Theological Grudge Match: The God of Mercy vs. The Book of Job

“God Refuses to Explain His Cruelty”

One of the most significant moments of my undergraduate studies came reading Dante’s Purgatorio with philosophy professor Francis Ambrosio. Beginning canto IX, we found Dante asleep as a star-lit night falls on Mount Purgatory. St. Lucia appears and carries the dreaming Dante to the threshold of this realm of forgiveness, accomplishing for him what would have been, if left to his own ability, impossible. The pilgrim Dante awakes and finds himself blinded by the unbearable light of the angel guarding the gate to Purgatory. Dante’s guide, the Roman poet Virgil, advises Dante to approach the angel in humility; the pilgrim consents, falls to his knees, and begs to be admitted for mercy’s sake [Divoto mi gittai a’ santi piedi/misericordia chiesi e ch’el m’aprisse (Purgatorio IX, 109-110)].

Gustave Doré,
Gustave Doré, “Door of Purgatory”

And right there, in light of Lucia’s graced aid, I saw something clearly for the first time: the only ground upon which we may enter the kingdom of God is that of mercy. Dante has no recourse to his faith, nor to his works, his artistry, or his devotion. It is only because God is merciful that he may enter and ascend. And this gift of mercy is never far from my mind, whether in my own spiritual life, my research, or in my teaching.

This past semester I was fortunate to be able to teach two of my favorite texts. We read The Divine Comedy in Wheeling Jesuit’s theology seminar, “Heaven and Hell,” and read the Book of Job with students in my succinctly titled course, “God.” And so, with Dante on my mind, I turned to the Book of Job, hoping that the class might discover some intelligibility in its whirlwind. My guidance on this intellectual pilgrimage came not from an ancient Roman poet but from the Peruvian Dominican theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez. In his slim, spiritually rich, and theologically important book, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (a gift given to me by my friend and colleague, Jessica Wrobleski), Gutiérrez presents a reading of Job that is rooted in a faith in the inexhaustible, if often ineffable, always-already active mercy of God. And it is to one central insight of the Gutiérrez’s book that I wish to turn.

The Book of Job, of course, begins with a wager that ought to make the most upright and faithful among us shutter. God’s praise of Job as “blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil” (Job 1:8 NAB), is interrupted by the strange character called “the satan” (or adversary). The satan cannot argue against God’s observation of Job’s upright behavior and, instead, takes aim at Job’s motivation. “What he questions,” Gutiérrez notes, “is rather the disinterestedness of Job’s service of God, his lack of concern for a reward” (4). That is, the satan claims that Job’s righteousness is a result of his wanting to please God and therefore benefit from God’s blessings (an arrangement that, until God’s boasting, seems to have been working out quite well for good ol’ Job). God consents to the satan’s request and allows the adversary to lay waste to Job’s life, while keeping him alive to suffer. Job, although patient for a while, eventually curses the very day he was born and demands justice from a God who seems to be acting unjustly.

William Blake, “Job Rebuked by His Friends”

If the satan is convinced that Job’s faith is rooted in self-interest, neither do Job’s friends operate outside of this “barter conception of religion” (1). After sitting with him for seven days, they offered their own version of theological consolation to the suffering Job (and lest any of us be too quick to criticize these friends, we ought to first think about how patient we are when our loved ones suffer and whether we, too, wait in seven days and seven nights of silent presence before offering our own form of “helpful” interpretation of their recent tragedies). Although varied in symbol and language, the responses of Job’s friends come down to this: God is just; therefore, somehow, what happened to Job must be a result, in some way, of Job’s sin. His friends compassionately try to help him understand what has happened and therefore be able to bear it—as understanding often brings fortitude.

Gutiérrez, however, observes that while “these conceited theologians” are convinced they are defending God against Job’s accusations, their insistences that blessings and sufferings are somehow merited are “indeed almost blasphemous responses to the situation” (12). And, if Gutiérrez hasn’t warned us enough, he wryly notes that “a situation that Job considers unjust becomes intolerable when justified by the theological arguments of his three friends” (56). Indeed, even in one who has the faith of Job, bad theology can do much damage; for the rest of us, it can be devastating. For the idea that God rewards our faith and worship is tempting to those of us who believe in our own faith and are confident in the righteousness of our worship. Here, blessings, and ultimately heaven, is the reward for a life of faith. Conversely, the idea that people get what they deserve gives us the conviction to look upon those who suffer and proclaim, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” while not stopping to help. The Book of Job puts into crisp relief the human desire to look at the suffering of others and insist that they must have done something to bring it upon themselves, and thereby secure myself against the possibility of such misery. And if that were not enough, any suffering we, the supposed righteous, undergo is therefore unjust and asserts itself as a direct challenge trusting God. For Gutiérrez then, the central question of the Book of Job is not strictly that of how to make sense of suffering, but rather, “How to speak of God in the midst of suffering” (13). How do we speak well of God? How ought we understand God so that God might be known to be just in light of unjust suffering? It is, in this sense, a richly theological book—that is, a book about the language we use to talk about the holy mystery that is the beginning and end of all of creation.

So, returning to the question at hand, we may ask what the Book of Job has to teach us about mercy, about that to which Dante turns as the only factor to which he appeals so as to continue through forgiveness’s gate on his way to his direct vision of God. And it is my assertion that while there may or may not be much mercy on clear display in the Book of Job, the book itself is a revelation of mercy for us. It invites us to join with Job and to reject a poor, blasphemous, and ultimately idolatrous image of God: “As a matter of fact, what Job was really rejecting was, first, the moral order as presented to him by his theologian friends and, secondly and consequently, the God to whom they appealed. If there is no alternative to the doctrine of temporal retribution, then for someone who has experiences what Job has experienced, the conclusion is inevitable: the world is chaos” (84).

It is mercy that we receive when we are invited, along with Job, to reconsider our understanding of God, and God’s part in what we believe to be a transactional religion of barter. Instead of a God who loves us in response to what we do, Job encounters the God who created and sustains everything ex nihilo. He encounters the God who’s activity is antecedent to our own, the God who loves because it is who God is. All that exists—of course Job and us included—does so for no other reason than the sheer love that is the very life and being of God.

In what should remind us of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, the Book of Job offers a glimpse into a creative love that is not just about us and our own happiness and suffering. “Not everything that exists was made to be directly useful to human beings” Gutiérrez maintains, “therefore, they may not judge everything from their point of view. The world of nature expresses the freedom and delight of God in creating. It refuses to be limited to the narrow confines of the cause-effect relationship” (74). Likewise, Pope Francis contends, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God” [#83]. Indeed, it is a liberating mercy to be able to act courageously according to this faith. It is not all about me—I can insist to myself—and I can therefore risk living in and though love.

The “barter concept of religion” at its best

Furthermore, the Book of Job mercifully insists that to speak well of God, we need to begin with the assertion that “God is free; God’s love is a cause, not an effect that is, as it were, handcuffed” (73). The “barter concept of religion,” and the related concept of a god who punishes the sinner and rewards the virtuous is replaced, in Gutiérrez’s reading, by the sheer gratuity of grace, which is always already active. Gutiérrez writes:

“The revelation of God’s plan, when received in good judgment, will show Job that the doctrine of retribution is not the key to understanding the universe; this doctrine can give rise only to a commonplace relationship of self-interest with God and others. The reason for believing ‘for nothing’…is the free and gratuitous initiative taken by divine love. This is not something connected only indirectly with the work of creation or something added to it; it is the very hinge on which the world turns” (70-1).

The initiative taken by divine love—and not a system of barter exchange—is the very hinge on which the world turns and that which, in the words of Dante, “moves the sun and other stars.” To believe this and to act upon it is what it means to have faith in the God of Mercy.

It is this love that moves us to a faith that acts with no regard for reward.

It is this love that must shape our understanding of divine activity, power, and justice. To be powerful and just like God is first to be able to be faithful and loving for no reason other than the sheer delight of what and who is there. Thomas Merton puts it well when he writes, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

And it is this love that comes to us with no regard to whether we deserve it, revealing the God of Mercy to us, and rendering us worthy to show love and mercy to others.


Rev. James Walsh, S.J. (Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)
Rev. James Walsh, S.J. (Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)

On June 30, 2015, Georgetown theology professor Rev. James Walsh, S.J., died after himself suffering long with illness. I recently recalled that I first read the Book of Job in its entirety in my undergraduate “Hebrew Scripture Seminar” with Fr. Walsh, who encouraged me to be attentive to the way in which the author of the book imagined the mercy of God to be active in the world where far too many people suffer far too often. In fact, Fr. Walsh would often punctuate his homilies (and occasionally his lectures) by calling us to expand the ways in which we might come to understand God’s activity, inviting us to loving attention, expanded reverence, and sustained devotion.

“And so we see how God loves us,” he would say—How, indeed… freely on God’s part and undeservedly on ours.

May we be grateful for that mercy.


Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. 

Click to read other posts in Daily Theology’s Vacation Bible School 2015:  Mercy Edition.