The God Who Brings Suffering

[Please note: Once again, these are words written to myself. They are not meant to be paradigmatic. They are simply an errant exploration of one man, and a sinner.]

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. (Job 1:1-5)

So begins the Book of Job. A life of faith, of love and care for his family. An intercessor.

In one verse the scene changes and an horrific and bizarre bartering for a soul takes place:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. (Job 1:6)

Through successive pleadings, the Accuser gains access to Job’s life, to desolate it, to prove that Job’s faith is weak, and to incite Job himself to curse God. So one by one, all that Job has is taken from him. Sabaens take his oxen and donkeys and slaughter the servants. The fire of God falls from heaven and consumes the sheep and the servants. Chaldeans take away his camels and strike down the servants. And a great wind collapses the house where his children are feasting, killing them all. One after another, each on the other’s heels, messengers bring the news of desolation.

One can imagine the painful peeling off of the layers of Job’s soul, the internal flaying of heart, that these events wrought. One by one, in succession, the blows hit, pummeling not just his emotions but his faith. Can he continue to believe in a God who permits, indeed, as Job will say, who brings such sorrows? All his experience of this God is brought to a single point of wrenching interrogation. He is split between faith and the massive “evidence” supporting whatever doubts he has.

At this point the invocation of a theodicy is begged. It is here that calls are made for a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.

And it is here that such a defense is given.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. (Job 1:20)

I cannot but find this remarkable. Whether or not it is within me to refrain from cursing God, I cannot find in me this response of adoration. I know that all I can do is stand before the icons in mute, tearful incomprehension. If I fall to my knees it is not to worship but to plead, to beg for this God to stop, crying out for an end.

But Job, and we the readers, are not at an end. We are given no respite. For now Satan is allowed to attack Job directly.

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes. (Job 2:7-8)

So great is his physical change, the text says that even his three friends

when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:12-13)

The stunned silence of a week is what meets these terrible torments. One can imagine shock, the mind seeking for explanation, hope, consolation–only to be met with more divine silence. A divine silence that will last three dozen chapters more.

This week-long human silence among Job’s friends, however, ends with an exercise in theodicy. Caveat lector.

Theodicy is the malformed mode of speech that strives to justify God to men. The Book of Job does not serve that purpose well. Job loses his wealth and children, and worships the Lord. Job loses his health to bitter physical suffering, and rebukes his wife for exhorting him to end his suffering by cursing God. These are not the acts for which theodicy finds comfort or rationality.

Nor does it help that twice, prior to losing his wealth and his children, and prior to losing his health, it is God who calls Job to Satan’s attention.

And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” . . . And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (Job 1:8; 2:3)

No, it does not appear that there is anything theodicy can do for anyone here. The God of Job has given himself away, and there is no covering over the reality. God permits suffering. It can be no plainer.

Don’t mistake. There are ways to address the theodicy problem, not the least of which is to amplify and criticize its dependence upon a notion of God that presupposes absolute divine simplicity. That is to say, to call into question its notion of divinity that necessarily denies substantive personhood to God. One must merely get theodicy to justify itself to itself, which it cannot do.

But there is another way. It is not the way of justification, for God needs no such thing. Nor, frankly, do men. Rather, Job’s account can be remedied by one thing and one thing only.

And the LORD said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Then Job answered the LORD and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? (Job 40:1-8)

God condescended to answer Job. But note most carefully what answer it is that God gives. Job wants to know the why of his suffering. God answers with real and rhetorical displays of his wisdom, glory and majesty.

At last, Job can offer only one reply.

Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

Job’s trials begin and end in worship. What Job needs most is not understanding, but presence.

In other words, God meets all suffering, all cries for deliverance with nothing less than himself. Our Lord did not cry from that witness tree “Why do I suffer so?” No, his was a different cry. “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” In that desolate cry is captured the infinity of the Son joined ineffably to us in full humanity. And all our similar cries are enveloped and intertwined in that great cry from the Cross. Our heartaches are drops in the infinite ocean of our Savior’s suffering. He knows precisely our agony, having taken it on and into himself. And like our Lord himself, we long for the only medicine that will salve our soul. The answer to our suffering is the presence of God.

But let us not forget that for nearly two-score chapters, Job is given no presence. He cries out, he questions, he defends himself from human theologians, and all that greets him is the divine silence.

Such silence is indescribably painful. The wounds, physical and spiritual, bleed and weep. And there is no balm, no healing. The soul aches and throbs–if even only God just said a word, something. Even the condemnation of our sins. At least then we would know he is aware of us. But the divine silence draws faith to its farthest edges, beyond which is nothing we can know or grasp, only darkness and void.

Nothing brings comfort in this silence. Not all the prayers or icons or incense. Church hymns ring only to ears deafened by one’s own cries. Eyes blinded by tears cannot see, and despondency steals away one’s hunger and desire. The torment is unendurable, until the Lord speak.

For Job, though, the Lord did speak. And so when hope is lost, we yet hope still that the Lord will speak to us. I had prayed earlier in the day to the Lord: “Father, give me a word.” And the Lord did give a word yesterday, in his man and priest. And most bitter it was. I cannot tell you what a horrid taste that word left in me. But it was true. And its bitterness is my medicine. This I must believe even if I don’t believe it. I am the father of the demon-possessed boy crying out for more faith.

And the word of the Lord restored Job. It is true that Job’s life was blessed even more after the Lord restored him.

And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He had also seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch. And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days.(Job 42:10-17)

But let us note one thing from the text: “And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.” The marks of suffering were doubtless still upon Job as his body bore the scars of his boils. And the memory of his dead children doubtless brought tears to his father’s eyes all the rest of the days of his long life, even as he enjoyed the lives of his other children given him by the Lord. No separation, however temporary in the divine providence, is without grief. When God unites two hearts and lives in the one flesh of children, that union cannot be severed, even in a single instance, even for a time, without pain.

And yet, is it possible to conceive that Job yet comforted himself with the thought of a God who hears our intercessions for our loved ones? And is it possible to conceive that Job yet comforted himself with his own words?

If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands. For then you would number my steps; you would not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and you would cover over my iniquity. (Job 14:14-17)

For 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. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25-27)

And the Masoretic text of the final verses of Job, cited above, seems to end too soon, for the Septuagint adds, in part:

and it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.

There is too much here, and I am only who I am. May the Lord sift out the false from the true. And may those who read these words pray for me a sinner.

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