3rd January 2023

Why Suffering?

If God is all-powerful, all-loving, almighty, then why is it that bad things happen to good people?

When we question the very existence of God, one of the big objections to his being often involves the reality of suffering and its apparent inconsistency to the claims made about God.

But suffering isn’t just an abstract concern for anyone who doesn’t know God: it’s often a very real contradiction to those who do know God. If I’m doing my best to be a good follower of Jesus and I am afflicted with all kinds of unwanted ailments, then surely, it’s only natural to voice the question: Why?

suffering is the inevitable consequence of a world disconnected to its Maker’s design.

In response, many people might quickly jump in and say that we’re living in a fallen world where things are not as they should be, so suffering is the inevitable consequence of a world disconnected to its Maker’s design. And, of course, that is true. But, even so, when you are the one suffering and it’s persistent and it’s painful, whether physically or emotionally, then it’s hard to somehow compute what it looks like that ‘God is love’, ‘I am loved’, ‘He is good’ and yet I feel so wretched!

Where might we look for wisdom about this? The ancient book of Job has something to say into the conversation. We don’t really know who wrote Job, when it was written or any number of other questions, but still it stands in the Old Testament Scriptures as an outstanding piece of literary poetry that somehow gets to the very heart of unmerited suffering.

Job is a good man, a very good man. He does everything he can to be right with God. He’s well known for doing so. And he’s a blessed man. He has a large family, great wealth and he lives the good life. But, in a flash, suddenly, all that changes. He loses his wealth, his children are killed in a terrible accident and Job is left decimated. Yet, even after all that terrible loss, Job somehow manages to hang on to his faith in God. Job’s statement of faith even in the face of so much loss is remarkable:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
May the name of the LORD be praised.”
(Job 1:21)

Sadly, though, that’s not the end of it! Job’s very health begins to suffer and suffer most terribly. Job was afflicted with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head (Job 2:7). The only consolation available to him, in the days before skin cream treatments, was to sit in the ashes and scrape his sores with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:8). Seeing his pitiful condition his wife could only say to him: “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) I’m not sure they are the most comforting words his wife could offer at such times though, of course, she too would have been reeling from their collective loss.

Then comes one of the most beautiful and powerful moments in the book. Hearing about their friend’s loss and suffering, three of his friends make the journey to be at his side and there they sit in consolatory silence for the next seven days and nights. In silence they enter into his terrible loss (Job 2:13). It’s a beautiful sign of compassion and empathy.

If these friends had left it there then what follows might not have been so tragic. But they didn’t.

Maybe, when Job began to speak and pour out his woes, they felt duty bound to ‘correct’ what they considered to be his poor theology and to try and explain the unexplainable. For the next 30 chapters or so, as Job expresses the depths of his confusion and raw pain, instead of providing a loving ear to his woes, the friends feel it necessary to ‘defend’ God and his righteous acts. They do this by attempting to explain to Job, in no uncertain terms, that if he is suffering then he must have deserved it. For ‘God is good and unjust suffering cannot compute with who He is’.

Job is suffering and therefore he must have done something to have brought this upon himself. It all sounds very logical. Except… except that it’s wrong!

The friends’ simple logic is this: God is good; God blesses those who trust and obey him. Therefore, if someone is suffering, then that suffering must have a cause. Job is suffering and therefore he must have done something to have brought this upon himself. It all sounds very logical. Except… except that it’s wrong!

In Job’s case there is a far bigger story playing out that we, the readers, are given privy access to in the first 2 chapters of the story. Later in the story God will make it very apparent that they have completely misread the situation (Job 42:7).

Far from deserving the suffering that comes his way, Job is God’s champion, someone in whom He delights. The suffering that comes upon him is actually because, in the heavenly chambers, the enemy of God suggests that the only reason Job fears God is because God has set a hedge of protection around him. The argument goes that if that were to be removed and Job were to experience real suffering then he’d soon turn away from God (Job 1:9ff). And God trusts Job sufficiently to allow Job to prove Satan wrong. As the story unfolds, we see that when Job’s initial losses did not have Satan’s desired effect and even more suffering comes in the form of Job’s own personal sickness, this is proved similarly ineffectual. In all of this, Job did not sin in what he said (Job 2:10). That’s not to say that Job didn’t cry out for answers. From his vantage point it made no sense and he told God that: with much emotion. But he didn’t have the bigger perspective that the reader does. He wasn’t to know that his suffering only came because God had faith in him!

it was inaccurate to say that suffering is always the result of our sin

Having said that, just as it was inaccurate to say that suffering is always the result of our sin, as Job’s friends suggested, it is also inaccurate to say that our suffering is designed to test us, as Job’s was. That was Job’s scenario: it isn’t necessarily ours!

What this story of Job does communicate is that we simply don’t have all the answers.

Indeed, after Job cried out to God for a reason behind his suffering, God amazingly honoured him with a reply. However, in that reply, the reasons for his suffering are never divulged to him. Rather, God calls Job to a bigger perspective, a far bigger perspective (Job 38-41). He calls Job to trust Him, even when it seems ludicrous to do so. And that, frankly, is sometimes the only course left to us.

In the face of immense suffering, Jesus knows that God is ultimately loving

This is not easy trust, easy faith: it is the faith of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. In the face of immense suffering, Jesus knows that God is ultimately loving, giving, and faithful and so trusts that his Father would bring him through to the other side.

Why suffering? On many occasions I suspect we’ll never know the answer. But maybe, like Job, the way forward is to look into God’s face honestly and we might gain a bigger understanding of who God truly is, even in our suffering. Maybe sometimes it’s actually the only way we’ll get to grow in our faith. Like Job, we may have many questions. But, unlike his friends, may we not be too hasty to jump to the wrong conclusions!


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John Sainsbury By John Sainsbury

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