I can remember one time when I was a boy going out to a meal with my parents at a restaurant in Cambridge. Everything was going well until my mother ordered the Apple Crumble. She was halfway through eating it when she made a horrible discovery – a slug; a great big fat juicy slug was there behind a bit of crunchy topping. I laughed, I think my parents laughed too, but not for long. It was a bit like a scene from Fawlty Towers. Mum demanded to see the manager of the restaurant. The waiter tried to placate her by offering another bowl, this time without the slug, but my mother stood her ground -she wanted to go to the top. The manager eventually came with a face like he was about to stand before a firing squad. Anyway my extreme embarrassment was tempered by the fact that there was hardly anyone else there and that we got our meal for free. A few weeks later walking down that same street I noticed that the restaurant had closed and I couldn’t help but think that my mother might have had something to do with it….
Poor Job had a much more serious problem that a slug in his food. In a series of tragedies he lost all his sons and daughters, then he lost his wealth and then finally his health too, becoming afflicted with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head (2:7). From being a man with a happy life, a large family, large wealth and good health, he became lonely, sad, poor and wracked with pain. Job was a godly man and this fact remained despite his suffering and despite the desperate questions he had of why God would allow his terrible misery to not only happen but to continue.
When we were children we got used to the idea of being rewarded when we were good and punished when we were naughty. We soon learn the idea of justice and mercy. Naturally we extend this same principle to God – we think that God will reward us if we are good and we are sometimes tempted to think that when something bad happens it is because we have done something wrong. Well the story of Job shows us that nothing could be further from the truth. Here was a deeply religious and godly man – who had not done anything wrong and yet he was suffering terribly from the tragedies that had befallen him. As we get older we realise more and more that if anything the more good we do the more we suffer, we do right and we get knocked down, we do our best and something comes out of the blue and shatters our life into pieces.
If we allow it to, this kind of suffering causes us to be angry. For some it is too much and they turn their backs on God and blame God for what has happened and give up even wondering why He didn’t do anything to make things different from the way they are. If anyone had cause for complaint it was Job. He was a better person than any of us could ever be. He had more wealth and more land and a larger family than any of us will ever have. Did he get angry with God? You bet he did. Have you ever been angry with God, have you ever shouted aloud at Him about something? There have been times when I have seen pain and suffering in people and even at times in my own life when I have very strongly asked God the question “Why?” Job speaks to God with such eloquence, with such unnatural strength and wisdom, but he doesn’t beat about the bush. For chapter after chapter he asks God why, Why WHY? For a long long time there is no answer.
If we turn to the book of Job and expect a nice, neatly packaged answer to the question of suffering we will be disappointed. Of course Job’s three friends try to give him neat, stock answers but none of them work. In so many ways the question of suffering is a very complicated and messy one, no amount of human wisdom will even begin to approach an answer. We do however get a peek behind the curtain. At the beginning of the book we see the character of Satan at work and we understand that Job’s pain and suffering and loss do not come from God, but rather God allowing Satan to inflict Job. Rather than answer any questions though, this raises a whole lot of new questions, such as why on earth would God allow Satan to do such a thing? It just doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Finally after all the silence from heaven there is a great storm and God speaks at last. But then what He says is not what Job (or we) were expecting to hear. We were expecting something along the lines of an explanation, an “ABC” of suffering. Instead however God takes a different tack entirely, We read:
Then out of the storm the LORD spoke to Job. “Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Now stand up straight and answer the questions I ask you.” (38:1-3)
Instead of getting answers, Job is getting questions! But perhaps in those questions there will be the beginnings of an answer. The Lord continues:
“Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it… Who laid the cornerstone of the World? In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. Who closed the gates to hold back the sea when it burst from the womb of the earth? It was I who covered the sea with clouds and wrapped it in darkness…” (v.4-9)
Frederick Buechner writes: “God doesn’t explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that to try to explain the kind of things Job wanted explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam … God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself.” (1)
Pain makes people react in different ways. Some people in their pain grow closer to God, some drift bitterly away. The main difference seems to lie in where they focus their attention. Those who become obsessed with questions about cause such as “What did I do to deserve this, why am I being punished?” often turn away from God. Those however who lean on God and like Job trust God though the suffering are much more likely to find, somehow, a way through it all.(2)
God’s speech goes on to remind Job of the wonders of Creation with some of the most beautiful poetry in the whole Bible. The message becomes clearer, that even if God were to explain to Job all about suffering and evil and pain, he would not understand it; it would simply be beyond his ability to comprehend. In reminding Job of the majesty of Creation and God’s power, it is as if God is simply saying to Job “Trust me”. Parents know this full well, there are times when you have to convince your children to trust that you are right – you are not able to give a full explanation that they could understand, so you say “because I am your Father”, or “because I am your mother” trust me.
In response to our pain, our misery, our suffering, God holds us tight and says “trust me” and as we look up from that promise we see a cross on a hill and we begin to understand, (not as much as we would like to understand, but nevertheless it is a beginning). We know that the only way forward, no matter how hard it may be is to say, “Yes Lord, I trust you, I trust you no matter what.”
(1) Quoted in Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts, Zondervan, 1990, p.106
(2) Ibid., p110
See also: “The Message of Job”, David Atkinson, IVP, 1991.