Suffering. Every Christian knows what it is to suffer. Some have suffered the loss of jobs, income, and finances; others have suffered the loss of friends, family, and loved ones. Christians know what it is to suffer scorn and rebuke for name the name of our Lord in public. We feel the pain of friendships ruined because we are committed to the Scriptures as the final authority on all matters they speak on. We know what it means to hurt.
Whenever suffering comes up, no one text is looked to more than the book of Job. The entire book, which is a literary masterpiece with two narrative chunks bookending a poetic body, is a case-study on suffering from a biblical perspective. God’s people are allowed to see behind the scenes: we view the ropes and pulleys, we see the crew working, we view the stage designer, and we are allowed access where few others are allowed. But I honestly think that we so often miss the main message this book has to teach us about suffering. I say this because I missed it for years. A case of study of Job, best viewed by looking at the prologue, Job’s friends, his responses to them, and God’s response, has the ability to transform how we as Christians suffer.
Prologue: The Suffer of the Ages
There is no question that Job suffered loss. The story is well known: within seven verses, Job loses his livestock (Job 1:13-15), his sheep and their caretakers (v. 16), his camels and their caretakers (v. 17), and even his children (vv. 18-19). The next chapter sees him loose the only thing he possessed beyond that, namely his good health (Job 2:7-8). Job is, to use the age-old phrase, at rock bottom. He could go into despair, and there would be few souls who would blame him; his wife is even on board with that idea (Job 2:9). Yet Job holds true. He claims that he has received good from God and finds it just as fitting for him to receive evil from him (Job 2:10). God has given to Job, God has taken from Job, and Job will bless God for it all (Job 1:21). All of this, we are told, is true and right to say. Job has not sinned in saying any of it (Job 1:22; 2:10). So far, so good, but this is only the beginning of this dissertation on suffering. The stage is now set for the real play.
Act 1: The Diagnosis of the Friends
Chapter 2 introduces us to the main antagonists of Job’s story: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (2:11). Without a doubt, their intentions in coming to Job were admirable; true friends always seek to sympathize and aid their brethren (Gal. 6:1-2). They come, and they see Job’s agony, and they are knocked cold. They spend a week with him in stunned silence (Job 2:13). Job breaks the silence in chapter 3; we know how here Job exclaims he wishes he were dead and that he had never been born. Whether or not Job was right in saying this is not the current question. What is of most importance, however, is how Job’s three friends all decided they knew Job’s problem. And amazingly, they all had the same answer: Job was in sin.
Eliphaz’s speeches (Job 4-5, 15, 22), Bildad’s (Job 8, 18, 25) and Zophar’s (Job 11, 20) all have the same main idea and thrust. Job’s tragedies are all because Job has sinned against God. There is no other reason, they argue, for this to be happening. God only punishes the wicked; the righteous he exalts, or so the argument goes. They each repeat this same idea in turn, giving different reasons for how they came to their conclusions.
We as the audience know this is not true due to the Prologue (Job 1-2). We know that, contrary to the intuition of these friends, Job is not suffering due to his son; as far as that is concerned, he is living as righteous as possible (Job 1:8, 2:3). Instead, Job is suffering because God has granted Satan permission to test this godly man (Job 1:8-12, 2:4-6). This fact alone gives us multiple lessons as to the ‘why’ of suffering, and it shows us to be careful in attributing our suffering and the suffering of others to some unconfessed sin. As wonderful and helpful as this is, however, it is not the main point of the book. This play now moves into the second Act.
Act 2: The Diatribe of the Afflicted
Job takes time to respond to each of his friends: to Eliphaz (Job 6-7, 16-17, 23-24), to Bildad (Job 9-10, 19, 26), and to Zophar (Job 12-14, 21). He also gives a final, concluding monologue at the end of his answers to sum up his arguments (Job 27-31). Throughout Job’s response, he shares the same faulty assumption as his friends: God only punishes the wicked. Job, however, knows he is not the wicked; he therefore comes to a radically different conclusion than his friends. He asserts that God is now being unjust to him. All that must be done, according to Job, is for God to hear Job’s case and realize that what Job is going through is not right.
This is the central point at which most of us go wrong in reading this book. We tend to take Job’s positive statements at the beginning (Job 1:21, 2:10) and read them into his later sayings. In other words, we tend to think Job suffered correctly the entire time, when in actuality he was just as wrong as his friends. Over and over, he asserts his innocence and the wrongfulness of his suffering. Can we truly say that it is right for someone to demand an audience with God in order to correct him? Surely not. This stream from Job continues until the intermission of the act, where a new friend steps in to speak to the sufferer.
Intermission: The Dialogue of the Youth
Job 32 introduces us to a new player in the dramatic dance we have been following: the youth Elihu. Elihu, we are told, was the youngest of the group and had refrained from speaking because of that (Job 32:4). After Job’s final speech, however, he could not contain himself any longer. He could not stand by and listen to Job make himself correct and God wrong (Job 32:2). He launches into a six-chapter speech that seeks to correct both Job and his friends; while he is imperfect in his criticism, he gets the essence of his critique just right.
Elihu’s main concern is Job’s attitude towards God. He repeatedly tells Job that he has no right to think he can correct God. Job has, according to this friend, shown his arrogance to all. How dare he think he can climb up to God’s presence and correct him! The Almighty dwells in the highest heavens; no one can approach him and think to argue a case before him. It is true that Elihu still has the faulty assumption of why Job is suffering, but his correction of Job’s attitude is step in the right direction. It is, indeed, a step that Job will be forced to take in the final act.
Act 3: The Demand of the Almighty
At last, God speaks (Job 38-41). After 37 chapters of silence, a whirlwind comes to Job; out of it, a thundering voice booms in awesome power. Notice, however, what does not get said: God does not tell Job why he is suffering. No mention is made of the testing Job is undergoing. That, apparently, is not God’s concern. This man receives no comfort from God at this point. There is no arm of strength from the One on the Throne. Instead, God launches into a rapid series of questions that serve as a verbal slap in Job’s sickly face.
God asks Job question after question, each one filled with sarcasm and cutting Job to the core of his being. Imagine it: God comes to this sick, pitiful human and says, “Ah, Job, I’m so sorry, I forgot something! Please, in your infinite knowledge, remind me where you were when I made the heavens?” “Oh, great and mighty Job! Please, tell me how you formed the stars?” “Job! There you are! Can you tell me how you made these animals around you?” Each question serves as axe blow, chopping away at Job and lowering him inch by inch.
We may ask, “Why is God doing this? Job is suffering! He needs to be comforted, not humiliated!” The answer to this question is the main message of Job: in all of Job’s suffering, his attitude towards God and God’s ways was unacceptable and had to be corrected. Job’s pain was no excuse for Job’s arrogance. Lest we think this is harsh, we must ask ourselves if we truly think it is right and fair for someone to demand that the Almighty God actually stoop down and explain himself to his creatures. If we think he must, then we truly have misunderstood who God is.
Here is where we must let the rubber meat the proverbial road. In our suffering, how do we take it? In our lonely moments when we simply do not want to go on anymore and feel as if no one cares and there is no point in living for the risen Lord, are we turning to God in humble recognition of who he is? Are we resting in his providential hand? Or are we demanding that he explain himself, that he come down here and tell us exactly why we have been forsaken?
The story of Job ends in chapter 42. Job repents of his ways, prays that God would be merciful to his friends, and God gives Job more wealth than what he possessed before his suffering began. Let us not forget why this happened, however, and the message presented through it: God gave Job this wealth because Job had finally learned who God is. Job had come to the point where he knew that God is beyond human comprehension and questioning; it would be impossible for Job to even begin to understand God’s mind and thoughts. Job simply had to lean childlike trust and rest in God’s governing of affairs.
This is what is missed in this crucial work on suffering. If we fail to recognize that Job had to be rebuked because of his arrogance in suffering, then we fail to see what God has given to us in his Word at this point. We must ask ourselves how we measure up to this. What is our first response to suffering? To run to God and complain, telling him how faithful we’ve been while everyone else we know has given up? Or is our response one of a child who knows that his Father in heaven has meticulously marked out his child’s path and is working everything for his child’s good and his own eternal glory? One response will destroy us, but the other will see us through suffering all the way to our eternal home. May the Spirit of God seal this on our hearts.