Job: Suffering and a God of Love?

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I don’t know if you saw the reports from Liverpool England on Tuesday night, just before the latest COVID restrictions came in, when the streets were filled with young people partying while they had the chance. [October 2020] Apparently, like young people of all ages, they’re invincible.

As we get older, life has a way of demonstrating that’s not true. People get sick, people die prematurely, children are born with disabilities, people have car crashes. I don’t need to give more examples: you have your own list, and it’s painful. 

And then, of course, there is COVID—the first wave, and now the second wave. All over the world, people continue to get sick, people are dying, people are isolated, healthcare is under stress, stores and restaurants are closing for good. The list could go on.

And through all of this, Christians are supposed to be believe in a God who is all-powerful and all-loving. What is wrong with this picture? The cognitive dissonance is powerful, isn’t it? What do we do with that? How do we live with that tension? How do we pray? Do we pray, indeed, can we pray?

We need something that expresses how we actually feel, not how we think we are supposed to feel. And for those days, the Book of Job is a gift. So let’s look at it this morning.

The story in brief

In chapter 1, Job is a prosperous and God-fearing man. But then God allows Satan to take away all Job’s family and all of his possessions. In chapter 2, the story is repeated, except that this time Satan gets to attack Job’s health.

I should add a footnote at this point: I don’t think this story is meant to be taken literally. It doesn’t mean that every time you stub your toe, or have a fender bender, or burn the toast, that Satan has gone in to see God, and asked special permission. The Book of Job is what C. S. Lewis called a supposal: “Suppose this happened. Knowing what we know about God, what then?”

So . . . three friends of Job’s come along: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—and later Elihu—traditionally called Job’s “comforters,” apparently by someone with no sense of irony.

Actually, the Comforters do one thing right: when they first arrive at Job’s place: they sit in silence—for a week. But then they open their mouths and things quickly go sideways.  

Their main theme is simple, and they really work it to death: “These things would not have happened to you if you hadn’t done something really bad. You’re just in denial about it.” Here’s how The Message puts it (and I’m going to use The Message for most of these quotes): you’re suffering

“because you’re a first-class moral failure, because there’s no end to your sins.” (22:4-9)

Understandably, Job protests:

“God knows where I am and what I’ve done. He can cross-examine me all he wants, and I’ll pass the test with honors.” (23:10-12)

If you think he’s exaggerating, well, sure, but the writer is making a rhetorical point: Job is both the best of men and the most afflicted of men. He knows extreme highs and extreme lows. That’s what makes it a compelling story. If he was just reasonably good and somewhat afflicted, there wouldn’t be much to tell.

As the argument goes on, one thing Job comes to realise is that his argument is not really with the Comforters, his argument is with God. So here’s the first thing I appreciate about Job:

Job is honest with God

It’s too easy to be polite. We’ve all heard it. “Ah well, God moves in mysterious ways.” “Our friend is in a better place.” “God knows what he’s doing.” Maybe we’ve even said some of those things ourselves—probably when we were younger. But they’re pretty cheap, and they don’t really help anyone.

Job too begins by being very polite and theologically correct. Right at the start, after the disastrous first chapter, he says those words we hear at traditional funerals: “The LORD gives and the LORD takes away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” But it seems to me psychologically impossible for anyone to get to that point as quickly as Job appears to do. And as time goes on—specially as he’s provoked by his “friends”—he becomes rather more honest, and starts to lament, and protest, and complain. So he says things like this:

“I shout for help, God, and get nothing, no answer. . . . You’ve turned into my tormenter—you slap me around, knock me about. . . . I know you’re determined to kill me, to put me six feet under. What did I do to deserve this?” (30: 20-23)

I was asked to pray once at the funeral of a young friend killed in a car crash. I guess I was just learning about this business of being honest with God. I still have that prayer. I wrote: “Father: Where were your love and your power when we needed them? Like the psalmist, we feel like asking why you were sleeping instead of looking after your people.” (I guess I felt safer hiding behind the Psalmist.) Compared with some of the laments in scripture, it was pretty tame stuff, but even so I think some people were shocked.

Does God really want us to pray like this? Well, there are examples in scripture—not only here but in the Psalms (like Psalm 88 which, unlike many of the complaining psalms, has no uplifting ending) and particularly in Jeremiah. And there is not one instance of someone being struck by lightning when they talk to God like this.

I find it helps to think how parents react to their children when they say things like, “You’re not fair. You’re mean. I hate you.” I don’t know about you, but when my children talked like that, my reaction wasn’t to put them up for adoption—well, OK, maybe briefly. Why? Because we love them and we know there are reasons for the anger, and that when it’s gone, the relationship will be restored. And if that is true for human parents, how much more is it true of our heavenly Father!

In a letter, C. S. Lewis quotes something his wife Joy said just a month before she died:

“we needn’t be too afraid of questionings and expostulations: it was the impatience of Job, not the theodicies of Elihu, that was pleasing to God. Does He like us to ‘stand up to Him’ a bit? Certainly, He cannot like mere flattery—resentment masquerading as submission through fear.”[1]

So Job models how to “stand up to God.” But there’s a second theme here, and maybe this is harder to swallow:

Job keeps trusting even when he has no idea what’s going on

How long will Job go on trusting God? Well, God has taken away his family, his property, and his health—and so far he still trusts God, even though his wife tells him it’s a waste of time. But what if God threatened to take his life as well? Job has obviously thought about this (how could he not?), and his conclusion is simple: “Though he kill me, yet will I trust him.” (13.15)

If you have read The Screwtape Letters, you may remember that, at one point, Screwtape reflects:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

I find that amazing. Here is a believer who doesn’t want to do God’s will, he sees no evidence of God in the universe, he complains that God has forsaken him—so what does he do then? He obeys God. That’s Job. You can see why the devil trembles.  There appears to be nothing he can do to break this man’s faith.

Then, after 35 chapters of this agonizing dialogue, God finally speaks, and neatly answers all of Job’s questions. Not! Instead, God asks his own questions (apparently a family trait, judging from the way the Son operated). Here’s how it begins:

2-11 “Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers. Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that! [God is apparently not above sarcasm on occasion.] (38: 1-7)

These questions then go on for two chapters—at least forty questions! It must have felt like sitting under a waterfall with the water beating on you non-stop. The questioning finally ends like this:

“Now what do you have to say for yourself? Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges?” (40:1-2)

Not a lot of answers there. So is Job satisfied? Well, apparently he is:

“You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water,
    ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’

I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
    made small talk about wonders way over my head.” (42:2-3)

What has happened? Job hasn’t got answers, but he has something better, and here’s my third take-away from Job:

Job has a bigger vision of God

That bigger vision changes his life more than intellectual answers would have done. There was a popular book back in the 1960s called Your God is Too Small: and that’s true for all of us. However big our image of God, it is always too small. Job’s vision of God has expanded—and that’s a good thing.

I can’t tell you why bad things have happened in my life, but I can tell you my image of God has changed through those things. I came to know that God was bigger and more mysterious and more awesome than I had ever imagined. I realised in a deeper way that God is beyond my control and beyond my understanding. And I’m grateful for that spiritual growing up that happened to me through those things—though I wish to God it had happened some other way.

And so the book comes to an end: God affirms Job and rebukes the comforters. And God restores Job’s life: gives him more children, and more cattle. He then lives for another 140 years and dies a happy man.

So what do we learn from Job? In difficult times, Don’t pretend: be honest with God. Don’t give up trusting God. And seek a bigger picture of God. Now, those are all good things. And I realise you’ve had a three-point sermon, and you think I’m done. But I’m sorry, I can’t end there because, frankly, it’s not enough. Hang in a few minutes more.

The thing is, Job’s answers take us only as far as the Old Testament can take us. But for us, the story doesn’t end at the end of Job. There’s an old book by Campbell Morgan, called, The Answers of Jesus to Job. Isn’t that a great title? (You can find a PDF online.) And that’s where I want to end: with the answers of Jesus to Job. If you will allow me another three things . . .

There is a mediator

Job complains that there is no-one to mediate between him and God:

9.33 “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both.”

But we know there is:

1 Tim 2.5. “There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”

There is life beyond the grave

Job complains that this life is all there is, there is no justice, and ultimately everything is futile:

14.10-14 “Mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? . . .Mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake.”

But Jesus gives an answer to his question:

John 11.25 “I am the Resurrection and the Life. The one who believes in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

God is bigger yet

And here’s a third answer: Job knows about God’s power and wisdom:

‘With God are wisdom and strength;
    he has counsel and understanding.
14 If he tears down, no one can rebuild;
    if he shuts someone in, no one can open up. (12:13-14)

But he doesn’t know of a God who enters into our world, becomes a human being, and shares our life and our vulnerability, our suffering and our death:

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

You see why I couldn’t stop with Job alone? That makes a world of difference, doesn’t it? C. S. Lewis one last time:

“How impossible it would be now to face [the world and its suffering] without rage if God Himself had not shared the horrors of the world He made!”[2]

In Christ, the God of Job speaks to us and says, “My child, I love you. I’ve been to hell and back for you. I’m giving myself to you so that when you suffer you will know that I suffer with you and I will give you my own strength—the strength of resurrection.” Job didn’t know that: but we do. And it’s Good News, it’s Gospel.

St Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, October 18, 2020

[1] C.S.Lewis, Letter, 14 June 1960.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Letter, 14 June 1960