When Bad Things Happen

  • Steve Hatter
Woman touching a rainy window

I have been thinking a lot lately about suffering. I’m guessing many of you reading today have been thinking about the “whys” and hows” of human suffering too—perhaps more than you ever have in your life. One does not have to look very far these days to find real pain and true injustice. I would venture to say there is so much “unpleasantness” all around us these days, that it is indeed impossible to ignore it. We are compelled to consider the problem of pain—especially as Christians—and decide what we think about it.

Among the wisdom writings of the Old Testament, the Book of Job considered the problem of suffering in a universe sovereignly controlled by an all-powerful and just God—Yahweh. By combining narrative prose, poetic dialogue, and dramatic irony—the literary technique wherein the reader knows pertinent details the story’s characters do not know—the inspired discourse achieved the ideal viewpoint for readers to investigate the seeming conundrum of a just God allowing unjust suffering.

The sudden and extraordinary affliction visited on the “blameless and upright” (1:1) Job—for divine reasons unknown either to him or to the series of friends who came to comfort him—set in motion a moving human debate about the causes and meanings of Job’s plight. This debate, it turns out, proved to be one that only God alone, in the end, could settle. The story reaches its crescendo with God providing an answer that no one in the unfolding drama expected, which was this: the response from a righteous man to suffering under sovereign Yahweh must be…only unconditional worship and unquestioned submission to Him. Cue the videotape to the humanist’s head exploding!

However, lest your heads explode too, allow me to try to show you how Job provided a clear path to the conclusion that worship, and submission, represent the single appropriate response to temporal calamity.  How does Job do this? By eliminating any credibility of human insight into understanding Job’s suffering.

I’ll prove that there is no human path to understanding by first showing you that the assessments and exhortations of Job’s “comforters” were shown in the narrative of the story to be wrong from the start. This is because the reader knows of God’s allowances for Satan to attack His “servant Job” (1:8). This outcome left only God to speak into the mystery of Job’s suffering. Next, the book’s poetical depiction of the immeasurable gulf between the incommunicable attributes of God and the limited understandings of men will be examined. The contrast served to silence Job—“I lay my hand on my mouth” (40:5). Lastly, Job’s restoration will be offered as the culminating evidence for a person of faith to choose worship and submission in suffering.

The Inadequacy of Human Insights into Suffering

The book’s structure sets the conditions for proving human insights wholly inadequate to explain the causes and meanings of suffering. The reader knows from the prologue that Job was indeed a righteous man who “fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8). Hence God specifically chose Job to be one of His suffering servants, an instrument through whom He would accomplish a spiritual triumph over Satan for the benefit of a myriad of heavenly and human onlookers. God offered up Job to Satan! “Have you considered my servant Job?” (1:8; 2:3). Satan subsequently falsely accused Job of serving God only for the sake of material blessings (1:9–11). In truth, Job was given the high mission of remaining true to God even when everything was taken from him, and the grimmest of suffering became his unexpected lot (1:12–20; 2:5–9).

Moreover, Job never was given the reasoning for this highly costly mission, leaving him not just in emotional and physical agony, but also in spiritual and relational ambiguity regarding his standing before God. As Job’s world crashed around him, he did not possess the intellectual framework to comprehend and accept his plight, leading him even to curse his birth (3). Job knew of God’s character, and he was confident in his innocence. He did not sin, yet he pleaded for understanding (1:22; 2:10; 3)

“Comforters” (2:11)—aged and experienced Eliphaz, traditionalist Bildad, and rationalist Zophar—came in sympathy, attempting to clear up Job’s philosophical and relational ambiguity with their human wisdom. Ironically, such advice both offended and further confused Job as they pressed to explain his misfortune (a misfortune so extreme they were speechless for seven days 2:13) as an obvious consequence of Job’s sin (4–27).

These friends represented an oversimplified orthodoxy based on a misreading of the wisdom tradition. They asserted all troubles are either punishment for wrongdoings or warnings against future sin. Their “comfort” therefore consisted of applying this cause-and-effect message to Job urging him to identify his sin and repent of it.

They were insensitive (13:4, 5; 16:2; 19:21) as well as arrogant, shallow, and presumptuous regarding divine truth, especially in light of what they did not know about God’s transaction with Satan articulated in the prologue. Chapters four through twenty-seven of the book document three theologically and dramatically rich cycles of back-and-forth debate between the friends and Job, with each cycle ramping higher in discord and acrimony because Job consistently pushed back on their advice. Angry young Elihu added to the tension in later Chapters 32–37, expressing his frustration that the whole affair could not be settled through Job’s enlightenment—the fruit of suffering—and subsequent contrition, confession, and repentance, which is the righteous path expected through suffering.

Job rightly offered a thorough and complete protestation of his innocence in Chapter 31, leaving the interactions between men at a complete impasse. The stage was set for God Himself to speak.

God Spoke

Job experienced his requested face-to-face audience with Yahweh (13:15–18; 31:35–37). When God appeared in the “whirlwind” (38–41), Job was not rebuked as one suffering for his sins, though he was humbled as one whose ill-advised speech had obscured God’s purposes (38:2; 42:2–3). Instead, God surprised Job and his friends.

Through a series of two speeches, God delineated His amazing control of the entire universe, focusing on the physical and animal world. Rather than presenting complicated assertions about the extent of His sovereignty, God asked Job repeated questions about various aspects of creation that were designed to amplify His transcendent attributes. Beginning His first speech with: “where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” (38:4) and ending with: “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars?” (39:26), God challenged Job’s understanding regarding everything from the “ordinances of the heavens” (38:33), to the ongoing management of every living thing. The speech served as a poetical depiction of the immeasurable gulf between the attributes of Holy God—holiness, sovereignty, eternality, immutability, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence—and the limited understandings of created men. The revelation silenced Job (40:3–5). God’s absolute power and wisdom emerged uncontestably. The idea of demanding an explanation from such majesty became absurd.

However, the lord was not yet finished. In a second speech, Yahweh pointed out that Job was unable to save himself (40:6–42:6) or handle the affairs of others (40:6–14). God then referred to two powerful creatures—Behemoth and Leviathan—both of which were subject to His power. Both served as concrete examples that God was, is, and ever will be capable of ruling His universe in His wise ways. When the Lord paused in His vivid descriptions, Job affirmed God’s absolute power and admitted his profound lack of understanding. Job “repented in dust and ashes” (42:6) signifying the death of his lowly comprehensions. With Job’s repentance, God vindicated his servant’s righteousness and blessed him again (42:10–17).

 Rather than addressing Job’s suffering directly, God taught a more critical truth. Even though much in the created world is incomprehensible and even overwhelmingly threatening, it is all the work of a wise God who has His eternal purposes for all He chooses to do. The fundamental issue is not the existence of a rigid connection of conduct and consequence. The issue is whether one will trust God because he was—and is—uniquely and eminently deserving of trust. The response from a righteous man to suffering under sovereign Yahweh must be only genuine worship and submission to Him!

And this conclusion makes all the more sense to believers on this side of the Cross of Christ. We must never put God on trial for things we cannot or will not know.

My wise wife summarized this profound idea of worshipping and submitting in all circumstances truth this way: “God is great, and God is good; all the time, and no matter what.”