The Lesson of Job: Literature's Luckiest Protagonist

Post-holiday doldrums can be a drag, especially for homeschoolers. After all, you don’t just send the kids off to school – you have to produce it, starting now, every day. It can make you long for spring break before you even take the tree down.

During these dark days of winter, Missy and I try to remind each other of the big picture before we delve into the minutiae of textbooks, lesson plans and weekly schedules. We try to remember our overall goals for the year and the progress we hope to make – not in our students’ notebooks and report cards, but in their hearts.

You can do the same by asking yourself this question:

If you only had one hour to give the kids an education this year, what lesson would you teach them?

Obviously, Missy and I always turn to literature in answer to this question, and we invariably decide upon the lesson of Job, hero of the world’s oldest classic. Job’s story reminds our students what an education is and which part is theirs to play. It also forces us to reexamine our motivations as parents and teachers and helps us keep the day-to-day work of homeschooling in perspective.

So what is the lesson of Job? You can learn it (and teach it!) by asking the basic questions of literary analysis: First, who is the protagonist? Second, what does he want? Third, why can’t he have what he wants? The answers to these three questions produce an astonishing view of one of literature’s most famous personalities.

Who is the protagonist?

The main character is Job, of course – a wealthy landowner in an ancient Eastern country who fears God and makes religious sacrifices of all kinds on behalf of his family. What kind of person is he? The first chapter of the story describes him as “righteous,” “blameless” and “upright.” This suggests that he is concerned about his relationship with God and that he concentrates on behaving correctly so that God will be pleased with him. You might say that he knows how to press God’s buttons so that blessing and prosperity will rain down from heaven. And at the beginning of the story, it seems to be working.

But not for long, of course. For some reason, God allows Satan to afflict Job with disasters of all kinds and destroy all that he has. Satan takes Job’s family, health and possessions and eventually leaves Job sitting on the ground, sprinkling dust on his head and scraping his boils with a potsherd. His only comfort is a small band of friends who hear of his distress and come to help him make sense of his dire situation.

What does the protagonist want?

 Here’s where the questions begin to lead us into uncomfortable places. In every work of literature, the story revolves around a protagonist striving for a goal. Understand the goal, and you understand the story. Well then, what does Job want? Does he want his possessions and children back? If so, he never mentions it. Does he want to be relieved of his physical pain? Not to hear him tell it – he hardly mentions those, either. Does he want to die and have it done with? No – even the complaints of his wife, who urges him to curse God and die, can’t convince him to end his sufferings. So what goal does he press for? What desire drives him to the very end of the story?

We can see Job’s goal clearly if we notice that 35 of the story’s 42 chapters concern an argument between Job and his comforters about whether Job deserves the calamity that has been visited upon him. All of Job’s comforters say he does deserve it, while Job maintains that he doesn’t. This is it – this is the crux of the story. And here we find the thing that Job wants more than anything else: justification.

Job wants his reputation as a righteous man to remain intact. He wants credit for all of the good things he has done, all of the sacrifices he has made. He wants God to admit that Job’s calamities are undeserved. Job eventually grows angry with God, who seems not to be playing by the rules that Job has mastered:

“If only I knew where to find him!... I would state my case…but He is not there…He does whatever he pleases.” (Job 23:3,4,8,13 – NIV)

Job wants to be the one to decide how Heaven will look upon him. He wants to force God’s hand of blessing by means of his sacrifices and obedience. He wants to make God’s decisions, to be God himself.

When we look at the story this way, Missy and I always realize that we have something dark in common with Job. We want to be God, too. Part of our enthusiasm for homeschooling is a hidden desire to control the world around us and force God to yield the results we want. We pass this desire directly on to our children, of course, in everything we teach.

Why can’t the protagonist have what he wants?

When you understand Job’s real desire, the answer to the last question is straightforward: Job can’t be God because God is God already. Job can’t control the world because he did not create the world, nor does he rule it. It turns out that God is not manipulated by the sacrifices of his creatures, or by their behavior, good or bad. The justification that Job strives after is a Divine gift, and the prosperity that supposedly signifies it is nothing more or less than God’s unmerited favor.

In Job’s case, even the calamity that gave rise to this story is a gift from God, for it gets Job’s attention and saves him from idolatry. Job admits that he has learned his lesson as the story comes to a close:

“I am unworthy – how can I reply to You? I put my hand over my mouth…Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 40:4; 42:3,5 - NIV)

He ends by repenting of his idolatry and spurning his previous attempts to usurp God’s place in the universe. He has learned the most important lesson of all: there is a God in heaven, and I am not He.

Missy and I count ourselves lucky in that the calamity that was necessary in Job’s case has not been visited on us. And yet, it is fair to call Job lucky, too – for his troubles produced repentance and humility, which are the best goals of a good education.

If you had only one hour to give your kids an education, what lesson would you teach them? The lesson of Job reminds us that all of our day-to-day work should be aimed at repentance and humility as overarching goals. In all we do, we hope to teach this one lesson over and over again.