons. He is exceptionally righteous (1:1,8; 2:3), exceedingly great and successful (1:3), and his sufferings are intensely deep (1:6-2:10). Far from being a picture of human suffering in general, the book tells the story of a unique man suffering with unmatched intensity. In the big sweep of the bible story it is very natural therefore to see him as foreshadowing Jesus Christ, the one absolutely righteous man on earth, the greatest human being who has lived, and the one whose sufferings were uniquely deep and grievous. Job in his extremity helps us understand Jesus in his uniqueness. Only then may we legitimately see Job as prefiguring our experience in any way, as those indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus and experiencing in our lives some measure of suffering with him (e.g. Rom.8:17; Col.1:24).
A classic conundrum of Job is the question of his own integrity. As we listen continually to his justifications, we are very tempted to think there must be something wrong or sinful with him. Are we supposed to be quoting to Job Rom. 3:10, “there is none righteous, no not one”?
There is a tension in Job. On the one hand, we are told repeatedly that he is a righteous man. The narrator headlines this (1:1) and God tells us twice (1:8; 2:3) before reinforcing it at the end (42:7). That is to say, Job is a true believer, one who is justified by faith, and who fears and walks with God. But, on the other hand, at the end he does repent of things he has said (42:1-6). So, is Job right or wrong? His three friends accuse him of hidden sins (e.g. 22:5) and they are wrong (42:7). The answer would seem to be two truths. On the one hand, Job’s comforters say that he is suffering because he has sinned and will not repent, and they are wrong. But, on the other hand, Job himself admits that his suffering has caused him to sin in some of the things he says.
Your quotation from Romans 3:10 sheds light on this. It is a quotation from Psalm 14, in which David laments the evil surrounding him and says of these people, “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good…” and so on. But David himself trusts God and is confident that there are others who trust God (e.g. Ps.14:6 “the Lord is his refuge”). So when he says, “there is none righteous, no not one” he means there is no human being who is by nature righteous before God; but, thank God, there are human beings who are righteous before God by faith! This was true in David’s day and it was true of Job.
I find this thesis statement throughout your commentary: “the glory of God is more important than your or my comfort.” Why is that and why is it good news?
Yes, I was greatly helped by 1 Peter 1:7 as I grappled with Job. Writing to suffering Christians, Peter says that the “various trials” they are enduring will show the “tested genuineness” of their faith. That is to say, the trials will prove that they really trust God; it is easy to say we trust God when things are going well; it is when blessings are taken away that it is seen whether we really worship God simply because He is God. When we do and our faith is seen to be tested and genuine then, when Jesus returns, there will be “praise and glory and honour” to God. It is good news to know that your and my Christian sufferings have such an exalted purpose; that our sufferings will prove that in our hearts we honour God as God. Only when we suffer can this be publicly and convincingly seen to the watching world.
Another challenge of this book is what to do with the speeches of Job’s friends. How do you recommend we read these speeches? Any rules of thumb for how Christians can exercise discernment while reading them? Is it ok to ever quote their words as “thus saith the Lord”?
Ah, yes, this is a tricky one. After all, God says these three friends have not “spoken rightly” about God (42:7) and so we would need support from elsewhere in scripture before being confident that any particular thing they say is true. And yet these speeches are part of scripture and ought to benefit us and promote faith in Christ (2 Tim.3:15-17). It is hard to give a short answer and really you need to read my book, in which we walk carefully through each speech! The comforters say many true things – true things about God, true things about justice, true things about sin and judgment. But they are not true of Job. The critical thing they deny is the possibility of unjust suffering, and therefore the flip-side of this, which is the possibility of undeserved blessing, or grace. I have included an introductory chapter about the comforters’ theology, and in the various speeches have suggested what we can learn from them. One of the main things I have learned is to be warned, because it is so easy for our Christian culture to slip into a Job’s comforters culture, and for grace to slip out of the window.
The book of Job challenges our assumptions that suffering necessarily is the result of sin. But this leaves us in a conundrum, because sometimes it can be. Are we ever allowed or justified to suggest that unrepeated sin might be the immediate source of someone’s suffering?
Yes, Jesus himself suggests this when he warns the man he has healed to “Sin no more, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). But we need to be careful. Job’s comforters accuse him of secret sins for which they have no evidence (for no evidence exists). This is quite different from pastorally pointing out sins for which there is evidence. And yet even here, it is not given to us to know the individual connections between sin and suffering, any more than riches and health is necessarily evidence of moral goodness. We need to exercise great care. Above all, we need to search our own hearts more than we accuse others (Mt.7:3-5).
The Book of Job famously ends with God actually never explaining to Job why he suffered. Indeed, God’s answer is itself a series of questions. What are we to make of this?
Job has spoken as if he could run God’s world better than God. God’s speeches focus first on the wild parts of the universe, the parts that are clearly outside Job’s control. And then finally on this strange and terrifying monster, serpent, beast called Leviathan (Job 41), who is a vivid storybook way of speaking of the devil or Satan. The central message is that God alone may be trusted to be sovereign even over supernatural forces of evil in the universe. This is a huge claim, that there truly is one Sovereign God who rules the universe and is so great and wise that he can even use supernatural evil as one of his agents in governing the world. The devil is, in Luther’s vivid phrase, “God’s Satan”.
I really appreciated your commentary on each of the individual speeches in the book. You’re right. Its tempting to preach Job in just four or five sermons with one (maybe) covering all the speeches in the middle. Do you recommend spending more time on the speeches of Job?
Yes, I do! When I first preached Job, I think I took 7 sermons. By the time we came to the end, I wished I had planned for 10. I think it is not difficult to preach 10 sermons on Job without loss of momentum or interest. The advantage is that there is time to soak ourselves in some of the poetry and to have time to feel and engage emotionally as well as intellectually with the speeches. However, I am not recommending 42 sermons on Job, one for each chapter; that way, many people will never get to listen to Romans, John’s Gospel, or Isaiah!
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.