A few months ago I started teaching a topical series at our church on Sunday evenings entitled, “Suffering Saints: How Seemingly Bad Things Point Us to the Goodness of God.” I have decided to post an abridged version of those messages here, partly to jump-start my goal of blogging again and partly to encourage those outside of our church family who may be going through difficult times of suffering.
Throughout this series we will consider the role of suffering in the lives of real people like you and me; people who truly lived and walked this earth, who suffered but were shown great grace from God. We will look at the Bible’s record of Job, Joseph, Hannah, an unclean woman, Stephen the first deacon, the Apostle Paul, and of course, Jesus himself.
A man whose very name invokes the thought of terrible pain and grief. God’s Word tells us he was a righteous man; God-fearing, blameless, and upright. The first couple of chapters of the book lay the foundation in narrative fashion. In the prologue we learn who, what, where, and how. But not the why. In the first two chapters we learn that Job was a man who was blessed by God with many material blessings—10 children, thousands of sheep and camels, hundreds of oxen and donkeys, and very many servants. But all of that—and more—is about to vanish just a few verses into Job chapter 1.
One commentator writes, “Job has no idea of what is about to befall him. Nor does Job know the reason why a series of horrible things will take place leaving him sick and with nothing” (Riddlebarger). And as most of us probably know, Job does lose everything—well, almost everything. We see how God allows Satan to take almost everything away from Job: his servants, his physical health, even his 10 children, sparing only the lives of Job’s wife and a few companions.
In the book of Job, we are confronted with the question that proves to be a major theme of the book: “Why do the righteous suffer?” How many of us have asked that question before? “Why, Lord? Why do we suffer as we do?” Job wondered as much.
But instead of looking at Job himself as the main character of the book, we will see that God is the primary character here. Job as a divinely inspired work is theocentric. About this portion of Scripture, Calvin asks rhetorically, “Were ever the being of God, his glorious attributes and perfections, his unsearchable wisdom, his irresistible power, his inconceivable glory, his inflexible justice, and his incontestable sovereignty, discoursed of with more clearness, fullness, reverence, and divine eloquence, than in this book?”
Indeed, the book of Job is about our sovereign, almighty God. And even as we ask, “Why do the righteous suffer?”, we are forced to recognize from the first verse of chapter 1 all the way through chapter 42, verse 17 the reality of a God who is sovereign over everything, even over our suffering. We will consider this truth in three simple acknowledgments:
- Job Acknowledges God-ordained Suffering
- Job’s Friends Acknowledge God-ordained Suffering
- God Acknowledges God-ordained Suffering
1. Job Acknowledges God-ordained Suffering
When bad things happen, how do unbelievers often react? Tears of grief and pain are so often accompanied by questions, anger, and blame. Why did this happen? How could this happen? If God is good, how could He let it happen? It’s the government’s fault. It’s the terrorists’ fault. It’s God’s fault.
Job finds himself in a terrible place. With a torn robe, shaved head, and covered in puss-producing boils, Job sits atop a heap of ashes questioning his lot in life. But in all of his pondering and pain, Job never accuses God of wrong-doing. As Kim Riddlebarger writes, “All Job knows after losing everything is that somehow and in someway, God will do what is right and that Job will be vindicated in the end. In this, Job is an example for all of us.” Indeed, without knowing the reason for his afflictions, Job knew the source of it.
“…The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away…” Job 1:21
“For he crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause…” Job 9:17
“Your hands fashioned and made me, and now you have destroyed me altogether.” Job 10:8
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” Job 13:15
Job understood that it was God who crushed, destroyed, and slayed him. He recognized his suffering as a divinely ordained act. Job wasn’t delusional about his trials. He didn’t blame chance or fate or anything else, as do the people of this world. No, he saw the Lord’s hand in his suffering. And what did he do? He hoped in Him!
Now, to the unbeliever this seems like nonsense. The unbeliever might say, “So you’re telling me that Job recognized that it was God who was behind his suffering; that it was God who allowed, even ordained that Job should suffer as terribly as he did; and that Job hoped in God anyway?!” That’s exactly what we’re told from Scripture.
Look at Job 19:25. Job says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” Not only does Job recognize God as the source of his suffering, but in the midst of all his hurting, he looks ahead—beyond his present afflictions—with eyes of faith, and he sees in shadowy form a picture of things to come. Even in his pain, Job sees his Redeemer—alive and well and standing upon the earth.
Indeed, Job points us to Christ, doesn’t he? Both in his suffering and in his testimony concerning a coming Redeemer. As Job alludes, Jesus Christ—God in flesh—would one day come and stand upon the earth and suffer to the point of death in order to take away our pains and tears forever and make us the eternal children of God. So with Job we understand that both our suffering and our redemption are sovereignly ordained by God; thus we find our hope in the very One Who slays us. Job acknowledged God-ordained suffering.
2. Job’s Friends Acknowledge God-ordained Suffering
Job’s “friends” actually present us with the picture of the anti-friend; an illustration of what not to do as a friend. They harp on him more than they help him. But even Job’s peers—though they were never able to pinpoint the root cause of Job’s affliction, that is the reason for it—even they could not deny that it was God who ordained it. Just listen to their words.
Eliphaz in Job 5:17-18 says, “Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”
Bildad in 8:4 infers that Job and/or his children have sinned, thus the Lord “has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.” While Bildad’s counsel was misguided and lacked any sense of compassion, at least he too recognized God as the source of Job’s trouble.
Then Zophar, perhaps the least compassionate of the three, scolds Job at the end of 11:6, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” Ouch! But here again, Zophar considers it a foregone conclusion that Job’s suffering is ordained by God Himself.
And finally Elihu, in Job 34:10 comments, “Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding: far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.”
Even these so-called companions of Job, “worthless physicians” and “miserable comforters” as Job refers to them, they get at least one thing right: the acknowledgment of God’s hand in Job’s suffering. Truly, neither Job nor his friends can deny that God is the author of Job’s story, even in these terribly dark chapters of Job’s life.
3. God Acknowledges God-ordained Suffering
Beginning in Job 38:1, after hearing testimony from his wife and four of his peers, Job now hears directly from his Maker: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
And then for the next four chapters, God proceeds to ask Job a series of rhetorical questions challenging him with inquiries:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) “Who determined its measurements…Or who stretched the line upon it?” (38:5)“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?” (38:12) “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?” (38:31) “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” (39:1) “Is the wild ox willing to serve you?” (39:9) “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (40:9)
Surely these questions are asked of God to Job to make Job realize the power of the Almighty and His sovereign control over all things in heaven and earth—including Job’s miserable suffering!
But what about the age-old question, “How can a good God allow bad things to happen?” First, we must acknowledge that just as Job, Job’s friends, and God Himself testify, God does allow, yea even ordains seemingly bad things to happen.
The Sunday after Islamic jihadists attacked our country on September 11, 2001, toppling New York’s tallest towers and killing nearly 3,000 Americans in one morning, that next Lord’s Day my dad preached a memorable sermon from this text in Amos 3:6—“Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” And similarly, Joel 1:15 reads, “For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” This is our God, and we should never attempt to make excuses for God or pad the truth for our hearers. As Scripture shows us, God ordains not only the good, but the bad also; the joy as well as the grief.
Whatever the reason for Job’s suffering, we know it was God-ordained; and this fact alone should bring us comfort. How does the knowledge of God-ordained suffering bring us, His children, comfort? Because of verses like Psalm 31:3-5, “For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” Here we see David acknowledge truth about God’s unchanging nature and His redemptive, promise-keeping character. Therefore He entrusts his life into God’s hands. Our theology drives our practice.
And of course we must consider Romans 8:28—“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” We need to understand that a right view of God leads us to a right view of our sufferings. In order for us to better understand our suffering, we need to better know the God Who has ordained it for our good.
I’ll close with this: Maybe you’re familiar with the story of Anton, a young boy who was adopted from Russia by a sweet Reformed Baptist family in Texas. Anton was born with a rare and painful condition called Epidermolysis Bullosa, a tissue disease in which the top layer of the skin lacks the protein that holds it to the second layer of skin. This results in extremely fragile skin, and normal, everyday friction causes blister formation and open sores. I can only imagine how painful it must be.
Well, at the end of 2015, after months of treatment and then other complications inside his body, Anton passed away in his hospital bed surrounded by his family. He was not quite 6 years old.
Now, in the finiteness of my intellect, I can’t understand this; it doesn’t compute for me. I can’t find a reason or rationale for why sweet little Anton and a God-fearing family like his should suffer as they have. But here’s what I can compute: Anton’s life and all his suffering was ordained before time began by a God Who is perfectly good, loving, just. Anton’s God is Job’s God, and Job’s God is our God, the Sovereign One Who gives and takes away life, and Whose name is worthy of our endless praise and worship.
So often we don’t know why we suffer. It doesn’t always make much sense to us. But Moses writes in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Sometimes God keeps the reasons for our suffering secret, classified, confidential, only known within the mind of God. But when we suffer—(notice I said, “when,” not “if”)—when we do suffer, even if we don’t know the exact reason why, we can always rest assured that our suffering is not surprising to God; rather, our suffering is sovereignly ordained by He Who can do no wrong.
Remember Job 1:21-22—“And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”
When we suffer—whether physical injury, the pain of loss, or any other type of affliction—may we be able to acknowledge the Lord’s sovereign hand in our difficult state, but do so as Job did, without sinning or charging God with wrongdoing. And when face temptation to “curse God and die,” may we be like Job who did not sin with his lips but acknowledged God and worshipped.
Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness we own because of the covenant love of Your crucified Son. Lord thank you for showing us through the suffering of Job that You are an unchangeable, immoveable, impassible God Who governs the universe and is perfect in all Your ways. This knowledge of You, God, brings us comfort in our suffering. And so we ask for Your continued grace as we suffer through this world. Ever be our rock and sure foundation. Point us to Jesus that we may more closely resemble Him Who suffered death to bring us life. For His sake we ask these things. Amen.