Friday, September 09, 2005

Why Motivational Speakers Should Never Quote Job 3:25

I would like to welcome readers to a new regular contributor to Architecture and Morality, Relievedebtor. While I from time to time focus on the architecture, Relievedebtor likes to write about morality, or the intersection of reason and religion. As a lutheran seminarian, relievedebtor offers some interesting insight between faith and free markets. Hope you find his pieces interesting and thought-provoking!


I’m a vicar, a seminary intern, interested in positing religious thoughts that are both more transcendent and more real than either self-proclaimed spiritualists on the one hand and doomsday preachers on the other. Because my primary point of view is that Christianity is relational, I tend to notice and argue against views that simplify faith into the extremes of relativism or moralism. This particular article is the result of witnessing the tactics of the fastest-growing churches in America, which seems to be mainly to motivate people to become “better people.” This obsession with positive thinking neglects the realities of life, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Possibly in an effort to box life into understandable pieces, motivational speakers (and clergy using similar styles) frequently quote Job 3:25 as a warning against negative thinking: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,” says Job after experiencing a great amount of suffering. They insist the way we think about life will determine its outcome, and the reason our deepest fears or our greatest aspirations come to pass is because of the way we think. This Job text is used to “prove” this by suggesting that Job suffered because he feared suffering. I would posit that while there is a lot of truth that our thinking determines our life situation, in the long run it is all-too-convenient to use this verse to portray life, especially when our powerlessness concerning Katrina is clear.

Norman Vincent Peale and Zig Ziglar, two of the biggest names in the field of “positive thinking/living” speaking/writing, both refer to this text. Peale, in his best-known work, "The Power of Positive Thinking," uses the text as a way of warning his readers against any type of negative thinking. Ziglar, an admitted reader of Peale and this book, uses Job in the same way. The primary problem with using this text is that what happened to Job did not happen to him because of his state of mind. It happened because God allowed it to happen, actually as a result of making a wager with ha-satan, or “the accuser,” regularly translated as Satan.

Job 1:9-11 shows Satan tempting God to partake in a challenge, one in which Satan can get a man (Job) to curse God. In 1:12, God accepts the challenge saying “’Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ So Satan went from the presence of the Lord.” In case the reader didn’t catch the arranged bargain the first time, Satan and God make several more deals after Job loses his children, his property, and his livestock. Each time, the stakes are raised, until the Lord finally says to Satan in 2:6, “Very well, he [Job] is in your power; only spare his life." As a result of this, Job experiences even more terrible suffering, including “loathsome sores” from head to toe.

Clearly, after this reading, one cannot possibly claim that Job’s negative thinking caused his suffering. In fact, even worse, it is abundantly clear that God directly caused his suffering by making a deal with the devil. Yet, I have yet to hear any motivational speaker, much less any preacher point out the uncomfortable fact that what happened to Job wasn’t a result of Job’s bad attitude, but a result of God’s arrangement with Satan. Popular “preachers” like Joel Osteen have referred to Job 3:25 (probably following Peale’s lead), using it in the exact same manner: assuring his listeners that good things will happen if you simply maintain a positive attitude.

Besides the lazy exegesis of Scripture, the basic problem with this is that it ignores the unaccountable nature of life, which dangerously simplifies God and our very existence as a part of God’s creation. What happens then when bad things, completely beyond our control happen? Where is God then? Did God cause Katrina?

Another equally oversimplified, but more accurate depiction of the nature of human life would be “Stuff happens.” Yet, this is often ignored in favor of presenting a more controllable, and winnable picture of life. Peale says the Bible (to be more positive I guess) implies “that which I have greatly believed has come upon me,” even though this is never directly said in Job. This text is used to encourage his readers to think positively, so good things will happen. So Peale has now gone from proof-texting one line of Job to generally paraphrasing his interpretation of the scripture to prove his point.

Sure, Job feared and dreaded that his property, children, livestock and health would be taken from him before they were. Do we not all have similar fears to some extent? Doesn't Katrina show that this is possible? But again, what is the cause and effect? Peale, Ziglar, and Osteen all say Job suffered because he feared, but this blatantly ignores the facts presented. Let me be very clear about my main point: Job did not suffer because he feared suffering, but because God made a wager with Satan. It is that simple, all there in Job, chapters one and two.

Hard as he or she might try, no one can account for the unusual and unpredictable nature of our existence, not even Job as we see in the chapters 38-42, notably 42:2-3: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know”.

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