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Lessons for Those who Suffer
from the Book of Job

Copyright 1996
Fred G. Zaspel

Introduction and Survey

The Old Testament book of Job is well known as one of the great pieces of literature to survive the ancient world. From a purely literary standpoint it is a beautiful piece of work, and its poetic prose relates captivating scenes of intense passion.

It is properly a dramatic poem. It appears as a play on a stage, with scene after scene, prologue, dialogue throughout the body of the story, and epilogue.

But what makes it so intriguing is its message. It is a classic theodicy; it sets out to establish the justice of God in His dealings with men. The problem of suffering is continually in view, and God's relation to human suffering appears always the pressing question. Does He manage this world well? What does our suffering say about God? But these are questions which find a happy answer: God is there, even in suffering, and He is not being unjust or unloving. Nor is He incapable of dealing with the problem. There are good and right explanations -- important lessons to be learned.

These lessons we learn through the experiences of one man: Job. He is introduced to us as a man of great piety. He "was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil" (1:1). The following verses go further to explain that his piety was consistent even in his private home life. He did all he could to ensure the spiritual integrity of his entire family.

He was also a man of great prosperity. His material holdings made him "the greatest man of all the people of the East" (1:2).

But in a series of dreadful events, which come upon him in rapid succession, Job loses all of his wealth, all of his children, then his health, and then the support of his wife.

Then Job's "friends" arrive on the scene with their counsel. Trying to conceive how Job could suffer so, they conclude that Job must be a terrible sinner. It was for them a simple matter of basic theology which reasoned something like this. First, God is obviously sovereign and in complete control of all that happens. Second, God is also just and holy. It very naturally follows, therefore, that if we are faithful God will bless us; and if we are not faithful, God will withdraw that blessing.

This was their theological position, and this was the "comfort" which they had to offer. "Job," they reasoned, "you are suffering terribly; therefore, you must have sinned terribly."

The main body of the book, then, consists of a series of three rounds of debate about this very issue -- God's relation to suffering and his just punishment of sinners. And throughout the debate, while Job stands firm against their accusations, he obviously has lost their support.

Later in the book, another friend appears on the scene. He is a younger man by the name Elihu. And it is with Elihu that Job loses his argument. Elihu begins by turning to the older men and reminding them that "old men are not always wise." That is to say, "You may be old and respected, but in this you are wrong." But then he turns to Job and argues that while they are wrong, so is he. Job, Elihu argues, has no right to speak as he has either.

You see, it seems that Job was in basic agreement with the theology of his friends. He agreed that God was both righteous and sovereign and that blessing should follow faithfulness. But there was for Job this great problem: he was convinced that he was faithful! There was nothing in him that warranted this suffering. Now in point of fact, Job never denied that he was a sinner. Indeed, at the end of the book he confesses great depths of sin. But in reference to this suffering, he maintains, he is innocent. He has served God faithfully.

So there was for Job only one conclusion: God must be unfair! He is evidently an unfeeling tyrant who acts capriciously with his people. And what for his friends was indication of his sinfulness (i.e., suffering), was for Job a suggestion of God's injustice.

Now understand, Job never turns on God as such. He questions God, but he does not reject Him. Job's words reflect a struggling faith, but it is faith nonetheless and not contentious unbelief.

So we find Job summoning God to court, as it were. He wants to protest his case, argue his cause with God. But of course such a thought is staggering -- "Who can contend with God?" God, Job realized, would simply overpower him. Argue with God?! But this is his dilemma. He felt that he needed to argue with God, but he realized that he couldn't. He wished, then, for a mediator -- someone who could take his cause to God for him.

So Job lost his wealth, his children, his health, the support of his wife and friends, and now he seems also to have lost his God.

It is difficult to adequately appreciate the real horror of Job's circumstances. Physically, Job loses vast amounts of wealth and all of his children -- all in single day. Job himself is struck with a terrible disease which left him with awful boils all over his body. Socially, Job is brought from the most outstanding leader of his community, to sit on an ash heap at the city dump. There he is alienated from his friends and family, while unfeeling neighbors taunt him with cruel songs. And even those who had come to console him now turn on him. Spiritually, it seems he has been separated from his God -- God remains hauntingly silent through the entire affair. He is evidently angry with Job, and that without cause. And emotionally, we can only imagine the bitterness of Job's groanings of pain and troubled mind and spirit, the depths of his despair and loneliness. With all this, we can very easily understand his desire to die.

Lessons

But what is it we can learn from all this about suffering? What lessons are there for us that may help in our own times of grief?

1. Suffering often comes as the result of an unseen conflict in the spiritual world.

The first and perhaps most obvious lesson of the book of Job is this: suffering often comes as the result of an unseen conflict in the spiritual world. One of the most striking and even frustrating things about Job's story is that we know something of his experience which he himself does not know. There is something very real going on about which Job and his friends are completely ignorant. Job really comes to the scene after the opening act. And it is in the opening act we learn what gave rise to the whole incident.

In that first scene we find Satan before God, boasting of his success in the world. God responds by pointing to Job and his godliness and faithfulness. To which Satan replies with insulting and challenging accusation. "He only serves you for what he gets out of it! Sure he's faithful! Why shouldn't he be? Look at all the wealth you have given him!" And to prove Satan wrong, God takes Satan's bet. He gives permission to Satan to afflict Job in any way he chooses, only he must not touch Job himself. It is this that gives rise to Job's troubles. And this is the point. Suffering often comes as a result of an unseen conflict in the spiritual world.

This fits well with several other Biblical passages regarding an angelic connection with the affairs of men. The apostle Paul speaks of "doctrines of demons" (1Tim.4). He says that our salvation is for the purpose of displaying God's glory to the angelic world (Eph.3:10). In fact, God's entire scheme of salvation is something that arouses interest on the part of the angels (1Pet.1).

Now the exact nature of this connection is a bit difficult to ascertain. Some have understood it in terms of the angelic marvel that God would in grace redeem rebellious creatures -- a grace unknown to the angelic world. Others have conjectured that in redeeming rebellious man God is vindicating Himself against a charge of injustice, a challenge brought against Him by the fallen angels who cannot be redeemed. This is the sense, according to this view, in which God, in human redemption, displays "to the angels" both His justice and His grace.

But whatever the precise nature of this angelic connection and interest in the human race, it is clear that there is a spiritual warfare between God and Satan. To put it in God's own words, there is "enmity between the seed of Satan and the seed of the woman" (Gen.3:15). Satan's doom is sure, and now he is on a furious rampage against God and all who are His (cf. Rev.12; Eph.6:12).

Now this is not dualism -- the ancient idea that good and evil are equal opposing forces. It is just that Satan is in mad rebellion against God, and unable to touch God Himself, he goes after those who serve Him. The battleground is what Bunyan called "the city of mansoul." Satan is hard at work to keep men from God. "The god of this world blinds the minds of those who do not believe" (2Cor.4) and "takes men captive at his own will" (Tim.). Those who are lost belong to Satan; they are part of his kingdom. And even after conversion, Satan may well realize that cannot take us away from God or take our salvation from us, but he may by oppression of various sorts steal from us the joy of our salvation. He may prevent us from fully experiencing the blessedness of what we have in Christ. In practical ways, he may tear us away from God. Or, as Calvin puts it, Satan may "drive saints to madness by despair." You understand, I'm sure!

And it is of this, you see, that Job and his friends were completely unaware. We saw it in the opening act, but they did not. Job's ignorance of all this is reflected in Job 9:24, where he cries in frustration, "If it is not God Who is doing all this to me, then who is?" We read that and feel like shouting to him on the stage, "Job, it's not God! It's Satan!" We, at this point, know more of Job's experience than he himself does.

Now the great question which so puzzled Job and his friends was the common question, "Why?" For Job's friends, the answer to that question was found in Job's sinfulness. For Job, who knew he did not deserve such affliction, the answer might rather be found in God's injustice! But what neither side was able to consider was that they were both wrong! There was another reason entirely. Job was not suffering because he had sinned. He was suffering because he had not sinned! It was not his unfaithfulness to God, but his faithfulness that had caused all this. It simply never occurred to Job that Satan had instigated this whole affair. He had challenged and made the bet. He had thrown down the gauntlet and wrongly accused Job before God: "He does not really love you! He's only in it for the money." And now Job was suffering, not for his sin, but for God's honor and in order to shame Satan.

We Christians are accustomed to hearing about persecution. We know that as Christians we will suffer at the hands of the world. And when that persecution comes we are able to recognize it as such, and that enables us to better cope with it. But when, say, sickness or tragedy comes -- like Job's -- it is often more confusing. It seems so haphazard and without purpose. But the great lesson of Job is that even this may be persecution. It may be that because of faithfulness we have drawn enemy fire! It may be that God has taken the challenge once again, and once again He is silencing Satan by means of a worshipping sufferer.

Our critics can say, for example, "That preacher is in it only for the money!" or "That church member only attends that church for what he can get out of it -- friendship, money, help, etc." But when that person is seen in clutches of some awful struggle, yet bowing in humble worship before God, still loving and serving Him faithfully, no one can say a word. It then becomes very evident that God's workings in that mans life are very deep and very real.

Now I don't want to deny that a person may be suffering as result of divine chastening. This too is taught in Scripture. It may also be that our suffering is merely a pedagogical tool in hands of Father Who by suffering teaches us and shapes us into what we must be.

But it has struck me as very curious that it is often not the worst Christians but the best ones who suffer the most! Indeed, it is this observation that is so frustrating to us. It does not fit any of our high flown theology. We have no theological category for it. But the encouraging lesson of Job is that in suffering we are being put on display. God has allowed Satan to come after us so that by it His work in us will be shown to be real, and Satan's mouth will be stopped. Ironically, we become the means of vindicating God before Satan.

This lesson is immensely important for us to remember in the midst of our suffering. In light of all this our sufferings make sense. They serve a high and wonderful purpose.

2. The inadequacy of human reasoning in the presence of tragedy and suffering.

The second lesson we learn from Job's experience is of the inadequacy of human reasoning in presence of tradegdy and suffering. Again, this lies just on the surface of the story: What is the most obvious explanation for Job's suffering? Why, it is his sin, of course! This was what Job's friends thought, and it is what Job himself thought, although he resented it because it was unfair.

But at the very outset Job is vindicated from this charge. We are told explicitly that he was a just, upright, and God-fearing man (1:1ff). The narrator carefully explains to us that it was not Job's sin but his lack of sin that brought all this on him. It was precisely because Job was a good man that he suffered so.

Now Job did not know all that we know. He did not see that opening act. But he knew that his friends were all wet. This is reflected in chapter 16 where he describes them as "windbags." Their counsel was not able to satisfy him or give him any comfort. However high and lofty was their theology, they could not speak to his situation.

But Job's problem was that neither could he! He had no adequate answer for his problems. No explanation. No reason. He could not explain his sufferings. All through the book we see Job grasping, looking, wishing, searching. So desperate is he, in fact, that finally in frustration he laments life and suggests that God is unjustly punishing him.

That is always the problem, isn't it. This is always the great test. If only we could know why. If only we could see God's plan from beginning to end, this suffering would be more tolerable. And what gets us down is that our own reasonings are inadequate. Somehow we feel that if God would only let us in on things, explain to us why He allows these bad things to happen to us when we are trying so hard to serve Him faithfully, then we could cope with the situation.

But God never did tell Job why. And often He does not tell us. What he does instead, is call us to trust Him.

Late in the book God finally speaks, and responds to Job's challenge to explain Himself. But the response is not what Job expected. Rather than explaining to Job why he had been suffering so, He reasons with Job: "Did you create this world? Did you make the rain? Who is it that controls 'nature.' Who creates and controls the great beasts and the winds and the lightning?" That is to say, "Job, are you really calling me into question? There is no part of the universe outside my authority. Do I really owe you an explanation? Would you really vindicate yourself by vilifying me? Does it really appear that I need your help in running this universe?"

Do you see the point? When you find yourself in suffering, do you still trust God? Or do you feel that He owes you explanation? It does no honor to God to trust Him only when we understand fully what He is doing. That is not faith at all. It honors Him when we trust Him implicitly. When with Job we can say from heart of love, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (13:15) -- this is what honors God.

You see, God does not give us all the details. But He has given us more than enough information to trust Him. Is He not the One Who created us? Is He not the One Who holds all things together? We can take it still further: Is He not the One Who has saved us? Is He not the One Who gave up His only Son for us? Can we not find in Him good reason for trust, even when we do not see His purposes?

Lesson number two is very important and necessary to our success in trials. Our own reasonings are inadequate. But we have something better -- we have God.

3. God is sovereign and supreme over Satan and our suffering.

The third lesson from Job's experience is a very obvious one also. It is this: God is sovereign and supreme over Satan and our suffering. The book does not explain all the methods of God in His rule over all creation. But did you notice, at the beginning, that Satan had to get permission? Did you notice that he had to report in? That he had to get permission again to do more? Did you notice that prescribed limits were imposed on him?

Job's frustration was that things seemed so wrong, unjust, out of control, random and without reason. So much so that he cries in frustration, "If it is not God, then who else could it be?" But it is just then that we want to shout to stage, "No, Job! It's not God, it's Satan! But not to worry, God has him on a leash!"

Isn't that just what we need someone to do for us in suffering? We need a reminder that God is not absent. That Satan is not God. God is God. And the devil is His devil.

We love to say that God is love, and when we say it we refer, of course, to the cross. And well we should. But the test of whether or not we believe that is in our suffering. Does God still love then? Can you believe that? Can you in the midst of your worst day say, "The God Who loves me such that He sent His Son to die in my place, the God Who is my Father, this great, good, wonderful, loving God is in firm control of this whole thing! I don't know what He is up to. But I know Him! And I know He loves me. And I know that He is good -- too good to do me wrong. And I know that He is wise -- too wise to make a mistake.

Now without this truth -- God's loving sovereignty over our suffering -- we can understand well why people lose their minds in times of difficulty. That is one lonely, empty feeling! To feel that there really is no rhyme or reason or purpose would leave us in despair indeed! But equipped with this truth, is there anything we cannot face? When sickness comes to your house, or death or financial collapse or whatever, is there really any good reason for despair? Can it be reasonable or right for a Christian man or woman to fall all apart and live in frustration day in and day out? It is incumbent upon us to look heavenward with a believing heart and say, "God, I have no explanation for things as they are, but I bow before you and take as from your hand whatever you allow." Nothing less is faith.

4. We must read this book as Christians.

Finally, we must read this book as Christians. That is, we must read it while wearing our New Testament glasses.

Throughout the book Job feels lost, lost in maze of unanswered questions. Chiefest of his concerns is his desire for God. This is why we hear him say things like, "O that I knew where I might find Him!" "O that I had someone to go to Him for me!" And so on.

And it is right here that we find ourselves giant steps ahead of him. He searched for a mediator, someone Who could speak for both parties. We have that mediator, and we know Him. He is Jesus Christ. Job wanted someone Who would not only plead his case, but sympathize with Him. We have Him, and He is the One who "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." He is "touched with the feelings of our infirmities," and so He invites us to come boldly before His throne of grace and there find "grace to help in time of need."

At this point there is a world of difference between us and Job. We have the revelation of Christ, Who has told us and shown us His great and undying love. He has told us that through Him we have direct access to the Father. And He has told us that we may and should come to Him with every problem we face, and there find Him not only sympathetic, but full of grace & mercy perfectly suited to our specific need.

With that advantage over Job, Job's faith is all the more remarkable. And ours is all the more reasonable.

Conclusion

There are, then, reasons for our suffering that we may not know. But there is a God whom we do know, Whose rule is unchangeably firm over all circumstances of life, Whose character is unchangeably just, and Whose heart is unchangeably good and loving and gracious. Through Jesus Christ, we know Him. And knowing Him we may trust Him implicitly.