We discover fresh insights into the person of Job by interpreting his experience according to “The Dark Night” by St. John of the Cross.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
3. Job has an immature relationship with God (Job 1:1-5)
4. Job enters the Dark Night (Job 1:6 to 2:13)
5. Stumbling in the Dark Night (Job 3 to 14)
- Bad advice from Eliphaz
- Bad advice from Bildad
- Bad advice from Zophar
- Resolute in Contemplative Prayer
6. More bad advice (Job 15 to 21)
7. Condemned by his closest friends (Job 22 to 27)
8. The first glimmer of light (Job 28)
9. Darkest before the sunrise (Job 29 to 37)
10. Mystical experience is the breakthrough (Job 38 to 42)
11. The Dark Night is a great favor from God (Job 42)
Job was a godly person and a wealthy chieftain of ancient days. But on one momentous day, all of his children passed away. That same day, Job lost his land and his entire fortune. That same day, he was afflicted with a horrible disease from which he suffered intensely.
Despite all this, Job does not curse God or complain against God.
Soon, some “friends” show up. They try to persuade him that he suffers because he had sinned. Their point is that if Job would simply admit his sin and repent of it, God would make him healthy and wealthy again. Job eventually becomes wearied by their nagging, and demands of God an answer to why he is suffering.
In a stunning surprise, God displays a tiny fraction of his vast omniscience and limitless power. On his knees before Almighty God, Job admits that he is nothing compared to God, and that God’s ways are not our ways. The story has a wonderful ending: Job’s health and fortunes are restored.
We believe the most direct interpretation of Job’s awful experience is that of suffering in physical, psychological and emotional ways. But we feel there are other insights that can be found in the life of Job, insights that can be found in the text by deliberately interpreting it in a mystical way.
That’s what we are doing.
As to the road map of how we interpreted Job’s experiences, we used the ideas penned by the 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite priest, John of the Cross. We feel that the path that God drew Job into is remarkably similar to what John of the Cross calls the Dark Night.
We can learn a whole lot about the life of prayer from this great hero of the Bible!
Let’s review the ideas of John of the Cross.
John of the Cross uses a three-fold division of the spiritual life. It dates back to the days of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the late 5th to early 6th century.
Pseudo-Dionysius divided the spiritual life into three phases, which he gave these unlikely names:
These correspond to three distinct phases of spiritual growth that we see in John of the Cross:
PURGATIVE. The first phase of the spiritual life is the purgative phase. It is addressed in John’s book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. It describes the beginnings of the life of prayer. John listed some of the ingredients necessary for growth in prayer and for becoming ready for greater closeness to the Lord. These were the things that we actively do as we cooperate with the grace of God: we grow in discipleship by imitating the life of our Lord Jesus. We reorient our motivation so it is for the greater glory of God.
ILLUMINATIVE. The second phase of the spiritual life is the illuminative phase. It is the topic of John’s book, The Dark Night. It describes the middle of the spiritual journey: how the Lord works in us as we sit still and passively allow him to work in us, purifying our senses and our soul. The difficulties experienced in the darkness worked to the advantage of the soul and helped bring it closer toward its goal. The goal of this journey, of course, is union with God. This union can transform our entire personality. This is where Job was at.
UNITIVE. The third phase of the spiritual life is the unitive phase. This is what The Living Flame of Love is all about. After the soul has passed through the darkness of the Active Night and the Passive Night, it has, in a real sense, “arrived.” It has arrived at a remarkable union with the Most High God. Now there is a living flame of love from God that burns within the soul. The soul feels that it is all inflamed in this union with God. It is bathed in glory and love. Deep within, it is flooded with glory and delight and living water.
Job is a blameless and upright person. He feared God, and turned away from evil (see Job 1:1).
Job even offered burnt offerings to God for his children, just in case they sinned in their hearts during special parties (Job 1:5).
However, his devotion to God is based upon an immature view of God. Job sees God as wrath and a lack of mercy (see Job 10:15-16).
God’s desire for his children is to draw them beyond such immature ways of relating to him and out into a deeper, more intimate relationship of love and trust.
(Job 1:6 to 2:13)
Satan suggests to God that Job should be put to the test. God allows this to happen, hedging his bet, so to speak, that Job will remain faithful.
Job undergoes two tests:
- The first devastates his family and his finances;
- The second devastates his health.
In both of these tests, Job’s role is entirely passive: he didn’t choose them. These two tests are merely preludes to what will follow, and so I won’t dwell on them at length.
JOB 1:11.But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will renounce you to your face.
Job’s first test is that his family and his finances are devastated. All that Job can do is to watch passively.
We think this Test #1 is analogous to the passive purification of SPIRIT that John of the Cross describes in The Dark Night, Book II.
In the passive purification of spirit, the soul prays and prays and prays. It meditates and meditates and meditates. But it is dismayed that it can find no longer satisfaction in prayer or meditation.
JOB 2:5. But stretch out your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will renounce you to your face.
In this second test, Job’s health is devastated and all he can do is to merely watch passively.
That’s like the passive purification of SENSE that is described in The Dark Night, Book I.
God is weaning the soul from active meditation and into the beginnings of contemplation. God is secretly planting into the soul a new modality of loving wisdom and knowledge.
Despite the soul’s lack of satisfaction in prayer and meditation, it is beginning to experience more love and humility and peace. The soul is discovering an increased knowledge of God and self.
(Job 3 to 14)
Genesis 15:12b. Now terror and great darkness fell on him.
All the sweetness of Job’s spiritual life has vanished. He feels such profound levels of despair that he cries Let the day perish in which I was born (Job 3:3).
Describing the day of his birth, his lament offers insight into the spiritual condition he feels: Let that day be darkness . . . Let darkness and the shadow of death claim it for their own. Let a cloud dwell on it. Let all that makes black the day terrify it (Job 3:4-5).
The words Job uses here are key to the spiritual path described by St. John of the Cross and others: darkness, clouds and night.
A friend named Eliphaz hints that Job is foolish (Job 5:3) and is reaping the mischief he has begotten (see Job 5:7).
When God draws souls out of meditation and into the beginnings of contemplative prayer, they often find that their closest spiritual friends are watching them like a hawk. Our friends observe the changes in our spiritual practices, and assume we have given up or are turning to mischief.
Eliphaz advises Job to appeal to God. That is, to talk to God. That is, to pray by talking. In other words, Eliphaz urges Job to turn away from this new prayer of contemplation, and turn back to his former way of spoken prayer.
For the person that God has called to contemplative prayer, this advice is simply wrong. It is very bad advice.
Job responds to Eliphaz with a longing for a consolation from God. Job wants his spiritual pain to be abated (see Job 6:8-10).
Job no longer finds consolation in the ideas of his friends. Their theology and devotional practices are insufficient and counter-productive.
For the soul that God has called out of meditation and contemplation, those former devotions and ideas are no longer adequate. Even the rigors of the new spiritual disciplines are an agonizing task: I made to possess months of misery (Job 7:3).
It is well known that the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer involves hours of sitting still, of being bored and of having little-to-no consolation for the effort.
Job’s spiritual despair is so intense that he cries, I shall not see happiness again (see Job 7:7b, NAB).
Job wisely places little value upon the dreams and visions he experiences (see Job 7:14-15), and thereby avoids being led astray by them.
In our day, many people place great value on their paranormal experiences. This not only stunts their spiritual growth, but by their attachment to them, they form a glass ceiling that will cause them to stagnate at that level. If only they knew how much more was beyond, if only they could let go and keep going.
A second friend, a man named Bildad, steps in to offer advice to Job.
Like Eliphaz, Bildad urges Job to turn away from contemplative prayer and return to his former practice of spoken prayer. After all, both Eliphaz and Bildad still pray by speaking. Bildaz insists: make your supplication to the Almighty (see Job 8:5b).
Both Bildad and Eliphaz are spiritually immature souls. They pretend to offer spiritual guidance to a soul in an advanced spiritual realm they have not yet experienced.
Job hears their words but knows their advice is inadequate: how can a man be justified before God (Job 9:2b. NAB).
The Hebrew word for “justified” is “sedeqah.” It means much more than just righteousness. It means to be in right relationship.
Job knows that nothing he can do is capable of leading him out of the spiritual darkness and into the light of greater union with God. Knowing that, he groans with the pain and despair of the Dark Night: I despise my life (Job 9:21b).
Subjectively, Job feels spurned by God (Job 10:3), in a spiritual darkness so terrible that darkness is the only light (Job 10:22, NAB).
“O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her lover.” [Note 1]
A third friend, a man named Zophar, steps up to offer advise to Job. This time the call is for repentance from sin (see Job 11:13-14).
This advice is like the advice offered by Eliphaz earlier. And it’s much like the advice that some people fling upon those souls that God draws out of meditation and into the beginnings of contemplative prayer. They insist: give up this contemplative nonsense, and come back to spoken devotional prayers.
Job finally tells Zophar to shut up!
It was about time. And it is also great spiritual advice. For the contemplative, wordy prayers and meditations need to be silenced. Like the medieval scholars, the best thing is to sit in the sheer awesomeness of God in muens, silence.
Job Is prepared to be silent and wait for as long as it takes: Slay me though he might, I will wait for him (Job 13:15, NAB).
Job is waiting in The Dark Night, waiting for the bliss of contemplative union with God. He says, Oh that you would hide me in Sheol (Job 14:13a), the netherworld of contemplative prayer.
St. Teresa of Avila, speaking of her sisters who were called to contemplative prayer, said this:
It is most important – all-important, indeed – that they should begin well by making an earnest and most determined resolve not to halt until they reach their goal, whatever may come, whatever may happen to them, however hard-they may have to labor, whoever may complain of them, whether they reach their goal or die on the road or have no heart to confront the trials which they meet, whether the very world dissolves before them. [Note 2]
There is a certain methodology to contemplative prayer. It must be practiced regularly. Prayer time should be at least one hour daily, one author said. [Note 3]
Another author, the 14th-century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote this:
I tell you frankly that anyone who desires to be a contemplative will know the pain of arduous toil (unless God should intervene with a special grace); he will feel keenly the cost of constant effort until he is long accustomed to this work. [Note 4]
If God has called you to contemplative prayer, realize that hardly anybody will understand it. Whether well-intentioned friends or family or cleric or spiritual director, almost everybody will give you the worst advice possible. You will need to be resolute in following the contemplative path, despite the mistaken urgings of almost everybody you know.
(Job 15 to 21)
You in fact do away with piety, and you lessen devotion to God.
Eliphaz says that to Job in his second speech. Eliphaz is accusing Job of abandoning his faith in God. Why does Eliphaz think that? Because he no longer sees Job pray using spoken words. Therefore, Eliphaz concludes, Job has rejected God.
Job hardly even responds to this harsh accusation. He’s deep in the throws of The Dark Night, and he has little energy left for defending himself. He says, I am exhausted and stunned (Job 16:7, NAB).
He says My spirit is broken, my lamp of life extinguished (Job 17:1, NAB).
Not only is Job exhausted, but he is disappointed that God did not shield him from these attacks from his friends. Job says: He has also set me up for his target. His archers surround me. He splits my kidneys apart, and does not spare. He pours out my gall on the ground (Job 16:12b-13).
Bildad notes that Job is momentarily weak. He seizes the moment and launches fresh accusations against Job: Yes, the light of the wicked shall be put out, The spark of his fire shall not shine (Job 18:5).
Thus far, Eliphaz and Bildad have been wrong about everything they have said. However, Bildad is about to say one thing that’s right. But we shouldn’t give Bildad credit for being right, as he was right by accident. He notes the darkness of Job’s condition: He shall be driven from light into darkness (Job 18:18).
Job, like many whom God brings into the Dark Night, feels that the spiritual light has vanished from his life. He feels weak and dimmed, without a flame to guide him through the spiritual wastelands on his journey through life. He’s at the point where all he can do is to Go into darkness and sit in silence (see Isaiah 47:5a, NAB).
Job responds to Bildaz by agreeing: he has set darkness in my paths (Job 19:8b).
Yet Job is temporarily given the strength to rally, spiritually, and to make a deep statement of faith: I know that my Redeemer lives . . .Whom I, even I, shall see (Job 19:25a and 27a).
This is a breakthrough. In his former days, Job lived vicariously off of the spiritual fat of the land. That is, he lived off the teachings and experiences of others. Now he is no longer content with secondhand spiritual food. Now he wants to see God with his own eyes. He’s looking for firsthand experience.
Zophar speaks up a second time, predicting that, for Job, Complete darkness is in store for him (Job 20:26, NAB).
Zophar felt this way about Job because Job’s suffering resembled God’s punishments for the unjust, which are described in Deuteronomy 15 and Isaiah 58.
In response, Job points out that sometimes the wicked do not suffer while sometimes God’s righteous people do suffer (see Job 21:23-26).
Job’s observation contradicts the promises of blessing for the just and punishment for the wicked, as stated in the Book of Deuteronomy. But these three accusers aren’t going to let hard evidence stand in the way of their sour theology!
(Job 22 to 27)
Eliphaz continues his condemnations of Job. He exhibits an arrogant level of self-confidence.
By now, Job’s closest friends have condemned him. Again and again, with abundant clarity. They reject his new way of praying, and stoop to anything at all to force him to pray like he used to. Like they still do. Even though it is no longer appropriate for Job.
If God has brought you into the Dark Night, you might be able to relate to Job’s situation. When you’re in the Dark Night, your closest friends often become your worst opposers. They never grow tired of telling you how wrong your new way of praying is.
Job, meanwhile, continues to pour out his spiritual pain. He says God’s hand is heavy in spite of my groaning (Job 23:2b).
The psalmist knew of God’s presence everywhere: If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol,* behold, you are there! (Psalm 139:8, NAB).
But Job cannot sense God’s presence at all.
Job laments, God has made my heart faint (Job 23:16b).
The Hebrew word for Almighty, here, is Shadai. The word literally means “breasts.” It’s like Job is a nursing baby who discovered that the breasts have dried up.
St. John of the Cross used that imagery, too. He said that God “weans” the spiritual soul from the sweet milk of meditation. Meditative prayer simply dries up, much as a mother weans a baby from nursing by putting bitter herbs on her breasts so that the baby will not suck.
This experience of being weaned is miserable. Job expresses his pain: Would that I had vanished in darkness, and that thick gloom were before me to conceal me (Job 23:17, NAB).
Job wishes that his pain in the Dark Night, his subjective lost-ness in the Cloud of Unknowing, would simply come to an end and he would perish there.
The Dark Night is not sadness. It is not depression. It is the feeling of separation from God, and it is agonizing.
Job says He has set a boundary for the darkness (See Job 28:3, NAB)
In other words, the Dark Night will end.
We have no idea how Job found the wherewithal to say that. It is a fantastic breakthrough.
The Dark Night doesn’t go on for ever and ever. At some point, it will end. And a new way of relating to God will emerge.
Anticipating that the Dark Night will end, David says to God: you will light my lamp, LORD. My God will light up my darkness (Psalm 18:28).
What does it mean that the Dark Night will end? Job hints at it in Job 28:28b. He says Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.
There is a very subtle element in this verse that suggests a whole new way of relating to God. This is one of a very few verses in the Book of Job that includes the Tetragammon, the four-letter Old Testament name of God: YHWH. The other verses are Job 1:21, Job 38:1 and Job 40:1,6.
Here’s what that means: Job is beginning to relate to God by name.
This suggests a relationship. Job has a relationship with God now. Instead of relating to God by means of the sacrifices and servile fear described in Chapter 1, now he’s on a first-name basis with God.
(Job 29 to 37)
Job isn’t out of the woods yet. He still longs for the good old days, back when God when his lamp shone on my head, and by his light I walked through darkness (Job 29:3).
Job recalls those heady days when the Almighty was yet with me (Job 29:5).
Instead of that, what Job experiences now is abandonment: I cry to you, and you do not answer me. I stand up, and you gaze at me. You have turned to be cruel to me. With the might of your hand you persecute me (Job 30:20-21).
Can you get a sense of Job’s misery in the Dark Night?
A younger man named Elihu is no longer able to contain his wrath for Job. (see Job 32:4).
Like the previous three friends, Elihu also accuses Job of unjust behavior and of evil action.
Elihu thinks God is being merciful toward Job because Job has been given ample opportunity to repent of his wickedness (see Job 33:30).
Elihu’s spiritual and theological arrogance reminds me of some wise words by John of the Cross:
“however impressive may be one’s knowledge or experience of God, that knowledge or experience will have no resemblance to God and amount to very little.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 4, paragraph 3)
Job has hit rock bottom. His four “friends” have made harsh accusations of moral improprieties, and Job has not the slightest sense that this spiritual darkness will ever end.
It is as if darkness came over the whole land (Matthew 27:45b, NAB).
(Job 38 to 42)
It is now that God reveals himself to Job, and it takes place in the midst of a whirlwind. Job is given a mystical experience.
In this mystical experience, Job comprehends that the greatness and breadth of God’s sovereign plans and purposes are beyond human comprehension. Job realizes that, as a human, he is not even capable of understanding the purposes behind God’s act of permitting suffering in the lives of people.
God describes to Job the splendor of his creative endeavors in the world. The text is suggestive of a powerful mystical vision where Job may have not only heard the words of God but also saw the scenes.
It’s as if God has fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy in the life of Job, when Isaiah prophesied that God will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight (Isaiah 42:16b).
All is being made well.
Confronted with Absolute Mystery, Job concedes, I have uttered that which I didn’t understand, things too wonderful for me, which I didn’t know (see Job 42:3).
When a soul is finally drawn out of the Dark Night, it can see that God’s purposes for the soul, when it was in the Dark Night, are unquestionably right, but also that the reasons defy explanation. We just don’t know why.
God then contrasts two animals: the behemoth and the leviathan. The behemoth is a giant cow, a domesticated animal mastered by men. But the leviathan is a wild monster, a dinosaur you dare not arouse. The behemoth gives milk. But from the Leviathan, Sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils a smoke goes (Job 41:19b-20 )
We see these two animals as symbols of the history of Job’s religious experience. Before, he lived off the milk of oratio, spoken prayer, the standardized, homogenized tepid religion of his day.
But now, emerging from the Dark Night, Job has come face-to-face with the Mysterium Tremendum, the Awesome, Terrifying God himself, via the fiery leviathan of mystical experience.
Job’s mystical experience has shown him the benefits of the Dark Night: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you (see Job 42:5).
Job has had the enthralling experience of meeting God in a powerful and new way, and this new encounter would not have taken place except for the Dark Night.
This is a wonderful validation of Job’s faith-statement back in Job 19:27: “I know that my Vindicator lives … Whom I myself shall see.”
In the end, all of Job’s former prosperity was restored to him (see Job 42:10), and even more (see Job 42:12).
In the end, the soul that has gone through the Dark Night receives more benefit and more blessing than it ever had before. Even the great scholar and theologian Thomas Aquinas, after his mystical experience toward the end of his life, said, “All I have written is as straw.”
In the end, Job does not have a greater intellectual insight into God. Rather, Job entered into mystical prayer and found his resolution there.
The experience of Job is like very much like the experience of the person that God draws into the Dark Night.
Job felt that God had vanished from his life. Similarly, in the Dark Night, the soul feels lost and disconnected from God.
Previously, Job’s spiritual life was often marked by consolation and sweetness. Similarly, most people feel consolation and sweetness in their spiritual life, prior to their Dark Night.
God “required” Job to abandon his former spiritual practices of supplication and sacrifice and just sit there in silence. Similarly, in the Dark Night, God pretty much “requires” people to abandon their former spiritual practices of spoken prayer and meditative prayer.
Job had to learn a whole new way of relating to God: by Mystical prayer. Similarly, in the Dark Night, people discover a whole new way of relating to God: by contemplative prayer.
God was at work within Job, changing and maturing his vision of God, building him toward a moment of mystical union in the whirlwind. Similarly, in the Dark Night, the Divine Surgeon is at work, silently and invisibly rebuilding the soul so that it relates to him in new and more mature ways and is ready for union with him.
In the Dark Night, God rebuilds the soul’s image of God, changing it from a petty, servile god into Rudolph Otto’s “mysterium tremendum” and “mysterium fascinans,” Paul Tillich’s “Ultimate Concern.” This is exactly what happened to Job.
Job’s Dark Night turns out to be a great blessing.
1. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Stanza 5. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C. : ICS Publications, 1991), p. 51. [Back to the text]
2. Teresa of Avila, Way, ch. 21. Cited in Thomas Dubay, Fire Within (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 116. [Back to the text]
3. James Borst, M.H.M., Contemplative Prayer (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 1979), 18. [Back to the text]
4. William Johnson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Doubleday, 1973), ch. 26, p. 83. [Back to the text]
Borst, James, M.H.M. Contemplative Prayer. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 1979.
Doohan, Leonard. The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1995
Dubay, Thomas, S.M. Fire Within. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989
Griffin, Emilie, editor, and Farrington, Tim, translator. The Cloud of Unknowing. HarperOne, 1981
Hart Clifford, Patricia. Sitting Still. New York: Paulist Press, 1994
John of the Cross. The Ascent of Mount Carmel. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, rev. ed. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991
John of the Cross. The Dark Night. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, rev. ed. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991
John of the Cross. The Living Flame of Love. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, rev. ed. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991
Johnson, William, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
Merton, Thomas. Contemplative Prayer
Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).
Teresa of Avila. The Interior Castle. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriquez, O.C.D.. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1979
Teresa of Avila. Way
Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul, Translated by John Beevers. New York: Image Books Doubleday, 2001
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.