When we’re trying to comfort or advise someone who is suffering, we want to be truthful but also careful and loving, so how do we balance both?
There’s a good man. He fell in love and married young; he and his wife went through some rough times, but they overcome together. They have years of faithful, worthy marriage under their belts.
They have a big family, super fun kids. The oldest ones have gone off to prestigious universities and started their own businesses and successful careers. The man and his wife celebrate this with their church community who knew these children all through their growing up. The man prays a lot for his kids; he loves them, and he wants them to follow God more than anything else.
This is a good family. These are good people.
When calamity strikes, their friends are shocked speechless. The kids were all close, and they got together for a party. The oven had a gas leak no one knew about. Something went horribly, horribly wrong. All of them are dead now.
Tragedy doesn’t stop there, though. A huge trade deal falls through, a partner bails and suddenly the man’s business is bankrupt. He goes to the doctor and is told he has a serious form of cancer. His wife is grieving and bitter; she leaves to stay with her sister and try to sort out what to feel and think.
The good man is left alone, broken and at a loss. His closest buddies from church come over and sit with him.
What do you say to this? How do you talk about God’s goodness in the face of appalling loss? They try because the silence is terrible. They try because, when they think about their own children and jobs, they have to give their own minds some kind of peace. They try to explain away the inexplicable.
In the end, they’re wrong.
The Unanswered and Unanswerable Questions
The book of Job in the Bible is one of the most difficult to read and understand. Like most of life’s tragedies, it’s complicated, thorny and heart-wrenching. We’re certain there must be answers, but we’re not sure what they are.
We try to explain the strange and scary stories in the Bible, but the pieces don’t fit quite right, and hurting people ask us questions we can’t quite answer.
We do our research; we talk to older, wiser believers; we read books on grief and loss and anger. We try to make sense of it all so we can “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” like 1 Peter 3:15 commands. We offer up our best explanations or pithy adages, but these seem to hurt more than they help.
What are we doing wrong? Surely there are correct answers…right?
John Piper mused over this story, saying, “Then there is Job's long illness, and his three friends come. At first they are quiet and offer some counsel, but then they begin to launch into an attack on Job that takes a true theology and distorts it all out of proportion.
“Job has about 29 chapters of misapplied theology in the middle. It's very hard to navigate your way through those chapters and determine what is true and what is not, because these guys are mixing up truth and falsehood all over the place. I think you're supposed to get the big picture that God was not happy with these three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.”
They tried to help, but in the end they hurt Job because they were overwhelmed by the immensity of his loss and heartache.
God himself actually rebukes these men who attempted to explain the cause of Job’s suffering. “I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7, NIV).
They took what they knew about God and the scriptures, and they tried to make this cover a problem that stretched beyond their preview all the way up to heaven’s courtroom where the devil was asking for permission to attack the good shepherd’s sheep, permission that God granted.
This story lays out questions that loom over all of our small solutions.
Three Golden Rules to Follow
Unfun fact of life: If we are not in Job’s shoes at some point, we will be friends with someone who is.
The Bible promises us that we will face hardships in life and one day much larger tribulations. As David Wilkerson noted in a sermon, “I believe Job represents the last-day believer who is undergoing great testing and trial, enduring manifold troubles. I also believe that, in the days just ahead, multitudes of God-fearing, holy believers will go into this same fire, the furnace of Job. I don't know if we've already entered that time. But I do know we are in a time of trouble beyond all comprehension, a time the likes of which the world has never seen.
“Already many wonderful, righteous Christians have lost their jobs or have been out of work for weeks or months. Some have lost nearly everything. Like Job, they have been stripped bare. Many are on the brink of poverty. And many of them are saying that, in all their lifetime, they have never faced such hardship….
“As you look into the future, it may scare you. All you can see is uncertainty, fear, crisis, and your heart cries out, ‘What am I going to do? Why is all this happening to those of us who have been so faithful to God? Why doesn't God intervene and stop it all?’”
How do we have an answer that isn’t just damning silence while still avoiding the trap of thinking that we’re competent enough to judge the reasons behind a bad situation? How do we dodge moralistic, overly tidy categories for pain and God’s place in suffering?
First, we must recognize that our world does not operate according to black and white laws of action and reaction. Life is not a token machine or math problem. Also, if our world is extraordinarily complex, then its creator is even more so. The moment we start trying to explain how the world works or why God does what he does, we’re wandering out onto thin ice.
Second, suffering will always present us with temptation, regardless of whether we’re the sufferer or the observer. It may be the urge to shift blame or the scramble for control over the situation. However the lure of sin presents itself, it always knocks on the door after anguish has entered.
Third, we must ask the right questions, as Ray Ortlund points out, “The book of Job is not answering a theoretical question about why good people suffer. It is answering a practical question: When good people suffer, what does God want from them?”
When I’m hurt, what does God want from me? When my loved ones are grieving, what is the question God is asking us?
When We Lose Everything
God tells Job’s friends, “…you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7, ESV), but Job says a lot of things in this book that are patently incorrect or warped theology. How is he better than his friends?
Ultimately, Job’s response circles from “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21) all the way to “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). He struggles bitterly with pain that has no easy answers; he doesn’t give up or stop seeking an explanation from God until God replies. Blinded by pain, staggering through a dark maze of accusations and fear, he always comes back to trusting God.
Perhaps there is no more befitting end for such a discussion than the closing words of John Piper’s beautiful poem.
“The servants waited now
To see what Job would do, and how
He might deal with his God. At last
He rose, and took a knife, and passed
It like a razor over all
His silver head, and tore his shawl
And robe, and fell face down upon
The ground and lay there till the dawn.
The servants knelt by him in fright,
And heard him whisper through the night:
"I came with nothing from the womb,
I go with nothing to the tomb.
God gave me children freely, then
He took them to himself again.
At last I taste the bitter rod,
My wise and ever blessed God."
“Light candle one, and count the cost;
And ponder everything we've lost.
And let us bow before the throne
Of God, who gives and takes his own,
And promises, whatever toll
He takes, to satisfy our soul.
Come learn the lesson of the rod:
The treasure that we have in God.
He is not poor nor much enticed
Who loses everything but Christ.”