Pastor's Blog

A cry from the heart: Suffering and the Justice of God in the book of Job

Accept suffering graciously. When you have reached such a point, all misery will seem sweet and you will relish it for Christ's sake and think that you have discovered paradise on earth. As long as you object to suffering you will be ill at ease. Accept it, and you will find peace[1].

It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering[2].

Over six centuries and over seventy years have passed since Thomas à Kempis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer respectively sought to give voice to one of the age old conundrums or struggles of human existence; why do we suffer? Perhaps 3000 years have passed since the author of the book of Job sought to put this eternal enigma into the realm of the justice of God as manifested in the light of human suffering. For Job himself (and the author who recorded his story), as much as for à Kempis and Bonhoeffer - as well as for believers all over the world through recorded Christian and Jewish history - the struggle has always focused on the central theme of reconciling the reality of a living, loving, omnipresent, omnipotent God, who is also apparently prepared to stand back and allow bad things to happen to good people.

Introduction

The book of Job opens with a description that is at one hand beguiling, indeed, almost idyllic. Job is a successful man in every respect - spiritually, personally and materially.[3] He is the greatest man of his age, in his location (1:3b); his spiritual and faith credentials appear to be beyond question. Yet into this picture of near Eastern paradise, a note of alarm is soon sounded: has Job really been put to the test or, as Satan insists, is Job simply as he is because of the way that God has protected and kept him thus far?

Curiously, this dialogue has its beginning with God, who holds up Job's steadfastness and loyalty as an example directly to the face of Satan, who promptly requests that Job's loyalties and ties be put to the test (1:9 - 12). It is as if God Himself is putting Job up to be tested - a key thought in any consideration of the origins and spiritual outcomes of suffering. Clearly God is laying Job on the line. 

The big questions

Even at this stage it would be easy to take a sceptical view and pose the following questions:

  • was/is God really Sovereign: is he really in control of everything?
  • was/is God totally good: is there an element of "badness" in his being?
  • how innocent really is Job: were there hidden sins to be unearthed?
  • how can the justice of God be defended in the face of the possibility of suffering inflicted on and incurred by, an innocent man

As the book progresses it is clear from the responses given, that these assumptions (or at least the first three of them), were fundamental to the theology of Job and more particularly, his three friends.Indisputably God is Sovereign, indisputably he is in control and is wholly good; humanity can never be wholly innocent in God's eyes, since all are under the curse of Adam (Genesis 3:16ff). The cross and the reconciliation it effected, sufficient for all for all time, is yet to come.

The problem is that the abstraction of this theological world view aside, the reality of human experience finds considerable tension in the idea of a just God permitting, if not encouraging suffering (1:12). It is all very well to look at the theory but when the rubber of pain - whether physical, mental or spiritual - hits the hard highway of everyday life, then theory is the last place to look when the pain and suffering has to be dealt with or overcome. Such remains the lot of the believer today, as much as it did for Job over 3 millennia ago.

Certainly, Bonhoeffer, appears to side with Job, in recognising that suffering is at its greatest when it is:

  • endured alone (Job alone suffers great loss)
  • endured away from the public eye and in humiliation (physical disfigurement- 2:7)
  • endured in ways that others can't see or understand even if they are close by (Job's wife 1: 9 - 10)

Seen from our side

That said, Job is not alone as he experiences his suffering. His wife and three of  his friends all have their contribution to make and advice to give (chs 3 - 37), often as direct responses to Job's cries from the heart. At first each seems to be doing all the right things. His wife wants to shake him out of the pitiable state he is in and relieve him from his self inflicted "medication" for his physical ailments (1:7 - 10). His friends empathise with him in what is undeniably a tragic situation: they weep with him, they spend time with him, like him they spread dust on their own heads as a sign of  repentance and they don't try to pretend or to say "I understand", that most cliched - and incorrect - of responses to the suffering of another (3: 11 - 13).

Yet, their world view - that is their perception and understanding of God - governs how they deal with Job and his suffering. They may begin in the right way but their interpretation of why Job has suffered, as opposed to the manifestation of that suffering, leave him worse off than when they began: it might have been better for Job had their incarnate presence been all they were prepared or able to offer. Yet, in another sense it was beneficial that they did foist their own views and opinions on Job, since it allowed him to work through the enigma with which he then, and we today, face.

Clearly Job's suffering is exacerbated by the wounding words of his friends (5:27 - 7: 21). They repeatedly insist that the sole reason for his suffering  was that his sin had caused it[4]. In other words there was no smoke without fire: deep down Job was at fault; deep down there were sins unconfessed, unforgiven. Deep down, Job was not getting what he deserved - he deserved far worse (Zophar - 11:6). Not only do they attack Job as a person, almost revelling in his unfortunate situation, his friends also reach wider afield in the second discourse (chs. 15 - 21) with wider generalisations to "explain" his predicament.

Here we move from a charge of arrogance and a lack of understanding (Eliphaz), to a call to reasoning and knowledge (Bildad), out to the inevitability of the decline of the wicked (Zophar). The third discourse (chs. 22 -31) brings few new points to the argument, centering as it does on Job's 3 antagonists who simply state  "We know you are wrong and we can prove it."[5] They proceed to do just that - to their own, if not to Job's, satisfaction and agreement.

A further character moves centre stage to the drama in chs. 32 - 37. Elihu has clearly been around all along yet thus far has not contributed to the debate; he has been listening, trying to understand what is going on and steeling himself as a young man to speak to the problems of his elders (32: 6 - 11).

Finding a way through the labyrinth

In the discourse which follows he appears to be critical both of the friends (32:12 -14) who he says have failed to prove their case, and also of Job himself for his self righteous views and claims that God just doesn't understand (for Job's indignant righteousness see 31: 9 - 14: Elihu's response in 33: 8 - 14). Elihu, then, doesn't take sides, yet his analysis of the situation leaves us with a picture that helps us to avoid several pitfalls when it comes to reconciling God's love, justice and human suffering.

  • God is just and His voice is never silent (33:14) 
  • God's character is one of rightness, justice and sovereignty (34:10 – 37)
  • the reality of God's care is plain to see (36: 8 - 11)
  • God's power controls the universe (36: 22 - 37 :24); why will that power not sustain us through the trials and temptations of life?

The story closes with God's direct intervention into Job's situation (chs 38 - 42). God's affirmation of His Sovereignty over all things - events and people (see esp. 41:11) - is followed by Job's repentance, prayer and subsequent restoration to a prosperity beyond which he had not known.

Although certain aspects of the central enigma have been addressed as the study has progressed, it is now time to draw the strands together to a coherent whole, that will have pastoral implications. Perhaps the best place to begin, is from a  perspective that stands at the heart of this dialogue  that of Job himself - and his own attitude to God. 

Pain on the inside

Clearly Job cannot agree with his three friends on the source of his suffering. That the suffering comes from the devil is beyond dispute in this story at least, that God allows the devil to proceed a certain distance is also beyond question. From a  pastoral point of view, to know that God is in control as Job does, and as God forcibly reminds him in chs 38 ff. (" ....brace yourself - 40:7), is a reminder that God's justice and righteousness is not something which can be limited, either by our understanding or our command. Simply put; we are to let God be God and not try to put Him into a box or framework that is the function or design of our limited mind. In a similar way, although Job was not directly aware of it, we certainly are - even Satan (the adversary) can only operate within the limitations imposed by God.

Job's synthesis of his situation erupts in chs 26 - 32 . In ch 31:5 ff.  he is effectively challenging God or testing him to find wrong in him - and this, after he has already cursed the day of his birth. Yet he never curses God, never blames, only seeks an explanation. For him, the explanations of his friends, simply do not compute; they fail to link to the view that Job himself has of the type of God he follows and worships. His main complaint is that through his suffering, he struggles to find God; it is not so much that he wants relief from his circumstances, as much as an acknowledgement from God that he is there. In short Job feels isolated, abandoned.

Finding God in the darkest night

Anyone who has gone through spiritually challenging times knows something of this; there is the knowledge deep down that God is real, that he is incarnate in Jesus, that we have his spirit, yet somehow there is a feeling of abandonment; that we are on our own in this one. 

However "good" or "bad" our friends are, when the chips are down it is really God's care which really matters. Shouting at the storm in times like this, as Job might have been tempted to do (ch. 38 ff.) often has little impact - it is stepping back and listening to the voice of God in and through the storm (which is Job's experience) which helps us to begin to find acceptance, if not explanation, in suffering.

The very fact that God himself speaks through the storm, even if only to reassert his control and sovereignty has a tremendous impact. Job found it hard to see God at work in his own life: by his own admission he searches - to the east and to the west - but God is not there. But he never abandons his certainty, that God is still there, even if he is hidden for a time[6]. Although there is an inevitable sense of meaningless for Job. God's answer in a direct "divine encounter" is a pointer down the years of the certainty of God's power, presence and care, as well as His carefully laid plans (42:1). For those, like Job who seek the Lord he is to be and will be found (cf. Isaiah 55: 6 ff.); to those seekers who find, there is not only the promise of certainty and meaning but spiritual prosperity also.

It's arguable how much suffering may be, or is, imposed by Satan. Job's situation is but one example of how suffering may impact the life of a believer - a striver after righteousness - and every situation is certainly different. Each and every circumstance of suffering may have one or a number of causes - some may indeed be the fault of the person concerned (an alcoholic with cirrhosis for example), some may have indirect causations (secondary cancer for smokers); many have no discernible cause whatever.

The Bible reveals that there are several purposes or reasons for suffering.  Death, for instance, is the result of Adam's sin (Romans  5:12-21), which affects the entire race. One's personal sins may be the cause (Jeremiah 31:30). Yet Jesus' words in John 9:2, 3  are clear (emphasis mine):

His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

Easy theology and cheap grace can often ascribe suffering to some kind of sin/punishment regime. Prosperity theology, for example, would deny that bad things happen to good people. Simply accepting that we all might - on occasion, however regularly "occasion" might be - suffer hardship of some kind appears as alien to some theological perspectives as it does to the self sufficient, self focused 21st Century philosophies characteristic of Post Modernism.

We cannot claim ever to "understand" the suffering of another because we are just not them, nor they us. We can't get into their mind, we can only aim to help, prayerfully, pastorally and practically. In this respect there is a valuable lesson to be learned from the attitude an approach of Job's three friends, who got into the right stadium with the right kind of attitude (they wanted to help) but when they got down to business on the pitch, they really began shooting into their own net, fouling their fellow player on the way.

The key to it all is trust: trust in God's character, trust in God himself. For it is trust to which Job is brought back and trust to which we are called. Clearly our contemporary view is a different one from Job's - and even advances in medical science can only explain the how of some suffering, rather than the why. No, compared to Job we stand "on the other side of the cross." There we see suffering, sin, isolation and reconciliation in its starkest form. 

God's love through us

That is not all – for it is also there we discover or rediscover the ultimate expression of God's love for all humankind hung up for all to see: this expression is one of victory in and glory through suffering. Suffering that God observed, suffering that he allowed for his own Son. Christ helps us by virtue of his weakness and suffering. Christ suffered and died so that our sins might be forgiven and we might have life

Suffering servants is not an alien concept for a loving or just God. Job's experience reminds us that the reality of God's love is such that he is with us through every twist and turn of life; and that the fact that "bad things" happen to us is does not have to be a sign of his displeasure. So often it is an opportunity to learn and to discover so much about ourselves, but also about our God. Job is not the hero of the book of the same name; the hero is God

For believers today, coming alongside those who are in need - the hurt, the suffering, the powerless - is what God calls us to do. We are called to be the parakletos, the encouragers, (Hebrews 10: 25b), to be as Christ to those around us in the world today who need God's touch, at any time and in any way.

NOTES
[1] Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
[2] Attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer
[3] In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. (Job 1: 1 - 3a: NIV)
[4] Benfold, Why Lord? The Book of Job for Today, p. 49. Chapter 4, pp. 49 - 60 is an effective and persuasive summary of the discourses between Job and his three friends.
[5] ibid., p.56
[6] Drane, Introducing the Old Testament, p.231

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Benfold G, Why Lord? The Book of Job for Today (Day One Publications, Epsom, 1998)
Benton J, Christians in a Consumer Culture (Christian Focus, Fearn, 1999)
Drane J, Introducing the Old Testament (Lynx, Littlemore, 1987)
Hailey H, A Commentary on Job (Religious Supply Inc., no loc., 1994)
Kreeft P, Making Sense out of Suffering (Servant Books, Ann Arbor Michigan, 1986)
Robinson M, Why the Cross (Monarch, London, 2000)

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