The following is a chapter from my book To the End of the Age. There are three “guiding passages” from the Bible, followed by a discussion about how the theme of “suffering and comfort” relates to them.
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.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’”
2 Corinthians 6:2b-10
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise.
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.
But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”
I like the book of Job and tend to refer to it quite a bit, because what is in Job is instructive for us as we live out our lives in this fallen, sinful world, surrounded by decay, pain, suffering, and death. We see in Job what we see and experience in our own lives.
Now, Job is a good man. He worships the Lord and has faith. However, he undergoes immense suffering. First, he is tormented by the death of his children which pains him greatly and causes him enormous sorrow. And yet, even in the midst of this sorrow he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed by the name of the Lord.” What great faith that Job has in the Lord. Even when things are horrible, he still trusts in the Lord; blessed be the name of the Lord.
After losing his children, Job is then plagued by sores and bad health, and in his suffering his wife comes to him and says, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” She thinks that since Job is suffering so greatly obviously God has deserted him. However, Job replies to her, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” Job is still trusting in the Lord, despite all that he is suffering.
Then, his three friends come to visit him. They are named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. The text says that they came to show Job sympathy and comfort him. They sat in silence with him for seven days without saying anything, because they saw that he was suffering greatly. Then, finally, Job spoke and cursed the day of his birth. The suffering finally got to him. His family was gone, he was suffering ill health, and nothing seemed to be going right. He wished that he had never been born. Haven’t we all had days like this as well? Haven’t we often looked for answers for our sorrows too?
In response to Job’s cries, his friend Eliphaz is the first to offer his opinion to Job to try to comfort him. He explains to Job that God punishes those who do evil and saves those who do good. He tells Job that although bad things are happening to him, good will come from it if he only grasps hold of the Lord.
Then, Bildad offers his opinion. His argument is similar to Eliphaz’s; he says that if Job will seek God to plead with Him for mercy and if he is pure and upright, then God will make everything better and all will turn out for the best.
Then, Zophar gives his advice. His is similar to the advice of the other two friends. He says that God punishes evil and that Job must have done something bad to be punished by God. He needs to figure out what he did wrong and make it right.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had come to Job to offer him sympathy and comfort. But, what they say to him as he mourns the loss of his children, endures the scorn of his wife, and suffers with sores from head to toe is anything but comforting. His friends are telling him variations of things like: God is punishing you for some sin you’ve committed, but things will get better and everything will turn out for the best. Is this a comfort for Job? Would it be a comfort for us?
I don’t think so. In fact, Job isn’t comforted by his friends. He says, “… how can a man be in the right before God? … Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” He recognizes that none of us have a claim to God’s favor. We always rely on His grace.
Then, Job brings his complaint directly to God, saying to Him, “Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the designs of the wicked?” Job wants to know why God is allowing this to happen. Job wants to know why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. Why is he suffering? Does God not care that he is perishing? Aren’t these questions that we also have at times?
In response, another man named Elihu, who had been listening the whole time to the debate among Job and his friends, offers his opinion. The text says that Elihu burned with anger at Job, because Job justified himself rather than God, and that he also burned with anger at Job’s three friends, “because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.” So, Elihu wants to justify God and find an answer, a reason that is, for Job’s suffering. He is younger than the other men, but claims to have wisdom from the Spirit of God and therefore to be speaking for God.
So, Elihu wants to justify God’s actions. He says, “… far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong. For according to the work of a man he will replay him, and according to his ways he will make it befall him” (Job 34:10-11). Basically, he is saying that Job must have done something wrong to merit the sufferings he is undergoing. He also argues that God sends trials upon a person to strengthen that person and bring him back to the Lord. So, Elihu claims to be speaking on God’s behalf and wants to justify God’s actions so that God appears in the right (Job 36:2).
Now, I don’t really find Elihu’s argument any more comforting than the arguments of Job’s three friends. Elihu is still basically telling Job that either he did something wrong for which God is punishing him, or that God is strengthening him through these trials. We hear people say similar things in our own day. When something bad happens to a person, otherwise well-meaning people try to offer a reason for why that happened. They mean well, just like Job’s friends and Elihu mean well. They say things like, “Well, it happened for a reason” or “God will bring good from this” or “You’re better off anyway” or “It happens to everyone” or “God only gives you what He knows you can handle” or even sometimes “You must have done something wrong.”
These are the types of things that Job’s friends and Elihu tell him. In the first 37 chapters of the book of Job they try to explain to Job why he is undergoing suffering. And in all of these chapters with all of their great many words all of their answers fall short. Not one of them is helpful and comforting and sympathetic to Job. They have failed in their desire to offer Job sympathy and comfort. However, most importantly, not one of them thought to lodge a complaint directly with God, except for Job himself. The others talked “about” God, but Job talked “to” God, bringing his complaint before the Lord.
So, then, in chapter 38 the Lord finally speaks. Right after Elihu, who claimed to be speaking for the Lord, finishes speaking the Lord Himself says, “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.” God basically says, “If these people are so smart, then surely they must have been there when God created all things. They must know everything!”
But, they don’t. In all of their words that they gave to Job, and in all of Elihu’s words where he claimed to be speaking on behalf of God, not one of those words came from God Himself. They were speaking things that the Lord Himself had not revealed to them. They spoke where God had not spoken.
That’s the problem, really, with all of these explanations. Not one of them comes from God. God doesn’t really tell Job and his friends why Job is suffering. There is no real explanation; Job’s friends are just speculating at the reason. And God doesn’t tell us why we suffer in this life. There is no real explanation given to us. When we try to explain why, beyond stating that we live in a fallen world with sin and death, then we speak where God has not spoken; we are just speculating. We get caught in the trap of trying to explain what we see in terms of God’s hidden will.
There are some things we know about God and some things we don’t know. Everything we know is what He Himself reveals to us. Everything else is hidden from us, and we – in our fallen, fallible, human reasoning – can not discover what God chooses to keep hidden. So, we can not explain what God has not told us. We don’t have a real answer to why we suffer.
But, the fact that there is no explanation for why we suffer in life isn’t a very satisfying answer, is it? We want to know why. We offer up our own opinions as to why, and other people offer their opinions too. However, these opinions come from words without knowledge. They come from fallen human reasoning. They may even come from a pious yearning to justify God; the desire to justify God’s actions so that He appears in a positive light.
This act of speaking where God has not spoken leads to some perverse logic. When the September 11th attacks on America occurred, people tried to explain it in terms of God’s will. Perhaps God was punishing the United States? Perhaps God couldn’t stop it? Perhaps God didn’t know about it? When something tragic happens people want to try to explain it. But when we do, our answers fall short.
There are three fundamental things that we believe about God. We believe that He is all powerful; we believe that He is all knowing; and we believe that He is good. How, then, do we explain the presence of evil in the world? How do we explain why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to evil people?
When we try to answer these questions, what we’re essentially doing is trying to justify God. The theological term for this is “theodicy;” that just means trying to make excuses for God. We’re trying to say how He is all powerful, how He is all knowing, and how He is good, even when things in the world don’t seem to show this. We want to answer for God’s actions so that He doesn’t appear in a bad light.
However, God needs no justification. He created the world; He is Lord over creation. We make a distinction between what God reveals to us and what He keeps hidden. This is the distinction between His “revealed will” and His “hidden will.” What is hidden is why there is still evil and suffering in this world and why good people suffer. Why did September 11th happen? Why did Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Why did the Tsunami hit Indonesia? Why do children die? Why are there predators, abusers, and murderers in the world? The answer that does not satisfy us is that we ultimately don’t know. God doesn’t tell us why, so we are not to speak for Him where He has not spoken.
This causes us to recoil and cry out to Him in pain and anguish and even anger, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples did this in the Gospel text from Mark. They’re in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, which is a very large lake that gets hit by sudden storms. So, they’re on this boat when a storm comes. The waves were breaking into the boat, and it was filling with water. And there’s Jesus. And what is he doing? He’s sleeping. He seems not to care. Doesn’t God care? Isn’t He awake? The boat is going to sink, and he isn’t even going to do anything about it.
Thus, the disciples wake Jesus up and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” So, Jesus woke up “… and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” Then, Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And the disciples “… were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’”
The cry of the disciples is the same as the cry of Job. Doesn’t God care? In the answer that God gives Job, God says that it is He who says to the sea, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?” And in Mark’s Gospel we see exactly this. Jesus stays the waves and rebukes the wind and brings everything back under control. Even the wind and sea obey him, because he is Lord over creation. He is the incarnate Word of God through whom the Father spoke all things into existence. He is the strong Word made flesh.
Jesus Christ is the one through whom God is restoring creation. We live in a fallen world, a world with sin and death and evil. But, this is not how God created the world. He created it good and perfect, but humanity fell into sin and brought death and evil into God’s creation.
Thus, we’re living in this post-fall world, experiencing the effects of the fall, living in the midst of trials and tribulations. So, we cry out to God, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Where was God on September 11th? Where was God during Hurricane Katrina? Where was God during the great tsunami? Where was God in all the pain and anguish in the world? Where is God in my own life as I’m suffering?
The fact is that God is on the cross, dying for us, suffering with us; our Redeemer came down to us. We meet the revealed God under the shadow of the cross as God in the flesh dies on it for us. We don’t have the answers to why bad things happen to good people, we don’t have answers for why God allows evil to persist in this world, but what we do know is the same thing that Job knew, because God reveals it to us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).
We know God’s grace and mercy and love through Jesus Christ. We grasp hold of this comfort as we endure trials and sufferings in this life and face pain for which we don’t have the answers. We look to the cross of Christ, because this Jesus Christ even the wind and sea obey. He is coming again to restore all creation. The God who created all things is returning to restore all things through His strong Word.
So, we walk by faith and not by sight. We see evil, we see pain, we see suffering. But, what we trust in is what we don’t see. We trust that the Lord who created all things has not abandoned us. We trust that He does care that we are perishing. And we trust that He will not abandon us to the grave, but will return for us. This Lord over creation, the Word whom even the wind and sea obey, will return to restore His creation.
When Christ our Lord returns there will no longer be pain and suffering and evil. He will cast these out, even as he rebukes the wind and sea; all things will be restored. We will see our Redeemer face to face on that day, as he returns for us.
In this life we don’t have all the answers. When something bad happens to us or to someone else, we ultimately don’t have the answer for why it happened. The most we can say is, “That’s horrible, I’m sorry.” But, there’s one more thing we can say and know; we know that our Redeemer lives. He who died and rose again is returning for us. So, our hopes are focused out on the horizon as we look for Christ’s return. The Lord does care that we are perishing, that is why He is returning to make all things right and to fix His creation so that we may live in peace with Him and each other forever. Amen.
(Image: Carved wooden figure of Job. Probably from Germany, 1750-1850 CE. The Wellcome Collection, London. By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACarved_wooden_figure_of_Job._Probably_from_Germany%2C_1750-1850_CE._The_Wellcome_Collection%2C_London.jpg)