January 15, 2021

Daniel Jepsen: The Sin of the Orthodox

Job and his False Comforters from the Book of Hours of Étienne Chevalier

Job and his False Comforters from the Book of Hours of Étienne Chevalier

The Sin of the Orthodox
by Daniel Jepsen

Note: by “Orthodox” I am referring to those who are biblical and traditional in their theology; I am not referring to the Orthodox Church.

• • •

Each time I read the book of Job I find deeper meanings.  As I read it this week, one idea that kept coming to my mind was the sin of those who thought they had God all figured out. At the conclusion of the book, God responds to Job, and then responds to Eliphaz and his friends. The friends were, you will recall, the “miserable comforters” who debated with Job about the justice of God.

The substance of their great debate could be summarized this way:

  • The friends argue that since God is just, Job’s afflictions must be the punishment for some hidden sin.
  • Job argues in response (repeatedly): Look, I don’t have any “secret sin” that deserves this kind of punishment, so God is not being just to me.
  • The friends then accuse him of undermining the notion of God’s justice.
  • Job responds by repeating what he knows: I am innocent, yet enduring incredible suffering, and this suffering seems to come from God himself.
  • Again, Job implies, “God is not being just with me”.

Now, of course, we readers are let into a secret.  Chapters one and two describe the scene in heaven where God twice describes Job, “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil”.  In fact, God says, “there is none like him on earth”.  So we know before the dialogue begins that the three friends are in the wrong.  Job’s afflictions are not punishments.  Job is blameless before God.

But imagine if we did not have this information.  Imagine we walked in to the story right where the dialogue starts.  On the one hand, we have three wise, older men who have an exalted view of God and are eager to defend his ways.  They are completely orthodox in their understanding, and their first priority is to protect God’s reputation.  On the other hand, you have Job, who seems to be not only suffering, but positively afflicted by God (the suddenness and completeness of his losses cannot be mere coincidence).  Job argues that he is blameless, therefore God is not being just, while the orthodox friends argue that God is just, therefore Job is not blameless.  Who is right?

Job on the Dung Heap (detail), Bourdichon - Getty Museum

Job on the Dung Heap (detail), Bourdichon – Getty Museum

Wait: before you answer, again try to strip your mind of what you know from chapters one and two.  And you may find yourself in the position of Elihu.  Elihu is a rather mysterious figure.  He shows up without introduction and his name is not mentioned again after his long speech (chapters 32-37).  His speech does not serve to advance the dialogue at all, and neither God nor Job nor the friends respond to it.

Here is what I think: Elihu is intended to function as a warning to the reader.  His viewpoint and speech (“Job, you are wrong; I know wisdom, and you are speaking folly”) are the natural conclusion we are tempted to draw simply by listening to the speeches (without the prologue).  In his speeches, he not only agrees with the orthodox friends, but is angry at them for not being able to withstand Job’s arguments.

It is right after his speech that God Himself arrives on the scene and, incredibly, joins in the argument.  God does two things.

First, he reproves Job (chapters 38-41) for failing to understand what Kierkegaard would later call “the infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man.  Job is wrong because He simply is not in a place to understand God’s ways, and therefore is recklessly hasty in saying that God is unjust to him.

The second thing God does, then, is surprising.  He approves Job, especially in contrast to his orthodox friends.  Twice he tells the orthodox, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.  In fact, God regards this not only as a mistake, but a sin, for which they need to offer a sacrifice and ask Job(!) to pray for them.  God seems less upset by Job yelling at Him than the friends yelling at Job on God’s behalf.

This, then, is the surprising conclusion to the dialogue: God and Elihu are contrasting figures, even though Elihu represents the orthodox views about God. Elihu listens and takes the side of the orthodox friends and rebukes Job, while God listens and ultimately takes the side of Job and rebukes the orthodox.

And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in.  Even the most godly (like Job) and the most orthodox and cerebral (like Job’s friends) can never understand God in the same way they understand the things of this world.  In fact, God describes the words of the orthodox friends, who felt they were speaking godly wisdom, as “folly”.

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road.  I have always taken pride in holding correct, orthodox views of God and theology.  And I still feel that the traditional, conservative, biblical viewpoint is the best way to understand the world in which we find ourselves in.  Yet, books like Job warn me to be very humble about this.  In the end, I have little doubt that my orthodox, evangelical theology will be like the fig leafs the first couple used to clothe themselves: wholly inadequate, and replaced by something else by God’s grace.

What does this mean practically?  It means that we should be careful that our study of theology should never outstrip our understanding of “the infinite qualitative distinction”.  It means our eagerness to defend God should never come at the expense of loving people.  It means we must learn to live out our worldview fully, all the while realizing that when we see Him all of our previous “knowledge” will be fig leaves of foolishness.


  1. Well said.

    • “And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in. ”
      The book of Job is truly humbling to the human psyche.

  2. Christiane says

    “It means our eagerness to defend God should never come at the expense of loving people.”

    YES to the ‘never come at the expense of loving people’ . . . not sure what ‘defending God’ entails but we sure get a lot of people out there speaking FOR God, as in announcing what they think He has revealed and doing it in their own words or strangely, usually quoting something from St. Paul in order to back up their declarations.

    An awful lot of Christian activity these days ignores ‘at the expense of loving people’ . . . the patriarchy model, the child discipline teachings of people like the Pearls, the professed devotion to the Republican Party’s economic plans for the indigent and the immigrant fringe of our society . . . not to mention the full-on campaigns against LBGT folks (and here I focus personally on the torment of transgender people by some Christians) . . . then there is the work of some Christian people against our Islamic citizens, stirring fear and hatred . . . and finally, there is the support of those who proselytize those who work for them and answer to them, in ways that are abusive and illegal (especially within our military) . . . I ask how it can be that Christian people can support unloving activities on the one hand and on the hand say it is for ‘the glory of God’? Nothing glorious about stirring trouble for others, arousing fear and hatred for people who are ‘different’, or preying on women and children with abusive doctrines that are punitive and restrictive to the point of abuse . . . nothing Christ-like there, no.

    • David Cornwell says

      Love: the first test of orthodoxy. And a test that defies rationality.

      • Christiane says

        Hi DAVID,
        I’ve been thinking about how it is that evangelicals who claim ‘orthodoxy’ in their theology don’t show much ‘love’ to folks who are at the margins of our societies UNTIL those people do something that offends the evangelicals (ie. a pregnant indigent woman seeking an abortion):
        THEN we see the evangelical ‘witness’ show up in ‘condemnation’ and in ‘manipulation’ (‘we will only help you if you have your baby’) in some crisis intervention that is supposed to be ‘truth’ expressed in ‘love’.

        The poor woman never saw these people before, doesn’t know who they are, doesn’t trust them (who would trust some stranger yelling at you on the street as a ‘protest’) . . . so, she is thinking, ‘where were they when it might have mattered in my life, but only now they show up seeming to ‘care’???’

        ah, ‘love’ seems not to be integrated into some evangelical expressions of orthodox treatment of people who are in trouble, likely because it wasn’t there for them BEFORE they got into trouble . . . no trust had been established . . . no bonds of friendship formed . . . no witness of ‘love’ prior to the ‘crisis’ . . .

        so no wonder people question the integrity of those who only condemn the darkness but fail to come into that darkness bearing the light way before a crisis gets their attention and draws their strident responses . . . no wonder this kind of evangelical ‘outreach’ is not effective in such settings where most evangelicals would not choose to go at all prior to the ‘crisis’ . . . love seems to exist in ‘being with’ folks and caring for them, anticipating their needs and offering a witness that is consistent with how love is best lived out among mankind

        • Hi Christiane, in light of the recent Planned Parenthood videos, I find this criticism a bit untimely and unfair. I personally know one life that was saved thanks in part to this kind of “outreach”, as you call it. Perhaps God also works outside of liberal ‘orthodoxy’, as well.

          • Christiane says

            Hi JOEL G.
            I’m speaking for reaching out before there is something that requires a ‘strident’ response . . . anticipating the needs of vulnerable people has always been a part of loving-kindness . . . I’m asking for an integrity of ‘reaching out’ before trouble and sustaining that witness when there is trouble . . . it builds trust in people who live on the margins when you are ‘with them’ and know them before they face crises. I speak for an extended witness, Joel, built in to a community where indigent people are living and working.

          • This is GOOD Christiane and essential. And maybe just a little bit of credit where credit is due for conservative evangelical pregnancy resource centers that ALSO have the OTHER human life on the line in mind. In spirit of the good post Daniel, I recognize that God does work outside of our boxes we put Him in.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > ‘where were they when it might have mattered in my life,
          > but only now they show up seeming to ‘care’???’

          Why then? Because that is the only time at which her life is of use to them. Her crisis can serve to support their narrative.

          And only if ‘saved’ from that crisis is there a possibility she will render glory unto them. If she lived in a safe sane society, had access to health care and education, etc…. Then they would not have the opportunity to ‘save’ her – and receive due glory.

        • Christiane:
          In my neck of the woods it is the evangelicals and Catholics that are on the front line of helping people. The Salvation Army helps anyone, local evangelicals are involved in outreach to the marginalized, providing affordable housing, housing for women in crisis, addictions to name a few things.

          So I think your statement is not universally true

  3. And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in.

    I don’t think that the inscrutableness of God’s way is what’s at the heart of the book of Job. It’s certainly an important part of what’s at the book’s heart, but not the heart itself.

    In Job, God’s anger at Job’s friends is caused by their having done an injustice to Job, by condemning him on the basis of abstract theologies; he is angry about their misrepresentations of him because they have enlisted his name in their injustice against Job. Their ignorance is not only of God’s ways, but of Job’s character and actions, and they have turned that ignorance into a grievous injustice against a fellow human being who is in terrible need of consolation.

    At the heart of the book of Job is a warning about how we may use our abstract theologies as weapons of injustice against the innocent, and how, in doing so, we in no way please God. It is a book about how we may cause great pain, and do great injustice, to our neighbor by speaking whereof we do not know concerning both human and divine things; it’s implied lesson is that we should love our neighbor when they suffer by not speaking whereof we do not know. The heart of the book of Job is about how we treat our fellow human beings.

    • The only thing I would say differently is that the friends didn’t criticize Job on the basis of “abstract theology,” but on the basis of accepted wisdom teaching. They virtually quoted Proverbs to their friend Job. I think the heart of the book is the critique of standard wisdom teaching. Wisdom has its limits.

      In the context of the exile, which I think Job was meant to address, think Job stands as a profound protest against the conventional explanations of why Israel hung their harps by the rivers of Babylon and wept.

      • Daniel Jepsen says

        Yes, I would agree with that, Mike.

      • —> “Wisdom has its limits.”

        There’s truth in this, which is what makes it scary. There are times to set wisdom aside, but the trick is knowing “when.” When logic is staring you in the face but your heart and soul is telling you something different, when do you go with heart and soul?

        This kinda reminds me of something I’ve been mulling on the last few years as I’ve witnessed it: A person’s strengths can end up becoming weaknesses and a blind spots. This happens as a person trusts so much in their own strengths that they think they can do no wrong in those areas. (If anyone has seen the movie “The Grey,” I think that was the message – intended or not – of the film.)

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          Or orthodoxy has its limits – lots of orthodox ‘wisdom’ is solid advice. Work hard to succeed, etc…

          Wisdom, capital-W, is recognizing that limit, and remembering it.

          Orthodox [or maybe parochial] wisdom is often not *untrue*, it also is not *True*.

          This is the best way I have come up to think about it, or the best way that doesn’t require paragraphs of exposition.

          And thinking of it this way wisdom seems to dovetail with mercy; which has to be a good sign.

      • “Wisdom has its limits.”

        As demonstrated here last week. Not sure that “standard wisdom teaching” has any clearly defined meaning, but if you want to use Proverbs as your measuring stick, its limits are obvious, even as it advises to seek Wisdom above all else. Solomon’s practice might be more instructive than his preaching. It seems to me that in any discussion of wisdom, it needs to be carefully qualified. For me, to say that Wisdom has its limits is tantamount to saying that Jesus has his limits, which may ultimately be so but not within the current cosmic realm of all power and authority.

        • “Standard wisdom teaching,” in this context, is the conventional, and often applicable “you reap what you sow.”

          This is the foundation of Judeo-Christian moral teaching, as seen in Mosaic law, particularly Deuteronomy. Words and actions have consequences, and wisdom teaching bases its understanding of “blessing” and judgment (“curse”) directly upon this notion.

          Job’s friends were trying to apply this proverbial wisdom to Job.

          • Granted that in this context “you reap what you sow” would be an apt definition of moral teaching from Adam on up to us by way Job’s friends and many others. To speak of it as standard wisdom teaching implies that this is all there is to wisdom and tosses out the whole mystical and unitive tradition extending backward from Jesus thru the Psalms and Prophets all the way to Genesis 1, and forward thru the desert dwellers and the whole monastic tradition east and west on up to Richard Rohr. This is very specifically referred to today and along the way as wisdom teaching and tradition.

            Without defining context most people, including right here at home, are not even aware that there is a much larger and far more important wisdom tradition than the moral teaching it includes, or if aware may scoff and demean or consign it to olden times. In this case I would think that speaking of moral wisdom teaching would be more accurate and less confusing than standard wisdom teaching. “Standard” has much the same problem as “orthodox”. Depends on who says it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Their ignorance is not only of God’s ways, but of Job’s character and actions

      Yes. I cannot read Job without thinking – primarily – “worst friends ever!” I am not nearly as good a man as Job…but thank goodness I have much better friends

      Aside: I have had Job-friends in the past; I have since learned to channel my inner Trump and say “Your fired!”.

  4. “God seems less upset by Job yelling at Him than the friends yelling at Job on God’s behalf.”

    Something my fundagelical family and friends fail to understand. Well done, Daniel-san.

  5. I’d never noticed before that Elihu wasn’t named as one of the arriving friends back in chapter 2.

  6. Whatever else can be said about how we know, it must always be remembered that it is “through a glass, dimly.” When we meet the Lord face to face I think that the whole texture of the heavenly realm and God himself will be on the one hand oddly familiar but on the other wildly different than anything we have ever imagined. Things are different than they seem. Putting God in a box is a sin. Wow.

  7. Amen!! Love the book of Job. It’s one of the few books that I can read at any time and always get something out of it, coming away just awed at things. It’s up there with Ecclesiastes for favorite books.

    Incidentally, Job also played a minor but strong role in my seeing inerrancy for what it truly is and walking away from it. I owe this book a debt.

  8. I tend to avoid the book of Job because it makes my head and faith spin. Given this article and some of the comments, I’ll give it another try. Thanks for the article, Daniel!

  9. Very good and thoughtful (thought-full!) writing, Daniel. I would just put in one little plug for Job’s friends: They got it right at first:

    11 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.

    12 And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.

    13 So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.

    It’s only when they couldn’t stand seeing his misery any longer that they started talking.

  10. Daniel, this may be the clearest summary and exposition of Job I have yet read. Been quite a while since I read Job but I certainly will give it a Berean read with your thoughts in mind on my next run thru. I’m only in Numbers so it will be awhile. Ya done good!

    Your title did give me pause, and your following disclaimer only partially dispelled that. It was not until near the end that you qualified your view as “orthodox, evangelical theology”, which is I believe necessary to understand your point of view, and not meaning the same as what our Orthodox and Catholic siblings might understand. I hadn’t been consciously aware of Elihu appearing out of nowhere, thank you. A search of meaning for his name is somewhat ambiguous but might best be “the Lord is my God”, which might translate into modern Christian terms as Jesus is Lord, which might mean Elihu was the Evangelical in the story. Just thinking out loud.

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Thanks for your kind word,s Charles.

      In retrospect, I should have clarified upfront that I am the “orthodox” that is being warned against.

  11. I’m not really so sure how I feel about this. Exactly how “orthodox” are Job’s friends supposed to be if, at the end of the story, God is correcting them? Are we saying that God corrected them for being right?

    I do not think Job’s friends were “orthodox.” They missed the point entirely.
    Sure, it may have been the “commonly accepted understanding” of wisdom literature at the time, but this isn’t a case of God saying, “Well sure, maybe I DID say that in Proverbs, but I don’t really mean it ALL the time, sometimes I change my mind.”

    Rather, in their anguish to make sense of the situation based off their limited understanding of wisdom and partial revelation of the time, they got God wrong.

    God didn’t come down at the end and say, “Well you guys were technically correct, but you’re still jerks.” He said they were wrong, period. This isn’t about pharisaical legalism or the insensitivity of abstract theologizers. It’s about fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of God.

    The God of Job’s friends is karma. The language of the law, which the wisdom literature is an application of, often resembles karma: Everyone gets what they deserve. Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, therefore we can reason backwards from your circumstance to your character. This is a cold, hard, insensitive way of viewing the world, which is why the phrase “Karma’s a bitch” has a double meaning. Based on our karma alone, none of us should ever accumulate much happiness, we’re always too busy seeking our own personal happiness at the expense of others. Nobody wants to admit that, we all think we deserve better than we get. We all judge ourselves by standards that make us look good, because we are determined to justify ourselves.

    Job’s friends place his character on trial. Job places God’s character on trial, and before the story ends, he places his hand over his mouth. Both are wrong, both are corrected, both are forgiven. God understands that our understanding of him is weak and limited. In questioning Job’s character, his friends were demanding a God whose ways make sense to us at all time. It was the God of reason rather than the God of mystery. “Orthodoxy” as we understand it today is all about protecting the sacred mysteries, not “figuring God out.” In questioning God’s character, Job is wrestling between his faith and doubt. Though as sinners we all receive better than we deserve, not necessarily every hardship we face is the result of our personal sin. Faced with the problem with suffering and evil, even the perfectly righteous Job experiences moments of weakness. Though he trusts, he also despairs, and the “miserable comfort” of his rational friends only lead him further down the trail of darkness (which is another reason I believe they were not orthodox: Sound doctrine [the Gospel] creates and sustains faith, false teaching leads to pride, despair, and unbelief).

    The point of the story isn’t to show that Job is a righteous guy, and don’t be a jerk like his friends (though that is a good side point, brought out nicely in the article). It’s to show that God is merciful. In a world where nobody gets what they deserve and justice is fleeting, God does not promise us the kind of resolution we seek. He promises that we can trust him with our life, and trust him with our death, because though we misunderstand him, mistreat our neighbor, and fail to trust in him completely, still he meets us in our brokenness to bring us forgiveness, and in our grave to bring us life.

    “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

    THIS is why Job is righteous. He had confidence in the coming of the promised Messiah. This is why you and I are righteous. This language of the Gospel gets the final word when it comes to God, and the cross is a beautiful mystery that will never “make sense” or be “figured out” by us.

    “Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, That the Lord chose such a birth.”

    • “The God of Job’s friends is karma.” Well, no. The God of Job’s friends is “you reap what you sow,” which is an entirely Biblical idea, but not the whole story. One of the things the book of Job shows is the serious and vital debate going on within the community of faith in exilic and post-exilic Israel between conventional wisdom (ala Deuteronomy and the blessing/curse scheme) and those who thought that perspective had its limits. There is genuine debate within the Jewish scriptures about such things. It is one thing the inerrantists do not get. From one perspective, Job’s friends were absolutely right to approach Job’s situation the way they did — “by the book.” They just didn’t realize there’s more than the book.

      • Amen! This is the history of the Book of Job I knew to learn more about. I realized a long time that it wasn’t a purely historical book, trying to fit into a chronology of the Bible and where it sits with Abraham and Israel and everything…and I knew the stuff with God and Satan isn’t necessarily strictly literal, because if Satan was cast out of heaven how could he just saunter back in whenever he felt like it…but I don’t know nearly enough about it’s actual writing and context and time period, just that it is an amazing book I’ve turned to for comfort and understanding many times in the past.

        I really should read Pete Enn’s commentary on it sometime…

    • “You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one. Its clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it.

      And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “As you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

      That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

      – some Irish rock star guy named Bono

  12. I think that Job’s friends did get it wrong – but that they weren’t “wrong”. Their error wasn’t that the particular belief they held about God (God is just, and will bless obedience and punish rebellion) was wrong, but that *that’s all they focused on*. It’s the perennial theological sin – to camp out on that particular facet of theology that’s most appealing to us, and make it the be-all end-all. As a recovering Calvinist, I am all too familiar with that pitfall myself. God us just. And merciful. And mysterious. And knowable. And unknowable. All at once.

  13. It really depends on ones perspective of theology, orthodoxy, and apologetics. In reality, they are a defense against what God is not, i.e. a defense against heresy. Orthodoxy can state the obvious about God and stop the spread of lies concerning what he is not. Orthodoxy as a means to address God like solving a puzzle is heresy.

    What we need to know about God is displayed upon the cross, as cliche as that may sound. That is the message I took away from Job years ago, long before I read anything by Luther. For me, the climax of the book of Job is chapter 19: no matter what had happened, Job is confident that a Redeemer lives. Based upon that, much can be interpolated, i.e. God is not capricious; God loves in unfathomable; God can be trusted.

    • The redeemer Job sees is one who will defend him against the “god” of his so called friends – this monster who supposedly did this to him. The redeemer is the God above the gods of sick human imagination and dogma.

  14. Although this is completely and irredeemably off-subject, today is the fortieth anniversary of the release of Springsteen’s album Born to Run. I have loved the music on this album ever since that time, when I was sixteen; it’s songs have stayed with me through the decades, and my fondness for them has only grown as I’ve gotten older. They reconnect me with the teenager who experienced an almost religious transcendence when he listened to them, they remind me of who I’ve been and where I’ve come from. I know many others feel similarly about Born to Run.

    Here’s a deeper cut from the album: “Meeting Across the River”:


  15. I’m not so sure that Job ever accuses God of being unjust, nor even directly implies it. It has always seemed to me that Job’s point is that he does believe in a God of justice but he finds himself in a seriously unjust situation, therefore he wants to face God directly to be heard by him (cf chapter 23, for example).

    Whilst the historical context of Job is relevant, it is surely a book with a theme that remains highly contemporary: why do people suffer unfairly. A lot of the answers of Job’s friends are different ways of putting points which are still made today by ‘orthodox’ Christians (and non-Christians). The book provides no tidy answers, just praises Job for raising the questions whilst affirming a just God even within an unjust world.

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