My family recently experienced a great loss that seems to only intensify during the Christmas season. In seeking conciliation for this grief, I recently turned my attention to the book of Job, an ancient account in the Bible that provides perspective on the question of why the righteous suffer at times.
Job was a righteous man who endured much without a specific explanation as to why his life included so much pain. Job 1:1-3 introduces him stating:
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. His possessions also were 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants; and that man was the greatest of all the men of the east.”
Job lived sometime between Abraham and Moses in the Land of Uz south of the Dead Sea. Job described himself as a man who commanded respect, a “chief,” and “a king among the troops” (29:7-10, 25). He was the kind of person people sought in order to receive comfort (29:25). He was a friend of God (29:4), he helped the poor (29:12) and opposed the wicked (29:17). Job loved his family and offered “burnt offerings” in order to cover the sins of his children (1:5).
Before he experienced significant trials, Job occupied that rare position of being both excessively rich and moral. This enabled him to gain the admiration of everyone in his region. God himself believed Job was “a blameless and upright man” (1:8).
Practically speaking, Job sat at the top of the known world, until it was all taken from him.
One day, Satan challenged Job’s character before God himself. He told God that Job only followed Him because he received a reward for doing so. Job did not actually love God. He loved himself and used God for his own purposes. In leveling this charge, Satan also attacked God’s character. If what Satan said was true, God could not be all knowing since one of his followers deceived Him.
To prove Satan to be the liar he is, God granted him authority to destroy Job’s possessions and then his health.
In the course of one day Job lost his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, servants, and children. Yet, Job continued to worship God through his broken heart. It was then Satan afflicted Job with what some speculate was leprosy. Job lived outside of the city where trash was burned using broken pottery to relieve his itching skin. He ran a fever, his skin was black (30:30), his body was emaciated and infested with worms (19:20, 7:5), he had trouble eating and breathing (3:24, 9:18), his breath was so putrid his wife would not come close to him (19:17), and his friends did not recognize him (2:12).
Sometimes trials make sense to us. An elderly person passes away after a full life at a ripe old age. We expect the time to catch up with us. We expect to get a cold when we do not put on a jacket, to fail a test when we do not study, or to go to jail if we commit a crime, etc. We live in a world of cause and effect, action and consequence, rewardreward, and punishment.
But what about when it does not make sense to us? What about when a righteous person suffers? If what God said about Job’s character was true, then every other person on earth deserved what Job experienced more than Job did.
It was in this condition that Job’s wife blamed God and advised him to “Curse God and die!” (2:9) while his friends tried to convince him that he deserved this punishment for his own evil.
On an emotional level Job wanted God to take his life so he could escape his deep suffering (Job 3:21). He wanted to hear from God directly but could not (23:3-5). Job knew there was no unconfessed sin that caused his pain (Job 23:10-12) so he patiently relied on God’s grace to eventually bring an end to his suffering (Job 19:25-27). Though he expressed the desire for God to end his extreme anguish he did not sin against God by questioning His character. Job knew the cause of his suffering was neither his own sin nor God’s injustice. Rather, there was a higher purpose he was unaware of.
The questions Job wrestles with are the same ones that come knocking at all our doors at different times in our own lives.
Years ago, I had a friend who professed faith in Christ until one of her close friends died in an accident. The grief she experienced eventually led to a bitterness against God and she proved her profession to be false by rejecting Christianity entirely.
In my own experience doing evangelism on college campuses, I have discovered that most atheists and proponents of Eastern religion reject Christianity because they want to believe they are good and do not deserve punishment. They do not want a God who would allow them to experience pain and suffering.
Yet, everyone will experience these things and every other belief system accounts for them in deeply dissatisfying ways. In rejecting a personal God, atheism must reject the concept of ultimate evil entirely. Evil is whatever we make it. Pain and suffering are therefore purposeless.
Eastern religions tend to frame evil as an allusion, like a deceptive mirage or an impersonal force such as gravity. We cannot make meaningful distinctions between ourselves, the universe, and the causes of the pain and suffering we experience. All is one. Practically speaking, there can be no comfort except for the fact that our pain does not matter in the grand scheme.
But as Christians we know that evil, pain, and suffering do actually matter.
First, they ultimately glorify God because very existence of evil, pain, and suffering provides the opportunity for God to vindicate the righteous, destroy wickedness, and redeem sinners. His wrath, goodness, and patience would not be manifested without them (Proverbs 16:4, Romans 9:22).
Second, they refine the character of Christians because trials create opportunities for God to mold into being more like Jesus (Rom 5:3-5, 2 Cor 12:7).
We may not always understand exactly how a demonic attack, a wicked person, or a tragedy will glorify God and build our character in the moment. Neither Job, his wife, nor his friends knew about the cosmic battle between God and Satan that included Job. But we ultimately trust that His purposes for us are good.
In the final chapters of Job, God provides an explanation. Yet, it is not the kind of explanation we as humans generally ask for. We want to know exact details. How does our trial fit into the grand tapestry God is weaving?
However, God does not always get specific. He sometimes gives us the same answer He gave Job: “Trust me.” He overwhelms us with Himself: His design, purpose, and power. Not only are his ways perfect, but He cannot be thwarted. He is the creator and sustainer with sovereign rights over His entire creation. He reminds us of our human limitations. It is not always for us to understand the mysteries of God.
God spoke to Job from a whirlwind saying in 38:4-7: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? “On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, When the morning stars sang together And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
God continued through chapter 41 by highlighting the wonders of the seas, stars, weather, and animals. Instead of providing concrete answers to Job’s predicament, he asks Job questions he cannot answer because they are beyond his limitations.
Consequently, Job abandoned attempts to understand exactly and instead surrendered to God himself.
This is one of the reasons I think we can find so much comfort as believers by simply observing the way birds fly, trees grow, sun shines, and clouds thunder. All of these things remind us that we have a creator who intricately designed this world according to a plan.
We also have the advantage of knowing a few things Job did not. We possess a more complete revelation from God through the Bible which tells us about another person like Job, though more righteous, yet suffering to a greater extent.
Jesus was called a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” He came to world as a child and grew in wisdom and stature just like the rest of us. Yet, He was different. Scripture teaches he was God in human flesh sent on a mission to reconcile mankind with God. He endured suffering the likes of which has never been experienced before or since. Like Job, he pleaded with God to take away his suffering. Though, He knew it was part of God’s higher plan. He trusted and obeyed God perfectly through it all.
We celebrate his birth this Christmas time and I hope it brings you joy through your own suffering. He died on a cross to pay the penalty for the sins of his people, then miraculously rose from the grave defeating death and making a way for us to live eternally with God where there are no tears and all will be made well. What a day that will be.
Perhaps then we will be able to say along with Job who said in 42:2-6:
“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 declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.”