With Job’s original three friends unable to persuade him to change his mind, and exhausted of new things to say, another, younger, man speaks. Elihu is perhaps the main example of what David Atkinson called the ‘fresh out of college’ theology graduate, with the advantage of some basic pastoral instruction – but not of life experience, as he acknowledges himself.
He has at least listened to Job and to the three older men before speaking, and is able to quote Job to prove that he has done so. But having done so he then weighs in with his own theory, rather than giving Job the chance to reflect on what his suffering might mean – if anything.
Elihu’s view is that God sends suffering in order to refine and purify faith. Through suffering, we are kept from a love of God which is actually a love of the blessings he sends, and thrown back on love for God himself. Job should, says Elihu, be less concerned about the injustice of the fact that he suffers while wicked people prosper, and more concerned to see what God might want to teach him through the experience.
There’s enough truth in Elihu’s words to be dangerous. I have seen many times that suffering can indeed deepen and refine someone’s faith, provided that it doesn’t break it. But I don’t believe that this always, or even usually, means that God has sent the suffering as a deliberate act so that someone can learn something. Rather God works by the principle of resurrection – when all has gone terribly wrong, then there is hope because death, suffering and evil do not have the last word. When Easter Sunday dawns, the suffering of Good Friday is transformed – and Sunday would not have happened without Friday – but that doesn’t mean that the crucifixion of Jesus was all right really.
So with human suffering – the fact that God can bring deep wisdom and beautiful faith out of it does not mean that it’s a good thing, or that he has chosen to send it. God is more complex, and more loving, than that. Sometimes it’s right to protest and question God – and sometimes not to do so leaves people feeling crushed by their suffering. Easy answers to deep questions and pain are not usually good answers. I wonder what Elihu would have said to Job thirty years later, after pastoral ministry had refined (or muddied, depending on your view) the clarity of his theology-college-graduate pastoral theory.