Job and the wisdom of posting on social media

Mon, 13/07/2020 - 10:30 -- James Oakley
Image Credit: xkcd: Duty Calls

On Social Media

"Of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

If that was true when Ecclesiastes was written, how much more true is it in the days of social media. Surely the writer of Ecclesiastes would comment: "Of the writing of opinions on social media, there is no end"!

This is not a bad thing. The Gutenberg revolution was the invention of the printing press, making it possible for ideas and debate to circulate more widely and cheaply. Printed literature can be used for ill, of course, but it also has achieved enormous good. The same is true of the internet revolution and social media. The potential for harm is huge, but the potential for good is arguably greater.

However, ready access to limitless quantities of argument and debate means you could never be in every conversation, let along win every argument. There simply isn't time.

There's a cartoon many of you will have seen, and it's printed at the top of this post. It shows a person typing on his / her computer. Their partner calls to ask if they're coming to bed. The reply comes back: "I can't. This is important". "What?", comes back the question. The answer: "Someone is wrong on the internet." The poor man or woman would never get to bed.

Yet what makes the cartoon funny is how true it is. We so easily get drawn into argument or debate, feeling that we need to answer every point, hold our own until the other side concedes. So hours of time get wasted. So also feelings get hurt, as the need to persevere at being right trumps any thought of how the other parties might be feeling, made all the harder because you cannot read tone and manner as well online.

On the book of Job

I've long been fascinated by the book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man, his wife, his seven sons and his three daughters. It's probably set about the time of Abraham. God points out to Satan how Job fears God and is morally upright. Satan responds that this is hardly surprising. Job's life is good, and he knows which side his bread is buttered. So God throws down the gauntlet. Satan has God's permission to attack Job. He can remove initially his children, and then second his health, but God is confident that even then Job will not curse God.

There then follow 35 chapters in which Job's three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) come to comfort him. They speak in turn, with Job replying in between, ending with a long speech by a fourth man named Elihu. This is where the proverbial friends "Job's comforters" comes from — they consistently miss the mark. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Finally, there is a 4-chapter speech from the Lord God himself. Finally, in Job 42, Job repents, prays for his friends, and his last years are better than his earlier ones ever were.

There's much that can be learnt from the bookends of the book (chapters 1-2 and 42). We learn that God is sovereign even over evil, that Satan cannot afflict without God's permission, that suffering is not directly caused by our wrongdoing because the righteous suffer, and that nobody is ever worse off in the long term for following God. In all this, Job foreshadows the Lord Jesus, the most righteous man ever to walk this earth, who suffered more than anyone has before or since, and whose final vindication was the most dramatic ever encountered.

Most sermon series I've heard on the book of Job have focussed on these outlying chapters, with maybe one or two on the speeches in the middle. (To be fair, one friend ministering near here did seek to preach right through, taking each section of several chapters in turn, so this is not universally so.)

But here's the problem, and herein lies my fascination with the book: 91% of the book comprises the speeches. So it's probably a mistake to treat the middle 91% of the book as a parenthesis. A better approach would be to assume that the speeches are the meat of the book, and the outer 3 chapters set the context to make sure we read them correctly.

I for one would be fascinated to watch the whole book of Job performed as a play by really high quality actors who can bring the words to life. Apart from the need to elaborate a little in the first few chapters to set the scene properly, chapters 3-41 should be unabridged and unaltered - simply well acted.

Job meets Social Media

I'm currently reading through Job for the goodness knows how many'th time. Once again I'm asking the question: How does this communicate God's wisdom for life? Remember, it's classified as "wisdom literature" in the English canon.

I think, at the very least, it exemplifies the principle that something can be true and right, yet not the right thing to say. Just because something is true, that doesn't mean it's helpful to articulate. "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up," says Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1.

In particular, I noticed these words from Zophar: "My troubled thoughts prompt me to answer because I am greatly disturbed. I hear a rebuke that dishonours me, and my understanding inspires me to reply." (Job 20:2-3)

In a nutshell, Zophar starts his next speech because of something Job said and something in him.

  • Job said something that dishonoured him, Zophar.
  • Zophar knows something that would shed further light on the conversation.

How many times have you been in a conversation on Facebook or Twitter, read someone else's comment, and thought one of the following two things:

  • "What's just been said doesn't leave me (or a group with which I associate) in quite the right light."
  • "I could just leave this, but I actually have an insight that would be helpful here."

My instinct with either of those reactions is then to add a further comment — to correct the misimpression, or to throw in that nugget that will get the conversation unstuck.

This takes us beyond the general principle of Job. The general principle is: "Something could be perfectly true, but the wrong thing to say at this time." This says:

  • "Something could be perfectly true, and would ensure the conversation does not end with me or my party's reputation harmed, and still be the wrong thing to say at this time."
  • "Something could be perfectly true, and would shed light on the current discussion, and still be the wrong thing to say at this time."

To put it another way:

  • You can leave God to manage your reputation. You don't have to speak up when others think wrongly of you. You know what? Sometimes your view of yourself isn't quite right, and God doesn't keep pointing it out to you. He leaves you slightly deluded, knowing that everything will come right in the end.
  • People will survive without your wisdom, even if what you would add could be both true and helpful. You don't have to speak up when others haven't finished developing their own thinking. God has more to do with you tomorrow, and doesn't try to fix you entirely today, so you can leave loose ends and rough edges too.
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