Job and the Question of Suffering (RJS)

Job and the Question of Suffering (RJS) October 3, 2013

The 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.

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?

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  • I teach undergrad and I’ve been taking my “Hebrew Poetry and Wisdom LIterature” class through the Book of Job and their final assignment was to write “A Theology of Suffering” by following the Book of Job as conversation partner. This article (and Walton’s work) summarizes nicely the aim I had set for my students (so it has been passed along to them as well). Thanks for sharing your insight. I fully agree that the love of God drives the direction of all time and space, beyond any sense of “justice” being a “rule” that is applied without concern. This is firmly rooted in the revelation of God as trinity…in the Incarnation.

  • labreuer

    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. …)

    The parenthesized statement seems like a red flag to me. Christ suffered exclusively for other people’s sins and calls us to follow him, replete with denying ourselves and taking up our crosses daily. John speaks as if we can truly overcome the evil one (1 John 2:12-14) and Peter speaks as if we can “escape from corruption” (2 Pe 1:4). In 1 Pe 3:8-18, he talks about our suffering according to the pattern Jesus set. This can also be seen in Paul: Rom 8:17, 2 Cor 4:7-18, and Col 1:24.

    Suffering more for my own sins would seem to indicate that I have not overcome the evil one, and am thus more of a child than a young man, spiritually (1 John 2:12-14). Am I in error in thinking this?

  • RJS4DQ


    I am not quite sure what you are getting at in this comment. When I think about suffering for the gospel, I think of suffering real persecution for the gospel. Paul, for example, was flogged, stoned, and eventually executed.

    I had a post about a year ago on persecution in the Chinese church during the cultural revolution (Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me). This post gives some idea of the kind of thing I was thinking about and the way it has played out in more recent times.

  • labreuer

    I suppose it depends on what you think ‘the gospel’ is. Is it a gospel of preparation—your sins are forgiven and now you can become pure while waiting for heaven, telling others to do the same—or does it also include the news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and we are called to join with God (1 Cor 3:9) to make it a reality? The kingdom of heaven exists wherever the King rules, and it is a place where “you may have life, and life abundantly”.

    There are many places in America itself where people cannot have “life abundantly”. I guarantee you that suffering is in store for anyone who wishes to bless such places by encouraging true life. Chasing God is an example, where a pastor suffers much in order to establish a ministry in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

    I find it helpful to consider that when Jesus’ mission on earth is described succinctly, it is often described in this way:

    The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

    As is the case in flesh-and-blood battles, it is the case in spiritual battles: every successful incursion into enemy territory (the ruler of this world is Satan) is met with resistance and counterattacks. This is the suffering Jesus encountered, and we will encounter it likewise, whenever we make incursions. There’s no need to travel to a country hostile to Christianity to experience resistance and counterattacks.

  • Marshall

    Don’t know if this is what was meant, but the thought that jumps into my mind when I read the comment: Jesus, sinless himself, suffered for other people’s sins, in the atonement sense and also because the Temple leaders were fearful instead of faithful. Sometimes I suffer for my own sins … I eat badly, my body decays; I am angry at my neighbors, I become lonely; etc … but since those sins are forgiven, the suffering is contained. At other times I suffer “for the gospel”, for the good news, by taking on some of the evil in the world, thereby taking it out of the world. As, I deprive myself to feed the hungry, who is hungry not necessarily because of their personal sin but because of the sins of the world. Weighing the former vs. the latter, as I become increasingly spiritually mature, truly believing my sins are forgiven, the former becomes less important to me and the latter expands and comes to rank high among the important things in my life. Eh?

  • labreuer

    You took the words right out of my mouth, especially with:

    At other times I suffer “for the gospel”, for the good news, by taking on some of the evil in the world, thereby taking it out of the world.

  • Susan_G1

    Job is not a theodicy, but it does teach us something about God. It is attractive (to me) to veer away from theodicy to a theology of suffering. I can agree with everything stated in the latter. And I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the post in this regard (and the book recommendation.) If I were restricted to what is in the post, I would have to agree with it all. But outside the confines of the post, theodicy is possibly the main reason people do not choose God. It is one of the oldest questions there is. And it is raised by the Book of Job (And Job said, “Let the day perish on which I was to be born, And the night which said, ‘A boy is conceived.’ May that day be darkness; Let not God above care for it, Nor light shine on it…” Job 3) And Ecclesiastes. Jesus Himself says of Judas, “It would have been better for him if he had not been born.”

    God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Given these three characteristics, (and I realize that the very question may be offensive to some) does the existence of the universe and all that is in it outweigh the suffering of those past, present, and for eternity to come, if one believes in hell? If God is truly loving, why create anyone who will suffer in hell, a suffering that puts Job’s suffering to shame? These are foundational questions.

    There is a misinterpretation of Job that his suffering is relieved when God blesses him at the end. Job’s answer is trust and acceptance of suffering. However, the wisest man in the world said, “So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” (Eccl. 4)

    I have taken care of many elderly people, and there is a reason the young want to live forever but the elderly are ready to go. I would love to see a theodicy of Job.

  • Susan_G1

    I think the suffering of Christians for the gospel in the United States is very, very small compared to the persecution in other countries. We are not persecuted in the US. I can’t understand this recent mindset.

  • labreuer

    You misunderstand me; I say that Christians in the US should be suffering to advance the kingdom of heaven, not that they are.

  • labreuer

    Something just struck me. Would anyone, upon encountering Jesus in the midst of his miracle-working, use the problem of evil as a reason to reject him?

  • Susan_G1

    They chose reasons much more mundane to reject him.

  • labreuer

    That’s actually not my point. Jesus came to solve the problem of evil—or at least start the job and leave the rest for us to do. Somehow we didn’t seem to get that message.

  • Meteodan


    Reading Blake’s poem in your post reminded me of the Jethro Tull song “Bungle in the Jungle”, specifically the last verse:

    “The rivers are full of crocodile nasties
    and He who made kittens put snakes in the grass.
    He’s a lover of life but a player of pawns —
    yes, the King on His sunset lies waiting for dawn
    to light up His Jungle
    as play is resumed.
    The monkeys seem willing to strike up the tune.”

    I’ve always liked this verse, because not only does it echo Blake’s poem, but also the book of Job, when God is regaling Job with descriptions of his fearsome and peaceful creatures alike. For me, it evokes feelings of trust in God: yes, indeed, God is also the God of the “crocodile nasties”, and there is a grand and ultimately loving plan for it all, including the suffering that comes with it, even if we can’t see it right now. This is not to make light of suffering or even to argue that there is a particular “reason” for every piece of suffering that humans experience, but only to acknowledge that it will all work out in the end, somehow. Like Melkor’s disharmony in the creation song in the Silmarillion, God weaves even evil and suffering into his unfolding masterpiece.