The age-old question of “Why is there suffering on earth?” continues to promote various arguments, ideologies and dreams of an opposite utopia today. This is a question that has both destroyed lives, and motivated life. It has also spawned another question – who is to blame for suffering, and this is the root that determines the way a person reacts to suffering in their lives, and in the world. So, what opinions are there about why suffering is present in the world? Here are a few I have heard:
- Suffering is a result of sin
- Suffering is because God either can’t help it, or won’t help it
- Suffering is Satan’s attack on us
- Suffering is part of a world mourning and yearning for God’s return
- Suffering is punishment from God
- Suffering is a result of our actions
- Suffering can come by the actions of others
So, what does the book of Job reveal about the cause of suffering? There are four things I want to look at here.
1. Satan uses suffering to tempt people away from God
Satan has a relatively short appearance in the book of Job. In chapter one and two, Satan asks permission to strike Job with various grievances, but he is then no longer mentioned. The rest of the book of Job focuses on how Job, and his friends view the situation of suffering, and how they view God’s hand in all this. I think this is important because it shifts the emphasis of suffering from under Satan’s control, to something we can influence.
All Satan does is accuse. When his accusation is found to be false, he finds another way to “blame God”. In all he says, Satan tries to lay blame on God. See what he says:
“…Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around all he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” [Job 1:10-11]
Satan makes two accusations, and issues a challenge. First, he accuses God of protecting Job, then he attributes Job’s fear of God to his prosperity alone. Satan then suggests that should God take this prosperity away, Job would curse God. Satan wants to create the perception that God’s people don’t really love God for who He is, or that God abandons His people.
Satan’s technique can be effective if we have the wrong mindset. In seeing how Satan seeks to deceive Job and tempt him away from God, we can be wary of how we think about God.
- God is our provider and protector, but He is more than that. Believers of “prosperity gospel” will be sorely disappointed when they discover that the reward of following Christ is NOT primarily physical blessing on earth.
- God never abandons us. I will testify of this in my life, God boldly proclaims this promise throughout His word, and countless testimonies of God’s faithfulness are recorded. Just look at the story of Israel.
Satan works to fabricate false views of God. One way he does this is through suffering. However, we have a faithful God, and in the midst of suffering, we can fall towards Him and recognise the abundance of life He provides for us, not only in this life but for eternity.
“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’”
2. God wields power over Satan but allows for testing of faith
At no point in the book of Job does it seem things are out of God’s control. However, does that make Him responsible for inflicting suffering on people? Well, I certainly do not see God as being a God of suffering. Suffering is not God’s plan for us. Revelation 21:4 clearly shows this – “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Verse 8 later refers to an eternal suffering for the “cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars…” However, I do not believe this is what God desires, but rather, that this is a consequence of sin in the world. God is just and while He has the solution to satisfy justice, and reconcile us to Him, we have a role to play in accepting this gift. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 6:23] Furthermore, 2 Peter 3:9 describes God’s patient heart – “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” This is demonstrated many times throughout the Bible – God’s conversation with Jonah regarding the people of Nineveh, Israel’s journey with God, Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah, for example.
Now, what about the suffering described in the book of Job? Job was a righteous man and God acknowledged him as such, calling him, “My servant Job” and commending his character. Did Job suffer as a victim of an argument between God and Satan or is there more to the story of Job than this? Job’s life testifies of God. He is an example of someone who has lived out Matthew 5:16 – “Let you light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Furthermore, Job’s suffering ends up giving him deeper revelation of God. He cries out to God in agony, and God answers. Job is struck by the majesty and omnipotence of God and he declares his experience of this revelation in Job 42:2-6.
“I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?; Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’ I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.”
Job’s response to God’s revelation of Himself, is to submit himself to God and give Him glory. Job actually grows in his intimacy with God and his knowledge of God through his enduring the suffering that Satan purposed for the exact opposite. The following passages from James and 1 Peter also describe this.
- “…that the genuiness of your faith, being much more precious that gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Chris…” [1 Peter 1:7]
- “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” [James 1:3-4]
In all of this, God did not abandon Job. In fact, God was the one who imposed limits on Satan’s testing of Job. Satan is unable to touch Job without God allowing it and God sets the boundaries of Satan’s power. First, so that Satan does not lay a hand on the person of Job. Then, so that Satan is unable to kill Job. John 10:27-28 describes this faithfulness of God perfectly:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.”
3. Suffering comes to both the good and the bad
The first explanations given by Job’s friends for his suffering assume that suffering only comes to the wicked. Job must have sinned for this to have happened, and the only way to reverse his misfortune is to repent. In reading these sermons/discourses given by Job’s friends, it seems at first that there is nothing particularly wrong about that they say. They proclaim that God is powerful, holy, exalted about the earth, just and merciful. Yet, on a closer look, we can see the attitude with which these friends make their statements. God says to Eliphaz, “My wrath is aroused against you and you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” [Job 42:7] What was different about Job’s statements compared to that of his friends?
- Job’s friends presumed to know why Job was stricken. Job acknowledged he did not know and cried out to God.
- Job’s friends presume that trouble only comes to the wicked.
- Eliphaz says, “Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off?” [Job 4:7]
- Bildad says, “If you were pure and upright, surely He (God) would awake for you, and prosper your rightful dwelling place.” [Job 8:6]
- Zophar says, “If iniquity were in your hand, and you put it far from away, and would not let wickedness dwell in your tents; then surely you could lift up your face without spot; you could be steadfast and not fear.” [Job 14-15]
Job’s friends misinterpreted God’s heart. While he does bless those who follow Him and He is just God, this does not translate to only the wicked suffering. Job cries out about this in Job 21:
“Why do the wicked live and become old, Yes, become mighty in power? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, And their offspring before their eyes.” [Job 21:7-8]
At the end of this, Job still declares that God is just. He says, “Can anyone teach God knowledge, since He judges those on high?” [Job 21:22] Even though Job does not completely understand what is happening, he continues to acknowledge God’s character. Again, we are reminded that following God is not just about His providence and protection on earth. We have an eternal inheritance that is much more than that, and in that day, we will have greater understanding, and even greater capacity to understand who God is, and the depth of His affections.
4. We do not have the answer to suffering
After the numerous discourses and discussions between Job and his friends, God steps in. Job 38:1-3 recounts this moment:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said; ‘Who is this who darkens counsel By words of knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’”
God then asks a long series of questions which highlights His omnipotence. Reading these questions from God, what answer can we give? Even as far advanced as we are in science, technology and wisdom today, we cannot answer these questions. God says a couple of things at the end of this.
- “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.” [Job 40:2]
- “Would you- indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God? Or can you thunder with a voice like His?” [Job 40:8-9]
God is incomparable. There is none like Him. We may not understand everything, but we can know who God is and we can glorify Him. The end of the story of Job shows God’s mercy. God restores Job, Job prays for his friends, and the Lord blesses him abundantly.
So then, who is to blame for suffering? Would we condemn God to justify ourselves, or will we come before Him and acknowledge His goodness even despite the trials in our life. One answer leads to a life which is never satisfied, and the other leads to a life of contentment.