Have you ever looked at a big impressive car and wondered what it would be like to drive it around town? Six years ago, when my life appeared to go very wrong, a good friend told me it was “time to take my Christian theology on a test drive.” I had been a Bible teacher for 25 years in United Kingdom and Sudan. My study of God and my application of the Bible into daily life had always “looked” good. What would it “live” like now in the ups and downs, especially the downs, of everyday life? During 2001 my relatively good health disappeared. For the last six years what I believe – and what I used to preach – has been severely tested.
I’ve read the book of Job several times. I have spent hours thinking it over in God’s presence, often in physical pain. I confess I have been disappointed at what God seems to be doing with my life. I have become frustrated at my inability to do what I knew God had called me to. However, the facts today are, instead of pastoring an exciting church in an African capital city, I am constantly spending time with doctors in hospitals.
I discovered that the book of Job is mainly about God. I’ve learned that my suffering – my pain, misery and loss – is largely about God too. What is my gracious heavenly Father doing with the life I’ve entrusted to Him? The oldest book in our Bible shows my Father dealing with a wealthy, God-fearing, sheik named Job. It raises two essential applications for us: Why do we worship God, and what happens to that worship when God doesn’t do what we think He should?
In Job 1 and 2 the ever rebellious Satan disputes the words and works of God. He challenges Job’s motives for fearing God. He doubts Job’s honest morality. Trying to prove God wrong, Satan removes Job’s wealth and health. In chapters 3-37, four men speak with Job about his desperate suffering. In chapters 38-41 God Himself speaks. Chapter 42 describes the results in everyone’s lives. I submit to you twelve things I have learned about suffering during my time with God and in this book in recent years.
1. Suffering is for heaven’s purposes. (Job 1:6-8; 2:1-3)
Our God reigns over all! We are given a glimpse of one of heaven’s council meetings in God’s presence. We discover even angels and spirit-beings are fully accountable to our great creator God. Although Job never knew any of this (as far as we know), everything that happened in the story subsequently did so because of an exchange of views started by God at this council.
When we see or experience suffering, it is good to keep in mind that God may have purposes which are not apparent to us. A good question to ask is, “What is going on in heaven to make this happen?”
2. There is undeserved suffering. (Job 1:1-3,5,8,22; 2:3)
Suffering is not prevented by religious observance or by material wealth. God’s protection of people or things we hold dear cannot be bought with any kind of currency. Acting as a priest, Job regularly presented his family to God. Godly habits are always important. But being right in the eyes of God does not make any person (or those he/she prays for) immune from suffering. It is wrong to believe that if we are righteous we will necessarily prosper in this world.
3. Suffering really hurts! (Job 2:12-13)
When God created humankind He was pleased with what He had made (Gen. 1:31). God knew we could feel physical and emotional pain, yet He was pleased with the good results of His creating.
Job lost his livestock to rustlers and a lightning strike. He lost his adult children to a hurricane haboob (violent sandstorm). He who was blessed with wealth and health became bereft of both. This hurt him deeply within. Outside, his infested skin acutely hurt too. His suffering was visible to others.
Job’s wife became overwhelmed, frustrated and angry. It is incredibly hard to watch a loved-one suffer and feel helpless to prevent it. She urged Job to do what he knew was wrong in God’s sight (Job 2:9; 1:5). They became at odds with each other, adding to their pain.
Job’s lament shows his deep agony and bitterness of soul (Job 3:1-3). His situation seemed hopeless (Job 14:13). Suffering brought loneliness to Job even though “friends” were with him (Job 19:13-21). It was so hard for him. Yet we know he was still blessed and actually being used by God.
4. Suffering is under God’s control. (Job 1:12; 2:6)
God holds all ultimate power. God put everything Job had into Satan’s hands, but He set limits to what Satan could do. The Lord permitted so much, but no more. Satan was first forbidden to physically harm Job. Then he just had to let him live.
God is sovereign. God could intervene to stop suffering any time. When He chooses not to, it is because there is a higher purpose. Our Lord Jesus refused to call angels to save Him from the cross because He lived and died for much more than His own physical well-being (Mt. 4:5-7; 27:41-43).
5. Suffering comes from God’s hand. (Job 1:21; 2:10; 19:6,21; 42:8)
The raiding parties, lightning and wind were all Satan’s work which God allowed. Ultimately they came from the Lord. God said to Satan: “You incited Me against him” (Job 2:3 niv). Satan became the hand of God (Job 2:5-6). Job recognized this (Job 6:4; 12:9; 13:21; 16:7; 19:21; 23:2; 27:2; 30:11). The narrator confirmed it (Job 42:11).
When Satan struck Job, the sheik felt the hand of God. Peter and the disciples eventually discerned God’s hand in the awful crucifixion of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:22-23,32). Paul knew God’s gift during his debilitating ministry preparation (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
To say that suffering comes from Satan and not from God offers no comfort to anyone. It implies Satan has taken over control of the world: God is no longer able to restrain him!
I have learned to believe God runs every day of life for me and all around me, even while I suffer (Ps. 139:16). God works discreetly – so I do not always know what He is doing. I do know God tests people. I do know God is holy, wise, loving and perfectly able. The pain God gives is the pain of a surgeon’s scalpel, not a torturer’s tool. Our Lord Jesus said, “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Mt. 5:29,30).
6. Suffering reveals why we love God. (Job 1:9-11)
God wanted to demonstrate Job’s inner motives to Satan. Did they match up to his outward appearance as a man of God? Satan asked, “Would Job worship you if he got nothing out of it?” (Job 1:9 gnb). What is inside us is often seen on the outside when we suffer. Usually those most intimate with us get the best view. We show what we really are when we are reduced to nothing but existence. Do we serve God for what we get – as “free-rice Christians” or “good-job Christians” or “secure-home Christians” – or do we simply serve Him for who He is? ?
Self-serving worship is not really worship at all; it is idolatry. It breaks the first and second commandments (Ex. 20:2-4). God knows inner integrity produces consistently right behavior. Suffering purges the Christian of impure motives. Job passed his test more than once (Job 1:22; 2:3; 2:10). When Christ is our only treasure then to die is total gain (Phil. 1:21).
7. Suffering can be accepted worshipfully. (Job 1:20; 2:10)
Faith in God’s caring providence is not fatalism. Whatever happens in our lives, by deliberate faith we can let God be God in every part of our lives. We can proclaim, “May the name of the Lord be praised” because He is still worthy! (Job 1:21). We can trust the God we know for everything we don’t understand. Job was able to look beyond this life to the next: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15 KJV). Why? Because he could say, “I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25-27). After all, suffering is only for this life: “When He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Suffering can be faced without losing our convictions. We can engage in honest conversation, even argument, with God (Job 13:20-22; 23:3-5; 40:3-5). Remember though, He’s always right!
8. Suffering is misunderstood by sincere people. (Job 42:7-9)
The end of the book tells us God was not impressed with Job’s “comforters.” Their theology could be neat and tidy, with no loose ends and no exceptions, because these so-called comforters were not the ones suffering!
We can summarize nine chapters in two brief statements: Eliphaz (Job 4:7-9,17) and Bildad (Job 8:3-4) argued that suffering is a retribution for sin; and Zophar (Job 11:4-5) said that Job could not be righteous before God, and he showed pride by even suggesting it. All three looked for Job to repent and be restored. Job alone wondered if there was a deeper reason for his suffering. Job’s growing anger with his friends and his situation came through in his answers to their repeated arguments. He may have been pleased that Elihu at least tried to answer some of his questions (Job 32-37). Repentance is not always the answer. Different possibilities must be explored. Christians need to learn the grace of receiving both good and bad happenings from the Lord’s gentle but firm hand (Job 1:20-21; 42:1-6).
9. Suffering shows God’s greatness and graciousness. (Job 38-41)
According to the Inter-Varsity Press Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the book of Job “does not set out to answer the problem of suffering, but to proclaim a God so great that no answer is needed, for it would transcend the finite mind if given.” God does what He does always for His own sake (Isa. 46:9-10; 48:10-11). Job worshiped God because God was God. God was worthy of worship no matter what. God had saved him from sinful self-centeredness and helped him to a God-centered attitude. God commended Job for this (Job 1:20-22; 2:3,10; 42:7).
No answer was given to why the innocent suffer, or how long it might take God to intervene. Instead, focus is placed on God’s own character and His actions. Job’s questions were not specifically answered, but it no longer seemed to matter. Job was refocused on God Himself. God’s power is not open to question, His wisdom cannot be explained. God is not always “comfortable.” The world is more complex than our neat and tidy orthodoxy allows. Our human ignorance cannot grasp the incomprehensible goodness of God (Job 40:2-3).
10. Suffering is an opportunity for God to speak. (Job 38-41)
Job wanted God to speak, but he did not really seem to expect it (Job 31:35). Out of the storm God spoke an enthralling view of Himself. He spoke when He thought it appropriate – in His own time. By speaking of the created order and how He had brought it about, God seemed to be saying: “Job, I am still in control and I know what I am doing. That, my servant, is all you need to know. You know nothing about running this world. Keep your confidence in Me. I’ll never let you down.” True worshipers have hearts tenaciously focused on God.
11. Suffering develops our perseverance. (James 5:10-11)
God is full of compassion and mercy. While suffering certainly stretched Job’s faith to its limits, in spite of everything he held on to God. Job did not always feel God’s presence, but He positively trusted Him for it. He knew he did not need his body to see and enjoy his God (Job 19:25-27).
Sometimes the hedge God puts around us can seem like a prison (Job 1:9-10; 3:23). Job’s fear of God was the source of his developing wisdom (Job 1:1,8-9; 2:3). Unmerited pain, while not understood, can be accepted from God’s hand. To control our own thoughts and feelings properly we must give full regard to who God actually is. Job knew that gold in his heart and conscience was worth much more than gold in his pocket (Job 23:10).
12. Suffering points us to the cross of Jesus.
God became the only truly innocent Man ever. As Jesus, He suffered the penalty of sin for the entire world He had created. The image of the invisible God is seen on Calvary’s cross (Isa. 53:10; Col. 1:15). He demonstrated unbelievable love for us by dying in our place (Rom. 5:8). “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To Him be the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:10-11).
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE
• Atkinson, David; The Message of Job (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press) 1991.
• Ash, Christopher; Out of the Storm (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press) 2004.
• Dodd, Debbie; Dictionary of Theological Terms in Simplified English (Wheaton, EMIS) 2003.
• Eareckson Tada, Joni; When God Weeps (Grand Rapids, Zondervan) 1997.
• Handbook to the Bible (Berkhamstead, Lion) 1973.
• The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: Part 2 (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press) 1998.
• Lewis, C.S.; The Problem of Pain (London, Collins Fontana) 1940.
• Piper, John; The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God (Wheaton, Crossway Books) 2002.
• Zuck, Roy B. editor; A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Chicago, Moody Press) 1991.
By Colin Salter
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org