As a teenager, I remember visiting my next-door neighbor who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was a kind, hospitable woman, with a smile that would light up any room. During our time, she let me into her inner world. She posed questions like: is this diagnosis the result of some previously committed sin? Is God punishing me for something I have done? I knew enough about the Christian life to remind her that if we are in Christ our sins are paid for. That conversation confirmed that suffering might cause us to misinterpret our Christian experience. She, unfortunately, passed away a few months later, but admittedly, the questions my neighbor raised left me puzzled by the afflictions that plague troubled souls. Tragedy may strike in a way that profoundly marks us.
The book of Job deals with some of the questions and the complex emotions arising from suffering. A cursory reading of the first chapter confronts readers with Job’s character. He is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:2). He was prosperous, more so than any east of his land (Job 1:3). The book opens with a conversation between God and the ancient adversary, Satan. The Lord presents His faithful servant to Satan for consideration. The adversary sneers, questioning the authenticity of Job’s faithfulness to God, for in Satan’s estimation, should God remove His hand, his faith and character will prove to be disingenuous. Satan is given temporary authorization to test Job, removing all the provisions graciously given to him by God. In a moment, all that Job had been given, acquired, and prized vanished before his eyes. Despite the plundering of his property, the loss of his children, and the assault on his health, Job’s innocence is maintained.
Though the story is grim and intense, Job never cursed God (Job 1:21). Rather, Job worships before a holy God after the outpouring of affliction (Job 1:21-22, 2:10-11). Job’s sufferings capture the various dimensions of struggle, despair, and anguish known to us who bear the name Christian. It reminds us that lamentation and innocent suffering is, in fact, a proper Christian experience. Understanding the various dimensions of suffering, the God of the Bible recognizes a range of human emotions, including pain, grief, and despair (Job 9:21, 10:1, 16:16). The book also addresses the problematic view of retributive theology, that is, that God punishes sufferers for some previous committed sin. To be sure, there are times people do suffer because of their sin (2 Sam 12:9-11, Jer 13:22, 1 Peter 2:17), but Job’s case demonstrates that innocent suffering is undeniably a valid experience. (1)
Job’s situation attests that the apparent random afflictions that befall God’s people are never accidental. Despite the evil that occurred in Job’s life, it was the Lord who stood behind these events (Job 1:6-12, 2:1-6). Although executed by Satan, he was nothing other than an instrument in the execution of God’s plan. Derek Kidner calls these behind-the-scenes events “the doctrine of divine permission,”(2) a phrase used to underscore the sovereignty of God. Job’s story affirms that there is no square inch of the world over which God is not sovereign, including suffering.(3) The overarching Biblical narrative affirms that God is sovereign over small and big affairs, including human decisions (Prov 16:9, 33), the birds of the air (Matt 10:29), catastrophes (Lam 3:38), evil and sin (2 Sam 12:11, Gen 37:12-24, 50:20, Acts 2:23),(4) the death of Christ (Acts 2:23), salvation and suffering (Matt 11:25-27, Acts 13:48, Phil 1:29). It may be said that God is meticulously sovereign over His creation. The sovereignty of God, however, is intended to arouse praise and confidence, even if it remains mysterious to us.(5) Moreover, it is not a masochistic doctrine that overlooks and de-legitimizes your feelings. It is quite the opposite. Jobs' narrative affirms that God does not invalidate your pain and suffering. The Bible and the God who inspired it (2 Tim 3:16) invites you to pour out your soul to Him, as He orchestrates all things for the good of His people.
To properly understand the book of Job we need to see that the book points forward to Jesus Christ, the truly Righteous Sufferer.(6) A majority of the Old Testament anticipated Christ’s sufferings.(7) Veiled in the Old, the New Testament identifies and expounds upon the sufferings of Christ stressing that He voluntarily submitted Himself to human misery, affliction, and rejection (Phil 2:5-9). He who inhabited eternity stepped into human history, time, and space, was clothed in the likeness of sinful flesh, and entered a world marked with sin and misery. The beauty of the gospel message is that Jesus does not stand aloof to human grief. He is intimately acquainted with it.
In his state of humiliation, Jesus was acquainted with sorrow and despair. He petitioned His Father regularly with prayers marked by “loud cries and tears' (Heb 5:7). He experienced the rejection of the world because men loved their wickedness rather than the light of life (Jn 1:11, 3:19). He was abandoned by His cowardly disciples–the ones who swore Him ultimate allegiance (Mk 14:50-51). He experienced the shameful embarrassment of calvary’s tree. He was flogged, stripped naked, with a crown of thorns pressed into His side, with nail-bound hands and feet–all as an innocent man. Aptly put, Jesus Christ is “the suffering God.”(8)
Like Job before us, we who belong to Christ will experience suffering in this world. Perhaps you are experiencing the “various trials” of which Scripture speaks (Jam 1:2)–the loss of a child, the death of a spouse, a painful divorce, an incurable medical condition, or a persistent struggle that will not break. Such experiences may feel isolating or may feel as though you are abandoned. Beloved Christian, recall that the Son of God experienced heart-throbbing anguish and abandonment of the Father’s presence so that you would never know the removal of it (Matt 27:46). He has promised to never leave nor forsake you (Heb 13:5).
We will follow Christ’s pattern of suffering and then glory. But our sufferings are given to conform us to the image of God’s Beloved Son (Rom 8:28-29). In your trial, the promise of Christ’s presence is yours—the One to whom you are united by faith. And you can wait with great hope, for soon and very soon, you are going to see the King, who will wipe away all affliction and every tear from your eye (Rev 21:4).
(1) Job’s miserable comforters (Bildad, Zophar, Eliphaz) serve as a warning to us. We should exercise caution in attempting to interpret a sufferer's experience. Biblical wisdom encourages us to be more attentive to listening, rather than speaking (Prov 10:19, 17:27-28, James 1:19).
(2) Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to wisdom literature, 59.
(3) This language is taken from and is a reference to Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
(4) These passages need to be harmonized with James 1:13. For confessional expression of God's sovereignty in relation to evil and human decisions, see Chapter 3.1 and 5.1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). See also The Heidelberg Catechism Q. 27.
(5) The relationship between human decision and God’s control may feel like tension. It is deeply mysterious and underscores the majesty and power of God. There is, however, no tension in God.
(6) This insight is credited to Dr. Vern S. Poythress.
(7) Cf. Ps 22 in Matt 27:46, Isa 53.
(8) Timothy J. Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 216.