You know Job’s story. He has suffered great loss—loss his personal fortune, his health, even his own children. All of this through no fault of his own, but as the result of some strange cosmic pissing contest between God and the devil, which we the readers are privy to, but which Job knows nothing of. He suffers, like the rest of us, in the dark—searching for answers, for the meaning in his pain.
And here, in the passage I just read to you, God enters the conversation for the very first time. He comes with perhaps an unexpected agenda. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” he asks Job. In other words: Who the hell do you think you are, Job, to question me? “Dress for action like a man, and I will question you.”
And question him, God does: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”
Are you picking up the sarcasm? I hope so, because he’s laying it on pretty thick. And God doesn’t let up after these seven verses we read this morning. No, it goes on like this for almost four chapters.
- Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
- Have you commanded the morning, Job…and caused the dawn to know its place?
- Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?
- What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?
- And who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
- Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
- Is it by your understanding, Job, that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?
If I’m honest, I find these verses more than a little distasteful. Maybe you do too? I mean, Job is at the end of his rope here. He’s poor, mourning the death of his children, scratching the boils on his skin with broken pottery in hopes of a moment’s relief. Now God shows up? And just to give Job the third degree? If we read these chapters by themselves God comes across as a pitiless bully who just wants to kick Job while he’s down.
But hold on just one minute. It was, after all, Job himself who asked for this trial—back in chapter 31. After rattling off a litany of his innocence:
- He’s always shared what he had with the poor.
- Never said a bad word about anyone.
- He’s been honest.
- Faithful to his wife.
- Why, Job’s never even looked upon another woman lust in his heart.
Then he cries out, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:
Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense—let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made—to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.
God is just giving Job the trial he had asked for. But you see, therein lies Job’s problem, and, I would argue, the reason for God’s unorthodox interrogation. Both Job and his so-called friends have, throughout the book, been assuming the law of reciprocity: suffering properly comes to the wicked, while the righteous should prosper.
What goes around, comes around.
You reap what you sow.
We may call it karma. Or, if you grew up in a certain corner of Pentecostalism, perhaps the health and wealth gospel: if only you have enough faith God will make you rich and prosperous.
So Job’s friends keep trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong, and that’s why God is punishing him.
But Job maintains his innocence. He’s done nothing wrong, and he certainly doesn’t deserve this. That’s why Job calls God to the carpet: He’s being treated unfairly, according to the law of reciprocity, and he wants some answers.
But maybe God’s not bullying Job. Maybe instead he’s showing Job just how little he understands the way the world works.
Have you commanded the morning…and caused the dawn to know its place?
Maybe God is pushing back against Job’s unquestioned assumption of the law of reciprocity.
But before we write off this naive worldview, consider how often you and I think like Job and his friends. It might be easy to see how we’re not thinking like them—we have long since given up the notion of reciprocity. Sure, there are folks like Pat Robertson who are always quick to blame every natural disaster on Wiccans or homosexuals or whatever group happens to be on the chopping block that week. But most of us, on our better days, don’t really believe that good things come only to those who do good, or that only the wicked suffer. We have seen too many good people stricken with cancer. Too many good parents cradle dead babies in their arms. Too many tsunami waves crash indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. Yet, still, we search, sometimes frantically, for some purpose to our pain, some narrative that will explain why we suffer.
A friend of mine once told me about an essay he had read in an evangelical magazine. The author—whose name I can no longer remember—was trying to answer that age old question, why we suffer. His story was tame. Some hooligan had thrown a rock through his windshield. So he called AAA, had the window repaired, and then told the repairman about Jesus. Then he had an epiphany! This, this is the reason God allowed his window to be broken—so he could tell another soul about Jesus!
Then he had another epiphany: this is the reason for all sorts of suffering in this world. Now, think about that. In essence, this author is declaring that God kills the children of his followers, strikes wives and husbands with cancer, destroys cities in earthquakes, and wreaks general havoc with human lives…
…so that believers can tell non-believers about Jesus?
That’s it? That’s the meaning of suffering?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it.
Are we really to believe that broken car windows and broken lives are the same thing—all a part of God’s plan for evangelism?
But this author is not alone. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard explaining that God allows human suffering to teach us patience or humility or to make us ready to help others through times of suffering.
This is the same thing Job’s friends were doing. They came to help Job, to comfort him, to endure his trial with him. But they ended up blaming him for his suffering. Well-intended though they may be—Job’s friends, the preachers we’ve all heard over the years, the author of that essay about the windshield—each claims a wisdom no one really has, the wisdom to explain this world’s inscrutable ways.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky resisted similar consolations. Ivan, an atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, refused to accept the notion that suffering serves any purpose whatsoever. And if it does, it’s a cruel purpose.
“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one [innocent child] . . . would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”
Ivan’s protest is powerful because he does not dally in the realm of the inconvenient—the realm of shattered car windows—but goes to the heart of the real question: murder, abuse, torture, the gratuitous suffering of children. Did God allow the Russian nobleman in Dostoevsky’s story to set his dogs upon an eight-year old boy so that the boy could later testify to the love of Jesus?
Well, the boy died.
Did he do it so the mother could—the mother who was forced to watch?
The fact of the matter is that these answers just won’t work for Christian theology.
Christian theology has always held that evil has no being of its own, but is merely parasitic on God’s creation. Think of evil like a hole in a shirt. A hole in your favorite shirt can be a pretty terrible thing. But when you think about it, it’s really no-thing at all. It’s just a big, gaping nothingness, where there should be fabric. So, the technical language for this is: evil is “a privation of the good.” Evil, according to Christian theology, is literally nothingness, a corruption of God’s good creation, a perversion of God’s purposes. So, according to classic Christian theology, we can never know why there is evil in the world, because there is no why. Evil, at its core, is chaotic, arbitrary, nothingness. I want to repeat that—and I’d like for us to let it soak in—because this is the frightening reality that many of us have spent a lifetime trying to escape:
Our suffering is utterly meaningless…
But now let me alleviate the tension a little bit. I want to suggest that this notion—that our suffering is not a part of God’s plan and purposes—it right near the heart of the gospel, the good news.
It really is good news, I think, that we don’t have look upon the devastation wreaked by the latest natural disaster and console ourselves with sentimental drivel about how God works in mysterious ways, or assure ourselves that there is some ultimate meaning or purpose in such misery. It is good news that we are permitted to hate death and evil and suffering with the kind of perfect hatred that they deserve.
It really is good news that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. That is why, at the end of the story, God vindicates Job’s complaint and says that his friends have spoken ill of God. For God does not permit human suffering to punish sin—nor for any reason.
It’s good news because the Christian gospel is a story of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come. The whole creation, Paul says, groans with the pains of childbirth in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. And the incarnate God enters this world, not to teach us how God works mysteriously through human suffering, but to break wide open the bonds of suffering and sin and death, and to redeem creation to its original beauty. God will not, in the end, show us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the kingdom. No, God will raise her up and wipe away the tears from her eyes.
And there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”