The Blunt Answer of Job to the Problem of Suffering

Reading through the book of Job recently, I was struck once again with how different the book’s answers are to our questions about why things happen, especially suffering, than the way we answer those questions ourselves.

Compassion is a good thing, and we certainly ought to show compassion- to weep with those who weep, to bear each other’s burdens.  But this book is a really key book in understanding why suffering happens, and its answer sounds downright blunt and uncompassionate.  But often the kindest thing we can do is give people the truth.

Tremper Longman believes that the book of Job (as well as Ecclesiastes) are intended partly to correct an oversimplified reading of Proverbs.  One might get the impression that Proverbs teaches simply that if you are righteous, then good things will happen to you, and if you are wicked, then you will suffer.  And this is true, in the long term and with right understandings of those terms.  But this then gets extrapolated backwards in a common logical fallacy:  if A then B, therefore if B then A.  If someone is suffering right now, that means they must have sinned, they must have deserved it.  And certainly, whenever we hear of someone suffering, our great temptation is to try to tell ourselves how they must have deserved it somehow.  The reason we do this is simple– if the suffering of my brother is caused by his sin, then the fact that I am not suffering must mean that I am not sinning, or at least not as much as my brother.  Therefore I can just keep doing what I do and have confidence that I will not suffer.  If someone gets cancer or gets divorced, I want to be able to say, it’s because of some mistake they made, some bad lifestyle choice that caused it.

This of course is the approach Job’s friends take, saying that Job is suffering somehow for his sin.  Elihu, the young friend, previews God’s answer by rebuking both the friends and Job, though– the friends for accusing Job of sinning and being harsh to him, and Job for questioning God at all.

And this is the real answer.  Job is trying to put God in the dock, in CS Lewis’ memorable phrase.  But God’s not in the dock.  God’s not on trial.  We are.

He created all things.  He governs everything that is.  And this is His main answer to Job’s question about why all these bad things happen to him.  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

 “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?   Then adorn yourself with majesty and splendor, and array yourself with glory and beauty.  Disperse the rage of your wrath; Look on everyone who is proud, and humble him.  Look on everyone who is proud, and bring him low; Tread down the wicked in their place.  Hide them in the dust together, Bind their faces in hidden darkness.  Then I will also confess to you That your own right hand can save you.”  (Job 40:8-14 NKJ)

This passage here is I believe the heart of the answer.  God is God.  God is sovereign.  And we try to condemn His actions, to say He is wicked, in order to justify ourselves.  But we are helpless and dependent on Him.  We have no ability to do the least thing for ourselves, and therefore we have no right to call into question anything He does.

God does not talk about His mercy.  He does not talk about His goodness and love.  He does not talk about His “wonderful plan for your life” or anything else like that.  He simply talks about His right to do as He pleases, and our lack of any right to question.  He never answers Job’s question about why all the bad things happen.

He blesses Job greatly and restores all his losses.  And to some, this feels like a cop-out, like dodging the issue, since many people suffer with no release.  But of course this is to fail to take a sufficiently long-term view; all those who trust God will have restored to them all that they lose in this life for His sake, and a thousandfold more, in eternity.  And this does allude to God’s great grace and generosity to His children, His mercy and forgiveness which are taught throughout Scripture.

But we have to get past the first answer first.  We have no call on God’s generosity.  We have no right to His mercy and grace.  And only when a man bends the knee to God’s sovereignty does he come to understand God’s grace and mercy.  The appeal is always there, but always comes with the requirement that we acknowledge that God is God and we are not, and we have no right to call into question anything He does, for He is the judge of the earth, not us.

Job gets it:

 “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.”   Then Job answered the LORD and said:   “Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth.  Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.””  (Job 40:2-5 NKJ)

The best thing Job’s friends did was to just silently mourn with him those first seven days.  And when someone is weeping over their loss or suffering, we ought to weep with them.  None of this means suffering isn’t real, or that we should have no compassion.  On the contrary.  But the great temptation we face, when we are suffering or when we are counseling those that are, is to blame the one suffering the way Job’s friends did, or question God’s justice like Job’s wife did, or demand answers the way Job himself did.  We want answers for why things happen, and especially answers that make us look good.  But the fact is, we just don’t know most of the time why God does what He does.  It’s His business, not ours.  But He is good and gracious.  He is just, and never does wickedly.  When we put our trust in Him, we can be completely confident that it will work out for good for those who love Him, for those whom He has called to salvation.  But first, always first, we must bend the knee.

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