A Theology of Suffering (RJS)

How to Read Job (2)What does the book of Job teach us about suffering?

In the face of suffering many Christians turn, almost instinctively, to the book of Job. Surely there must be an answer here! The book explains suffering. But this isn’t exactly true. First, Job is not a book to give anyone in the midst of personal suffering. It is a book we should study as a church and as Christians to be prepared for suffering when it comes, and it surely will in one form or another. In the final chapters of How to Read Job, Part Three: The Theological Message of Job, John Walton and Tremper Longman III dig into the question of suffering and the nature of God.

Suffering covers a broad range of experience from injuries and chronic pain to illness, birth defects, and natural disasters. It also includes the emotional pain of broken relationships, death and distance. We, along with many of our friends, are at a stage of life where care for aging parents is a concern.  Systemic suffering from poverty to human trafficking and miscarriages of justice contribute to the problem. According to Walton and Longman “a theology of suffering explores how we think about God in connection to suffering. Such a theology would include the larger questions: Why has God created a world in which suffering can exist, and why does he allow it to continue? But it can also include the deeply personal questions: Why is this happening to me? Is God trying to teach me something? What did I do wrong?”  (p. 132-133) What does the book of Job have to say about these questions?

507px-Job_Confessing_His_Presumption_to_God_Who_Answers_from_the_Whirlwind,_object_1_(Butlin_461)Job has no direct answers to these questions, but it does help us learn to think about God in a world where suffering is a reality. Walton and Longman highlight several points.

  1. Suffering is the lot of all humanity. No one escapes – except perhaps by stillbirth (one of Job’s wishes in the book).
  2. Suffering is a contingency of the creation in process.

While we cannot imagine what a fully ordered world will be like, we can recognize that both non-order and disorder are responsible for suffering at one level or another. God’s design was to create us with nervous systems that warn us of potential harm through what we perceive as pain. Furthermore, God created us with emotions through which we can experience hurt feelings. If we are capable of love, we are vulnerable to pain.(p. 134)

As Christians we believe in the resurrection – but it will be unlike the reality we experience today. It will be fully ordered with no disorder or non-order.

  1. Suffering is not intrinsically connected to sin. Suffering can be the result of sin – and personal suffering the result of personal sin, but often there is no direct connection. God can use suffering as a punishment, or permit suffering as a context for growth, but all suffering, perhaps most suffering, doesn’t fit into this category. The retribution principle doesn’t hold up.
  2. Suffering should drive us into arms of God’s love. “Trusting in God’s wisdom is the strongest counsel the Bible has to offer; it must suffice.” (p. 136) The presence of suffering is not a reason to blame God for creating the world he did. Walton and Longman quote John Polkinghorne: “”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.” Our overly simplistic reactions need to be replaced with an impulse to trust our Creator.” (p. 137)
  3. Suffering provides an opportunity to deepen our faith. This isn’t because there is some silver lining if only we knew where to look. Often there is no silver lining, only pain and even death. But in the darkest depths we can still learn to trust.
  4. Suffering sometimes involves participating in Christ’s suffering. Persecution for the faith falls into this class. Even in other suffering we can find connection. We don’t worship a distant uncaring God. In Christ God took on himself physical pain, the anguish of betrayal, and the pain of rejection.

The book of Job is not a theodicy – it does not attempt “to provide a holistic explanation of why the world works the way it does and, in the process, vindicate God with regard to his role in it.”  It does offer a number of voices that explore the nature of God and his relationship to the world. Throughout the dialogues and discourses that comprise the majority of the book of Job none of the characters convey an accurate picture of God. All of them, Job, Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu view the retribution principle as the driving force of God’s policies in the world. Because of this Job’s friends feel that he must have sinned to deserve the massive downturn in fortunes.  Job’s view of God is little better. He knows that he hasn’t done anything to deserve the suffering he experiences. He doesn’t curse God and die, but, because he too believes that the retribution principle governs the world, he does accuse God of behaving badly.  There is the suggestion that God is petty, that minor unknown offenses can have major consequences. He accuses God of behaving unjustly. He wants to hold God to account, to mount a defense before him.  Job admits his ignorance after God’s speeches:

I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more. (40:4-5)

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. …  My ears had heard of you  but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (42:3, 5-6)

Job repents, John Walton suggests (e.g. here start at 26 minutes), not of any wrong doing to deserve the misfortune he has suffered, but of thinking and speaking wrongly of God. He repents (changes his mind) and puts aside the dust and ashes of mourning. He now trusts in God’s wisdom rather than in the retribution principle.

In the next post on this book we will turn to Part Four: Reading Job as a Christian.

How does the book of Job help us when we suffer.

How should we think about God in the midst of suffering?

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