Stephen Williams is Professor of Systematic Theology in Union College, Belfast. He is an extremely cleaver man. I think he did his PhD in Yale University. He is also a nice guy. I remember going to him for advice one time when I was suffering anxiety, and he was very caring. When I was studying theology, he took us for a class on apologetics. Apologetics is basically about defending the faith in face of people’s objections.
At the end of the course Stephen gave us a role play. You had to go into his office, and he would pretend to be someone who was antagonistic towards Christianity. In character he would present you with all sorts of difficult questions. He ran rings around me. I remember being glad that at least he had thought through all the questions he was presenting me, and that they didn’t rock his faith.
One day Professor Williams said something that I wasn’t sure about. He said that when it comes to defending Christianity, the issue of suffering is our weak point. I must have been of the opinion that we should be able to give perfect answers to every question!
‘If God is both perfectly good and all-powerful why doesn’t he bring an end to suffering?’ That’s how many put it!
We might reply: ‘We live in a world that is under God’s curse because of human rebellion, a world where everybody is subject to sickness and death. That one day God will bring an end to suffering for those who have put their trust in him.’
However, when the questions get more personal answers are more difficult to come by. ‘Why did that person suffer so much?’ ‘Why does God allow some of his own people go through such agony?’ At this stage we may be left scratching our heads.
Some people have looked at suffering and concluded that if God is all-powerful he could not be very good. Other people have said God is good but not all-powerful—like the deaconess, at a clergy conference, who passionately argued for what she called ‘a weak God’, saying that it gave her comfort to think that God was busy struggling with life and getting it wrong just like the rest of us. Or you could be like Job’s friends, who explain personal suffering with a simplistic formula: ‘bad things don’t happen to faithful people, so they must have done something awful to deserve it’—but how come some very wicked people prosper in life and some very godly people have to endure terrible troubles?
In this evening’s passage God speaks to Job. What will he say in response to Job’s questions? What light might his words bring to our pain? Before we see, let’s look at the chapters that lead up to God’s verdict.
God is all powerful and he teaches us through our suffering (32-37)
Job is so impressive at the beginning of this book. When he loses his wealth and his children, he grieves. But he also worships: ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised’ (1:21). We read, ‘In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing’ (1:22). After he is covered in sores from head to toe his wife urges him to curse God and die. Job replies, ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ Again, we are told, ‘In all this, Job did not sin in what he said’ (2:10). He knows that God is all-powerful and perfectly good, even if he is left in the dark about why he is suffering.
Yet as we read on we can see bitterness getting the better of him. For example, in chapter 27 he declares, “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul ... (27:2). Don’t get me wrong. It was not that Job was wrong to cry out to God in anguish—we should tell him how we feel but Job overstepped the mark when he accused God of being unjust. But the end of the day we need to remember that he is God and we are people, he understands all things and we only understand some things, and his ways are perfect even when they are a baffling mystery to us.
In chapter 32 we hear a new voice. A rather arrogant young man called Elihu speaks. Like Job’s three ‘comforters’, Elihu’s words are a frustrating mix of truth and error. He rightly defends God’s righteousness, but, like the others, he claims that Job must have some secret sin that needed to be confessed.
One of the interesting things Elihu says, that is attested elsewhere in the Scriptures, is that God teaches us through suffering. ‘But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction’ (36:15).
The late Professor Sir Norman Anderson was both a legal giant and a Christian. He was a lay preacher at All Souls, Langham Place. He and his wife knew grief, they lost all their children. Their son Hugh died of cancer, when he was 21. Norman later wrote, ‘people would continually ask us why a young man of such promise and with such a zest for life should be allowed to die so young. To this the only reply we both feel is that we do not, cannot, know. The vital question to ask God in such circumstances is not ‘why do you allow this?’—to which he seldom, I think, vouchsafes to answer—but ‘what do you want to teach me through this?’
The striking thing about the words of Elihu is the emphasis he places on the sovereignty of God: God is great beyond our understanding (36:26), almighty beyond our reach (37:23), and in absolute control of his creation (see 36-37). This sets the stage for God to enter the discussion!
Who are we to question God? (38-41)
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm (38:1). What is God going to say to the many questions that Job has been asking? Will he tell Job about the conversation between himself and Satan?
“Who is it that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me” (38:2-3). Wow! The tables are turned. God is going to be the one to do the questioning.
‘Job if you think you can run the universe better than me, can you explain my creation?’
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? ...” (38:4)
“Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? ...” (38:18)
“Can you bring forth the consolations in their seasons ...?” (38:32)
“Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom ...?” (39:26)
He mentions the ostrich. ‘It has wings yet can’t fly. But boy can it run! What an odd creature. Explain that to me?’
‘Job, consider the vastness, the complexity, and the wonder of my universe. Consider how little you understand and that I created and sustain it all. Do you think you know better than me?’ “The LORD said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him. Let him who accuses God answer him!” (40:1-2)
What could Job say, he has just been taught about the vastness there is between man and God? Job is humbled!
I am unworthy — how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more” (40:4-5).
Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (40:6-8).
God mentions the behemoth. There is some debate about what this might be, but it is certainly impressive. Can anyone capture him by the eyes, or trap him and pierce his nose?” (40:24).
There is the leviathan—another awesome creature whose identity is debated. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?” (41:1)
Then Job replied to the LORD:
“I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6).
Job repents! It is not that he had done anything to deserve his suffering, before his suffering God had said he was blameless and upright. But in his suffering he had been foolish. He had thought that he knew better than God. He had questioned God’s justice. He had acted as if God owed him answers!
We enjoy great intimacy with the God who invites us to know him as our Abba. In Christ we can approach his throne of grace with confidence (Heb. 4:16). But we are never to be presumptuous. He is the creator and we are the creatures. We are always to treat him with awe and reverence.
Stephen Williams was right. When it comes to defending our faith, suffering is the weak point. It is not the weak point because God is not in control, or that he is not good. It’s the weak point because we are people and God is the Almighty. He is beyond our understanding. We are dependent upon what he has revealed to us, and he has chosen not to give us all the answers when it comes to personal suffering.
Indeed, it exposes the arrogance of humankind that we demand answers from him. Who are we to call God to account? He is the creator and we are a part of his creation. He is infinite in understanding and we are limited in knowledge. He is perfectly good and even our best deeds are tainted with selfishness.
God did not tell Job about the conversation between himself and Satan. But he did do something more important: he restored their relationship. We need God more than we need answers. Having listened to God’s words Job declared, ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you’ (42:5). He now knows God better than he had before.
Finally, I was struck by a question I read in a study-book: ‘What are some of the practical things we can do which might help prevent us from becoming embittered when we suffer?’
We need wisdom. ‘The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’ (28:28). Wisdom more than answers! Knowing the one who knows all things more than knowing all things! God’s wisdom has been given full expression in Jesus, and in particular through his death on the cross. It is through Jesus we are brought into a relationship with God and so can be wise.
We need to remember that our suffering is not purposeless. As one preacher explained, ‘there are dimensions of godliness and faith which righteous people learn only through suffering.’
We need to keep the lines of communication open. Job was right to be honest about how he felt. But as we come to God with freedom and openness don’t forget the awe and respect he is due.
And we need remember that Jesus is the ultimate answer to suffering. He is the perfect example of innocent suffering, he is the friend we need in times of trouble, and because of his pain his people will one day be brought to a place where they will suffer no more (Rev 21:4).