December 12, 2017

With Job in the School of Suffering

Layton Talbert

God’s people can experience different kinds of suffering. First Peter focuses on a class of suffering that, humanly speaking, we do not deserve. We call it persecution — suffering for our faith in and faithfulness to Christ. Lamentations portrays another type of suffering that is deserved. We call it chastisement — suffering the remedial hand of God for our disobedience to Him. However, there is another kind of suffering that isn’t deserved or even understood. It comes as plain old suffering, adversity, sometimes even as calamity or tragedy; we might call it the Job Syndrome. Sooner or later, to one degree or another, every Christian faces circumstances that fit into this category. God has graciously given us a book that not only raises the question of “why bad things happen to good people” but also answers the questions of how we face those situations, what is at stake in our response and just who is responsible for it all.

The story of Job is one of the most popular and well-known in all of literature. Paradoxically, it is probably one of the least read books in Scripture. As we read the opening two or three chapters, we may get bogged down in the lengthy discourses and give up any serious attempt to understand what is really being communicated through the message of the whole book. We must remember that the book of Job is not a static, neatly organized textbook of doctrine. It is a progressive, organic whole — an unfolding drama that reveals the experiences, growth and maturity of the main character, Job. While the story clearly revolves around the idea and experience of suffering, neither the suffering itself nor the reason for the suffering is the key theme of the book. Suffering is only the arena for the testing and communicating of far bigger and broader spiritual truths.

The prologue introduces Job as a godlv man (1:1), a wealthy man (1:3) and a good father concerned for the spiritual welfare of his children (1:4, 5). The threefold repetition of Job’s exemplary character as a blameless and upright man who feared God and shunned evil (1:1; 1:8; 2:3) is crucial if we are to avoid the same mistakes his friends made. Although contrary to the assumptions and accusations of Job’s friends, the writer and God Himself clarify from the outset that Job’s experiences had nothing to do with sin or chastisement.

In a fascinating scene included by the writer through Divine revelation, we are permitted a glimpse behind the earthly stage to the heavenly backstage. We understand from the beginning what Job never discovered — what initiated all of his suffering and what was at stake in his response to that suffering. There is more to Job’s suffering, and to ours, than meets the eye.

Interestingly, it was God who initiated the discussion of Job as a model of the faith and devotion that pleases Him (1:8). To this description Satan scornfully asserted that all of Job’s behavior was purely self-serving: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” God has merely bought off Job’s worship by rewarding him with protection, wealth and benefits of all kinds. Remove all those hedges and fringe benefits, Satan sneeringly challenges God, and Job will curse You to Your face! Such is a challenge that must be answered, not only for our sake but for God’s. This is not a cosmic game between God and Satan at the expense of a poor human pawn caught in the middle. An eternal principle was at stake that reaches to the very root of our existence and to our relationship with God. For if God’s people fear, honor and obey Him only because He blesses and protects them, God’s own character is seriously called into question. Not only did Satan’s accusation cast aspersion upon the genuineness of man’s faith in and devotion to God; it simultaneously incriminated God Himself as a self-seeking favoritist who buys the worship of men in a gross spiritual quid pro quo (something given or received for something else) arrangement between a worship-hungry deity and calculating men interested only in self-aggrandizement.

Job suffers to prove, unwittingly, not only the sincerity of his faith in God but also the purity of God’s character, motives and actions in His relationship with man. This is not to say that when Christians face suffering for no apparent reason, it is the direct result of a similar interchange between God and Satan. However, it is to say that when we or someone we love faces difficulty, trial, loss, bereavement, calamity, tragedy, pain or suffering of any kind — as well as the misunderstanding and rejection such experiences can bring from family, friends or brethren — we experience a fresh opportunity to stand in the company of Job and affirm that our faith in, our worship of, and our devotion to God is rooted in soil far deeper than personal advantage or material blessing. It is an opportunity to demonstrate to those around us, to God, and to all spiritual intelligences (Eph. 3:10) that the roots of our faith run deep, gripping the bedrock of the person and character of God in an unshakable confidence in His Word, in His justice, in His sovereignty and, yes, in His love: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). No amount of suffering can nullify John 3:16, Romans 5:8, or any other declaration of God’s supreme love for us. Suffering neither creates nor indicates a rift between us and God’s love. Rather, through all such sufferings we can be more than conquerors through Him who loves us” (Rom. 8:35-39).

Satan proclaimed that Job would “curse” God in response to his suffering. In a beautiful touch of irony, Job really did “curse” God (the Hebrew word for “curse” is barach), but not quite the way Satan had hoped. Job declared that God had given him all he had and that God had the perfect sovereign right to take any or all of it away. Job concluded, “Blessed [Hebrew barach] be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Job used the same word Satan predicted he would, but he used it in the opposite sense. It is a curious fact that the same Hebrew word can mean either “to curse” or “to bless,” depending on the context.

Chapter 2 records the next level of suffering Job encountered for his faith and for God’s reputation. It is amazing that God would again raise the issue of Job to Satan. Yet it invites the realization that every trial we face is, in fact, a vote of confidence from God by which He declares His trust in our ability — by His grace — to come through it triumphantly. He has already promised that nothing we ever encounter, either in terms of temptation or testing, will be more than we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). This truth automatically eliminates the excuse that “the temptation was just too strong for me” or that “the testing was just too severe for me to handle”; such excuses make God a liar.

Another critical truth revealed by this narrative is that even though God delivered Job into Satan’s power, with specific limitations (Job 1:12; 2:6), God Himself expressly claimed ultimate and absolute responsibility for everything that happened to Job (Job 2:3). God is not merely omniscient; He is completely sovereign, controlling every circumstance we face.

Job faced his last phase of testing triumphantly, despite his wife’s satanic encouragement to “curse God and die.” One commentator wryly remarked, “Job has lost his children but this wife he has retained, for he needed not to be tried by losing her; he was sufficiently tested by having her.” By the close of chapter 2, Job is battered but triumphant, with Satan gone and never to return, yet the book is just beginning! While we can glean much more from the rest of the story, we must appreciate at least one outstanding fact. Throughout his discourses Job’s agony over his circumstances and experiences can be summed up in the perpetual question, “Why?” “Why has all this happened to me? Why must I suffer all this? Why is God doing this to me?” Job asked. “Why?” explicitly surfaces at least twenty times and is implied many more times. It is not only interesting and instructive but crucial to our understanding of the book — and to our personal mastery of suffering — to observe that God never offered any explanation or answer to that question. Instead, He responded with an interrogation of His own (chapters 38-41) aimed at putting things back into proper perspective. We must be satisfied, as Job was, when there is no answer to the question “why?”; we must learn to be satisfied, as Job was, with God’s wise, just and benevolent sovereignty over every aspect of His creation — including us. Someone has observed that although the story of Job focuses attention on the arena of suffering, “the book does not set out to answer the problem of suffering but to proclaim a God so great no answer is needed.”

The story of Job is the stuff from which martyrdom is made. How little most of us endure! How easily we are confused and discouraged and turned aside from our devotion to God because of a little adversity. No one wants to suffer. No one enjoys it. It is somewhat “heroic” to suffer persecution inflicted by the ungodly because of our faith. It is not too difficult to cope with what we know is chastisement from God when we have sinned. However, when it is just plain suffering that we neither deserve nor understand — suffering inflicted or allowed by God for no apparent reason — that is the Job Syndrome. The real issue when we suffer is not why we are suffering, but who is in control of it, how we should respond to it and what is at stake in our reaction to it. Job was a living martyr, suffering unwittingly for the integrity of his faith in God and the integrity of God’s relationship with man. We can be such an example — only if we are willing to learn from Job how to suffer well.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor. He is also the author of Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 1994. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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