The Mystery of Suffering

Throughout the course of history, Christians have suffered hardships in many different ways. Perhaps you’ve heard the suggestion that if you want to know why Christians suffer, read the book of Job. At first, Job receives a high commendation from God: “And the Lord says unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?”(Job 2:3). Then follows the mysterious permission that God grants Satan to test Job by taking away his possessions (1:12) and then his health (2:4-6).

Job has three friends who sit with him in silent empathy for a period of seven days and seven nights (2:13), but when Job calls for a curse upon the day of his birth (3:3), one of the friends, Eliphaz, rebukes him. “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?”(4:7). This statement sets the theme for his friends’ criticism of God’s faithful servant. Basically, they argue that no man can suffer the way Job suffers unless he has sinned and suffering is always God exercising judgment on sin.

A prolonged debate takes place between Job and his three friends, recorded in the next twenty-one chapters, which grows more fierce with each round of argument. Job refuses to concede that his suffering is due to the judgment of God: “God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me”(27:5). Job and his friends spend themselves until they are devoid of words. Exasperated, Job concludes, “The words of Job are ended”(31:40). At this point, Elihu, the son of Barachel, who witnessed the entire debate, steps forth. Elihu is perhaps the most interesting and the most puzzling character in the book. He recognizes that Job has spoken unwisely seeking to justify himself rather than God (32:2). He also recognizes that Job’s friends have no answer for his suffering, but have condemned him (32:3). Elihu pledges that he will not answer Job the same way they answer him (32:14), and yet, when you read Elihu’s speech, you wonder if he really differs from Job’s three friends.

At last, the LORD Himself comes to Job in a whirlwind (38:1), but He does not come to give account for his sufferings, but to call on Job to give account to God (which is the way it always has been and will be). Following a lengthy interrogation from the LORD, Job sees how foolish he has been to question and challenge God. “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further”(40:4).

The Lord vindicates Job, but his three friends need forgiveness for their failure to speak right concerning God. Job offers up burnt offerings on their behalf (42:7-9), and through that act of mercy which pleased God, Job’s captivity is turned to liberty, in which he receives from the LORD twice as much as he had before (42:12).

After you read the book of Job, you might still ask the question: Why do Christians suffer? There is no simple answer why Christians suffer, or why some suffer more than others (sometimes more than those in the world who have no interest in God). From the book of Job, however, there are a number of spiritual realities that need to be taken into account when it comes to understanding the Christian’s trials and afflictions.

First, there is the reality of the gospel. God’s testimony about Job is foundational to understanding the dealings of God with Job. How much of the gospel Job understood in comparison to Christians today can be a matter of some speculation. It’s true that he didn’t have the New Testament. It could well be true that he didn’t have the Old Testament either. This much, however, can be seen for sure: Job understood the seriousness of the plague of sin, for he feared its consequences falling upon his household, “It was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the
number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually”(1:5).

In addition, Job understood the presence and power of sin in this world. He understood how deeply sin is entrenched in the heart of man. He was concerned, not just for the actions of his children, but for the condition of their hearts. He was aware that sin can be committed in the heart. He would have understood that the sacrifice he offered on the altar functioned as a substitute for his children. By implication he would have understood something of how the sins of his children were imputed to that sacrifice and how that sacrifice looked ahead to Christ, the Redeemer (19:25).

It is on the basis of Christ’s atoning death that Job could receive such commendation from God. It’s on that same basis that a believer today can also receive commendation from God. God sees the believer as joined to His Son and commends him as He would His own Son.

The challenge to the Christian’s faith comes in the midst of trials and adversities when he suffers the loss of health, or possessions or loved ones. Can that Christian still believe that he’s in the realm of God’s favor? Can he still believe he has God’s commendation even when circumstances around him, including his friends and maybe even his spouse, all scream that he must be under God’s condemnation?

The key must be in looking to Christ instead of looking to our circumstances. If a Christian gauges the love and favor of God simply by his circumstances he’ll have many reasons to doubt God’s favor, but if he sees his circumstances through the lens of the gospel of Christ, then he’ll affirm that, even in the midst of painful trials, all things are working together for his good and for God’s glory (Romans 8:28).

The second reality behind the Christian’s trials is his spiritual opposition. The first chapter of Job provides an important key to understanding that opposition, for it is in that first chapter that the reader goes behind the scenes and hears the discussion that takes place between the LORD and Satan. When the LORD commends Job as one who is perfect, who fears God and eschews evil, He is talking directly to Satan. And even though God commends Job to Satan, Satan is not impressed. Instead, the devil invents excuses for Job’s upright character. You’ve put a hedge about him. You’ve protected him and prospered him. Satan is saying that God has to buy His friends, and so he poses a challenge to God – a challenge that God is pleased to take up.

You can be sure that what the devil did to Job, he does to every believer in Jesus Christ. The devil is so full of malice toward Christ and toward Christians that he will not cease seeking ways to oppose them. When Christ resisted the devil in the wilderness, the devil “departed from Him for a season.” Christians can be sure that if the devil’s malice toward Christ was such that he would depart from Him only to return again, he will certainly make repeated attempts to make Christians stumble and fall. Like Job, the Christian today faces a spiritual foe who, “As a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

The final spiritual reality is the sovereignty of God. Perhaps no other book in the Bible places such emphasis on God’s sovereignty as the book of Job. The Lord’s word to Isaiah the prophet becomes very evident throughout the book of Job. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Based on the truth of God’s sovereignty, it would be easy to conclude that the major lesson of the book of Job on suffering declares that the Christian must submit to God as the ruler of all creation. James provides a very important key for interpreting the book of Job. “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (James 5:12). From start to finish every part of Job’s trial was directed by the God who loved him and would send His Son to die for him. Job’s trial, therefore, contained a purpose of grace.

In the end, Job gained a sense of his own sin and a sense of the greatness of the God whom he worshiped. As you read the account of God’s dealings with Job, you will discover God’s greatness and majesty. It will change how you worship the Lord, how you serve Him and how you face your trials.

Rev. Geoff Banister is minister of Indianapolis FPC, Indiana.

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