Re-Interpreting Our Explanation Systems (Scholar’s Compass)

Job Talks to God croppedImage: Job Talks to God

Drawing on her experience as lecturer and head of the Mission department at West Africa Theological Seminary in Lagos, Nigeria, Chinyere Priest contributes to our Lent justice series with further reflections on how our explanation systems can be just or unjust, empathetic or lacking empathy. Read Chinyere’s previous ESN reflections on pursuing justice as a Christian academic here.

If you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,  then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear. Job 11:14-15, NIV

In many societies when misfortune occurs many do not just stand and fold their hands in despair; rather they endeavor to overcome the crisis by searching for the right explanation system to explain the situation. Some use moral causal ontology in which misfortune is interpreted as one’s own sin, or interpersonal causal ontology in which a malevolent person must be responsible, or scientific causal ontology in which the problem is caused by either biology or psychology, or spiritual causal ontology in which demonic powers are causing the misfortune. The choice of explanation is a personal and community choice.


Job’s colleagues explained his misfortune or calamity using moral causal ontology: they said that he was suffering due to his sin. This led several to put blame on Job, which compounded his suffering through his friends’ inability to lament with him and provide succor for him. The loss of Job’s flock, wealth, children, and health were used as evidence that he had sinned. Job’s friends argued that God does not send calamity upon the righteous, therefore Job had sinned because he was suffering calamity. According to their explanation system, calamity does not befall a righteous person in vain. Hiebert, Shaw, and Tienou proposed a system of systems theory as a holistic way to explain misfortune. The theory articulates that a problem can have many causes but people might focus only on one of the causes. Sometimes we explain people’s problems only from moral or personal ontology, thereby treating them unjustly. Job’s problem was not a result of any wrongdoing. In Africa some childless women face untold insults, rejection and devastating comments because their childlessness is explained as a consequence of their promiscuity in their teenage years. In the West some spiritual problems are explained as psychological or mental and the victim is exposed to unhelpful psychological or mental treatments that prove abortive; if the spiritual problem is not also addressed the individual languishes in the situation. In Africa some biological problems are explained as witchcraft and the suspected witches tortured or killed. We need to interpret people’s problems holistically and not just focus on only one of the causes.

Can we start explaining people’s misfortune, suffering, sickness, death, or problems holistically? What explanation systems do you adopt in explaining the misfortune of another? Are you harming others with your limited causal ontology? Are you taking advantage of your personal or community explanation systems to harm others? Are we accusing others for our misfortune? Why don’t we consider other possible causes that might be responsible for the situation? The end of Job’s account revealed that he was misjudged and unjustly treated. God rebuked his accusers and blessed him. God will punish every false accusation and harm caused to the innocent.


Oh Lord God, often our perception of life, misfortunes or even successes is colored by our worldviews and explanation systems. We admit today that we have hurt and harmed others via our limited explanation systems. Would you kindly forgive us and help us start interpreting happenings in our lives and others’ holistically? Amen!

Further Reading

Hiebert, Paul G., R. Daniel Shaw., and Tite Tienou 2000. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Baker Books.

Image: Job Talks to God, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 18, 2015]. Original source:

Intro updated March 19, 2015 at 12:45 and 2:15 pm

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Chinyere Priest

Chinyere holds double master’s degrees in Missions and Biblical Studies from West Africa Theological Seminary (An Affiliate of the University of Nigeria Nsukka) Lagos, Nigeria. She is presently a PhD student at the department of Missions of the Africa International University, Nairobi, Kenya. Her field of research is in the Conversion of Christians to Islam within sub-Sahara Africa. Apart from serving as a missionary in Sudan, she was once the head of department and for many years lecturer in the Mission Department of the West Africa Theological Seminary (WATS) Lagos, Nigeria. She is equally involved in children’s ministry, concerned about the persecuted church, and concerned for the accused.

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    Eugene Ukaoha commented on March 27, 2015 Reply

    An insightful and comprehensive explanation systems that encompasses Biblical, Western and African including scientific worldviews on suffering and justice. A splendid piece indeed!

    John Tortuman commented on November 8, 2018 Reply

    I’m John Tortuman Kadum, it is always human to think first of the cause of a calamity that befalls. rather than thinking of the solution to the subject matter, even at the center of pain. what makes the difference is the driving force behind the victim and his relations. if you are a believer, there will always be a need of consulting your source of faith and believe. not jumping to conclusions, the true scriptures had not lured us of problem free life, instead taught persecution as a stair case to the top. i love ECWA THEME OF THE YEAR “JOY IN SUFFERING” what it means is that Christian suffering is partaking with Christ’s, fellowship with Him. thanks
    His grace

    Ejeagba Felix Ndukwe commented on November 8, 2018 Reply

    This article is very insightful and stands to address the issue of quick judgement we pass on others especially when they are passing through challenges. It is important that we learn to empathise with others.
    Again, not every problem is as a result of sin. We should not mock people who are suffering.

    samuel emokpare commented on November 8, 2018 Reply

    This is a sound insight into handling misfortunes, we are not expected to be a judge in issues that are beyond human understandings. As much as sins can lead to misfortune none of us can claim God in adjudging another. Matthew 7:1; We should also remember always that affliction is common to all and it varies 1 Peter 5:9

    Olatayo Samuel commented on November 8, 2018 Reply

    suffering does not necessarily mean punishment for sins.This is not to foreclose the possibility, but not in all cases.suffering can come as a test of faith and as an avenue for God to glorify himself we need to be very careful how we pass comments on people who are suffering. Remember, nobody is above suffering in one form or the other. I suggest that people should empathize rather than criticize. Remember Romans 8:28.

    Adu Victor commented on November 15, 2018 Reply

    The article is sound, opening the eyes of the reader to avoid quick judgement on people as we never can tell what God has in mind and how short or long their temptation might be. Rather than criticize, we are supposed to support the people going through hard times.

    I Inusa commented on November 15, 2018 Reply

    The story of Job is a place of trial and temptation and because God loves him, he made a boast of him, and God allowed satan to tempt him. So every believer need to understand the times of trials and temptation and long suffering as one of the fruit of the Holy spirit in our contemporary time.

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