As Christians, we turn to God, through prayer and by reading Scripture, seeking answers on everything from the choices we should make in our daily lives to the fundamental questions of human existence — why there is evil, how we can know God, what is our true purpose in this earthly life.
Of the great surprises of Scripture is that God, in turn, often questions us. Not only do we not get the answers we wanted, but the tables are turned and we are asked to provide those very answers.
The most famous instance of this may be in the Book of Job, in which the main character’s quest for God is also a yearning for wisdom, to understand why his life has ended up in the sorry state that it is. Near the end of the book, it seems like we might finally get some resolution, when God appears to Job out of a storm cloud. But instead, God responds this way:
Who is this who darkens counsel
with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it? (Job 38:2-5)
This style of questioning persists for many more verses, continuing into the next chapter. As we follow the divine monologue a sort of answer emerges, veiled as it is in a question. No, we do not have firsthand knowledge of how the land was formed out of the sea nor were we there when the first birds lifted into the air or the first predators prowled the landscape below them. But God does know these things and, indirectly, by knowing that God is Creator, we have a kind of knowledge.
In questioning us, as He does through the words of Job, God calls us to radical humility and trust. Our knowledge is limited and as much as we would like it, we cannot know the thoughts of God. Rather than knowing, we are called to trust in the One who truly knows.
The questioning of Job serves another function as well. Throughout his long dialogues, Job had been constantly demanding the opportunity to press his case in court, proving his innocence before God. This is particularly apparent in the whole of Job 13, especially verses 18-23:
Behold, I have prepared my case,
I know that I am in the right.
If anyone can make a case against me,
then I shall be silent and expire.
Two things only do not use against me,
then from your presence I need not hide:
Withdraw your hand far from me,
do not let the terror of you frighten me.
Then call me, and I will respond;
or let me speak first, and answer me.
What are my faults and my sins?
My misdeed, my sin make known to me!
The divine questioning that eventually comes creates something of the desired courtroom atmosphere. Except Job never really has a chance to make his case. He is on trial, with no one to advocate for him. At the end of the divine monologue Job realizes that there is nothing he can say before God. His proper response is one of silent awe.
Job’s encounter also affirms that God is perfect justice: there is no standard of justice by which He might be judged and therefore to which He must submit. (Otherwise, God would not be God because there would be something more powerful and more knowledgeable than Him.) Who can argue with Justice itself? As God Himself tells Job, “Would you refuse to acknowledge my right? Would you condemn me that you may be justified?” (Job 40:8).
This is one of the themes of the whole book. Look back to the very beginning, when Job has lost everything. What does He do? He prays this: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). When He has lost everything Job realizes that the only thing left for him to do—in the face of One who possesses everything—is to kneel before Him in radical humility.
God’s questioning points to one more reality. The God who is Justice itself is also personal. God is not like the Fate or Fortune of ancient Greece and Rome—impersonal forces that decree what happens in our lives with no input or participation from us. God, on the other hand, is a personal reality that talks back to us, that draws us into a personal encounter with Him.
In our society today you will hear a lot of people talking about having a personal relationship with Jesus. But the way some preachers talk about such a relationship seems to diminish the reverence we should have for His divinity. Sometimes they talk about Jesus the way one might talk about your jogging buddy, your fraternity brother, or some long-distance BFF who is never there but always responds to your texts.
Job has the antidote to these overly sentimental and saccharine depictions of what our relationship with God is or should be like. What does a personal relationship with God really look like? Something like being asked hard questions by an angry voice bellowing out of a storm-cloud. To be sure, this is one of many images of our relationship with God that is presented to us in the Bible. But, in this moment, our culture would do well to better contemplate the God of the storm-cloud.
image: The Last Judgment at the Arena Chapel (Cappella Scrovegni) Giotto di Bondone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.