Job and the Question of Suffering

The_Lord_Answering_Job_Out_of_the_Whirlwind_Butts_set_dsThe book of Job is not a theodicy, it does not offer an explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The book does not justify God and in Ch. 38-41 God does not offer a defense or explanation for the justice of the world he has created. From Walton’s commentary (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)):

So, at long last, what answers does the book provide as it seeks to guide our understanding of God’s policies in a world where suffering and evil may plague the righteous as well as the wicked? Yahweh does not defend his justice; he does not explain Job’s suffering; and he does not enter into the courtroom into which Job has summoned him. We should not expect him to perform any of these actions in our personal circumstances either, even though these often represent our deepest longings. (pp. 414-415)

But God does come to Job. He does provide an answer of sorts and the answer isn’t a rebuke of the question or a majestic pronouncement that God is God and Job isn’t. (Although some, including Longman, have interpreted ch. 38-41 in this way.) Walton notes that Yahweh does meet Job in his lament over the day of his birth. There is an important element of connection and instruction in these speeches. The message however, is that Job must trust God’s wisdom.

Job and the question of suffering. Walton takes his discussion a bit further and considers what the book of Job can tell us about suffering as we face it in our lives today. He offers six propositions (pp. 420-422). The following includes both quotes and paraphrases from his section (mostly quotes) – with a little of my own commentary in parentheses.

1. Suffering is one of the contingencies in the creation process. God created people with a nervous system. The pain we experience warns us of harm or potential harm. God created us with emotions, which makes us subject to being hurt by others.

2. Suffering is not intrinsically connected to sin. (The book of Job has rejected this connection quite soundly.) We may “reap what we sow” … but not everything a person “reaps” is something that they have “sown.”

3. Suffering is the lot of all humanity. No one should think oneself immune. This is not fatalism, it is realism and good theology insofar as it coincides with the larger composite picture offered throughout Scripture.

4. Suffering should be faced with trust in God’s wisdom. This is difficult to achieve, particularly when certain cases of suffering make so little sense to us. Nevertheless, it is the only counsel Scripture offers. … In his wisdom God has created the world this way, and not another way, and he therefore has chosen to operate in this kind of world. Accepting this tension is integral to the kind of trust that God calls us to exercise. On this topic John Polkinghorne suggests that terminology like “allow” should not be used in a way that suggests blame: “The suffering and evil of the world are not due to weakness, oversight, or callousness on God’s part, but rather they are the inescapable cost of a creation allowed to be other than God.” (This quote comes from Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity – an excellent little book. Cancer and earthquakes are not a consequence of human sin, original or otherwise. They are a part of God’s creation in progress. We don’t know why he did it this way, but he did. New creation will be somehow very different – not a return to the garden, but the arrival of God’s always intended consummation.)

5. Suffering should be viewed as an opportunity to deepen our faith and spiritual maturity as we look forward to understand God’s purposes, rather than backwards in an attempt to discern reasons. Suffering shapes us – of this there is no doubt. What varies is whether it breaks us. (We shouldn’t look for silver linings … sometimes they may come, but often not. But still we are to go on, trusting God’s wisdom.)

6. Suffering for the gospel gives us the opportunity to participate in Christ’s sufferings. (Most suffering does not fall in this category, but some does. Even in the OT the prophets suffered for doing what is right. In the NT many of the closest followers of Jesus suffered for his name’s sake. People suffer today in many parts of the world.)

Walton sums this section up:

We should further note that when God, in his wisdom decided to use a long process to bring order to the cosmos and to humanity and thereby chose to have a world with continuing order and resultant suffering, he also chose the world in which Jesus would have to suffer and die. His wisdom might seem foolishness to some (1 Cor. 1:18-21), but it includes suffering in a disordered world moving toward order. (p. 422)

Another version of William Blake's poem.

Another version of William Blake’s poem.

The one who made the tyger from William Blake’s poem also sent the lamb, and this was not some “Plan B” for a creation gone awry. There was a progress in creation from Genesis 1 on, and the snake was in the garden before Adam and Eve ate the fruit.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Walton’s section on contemporary significance.

How Should We Think About the World.

The Book of Job has indicated our need to realize that the world is not set up to operate in accordance with God’s attribute of justice (or any other constant principle). This realization, however, does not mean that we should cease to pursue justice. When God created human beings in his image he gave them the charge to “subdue and rule.” One of the ways in which we do so is by seeking to establish justice and thus bring increased order to the world.

Disorder is not to be thought of as “Chaos” – that is, a personified horror (whether as a flawed conception of God or an anti-God devil). Chaos simply represents an unfinished creation. It is unfinished by plan, not by negligence or incompetence. Humanity is a work in progress; each of us individually is a work in progress; and the cosmos is likewise a work in progress. Suffering is the by-product of our in-progress state, and new creation is the denouement of God’s ongoing creative activity. (p. 425)

There is a constant principle. I disagree slightly with Walton. While the world is not set to operate according to justice, I think that, perhaps, the world is set up to operate by a constant principle – the principle of love, God’s Love. I could quote scripture here from the Old Testament, the synoptic gospels, John 3:16, Acts, the letters of Paul, 1 John, but this isn’t really the place. Love means real relationship and this relationship means creation as a work in progress. In some way we don’t understand (and may never understand) this progress includes the capacity for human failure, from the very beginning, and because we are all human we all fail, and it includes chaotic elements in nature … meteors, mutations, hurricanes, earthquakes and such. Some suffering is a by-product of the cosmos, some is a direct result of human failure or sin. Some suffering is alleviated as we learn more about God’s creation and apply that knowledge (medicine, nutrition, sanitation, agriculture, building codes all provide examples here).

The relationship between God and his creation defines the sweep of scripture. He came to Adam, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Israel …. And in the book of Job he comes to Job, an important event for the message of the book. The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate example of this relationship. And he continues to meet us where we are.

I won’t pretend that this answers all the questions – but it should provide a useful place to start a conversation.

What do you think of Walton’s discussion?

Can the book of Job teach us something important about facing suffering in this world?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Job and the Question of Suffering at Jesus Creed.

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