Why do we suffer? Sometimes it is obvious. It could be the result of something I have done. Or I could be suffering because of the actions of another person. Sometimes my suffering might be the result of some natural action like a storm or disease. But other times our suffering seems inexplicable. We can discern no reason for it nor any possible good that might come from it.
And how do we respond to that unexplainable suffering? Do we shake our fist at God, questioning his love and goodness? Do we complain about the injustice in this world? Or do we seek to find a way out of our suffering? There are many different responses people make to suffering. And one of them is found in the book of Job.
About the Book of Job
The date of Job’s writing and its author are unknown. It is commonly thought to at least be set in the same timeframe as Abraham. But there is no real way to know.
A question that is often raised is the historicity of this story. Does this book recount the actual experiences of a real person? Or was it a fictional account written to teach us about suffering in the world and God’s sovereignty?
I believe that the lesson from the book is the same regardless its actual historicity. It is a part of the divinely inspired canon of Scripture. And God has given it to us to teach us.
The Story Line of Job
The first 5 verses of this book start off with an introduction to Job. He is introduced as being from the land of Uz. The location of Uz in unknown, although there are several ideas. What is significant is that Uz in not in Israel. Nor, are Job or any of his friends, Jewish. Job is described as blameless and upright, fearing God and shunning evil (Job 1:1).
In Job 1:6 the scene shifts to heaven and what appears to be a heavenly council. The Sons of God present themselves before God. And among them is one whose title is ‘the satan’. Our English Bibles translate this as a proper name, Satan, but in the Hebrew it is more of a descriptive title. The words means ‘adversary, accuser, one who opposes, slanderer’.
The satan, using Job as a example, claims that people are only righteous because God blesses and protects them. So God allows the satan to destroy Job’s life in order to demonstrate the falsity of the satan’s claim. That people are not righteous just because of God’s blessing.
The bulk of Job is a series of dialogs between Job and four other men as they argue about why Job is suffering the way he is. This is followed by God’s challenge to Job and his repentance. And, finally, the restoration of Job’s blessing.
The Principle of Retribution
The book of Proverbs gives us general wisdom principles, things that are generally true. And included in many of these proverbs is what we might call the principle of retribution. When you do good, God blesses. But when you do wrong, God punishes. Proverbs 22:4-5 is an example of this principle from the proverbs.
Humility is the fear of the LORD;
its wages are riches and honor and life.
In the paths of the wicked are snares and pitfalls,
but those who would preserve their life stay far from them.
It is also found in the blessings and coursings found in Deuteronomy 27-28. When the nation obeys God’s commands, he will bless them. When they disobey, they will be punished. This principle is also found in the New Testament with Paul in Galatians 6:7 saying “whatever one sows, that will he also reap.“
The Triangle of Tension
John Walton, in his commentary on Job, describes what he calls the Triangle of Tension. The three points of this triangle are labeled as “God’s justice”, “The Principle of Retribution”, and the “Innocence of Job”. The book of Job affirms the innocence of Job, God’s justice is upheld throughout the Scripture, and the principle of retribution is clearly reflected in the Scriptures mentioned above.
At the heart of the discussion between Job and his three friends is the question, “Does the principle of retribution explain all suffering?” Job’s friends assume that it does, so his suffering must be caused by his sin. Job argues that his suffering is not caused by anything he had done.
The tension comes about because it would seem that all three of these cannot be true, at least in Job’s case. Throughout the discourse between these men the principle of retribution is never questioned. Job’s friends hold to the justice of God and challenge the innocence of Job. But Job maintains his innocence and seems to question the justice of God.
Resolving the Tension
In the end, God granted Job’s desire to stand before his judgement seat. But it did not go as Job had expected, being able to proclaim his innocence. Instead God helped Job to understand that God’s ways, and justice, are beyond the understanding of humans like Job. And Job humbled himself and repented of his accusations against God’s justice.
What we learn is that the principle of retribution that is not as clear cut as we might have imaged it to be. God, for his own reasons, may allow the innocent to suffer and the wicked to prosper. At least for a time. God is always just, and his justice will prevail in the end. But he may allow injustice for a time in order to accomplish a greater good.
A parent may tell his young child to never lie. Yet the parent may lie in order to save the lives of the innocent. How can he explain that disparity to his child? He likely cannot. In the same way God sometimes acts in ways that would seem to us to violate his justice. Yet the problem is not his justice but our ability to understand.
What Does Job Teach Us About Suffering?
In the end Job does not give us a nice concise answer as to why people suffer. It might be tempting, based on the opening chapters, to blame Satan and demonic forces for causing our inexplicable suffering. But in Job, the satan requests permission to afflict Job, he couldn’t do it on his own.
When God appears to Job, we might have expected that he would give Job some kind of explanation for his suffering. But he did not. Instead he makes it clear to Job that some things are beyond his knowing. And that would include the causes for suffering. The best we can do is to simply trust that we are in God’s hands, he is in control, and in the end his will will be done.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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