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Vol.VIII, April 2002

 

"Lay a Finger on His Flesh and He Will Curse You "
(Job 2:5)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

With the first trial of Job, Satan wanted to make him curse God to His face (cf. Job 1:11). However, Job reacted with trustful surrender to the wisdom and goodness of God: "‘Yahweh gave, Yahweh has taken back. Blessed be the name of Yahweh!’...He persists in his integrity still" (1:21; 2:3). Scripture then goes on to recount a second attempt by Satan to bring about the downfall of Job.

1. Satan dared to approach the throne of God a second time. He said to God: "Skin after skin! Someone will give away all he has to save his life. But stretch out your hand and lay a finger on his bone and flesh; I warrant you, he will curse You to Your face." We are surprised at such a firm and secure affirmation before God even after his first attempt had clearly failed! "‘Very well,’ Yahweh said to Satan, ‘he is in your power. But spare his life.’ Satan left the presence of Yahweh. He struck Job down with malignant ulcers from the sole of his foot to the top of his head " (Job 2:4-7). A preliminary question which this text may raise, is this: When Satan makes such strong affirmations, does this perhaps mean that he knows the future?

a) With regard to the knowledge of the future of angels in general and that of the fallen angels as well, we recall first what Jesus said about the end of time: "But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father alone" (Mt 24:36; cf. Is 41:23). It is not only the Last Day which is hidden for the angels, but all the future. The future, you see, is built by free decisions, which are not foreseeable. What the angels, good or evil, know about future behavior, is not foreknowledge, but fruit of their observations in the past which allow certain, let us say, "statistical" conclusions. The evil spirits (to focus now on their methods) observe man closely with their sharp intellects with a view to exploiting his observed weaknesses through subtle seductions. They know man’s general inclinations and reactions, and so can predict: In such a situation, Anthony will loose his patience. St. John of the Cross explains: The angels "derive this knowledge through exterior indications (even though extremely slight) such as words, gestures, and other signs" (Ascent of Mount Carmel II,26.14; cf. II,21.8-11). Is Satan’s affirmation about Job also just based on observations of him? If not, why should he have spoken out like this? Still, it is affirmed that Job was a man without fault.

b) The statement was a calculated generalization based on the devil’s presumption that he could bring Job to fall, if only given the opportunity. This self-secure and exaggerated affirmation is attributable to Satan’s spiritual blindness caused by his pride and envy. St. Thomas explains: "The attack itself derives from the demon’s ill-will enviously attempting to impede men from achieving anything. Through pride they pretend to a semblance of God’s power by appointing special ministers to attack men, just as God’s angels minister in special ways to men’s salvation" (St. Thomas Aq., Summa Theologica I,114,1). This permits us to say: Here and everywhere, whatever the devil says, all is puffed up and swelled and should not be taken seriously. Did not Jesus present him to us with these words: "He was never grounded in the truth; there is no truth in him at all. When he lies he is speaking true to his nature, because he is a liar, and the father of lies" (Jn 8:44).

2. Nevertheless, one thing is true: "Satan left the presence of Yahweh. He struck Job down with malignant ulcers from the sole of his foot to the top of his head," so that "Job took a piece of pot to scrape himself, and went and sat among the ashes" (Job 2:6-7).

a) The devil can, when God allows, act upon the human body, and cruelly. The Catechism teaches: "Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and...may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and indirectly, even of a physical nature - to each man and to society" (CCC 395). St. John of the Cross explained these possibilities: "Here is an example: The devil perceives that when the earth, air, and sun have reached a certain interrelationship, they will necessarily at that time become corrupted and thereby cause a pestilence. He is also cognizant of the areas in which the pestilence will be grave and those in which it will be mild" (Ascent II,21.8). St. John added, "The example, then, is that of a pestilence known in its causes,"for, as we know, all material things are submitted to the angelic powers (cf. Circular VIII,2). Therefore, it is no problem for them to apply their knowledge and provoke a pestilence or any other kind of sickness (cf. e.g., 2 Sam 24:16-17; Acts 12:23, etc.). However, we ought to note, that the angelic or diabolic influence is not limited to provoking physical sickness; it can also influence the interior senses, causing pain for example (cf. Circular VIII,3), such that the doctors cannot find the cause for the pain. This is often the case when symptoms appear suddenly and in an intense and persistent form, and then disappear as quickly as they appeared.

b) But there is a detail which caused the main problem of the entire book of Job: the possibility does not include any necessity.

Israel — and perhaps the whole of mankind by a natural sense of justice — considered sickness as divine a punishment for some sin (cf. Gen 3). The disciples asked Jesus before the man born blind, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?" (Jn 9:2). Likewise St. Paul explained sin to be the cause of sickness and even death: "A person who eats and drinks without recognizing the Body (of the Lord) is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died" (1 Cor 11:29-30). On the other hand, the good thief confessed on the cross: "We are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41). Jesus was made to suffer and die, though He had certainly committed no sin. Similarly, Job could not explain why good people suffer and why bad people have a good life: "Why do the wicked still live on, their power increasing with their age?...Yet these are the ones who say to God, ‘Go away!’" (21:7,14,19). In this context, Job’s wife confessed his integrity: "Why persist in this integrity of yours? Curse God and die" (Job 2:9). Thus, despite the generic link between sin and suffering as cause and effect, the immediate link and connection is not clear nor is it certain. In the case in point, Satan caused Job’s sickness in order to seduce him to sin; that is to say, the causality is turned around.

3. To understand this mystery we need to consider how Satan proceeds against man. "The bad angels attack men in two ways: first by inciting them to sin...Sometimes, however, they attack men by punishing them" (S.Th. I,114,1 ad 1m).

a) The diabolical strategy is that he rewards with external success man’s sinful choice in collaboration with himself, and, contrarily, takes vengeance by physical suffering on those who resist him spiritually. The Lord refers to this when He alerts us: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Mt 10:28; cf. Circular V,9; S.Th. I,114,3). Thus, St. Paul can counsel: "Hand such a man over to Satan, to be destroyed as far as natural life (the flesh) is concerned, so that on the Day of the Lord his spirit may be saved" (1 Cor 5:5). Now, this must be seen and understood in the larger context of the history of salvation, which transcends the limits of a justice seen only in terms of this life.

b) The devil is not a good angel, rather he is constrained against his will by the omnipotent providence of God to serve HIS plan for the good of men. Similarly, sickness though not good in itself, becomes an instrument in the hands of God to save souls. Therefore, "‘If the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, He does it to demonstrate the latter’s righteousness. The suffering has the character of a test’ (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, 11). ...Sickness may have positive consequences as a demonstration of the faithfulness of the just person, and for repairing the justice that is violated by sin, and also because it may cause a sinner to reform and set out on the way of conversion...‘each man in his suffering can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ’ (Ibid., 19)" (Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Prayers for Healing, Sept. 14, 2000, n° 1; cf. CCC 1500-1510; S.Th., I,114,1 ad 1 and 3). And Jesus’ answer to His disciples about the man born blind points to still a further dimension of sickness: "Neither he nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him" (Jn 9:3).

In conclusion, when God allowed Satan "to lay a finger on [Job’s] bone and flesh", with however the very important limitation, namely to "spare his life!", it was not as a punishment for some sins, but for a further proof of Job’s integrity and faithfulness, which ultimately is a further glorification of God Himself. Ironically but still foreseen by God in His providence, Satan by his blindness and pride contributed to this by his own initiative!

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood! Various points were brought to our mind to be reflected upon.

Not all predictions (would-be "prophecies"), especially with regard to the end of time, should receive our attention (cf. Mt 24:24-28), rather let our care be that the Lord "will find any faith on earth" (Lk 18:8) when He comes.

Not all material welfare fosters or is harmonious with the spiritual good, hence, its presence should make one even more solicitous to be concerned about gaining salvation.

And when sickness touches us, let not our first concern be to overcome it immediately, but to draw some spiritual benefit from it. Subsequently, of course, we have to provide also the possible means to secure our health, so that the devil may not in this way hinder us in our collaboration for the building of the kingdom of God on earth.

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC