Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE QUESTION OF JOB - WHY DO PEOPLE SUFFER?

One of the most ancient of stories in any language is the story of Job. Most people in Christendom know the story well. Job’s wealth was legendary. It is said that he was the “greatest of all men of the east.” However, even before we learn that fact about Job, we are told that he was a “blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.”

The story of Job is how God allows this wealthy and righteous man to be chastised by the hand of Satan. All that Job possessed was taken away in an astonishing series of disasters. One by one, messengers came to Job to report a catastrophe.

There was first an attack by some nomads of the area. They slew Job’s workers in the fields and took his oxen and his donkeys. The messenger who had come to tell Job of these things had not even finished speaking when one of his shepherds also came to Job with another disaster that had struck. He described a fire that had fallen from the sky and consumed all the sheep and all of the other shepherds. The messenger alone had escaped.

No sooner had this one finished his report, when yet another man burst in with some more terrible news. There had been an attack by the Chaldeans, who raided all of Job’s camels and killed the servants who were attending them. As Job sat in shocked astonishment at this devastating series of reports, still another came. Job’s ten children, for whom he had prayed daily, had all been in the house of the oldest son when a great wind came. The house collapsed on them and killed them all.

Job staggered to his feet, tore his robe as a sign of his anguish, and shaved his head as an indication of his grief. His strength taken from him, he fell to the ground. His reactions to this cursed day could have been many. Most men would have probably uttered curses of anguish. However, of all the reactions that Job might have had in response to all that he had endured, his response was to fall to the ground and worshiped the Name of the Lord.

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 NAS).

But even with all that had already happened to him, Job had not seen the end of the disasters that were to befall him. He was about to endure extreme physical agony.

The Disaster Becomes Even More Personal

Distress and torment came. In one day, he was stricken with festering boils “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” He said that his bones “burned with fever,” and over his body crawled worms that were attracted to the excrement that seeped out of his boils.

In the end, Job was reduced to sitting in a pile of ashes, scraping the boils of his body with a broken piece of pottery and looking for some relief from his agony. But relief did not come. Beyond the extreme physical and material anguish, Job suffered extreme mental and spiritual anguish. Again, he did not curse God, as some men might have done, but Job did curse the day that he was born. “Let the day perish on which I was born…Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”

In the midst of Job’s suffering, his anguish causes him to contemplate why life is even given to one who is destined to an existence that is only one of torment and pain. He asks, “Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter soul; to one who longs for death, but it does not come?”

It is a question that many of us have perhaps asked. Why does God give life to one whose existence will only be one of pain and suffering?

As for his own existence, Job speaks of seeking death more than one would for a hidden treasure. He would rejoice, he says, if he could dig for it and at last find it. He is not speaking of finding a treasure of gold and jewels; but he is speaking of finding the grave.

But the comfort of death did not come to Job. Instead, three counselors arrived.  

The Three Friends

Most of the content of the book of Job is a relating of the dialogue that took place between Job and the three men. Much has been said of the poor counsel of the friends. Even God denounced what three men said.

However, we should also see that these men did not at first come with the purpose of condemning Job, even though that is what they ended up doing. They came first as friends. When they saw Job, they could not even recognize him. They wept for him. The three men themselves tore their robes, just as Job had done when his agony was beginning. In grief and helplessness, the men scooped up handfuls of dust and threw it skyward in a sign of grief and solidarity with their suffering friend.

In fairness, the three counselors did not come with ready and trite answers to Job’s condition. Instead, they sat with him and tried to empathize with him. For seven days and seven nights, they sat with Job. No one spoke. They knew Job was in very great pain. They were all pondering the very same question. It is a question that we still ponder and to which we still look for answers.

If there is a God in heaven who cares about man, why is there suffering? What is more, why is it that it often seems like the righteous endure more suffering than the wicked? 

What the Three Friends Said

The first of Job’s friends, a man by the name of Eliphaz, voiced an opinion that some people still have today. He told Job that difficulties in this life come because God is punishing those who harbor wickedness within themselves. It is an opinion that requires a very selective and unrealistic method in looking at examples that we see in daily life. Eliphaz told Job this: 

“Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish, by the blast of his anger they are consumed."
(Job 4:7-9 ESV) 

Job’s second friend Bildad, said much the same thing, but added some thoughts concerning Job’s children. I suppose that he was trying to enlighten Job as to why things had happened as they did, but his words ended up being simply cruel:

“Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.” (Job 8:3-4 ESV).

However, Bildad also said something to Job that was more hopeful, and in fact, turned out in the end to be true: “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation. Behold, this is the joy of his way, and out of the soil others will spring… He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting.” (Job 3:5-6; 8:19-21 ESV)

The third friend was named Zophar. He also had come to much the same conclusions as did the first two men, telling Job that he must have been harboring some iniquity within himself. But by way of comfort and knowing the mercy of God, he also offers hope for Job:

“If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning” (Job 11:13-17 ESV).

Job’s friends finally had all reached the same fundamental conclusion about Job’s situation. God is just, they all said in many different ways. If he sends suffering upon someone, it undoubtedly is because it is as a punishment, for we all fail in many ways.

Job’s first friend Eliphaz had summed it up for the three of them. They had all given Job what they thought was good counsel: 

How happy is the man whom God reproves, so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For He inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds, and His hands also heal. From six troubles He will deliver you, even in seven, evil will not touch you. In famine, He will redeem you from death, and in war from the power of the sword…We have investigated it, thus it is; hear it, and know for yourself (Job 5:17-21,27 NAS). 

The Question is Deeper than it First Appears

On the face of it, it may even seem like good counsel, and we know much of it to be true. The writer of the Proverbs said as much: “My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD, or loathe His reproof, for whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father, the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11-12 NAS).

In the New Testament, James writes the same thought, and then adds a promise: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12 NAS).

However, the counsel that Job received from his three friends did not satisfy him. No doubt, much of what they said was true, but Job knew that it was not quite that uncomplicated. If it were that clear, it would be obvious to all and one could see more of a cause-and-effect relationship to life and suffering. But the simple matter is, it is not all quite so apparent.

Job did not claim complete righteousness in all things, but in his heart, he knew that he had sought to please God.

In point of fact, this is actually what God had said to Satan about Job before all of these trials even began. God had asked Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8 ESV) 

Job Opens Up

It certainly was not clear to Job why God had put him in such a state of suffering. As one who finally stops all pretension of knowing any answers and after days of silence, Job now speaks what is really on his mind. He begins slowly: 

“I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me (10:1-2 NIV).

“Does it please you to oppress me,” Job says to God, “to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” (10:3). 

Once those words have been spoken, the questions that have haunted Job begin to pour out of his lips on their own accord. 

You know that I am not guilty,” Job pleads to the Lord, “yet you will not deliver me!”
“Your hands fashioned me and made me what I am, and yet now you would destroy me?” (Job 10:7-8).
"Bear with me that I may speak; then after I have spoken, you may mock.
As for me, is my complaint to man? And why should I not be impatient?
Look at me, and be astonished, and put your hand over your mouth.
Even when I remember, I am disturbed, and horror takes hold of my flesh.
Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful?
Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes, their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God on them" (Job 21:3-9 NAS).

 

In the end of it all, despite all that Job had said, the three counsellors stuck to their condemnation of him. If he were so righteous, they thought, God would not be punishing him so severely.

Job responded to their refusal to empathize with him, “For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friends.”

However, Job found no kindness from these three counsellors… nor help in his situation.
How painful are honest words! But what does your argument prove?” Job said to them (6:25 NAS). 

A Fourth Counselor Appears

There was another man present during this conversation; his name was Elihu. He had not spoken previously because he was a younger man. Out of respect for his elders, he had remained silent. However, after listening intently to the barrage of condemnation of the three men upon Job, this fourth man could hold his peace no longer.

Although Elihu had been silent up to this point, he had not sat and listened to the whole conversation with patience for his three elder counselors. When he spoke, he spoke in anger. He was angry with the three men because they offered no answer. But was also angry with Job. He had also sat in condemnation of Job. Elihu was also angry with him, since Job continued to try to justify himself before God.

It is difficult to say if Elihu really adds anything to Job’s (and our) understanding of suffering. What he does add, at the end of his rather lengthy monologue, is a series of thought provoking questions. 

Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God's wonders.
Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?
Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.

(Job 37:14-19 NIV). 

A Fifth One Speaks

Elihu’s questions serve as an introduction to what is about to be said by yet another silent participant in this conversation. God is about to speak. We are told that he speaks to Job out of a whirlwind, whatever that means.

By the time God speaks, we are ready to listen to him. For 37 chapters, the reader of the book of Job has waded through the thick mire of philosophical and religious discussion. The conversation has gone back and forth and around in circles like a hunter lost in a large and expansive swamp. Not one of the speakers has been able to come to a satisfactory conclusion. But despite that fact, this has not prevented any one of the four advisors from the certainty of their opinion.

The reader becomes so weary of this discussion that it is difficult to keep in mind that this conversation is more than simply an impersonal and academic debate on the part of a few disinterested parties. Throughout the whole conversation, Job has had to endure the extensive dissertations of his advisors while being in severe physical pain and agony.

Now God is about to speak. What new light and understanding will he bring? The subject of the whole conversation has been the purpose of Job’s suffering. Why has Job been called to suffer? Job wants to know, as do his advisors. We also want to know, for in knowing the reason for Job’s suffering we may know the answer of our own.

The stage is set for God to speak. The supporting cast had come on stage to provide the backdrop, but now the Protagonist is to appear. We are hoping that he will explain everything so that the audience can go home satisfied. We wish to be able to close the book and sigh in relief that we finally have understanding. We hope to at last find ourselves coming out of this morass of ignorance. We are all at the edge of our seats waiting for every word from God. What is it that we hear?

Job and his friends may have thought that they were exploring the depths of the purposes of God when they spoke of the reasons for Job’s sufferings. But God is about to make it clear to Job that they had not even begun to understand the ways of God. 

God Speaks

The voice of God comes to Job from out of a whirlwind. “Dress for action like a man,” he tells Job. In saying this, God is implying that Job had better get ready to do some real thinking. “I will question you, and you make it known to me.”

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God says to Job, “Tell me if you have understanding.”

Before Job is able to stutter any response, God continues to ask questions, setting Job’s head spinning like the whirlwind out of which he was speaking: 

Who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (38:5-7NAS). 

What! After laboring through all the tiring discussion of man’s perspective, we were hoping that God would bring clarity. We were hoping that God would explain His justice so that we could all nod our heads and see clearly why Job had to pass though the extreme agony that he did. Instead of this, God continues with questions. 

…Or who enclosed the sea with doors, when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb… I placed boundaries on it, and I set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop’? (38:8-11).

God continues to question Job. They are questions for each one of us:

Have we ever commanded the morning to begin?
Do we know the mysteries of the depths of the sea or the very gates of death? 

Some Examples of Our Ignorance

The next question that God asks is especially enigmatic. He asks about the dwelling place of light, and the place of darkness. I have wondered about this because I have always been intrigued about God’s first command at creation; “Let there be light!” This command was spoken even before there was the order for the sun and stars to appear. The light of God appeared before the sun came into existence.

We think we have great understanding about the phenomenon of light. We are able to measure its astounding speed and break it down into its spectrum. We can know much about the nature and age of stars from the color of the light that they emit. Nevertheless, I believe our knowledge about this very essential necessity of life is so rudimentary and even crude, that it is laughable. We are in our first grade at elementary school, have just learned how to add two plus two, and we are so proud of our mathematic abilities.

Then God asks, “Where is the way that the light is divided?”

Like dumbfounded first-graders sitting at our little desks, we realize that we do not even understand the question.

Much of what God asks perhaps could be put down to poetic speech, but I believe much less of it than we might at first think. He speaks of “storehouses for snow and hail,” and “the way of the thunderbolt.” For many years, Bible students considered “springs of the sea” to be a poetic image, until many springs were discovered in the depths of the oceans.

God speaks of the movement of the constellations and the mysteries of the mind. He speaks of beasts of the forest and field and the birds of the sky. He speaks at some length of the “Behemoth” and the “Leviathan.” We have tried also to explain these away as poetic language or with meanings such as a hippopotamus or crocodile. Again I think, like Job’s friends, we have tried explaining what we do not know. 

We Need to Go Beyond Trying to Explain

After slogging through the laborious speeches and explanations of Job’s friends about the ways of God, one’s mind is wearied from all the considerations and talking that leads nowhere. Then suddenly, as God begins to speak, our eyes brighten and we begin to wonder.

God, we see, is not attempting to explain things that we cannot understand. Would it do any good to give a lecture on quantum physics to the first grader who just learned that two plus two equals four?

Instead, like a good teacher, God opens our eyes to see there are great things yet to learn. We do not need to trouble ourselves that we do not yet understand everything. That time will come. It is enough now just to be in wonder at all there is to know…to marvel at the greatness of God.

But what of the sufferings of Job? Where are the explanations for the sufferings of mankind? We hear often of the wisdom of Solomon, but at the end of God’s speech, Job says what I myself consider the wisest words ever spoken by a man. Job answers God: 

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3 NIV). 

Earlier, in the middle of God’s speech, Job acknowledged his own insignificance. He said he would not try to respond to God’s many questions. “I lay my hand on my mouth,” he said.

Now at the end he is ready to respond. His simple response was that he was questioning things that were unfathomable, things too wonderful to understand. 

What Happened to Job

In the end, Job was brought once again to health and his wealth restored. God even blessed him with ten additional children. Many people, when they are undergoing a suffering for which there is no explanation, shake their fist at God in defiance or come to the conclusion that there must not even be a God.

With Job however, the suffering only increased his faithfulness to God. “Though he slay me,” Job says of God, “yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15). 

The Questions:

Is there a purpose to suffering? If God is truly just, why do the innocent suffer?

We do not evade the issue. We do not settle for less than an honest answer. Our answer is this: There have been too many philosophical and theological discussions and debates on the subject. They have not served to advance our understanding. The explanations may sound wise to the one who is speaking, but like the discussions of Job’s counselors, they have just left the rest of us weary. Job also was weary with the reasoning of his counselors. In the end, we answer God as did Job: 

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.
Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?
Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:2-3 NIV). 

Is there a purpose to suffering? In one of Job’s confessions to his determination to remain faithful to God despite his circumstances, I believe that Job comes as close to understanding the purposes of God than any of us can. 

“He knows the way that I take,” Job says of God. “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to His path; I have kept His way and not turned aside” (Job 23:10-11 NAS).

In Job’s final confession, this is what he said to God:

 I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3-6 ESV)

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