Insights About Suffering from the Story of Job

man in prayer

When good people, namely, those who fear God and shun evil (Job 1:1) suffer, the human spirit struggles to understand. Throughout recorded history people have asked, “If God is almighty and is truly good, how can he allow such an outrage?”

The way this question has often been put leaves open three possibilities:
1. God is not almighty after all
2. God is not just
3. Humans are not innocent

In ancient Israel, however, it was indisputable that God is almighty and that he is perfectly just. It was also agreed that no human is pure in his sight. These three assumptions were also fundamental to the theology of Job and his friends. Simple logic then dictated the conclusion: Every person’s suffering is indicative of the measure of their guilt in the eyes of God. Of course, this conclusion rests on another fatally flawed assumption—that human beings can fully understand the ways of God.

What thus appeared to be theologically self-evident and unassailable in the abstract was often in radical tension with actual human experience. There were those whose godliness was genuine, whose moral character was upright and who had kept themselves from great transgression, but who nonetheless suffered bitterly. In the speeches of Job 3–37, we hear on the one hand the flawless logic but wounding barbs of those who insisted on the traditional theology, and on the other hand the writhing of the soul of the righteous sufferer.

Understanding Suffering Through the Story of Job

The author of the book of Job broke out of the tight, logical mold of the traditional orthodox theology of his day. He saw that it led to a dead end—that it had no way to cope with the suffering of godly people. Instead of logical arguments, he told a story. And in his story he shifted the angle of perspective. All around him, among theologians and common people alike, were those who attempted to solve the “God problem” in the face of human suffering at the expense of humans (they must all deserve what they get). The author of Job, on the other hand, gave encouragement to godly sufferers by showing them that their suffering provided an occasion like no other for exemplifying what true godliness is for human beings.

In Comes the “Accuser”

The author begins by introducing a third party into the equation. The relationship between God and humans is not exclusive and closed. Among God’s creatures there is the great adversary (chapters 1–2). Incapable of contending with God hand to hand, he is bent on frustrating God’s creation centered on God’s relationship with the creature that bears his image. As tempter he seeks to alienate humans from God (Genesis 3; Matthew 4:1). As accuser (satan means “accuser” or “adversary”), he seeks to alienate God from humans (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:9–10). His all-consuming purpose is to drive a wedge between God and humans to effect an alienation that cannot be reconciled.

When God mentions Job to the accuser and testifies to his righteousness, Satan attempts with one crafty thrust both to assail God’s beloved and to show up God as a fool. “The accuser” boldly charges that the righteousness of Job in which God expresses such delight is actually self-serving asserting that he is righteous only because it pays. If God will only let Satan tempt Job by breaking the link between righteousness and blessing, he will expose this man and all righteous people as the frauds they really are.

The adversary is sure he has found an opening to accomplish his purpose in the very structure of creation. Humans are totally dependent on God for their lives and well-being. That fact can occasion one of humankind’s greatest temptations: to love the gifts rather than the Giver, to try to please God merely for the sake of his benefits, to be “religious” and “good” only because it pays. If he is right—if the godliness of the righteous can be shown to be evil—then a chasm of alienation stands between God and human beings that cannot be bridged. Then even the godliest among them would be shown to be ungodly. God’s whole enterprise in creation and redemption would be shown to be radically flawed, and God can only sweep it all away in awful judgment.

The accusation, once raised, cannot be ignored—it strikes too deeply into the very structure of creation. So God lets the adversary have his way with Job within specified limits. From this comes Job’s profound anguish, robbed as he is of every sign of God’s favor so that God becomes for him the great enigma. And his righteousness is also assailed on earth through the logic of the traditional theology of his friends. Alone, he agonizes. But he knows in the depths of his heart that his godliness has been authentic and that someday he will be vindicated (Job 13:18; 14:13–17; 16:19; 19:25–27). And in spite of all, though he may curse the day of his birth and chide God for treating him unjustly (9:28–35), he will not curse God as his wife proposed (2:9) and as Satan claimed he would.

Job’s Response

So the adversary is silenced, and God’s delight in the godly is vindicated. Robbed of every sign of God’s favor, Job refuses to repudiate his Maker. Godly Job, dependent creature that he is, passes the supreme test occasioned by his creaturely condition and the adversary’s accusation.

This first test of Job’s godliness inescapably involves a second that challenges his godliness at a level no less deep than the first. For the test that sprang from Satan’s accusation to be real, Job has to be kept in the dark about what is taking place in God’s council chamber. But Job belongs to a race of creatures endowed with wisdom, understanding and insight (something of their godlikeness) that cannot rest until it knows and understands all it can about the creation and the ways of God.

The Limits of Human Wisdom Exposed

Job’s friends confidently assume that the logic of their theology can account for all of God’s ways. However, Job’s experience makes bitterly clear to him that their “wisdom” cannot fathom the truth of his situation. Yet Job’s wisdom is also at a loss to understand. So when the dialogue between Job and his three “wise” friends finally stalemates, the author introduces a poetic essay on wisdom (chapter 28) that exposes the limits of all human wisdom. Standing as it does at a major juncture between the dialogue (chapters 3–27) and the final, major speeches (chapters 29–37), this authorial commentary on what has been going on in the stalemated dialogue anticipates God’s final word to Job.

In the end, the adversary is silenced. Job’s friends are silenced. Job is silenced. But God is not. And when he speaks, it is to the godly Job that he speaks, resulting in the silence of regret for hasty words in days of suffering and the silence of repose in the ways of the Almighty (38:1—42:6). Furthermore, as his heavenly friend, God hears Job’s intercessions for his associates (42:7-10a) and restores Job’s blessed state (42:10b-17).

God Treasures Our Righteousness

Satan knows that if he is to thwart the all-encompassing purpose of God, he must assail the godly righteousness of human beings. At stake in the suffering of the truly godly is the outcome of the titanic struggle between the great adversary and God.

The author gently reminds the godly sufferer that true, godly wisdom is to reverently love God more than all his gifts and to trust the wise goodness of God even though his ways are often beyond the power of human wisdom to fathom.

Righteous sufferers must trust in, acknowledge, serve and submit to the omniscient and omnipotent Sovereign, realizing that some suffering is the result of unseen, spiritual conflicts between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan—between the power of light and the power of darkness. Even though God’s people may not always understand why God acts the way he does, they can rest in the assurance of knowing he understands.

In the New Testament, Satan’s final defeat is assured to us after Jesus’ second coming (Revelation 20:10). And even Jesus’ first coming results in Satan falling “like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Consequently, Satan’s power to afflict God’s people is greatly diminished and only temporary (Revelation 12:7–17).

Study the story of Job more deeply in the NIV Study Bible, Fully Revised Edition.

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