Imagine with me, tomorrow you show up at school, and your best friend runs up to you, tears in their eyes, voice shaking, and says, “Everything is gone. Everything, I lost everything.” You try and calm them down, but they begin sobbing, “The tornado that came through last night touched down right by our house – we had no idea how powerful it could be. Everything I own is gone. It was either sucked up into the storm, or now lies under a pile of splintered wood and bricks. I have no idea how I survived – but…but, no else did. Everyone’s gone.”
Tell me, in that moment, as you look at your friend who has just lost all of their possessions and their entire family, what would you say to them? What could you say? Even more difficult to answer, what would you say if they asked why God let this happen? That’s a very difficult question: Why does God let bad things happen to good people? I’m sure you have heard that before – well, whenever we ask that question, it is hard not to think about the life of Job and the suffering he endured.
The book of James has gone to great lengths to try and help us learn how to suffer well. Last week, we looked at those who are suffering unjustly and James encouraged them to be patient, take heart and trust in the Lord. Now, he wants to point them back to examples from the past. James says, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast,” (James 5:10-11a). But James highlights one person in particular as an especially important example, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).
So, tonight we are going to be doing something a little different than normal – we are going to leave the book of James and go take a look at the life of Job. Now James wants us to become steadfast (which just means ‘faithful’) in our own suffering. But, if we are to stay strong in the midst of suffering, we need a good reason to. For example, if I tell you to hold a big sack of rocks, but don’t tell you why, you will hold it for a little bit, but as soon as it begins to chafe your hands and gets too heavy, you’ll set it down and walk away. Now, if before I ask you to hold my sack of rocks, I tell you that it is a sack of gold, and I am running into town to find a buyer and I’ll split the money with you if you hold it for me – well, then you will somehow find the motivation to carry the sack. You have a good reason, you know the purpose.
Likewise, in the book of Job, James says that we should be able to discern God’s purpose for his suffering, and if we do, we will become steadfast.
Job is Attacked
The book of Job opens with telling us about the remarkable character of Job, “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” (1:1). It also tells us that he is very wealthy (Job 1:3), and had a large family whom he loved very dearly (Job 1:2, 4-5). It is summarized clearly when the author describes Job as, “the greatest of all people in the east” (Job 1:3).
Now, in the first two chapters of Job, there is a scene playing out in heaven that no one on earth is aware of. Let’s read the first account of it,
“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 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?”
Now, let’s pause for a moment and think about how strange this is. A thief breaks into a jewelry store in the middle of the night. The owner of the store is sleeping in the back, and the thief creeps into the owner’s room. The owner wakes up and says, “What are you doing here?” The thief answers, “I’m looking for some diamond’s to steal.” And the owner responds, “Did you see the biggest one? Here, it is towards the front, to the right.” Why is God throwing Job to Satan after he has apparently been such a great man? Why didn’t he throw Satan on some wicked man? We will have to wait for the end of the story to answer that.
Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 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. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 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.” (1:6-12).
Then the perspective shifts back down to earth, and we see Satan’s horrors unfold. Job has four servants arrive, one directly after the other, explaining that all of Job’s livestock, servants, wealth, and every single one of his children has been taken or killed (1:13-19). Job falls down and cries out to God, but does not forsake Him. “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 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” (1:20-21)
Now, Satan attacks Job again, after receiving God’s permission, and cover’s Job’s entire body with disgusting, painful sores (2:7). And remember, they did not have modern medicine back then, so often when someone started to show that they were seriously ill like that (at one point Job comments that his skin is turning black Job 30:30), there was a good chance that they were going to die. Job doesn’t know that God has promised his life will be spared (2:6) – in fact, Job doesn’t know anything about God’s conversation with Satan. As far as Job knows, he has just had everything painfully ripped away from him, and is now seriously ill and will probably die.
Now, upon hearing of Job’s calamities, Job’s three friends, Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar come to his aid. Now, when they arrive, they spend seven days just sitting in silence with Job (2:11-13). This is the one good thing they do. Most times, when someone is in a place of extraordinary grief, a silent presence is what they need most. This golden moment, sadly, doesn’t last very long. For the majority of the rest of the book, we have a series of conversations (arguments, more like it) between Job and his three friends, and his friends are horrible to Job. Job calls them “miserable comforters” (16:2) and “worthless physicians” who smear him with lies (13:4).
Bad Theology Hurts People
Job’s three friends are powerful examples of how bad theology hurts people. Job’s friends assume that the only reason that Job would be experiencing such unbelievable suffering is because God is punishing him for some horribly, secret sin he has – but that isn’t true. Job, repeatedly, claims that he has not hidden any sin whatsoever and they are just flat out wrong. But their twisted theology leads them to make hurtful, ridiculous conclusions about Job. Look friends, we don’t strive to learn good theology just because we enjoy being right, winning arguments, and knowing answers. What we believe about God influences everything we do; it is not just some mental/spiritual exercise that is disconnected from real life. No, bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. And Job’s friend’s bad theology leads them to start accusing Job of particular sins that he never did, assuming that he must have done them if he is suffering so badly (22:5-11).
Now, in the argument, Job starts to overreact as well. Throughout Job’s speeches, you can see that he is really trying to cling to the Lord through everything that is happening – but, under the weight of his closest friends now accusing him, he has times where he begins to stray. Job commits two errors: (1) he begins to exaggerate his own righteousness, and (2) he questions God’s justice.
- All of chapter 31 is Job talking about how he never lusts after women (31:1, 9-12), never lies (31:5-8), never withholds anything from the poor or the fatherless (31:16-22), never has been led astray by greed (31:24-28), and on and on he goes. Most of these statements are probably mostly true – but Job begins to make outlandish statements, as if he is without sin – that is wrong.
- All throughout the conversations, Job continues to defend himself, but admits that he doesn’t know why these bad things are happening either. He eventually alludes to the idea that God must not care. In chapter 24, Job speaks of the poor who are mistreated, and the wicked people who take advantage of them, becoming wealthy off of their cruelty and dishonesty. Job concludes, “From out of the city the dying groan, and the soul of the wounded cries for help; yet God charges no one with wrong” (Job 24:12). That is not true.
See, we can fall into two equal errors in our suffering. (1) We can act like Jobs friends, and assume that bad things only happen to bad people, and therefore if you are suffering, God must be punishing you for something bad you did. That’s tempting – when your parents tell you they are getting a divorce, it is tempting to think, “If I had just been a better a child, this wouldn’t happen,” or when one of our parents gets sick we think, “If I would have just prayed more, this wouldn’t have happened.” That’s not true! (2) Or, we can slip into Job’s sin, and feel like we are so pure and so undeserving of anything bad happening to us, that when suffering comes we figure there must be no justice at all in the world. Like God is absent; a distant, absent clockmaker who wound up the universe, but then left it to run on its own. Both errors are tempting, and both are destructive.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a young man named Elihu speaks up. Elihu, younger than everyone else, has remained quiet this whole time, respecting his elders – but after so such awful things have been said, he can no longer remain quiet (32:1-10). Elihu then proceeds to rebuke both Job and his three friends. He rebukes Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar for not providing an adequate answer to Job’s questions (32:12-14). He then turns to Job and says, “Surely you have spoken in my ears, and I have heard the sound of your words. You say, ‘I am pure, without transgression; I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me. Behold, he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy, he puts my feet in the stocks and watches all my paths.’ Behold, in this you are not right” (33:9-11). Elihu’s rebuke says (1) Job, you are not without sin, and (2) God is not your enemy. Elihu speaks from chapters 32 to 37, and everything he says is awesome.
But as Elihu finishes speaking, something terrifying happens: God shows up. All throughout the book, Job has been saying, “If only I could voice my complaint to God, if only I could make my case to Him, then I could get some answers.” Well, here is Job’s chance.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” (38:1-3).
Out of a “whirlwind”, God answers Job. Job is sitting there, in pain and bitterness, questioning God – when suddenly, a hurricane descends on Job, and the voice of God thunders out, “Excuse me?” And God proceeds to question Job for the next four chapters, revealing the utter chasm between the wisdom, power and sovereignty of God and the weakness of Job. God continually asks Job questions like, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (38:4-7).
God is doing two things with His response to Job: He is humbling Job (that’s apparent), but He is also showing Job why he should trust Him. When you read through chapters 38-41, it is just stunning at what God does. When we suffer, we can feel almost like God has forgotten about us, or God is unable to help us – and God’s response is, “Not a chance! Look at the lilies of the field, look at the sparrows of the air – I take care of them, will I not also take care of you?” And we see both of those things displayed in Job’s confession,
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” (42:1-6).
After this, God rebukes Job’s three friends, and commands them to reconcile with one another – which they do (42:7-9) – and then God proceeds to not only return Job’s fortunes back to him, but doubles what he had before (42:10-12). He also allows Job’s wife to become pregnant, and gives Job ten children (42:13-17). So, what do we learn from this? Well, there are mountains of encouragements we could glean from this, but let’s focus on two: the sovereignty of God in our suffering, and the purpose of our suffering.
The Sovereignty of God in our Suffering
You’ll notice at the beginning of the book, before anything bad happens to Job, Satan first must come to God and ask for His permission before he attacks Job (1:10-12; 2:5-6). Even Job is aware of this – you’ll notice that when he first finds out about his suffering, he prays, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). It is The Lord who gives and takes. Again, we see this when he responds to his wife’s accusation to curse God and die, “But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10).
When we use the word “sovereign” we just mean that God is in control. Nothing happens that does not either come directly from, or pass through God’s hands. Now, Job didn’t have a problem understanding this – but we do. When something bad happens to us, we blame it on the devil, or blame it on someone else, or blame ourselves. We struggle to imagine our loving God allowing pain to come into our lives – but look at me friends, you will not remain steadfast in your suffering if you don’t know that God is sovereign over it. Paul encourages us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God works all things together – not just some things, or things we approve of – all things. This is just the simple reality, friends.
But think of this: what encourages you more? The idea of evil coming into your life, and God isn’t in control of it, or evil coming into your life, but God having a leash on it? Friends, I am greatly encouraged that when I walk through suffering, there is a loving Father who is in control of the storm and He has promised me that He is doing everything for good. Satan isn’t running loose in the world, and God hobbling behind him with a dustpan, trying to clean up his mess. God was sovereign of Job’s suffering, and He is sovereign over yours.
The Purpose of Suffering
So, if God is in control of our suffering, then what’s the point of it? Remember that James explained that we are to look at the life of Job so that we could see “the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). So, the loving, merciful purpose of God in Job’s life is what we are supposed to find, that we may become steadfast.
In Elihu’s remarkable response, he points at the purpose of Job’s suffering. Elihu, discussing God’s treatment of the righteous says, “He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous, but with kings on the throne he sets them forever, and they are exalted” (36:7). Now, right there it sounds like Elihu is affirming the other three friends – God blesses the righteous with good things, but he keeps going,
“And if they are bound in chains and caught in the cords of affliction, then he declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly. He opens their ears to instruction and commands that they return from iniquity.” (36:8-10). Elihu says that if the righteous suffers, God is doing so to “open their ears” that they may be aware of their iniquity, their sin, and repent of it. He says that God brings the righteous through suffering in order to purify and sanctify them, removing their sin. We saw this earlier in the book of James where God uses trials and testing to refine our faith (James 1:2-4).
Now, this has been so difficult for Job and his friends to see because they believe that either you are good, and you are blessed, or you are bad, and you are punished. They have always assumed that if there is anything inside of you that is displeasing to God, then that means you must be punished. But Elihu says something radical. He says you can be both righteous and a sinner. But how? Well, earlier Elihu explained that when we sin what we need is someone to stand before God, and plead our case: a mediator. “Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed… His soul draws near the pit,and his life to those who bring death” (33:19, 22), here Elihu is talking about a man who is sinner, being rebuked, and is headed towards hell – the soul who sins dies, and will be separated from God, but, Elihu continues:
“If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him, and he is merciful to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom…then man prays to God, and he accepts him; he sees his face with a shout of joy, and he restores to man his righteousness. He sings before men and says: ‘I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not repaid to me. He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light” (33:23-24, 26-28).
Elihu, looking forward, knew that all men were not able to be righteous enough on their own before God, and what we needed was someone who could pay a ransom for our sins, deliver us from the pit, and thus restore our righteousness. Elihu looked forward to Him, we look back – His name is Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, he became the ultimate mediator; here is what Paul says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6).
Jesus paid the ransom to save us, with His life – thus, cancelling our debt of sin. And now, because of the gospel, we know that the pain and suffering that comes into our life IS NOT us being punished for our sin – all of our punishment was absorbed by our mediator, Jesus Christ, on the cross.
So now, when we suffer, we know that it is the Lord lovingly disciplining us. He wants to draw out the dross of sin, even if it means we must be thrust into the furnace of affliction. Our suffering is not a display of God’s hatred, but a display of His love!
And this is precisely why the purpose of the Lord in Job is compassionate and merciful – it wasn’t primarily about God giving Job more wealth and restoring his family at the end – it was about the surgical removal of pride from the soul of Job’s heart. God loves us so dearly, that He is willing to cut us open to remove the tumor of sin that will otherwise kill us. God brings suffering into our lives, precisely because He loves us.
And now come, broken, to the cross,
Where Christ embraced all human loss,
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.
– An excerpt from John Piper’s poem on the life of Job –