How should I read the book of Job?
The big picture of Job is that there was a man who was, in one sense, blameless in God's sight. He was leading a basically upright life. And there is a reality called Satan who challenges God that his man is not as good as he thinks he is. God gives Satan permission to attack Job, and he does so first through his family and possessions, and then through sickness.
Then there is Job's long illness, and his three friends come. At first they are quiet and offer some counsel, but then they begin to launch into an attack on Job that takes a true theology and distorts it all out of proportion.
Job has about 29 chapters of misapplied theology in the middle. It's very hard to navigate your way through those chapters and determine what is true and what is not, because these guys are mixing up truth and falsehood all over the place. I think you're supposed to get the big picture that God was not happy with these three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
And when Elihu shows up, he, I believe, begins to set it right. Finally God speaks and he sets it completely right.
Then there is the last chapter that puts the closure on the whole thing. There it says that God brought all of this upon Job; and Job proves in the end to be a better man than these other men, even though Job himself sinned and had to repent in dust and ashes.
The lesson from the big book of Job is 1) that God is sovereign over all our suffering; 2) he permits Satan to come into our lives and do horrible things to us; 3) he means to prove our faith and purify our lives through it; 4) in the end he will make it good, either in this life or in the life to come; and 5) Satan does not have the last word in the lives of God's people.
What do we learn about Satan in the book of Job, and how should that help us in our trials?
The first thing we should learn is that Satan is subordinate to God.
Satan goes to God with a desire, and he must get permission to carry it out. This is an awesome thing to realize, that Satan does nothing in this world except by God's permissive will. At any moment God could stop Satan from doing what he is doing.
Anytime we think we can blame Satan for something that is happening, we must also reckon with the fact that God is permitting it, which is what Job remarkably does.
When Satan attacks Job's possessions, ruins them all, and then takes the lives of all ten of his children, we learn how terrible Satan can be. But Job says, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." And the writer says that Job did not sin in this statement. What we learn is that Satan can kill his kids, and yet Job can fall down, worship God, and say that God took his child. It's both/and not either/or.
Then Satan comes and strikes Job with a disease: boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. And his wife says, "Curse God and die." And even though it says explicitly that Satan did this, Job responds to his wife, "Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?" And again the writer says that Job did not sin with his lips.
Some people say that Job was wrong to say these things. They think he shouldn't have attributed to God those boils or the death of his children. I respond that, no, Job did speak the truth. I know this because if you go to the very last verse (42:11) it says, "Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him."
Now that is the inspired writer talking, not Job in one of his funks. Therefore, it is really clear that Job was right to say, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away," and "Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?" because the writer, at the end, says that he was comforted for all the calamity (evil) that the Lord had brought upon him.
So even though Satan is real and can do horrible things, he has to get permission. God is the governer of the universe. Satan does not have a parallel role to play with God. He has a subordinate role to play under God.
How important is it for us to note that Job's calamities had absolutely no connection with his character?
I dont' think that's exactly right to say. I think "absolutely" is an overstatement, because when you get to the end, it says,
Then Job answered the LORD and said:
“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.
‘Hear, and I will speak... (Job 42:1-4)
And then Job repents in dust and ashes, verse 6:
"Therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes."
In other words, here's the way I would say it: He was called an upright and blameless man, and yet that doesn't mean that he was a sinlessly perfect man.
I picture Job as a beaker of water. Job had been so worked upon by the grace of God that his life was pure. You could see right through the water. People looked at him and they saw a pure man. But there was a sediment of self-reliance and pride at the bottom. It wasn't huge and it wasn't damning, but it was there.
When God shook Job, the sediment colored the water, and you find Job saying some terrible things about God in this book. God knew that it was there, and he knew that in shaking this godly, blameless man there would arise some imperfection into his life, and that it would need to be purged. So the last thing is, therefore, "I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
God is so pleased with Job that he makes the three friends go and ask Job to pray for them instead of them praying for themselves. God loves this man Job.
So, we may rephrase the question, "How important is it that we see that Job's suffering was not directly connected to any evil deed?" That is true.
We should be able to say to people, "I'm not looking for a specific sin in your life that God is punishing you for or chastising you for. God may be permitting this calamity to come into your life just to refine very beautiful faith. Your faith is like gold, but it does have straw in it, and God loves you so much that he is now going to burn out a little more straw."
Any suffering person I've ever talked to bears witness to the fact that they have seen more of God and have come to know and trust God more deeply than if their suffering hadn't come.