Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Problem of Suffering

Today is the third day in our 50th week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Job 1-3; Revelation 10; Psalm 29.

When tragedies enter our lives, we tend to ask why.  What's the meaning of all this?  How could God allow this to happen?  While I would not presume to gaze into the heavenlies and descry God's purposes in individual cases, I do find comfort in the book of Job, that I want to share with you.  This book has some teachings about human suffering that touch all the situations of our lives.

Job 1:1-5 describes Job as a righteous man who lives in covenant relationship with God.  From the onset of the book, it is clear that suffering comes to all.  No one is exempt from suffering--not the great and not the small.

In 1:6-12, we see that Job's suffering comes at the hands of Satan.  This is a disturbing passage for many people to read, for it appears that God is playing a game with Satan, using Job and his household as divine chess pieces.  Yet the reader must look beyond this scene in heaven, to a fuller understanding of God and His loving character.  God takes delight in the success of His people, as we see in the Lord's boast about the blessedness of Job.  Verses 8-12* say:

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?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

On the surface, this passage bothers us, presuming that Satan can tempt God to do evil to His saints.  It looks like God, who is holy, doesn't want to get His hands dirty and so entrusts the mistreatment of Job to the work of Satan.  This view implicates God in a crime against Job, in the same way a person would be found guilty of murder, though they hired a hit man instead of pulling the trigger themselves.  Since God cannot be tempted and cannot sin, and since God is love (1 John 4:8), we must understand this scene differently.  

God, who is the author of all life, does not sin when He takes life.  Life and death alike are justly in God's hands.  While Satan's purpose is to invite God to do evil, the Lord does no evil in proving Job's faithfulness.  God knows that some suffering works out for a greater good.  Romans 8:26-30 says that God allows some weaknesses to enter our lives so that we can be made like Christ--that God is working His good purposes out in us, through the instrument of suffering.  All the pain that ever befalls us goes through the filter of God's loving permission, before it ever enters our lives.  

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

In Job 1:20-21, we see Job's initial response to the horrors that befall his family, his workers, and his industry.  When all is destroyed in uncanny satanic attacks (Note that it is Satan, not God, who lifts a hand against Job), Job responds with remarkable wisdom.

20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job realizes that all the good that we gain is from God, and that when it is taken from us no evil may be imputed to the Lord.  Our very lives are God's, and to God they will return.  When he experiences even more suffering in chapter two, his body is afflicted with painful sores.  His wife tells him to go ahead and get it over with--to curse God and die.  But he replies that she's speaking foolishly.  "Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"  

Here, let me pause and discuss these two words, "good" and "evil." We use these two words in two different ways.  We use the word "good" to indicate anything moral (helping a neighbor), or anything generally pleasant (a beautiful waterfall).  The word "evil" can mean anything immoral (bands of raiders), but it can also point to general unpleasantness not caused by moral action (death by hurricane).  There is, however, a huge difference between what theologians call Moral Good and Moral Evil on the one hand, and Natural Good and Natural Evil on the other hand.  While God is certainly morally good, He is incapable of immorality.  Natural Good and Natural Evil would be better labeled as Natural Pleasantness or Natural Unpleasantness, so that we don't get confused about whether anyone made moral decisions in these matters.  When Job says, "Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" he isn't accusing God of moral wrongdoing, but simply saying that painful and pleasant alike come from God.

Jesus made it clear that "good" and "evil" happen to everyone, for God  "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45b)."  In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus references two disasters that his hearers all knew about.  One was Moral Evil, and the other was Natural Evil.  He says that neither of these took place because the people deserved it.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The repentance Jesus speaks of here doesn't alleviate natural suffering or death.  It alleviates eternal suffering that may take place when a person meets his Maker unprepared for judgment.  Jesus makes it clear that all of humanity benefits from natural and moral good.  It also suffers from natural and moral evil--regardless of merit.  Further, Jesus says that in this world, good and evil grow up together, like wheat and tares in the same field.

24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn    (Matthew 13:24-30).”’”

In Jesus' parable, you can't even tell the difference between the wheat and the tares, they look so similar.  The Master's advice is this--don't try to tell the difference.  Don't try to separate out good from bad here on earth.  Wait til the end, and let the Master do the sorting.  He's the only one who really knows, anyway.

So, we return to Job 2:10, where our titular character asks, "Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"  Perhaps it would be better to use words like "pleasant" and "painful," without assigning moral values like "good" and "evil" to the circumstances of life.

There's an old story about a farmer whose horse ran away.  His sympathizing neighbor said, "Oh, that's bad!"  The farmer simply replied, "Maybe."  The next day, the horse returned, leading a whole herd of wild horses with it.  The farmer and his son corralled them, and stood to make a fortune from their sale, once they were trained.  The neighbor said, "What good fortune smiles upon you!"  The farmer simply said, "Well, maybe."  The following day the farmer's son was trying to break a wild stallion, fell from the horse's back, and broke his leg.  The neighbor said, "You are so unlucky, that your son got hurt!"  The farmer answered, "Maybe."  The next day, the army came through the village, conscripting soldiers into military service.  As the army departed, carrying with it the neighbor's son and others toward a battle that was doomed, the neighbor wept on the farmer's shoulder, saying, "You are so fortunate that your son's broken leg kept him from the draft!"  To which the farmer replied, "Well, maybe..."

What's the point?  That you never know whether the misfortunes that happen will turn out for good, or whether the perceived blessings will show themselves to be curses instead.  Or perhaps that it's a matter of attitude and perspective.

Finally, Job chapter two closes with three friends who come along to bring the suffering man some comfort.

11 Now when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. 12 And 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. 13 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.

In the midst of tragedy and suffering, the moral good of friendship triumphs.  It is true that there is pain in the world; it is also true that wherever there is pain, there are those who work to see that pain ended.  For every moral and natural evil, there is moral good that seeks to comfort, console, and resolve injustice.  Here, Job's friends mourn with him.  They go camping with Job for a solid week, allowing him his time in silence and patiently waiting with him.  In the next chapters, we'll read about the advice that they give.  Sometimes their insight is good, and sometimes it's not so good.  But it begins with quiet waiting, with comforting, with listening.  And that's what everyone needs from their friends in times like these.

Has life brought you tragedy lately?  Take the time to wait in silence.  Seek the comfort that family and friends give.  Open your hands to God, receiving whatever His perfect love has for you.  Trust Him.

Has a loved one of yours gone through struggles lately?  Just be there.  You don't have to share any wisdom at all.  Quiet comfort is generally better than witty words anyway.  Count on the fact that, while tragedy and joy happen to all, God is bringing blessing to those who trust Him.

*Scriptures taken from the ESV.

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