I am currently reading through the book of Job. It’s a bit of a struggle, but before I began this morning’s reading I asked God to teach me something new as I read it. I believe he answered my prayer, but you may find his answer controversial.
The passage I read was Job chapters 16 and 17. Here we find poor Job suffering terribly from the death of all his children, the loss of all his wealth, and above all from his physical condition. He is in constant pain, he is covered in sores, his skin is peeling off, and he has lost so much weight he is like a skeleton. Worst of all, he can’t understand why this is happening to him.
God had promised to bless Israel if they obeyed him and to curse them if they didn’t. So what Job couldn’t understand was why a just God should curse him when he had been totally obedient to God’s commandments. For there were four things of which Job was certain: that God was real, that God was responsible for his sufferings, that God was just, and that he himself had done no wrong to deserve any punishment. Therefore he couldn’t understand why a just God had brought so much suffering upon him.
From its very beginning the book of Job tells us that Job was correct in his conviction that he had done no wrong. The very first verse declares: ‘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.’ God himself repeats those words in Job 1.8, and in Job 1.22 and 2.10 we are twice told that Job did not sin. So the book explicitly declares that Job’s suffering was not a punishment for doing wrong, as his so-called friends believed it must have been. Job had done no wrong.
On the other hand the book of Job is equally clear that God was responsible for the poor man’s sufferings. Admittedly it explains at the start that they were directly caused by Satan, but this was only because God had given Satan permission to cause them. So Job was right in his conviction that God was the cause of his sufferings. In chapter 16, which I read this morning, he says, “God has worn me out. He has shrivelled me up. He has torn me in his wrath. I was at ease, and he broke me asunder; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces. He slashes open my kidneys, and does not spare..." and so on.
Most of us who believe in God would find it hard to see God as responsible for human suffering as Job did. Yet the book tells us that Job was right in ascribing his sufferings to God, for God said twice in the last chapter of the book that everything Job had said about him was true.
So is God truly responsible for everything that happens to us, including suffering? There is a sense in which this has to be true, for it was God who created a world which kills people through earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, floods and droughts; and it was God who created people with the ability to do unspeakable things to each other, in the knowledge that under the influence of Satan they would do so. So should we, as Job did, consider that God is the author of any suffering that we personally experience? And if so, how can we reconcile that with a belief that God is both just and loving?
Yesterday morning Becky Tyler, a young lady with cerebral palsy, gave her testimony to God on Radio 4’s Sunday morning religious broadcast. She had to speak through a voice synthesizer because she can’t control her own voice or other major bodily functions. She said that people felt sorry for her, but that she was not at all sorry about her condition. She said she believed God had made her like this on purpose and that he had a good purpose in doing so. She was grateful to him for giving her life and for the ability to fulfil whatever pupose he’d had in making her like she was. She was amazingly content and happy.
Job’s problem was that he knew God as a God of justice, but he did not know God as a God of love. And the Bible teaches us that when God does cause us to suffer it is because he loves us and has an ultimate purpose of good for us in mind. In Deuteronomy 8:16 Moses tells Israel that they served a God “...who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.” Even in periods of suffering God provides consolations such as water and manna, but his main purpose in causing us to suffer is to do us good in the end.
And that is what the New Testament teaches us again and again. ‘It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant. Later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ (Hebrews 12.7,11) ‘Count it all joy, brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’ (James 1.2-4) ‘Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.’ (1 Peter 5.6)
Job’s experience of being a righteous man whom God caused to suffer was exactly mirrored in the death of Jesus. Isaiah 53.9,10 says, ‘...he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief…’ In his Pentecost Day address to the crowd in Jerusalem Peter said, “...this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God...” (Acts 2.23)
So how should we view suffering which we have not brought on ourselves or which does not appear to be a justified punishment from God? We have three alternatives. We can say:
(i) there is no God, so suffering is simply the result of how things are;
(ii) God does not cause us to suffer and he does not want us to suffer but he has to allow it to happen because there is no alternative;
(iii) God causes us to suffer in order ‘to do us good in the end.’
This blog is intended mainly for Christians, or at least for readers who believe in a creator, so (i) isn’t an option. Only the youngest and most ignorant child would believe his parents if they told him that the house they lived in had just happened all by itself. If you want more sophisticated and convincing arguments for the existence of a creator read my book Z: The Final Generation or God, Science and the Bible.
The problem with option (ii) is that even if God ‘allows’ suffering he is ultimately responsible for it. He has knowingly brought about a world in which suffering is inevitable, so in that real sense he is responsible. Furthermore, if we view God as having to allow something that is not his will because he has no other alternative, it becomes questionable whether he is fully in control of what happens to us and whether he is able to rescue us from it or to bring any good out of it.
So what about option (iii)? In Isaiah 45.7 the Lord says, “I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” This supports Job’s conviction that God is the cause of both good and evil, of blessing and cursing. Believing this and at the same time believing that God is a God of love can transform our view of suffering. Just as the evangelist Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsy thanked God for putting fleas in their prison cell in Ravensbruck concentration camp because they kept the guards from entering and molesting them, so we can view all suffering as having some good purpose – either for us or for other people or for both – because it is something given to us by a God of love. Furthermore when we believe that our suffering is not something that’s out of God’s control then we can believe that he will never allow it to become unbearable. (1 Corinthians 10.13) We can also believe that we shall eventually understand its purpose and experience the blessings that it will bring. That may happen in this life, or it may have to wait for the life to come, but it will come. (Jeremiah 30.24b; Isaiah 53.10,11; Revelation 3.10-12)
So as an example, what happens if I trip over the root of a tree and in trying to break my fall I break my wrist? Am I to think, “God caused this to happen?” Well, some events have two causes. Saint Peter pointed out at Pentecost that God arranged for his Son to be crucified but it was the Jewish leaders who brought it about so they were responsible for it as well. (Acts 2.23) Similarly, when Joseph as the virtual ruler of Egypt confronted his brothers who had earlier sold him into slavery, he said, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50.20) In my example of tripping up there are also two causes. I am responsible for not looking where I am going, but God is responsible for placing the tree there (the woods in which I walk in are natural woods, not plantations) and for not making my bones strong enough to resist a fall without fracturing.
So it all comes down to where we focus our attention. Becky Tyler could have focussed her attention on the physical cause of her condition. She could have bemoaned the fact that the lack of oxygen at her birth had thereby deprived her of a full and happy life. Instead she chose to believe that God had made her like she was, and that he was motivated by love in doing this. As a result she feels contented, happy and fulfilled.
So in my example of falling on my face do I say to myself,
(i) “What happened is an accident, without any particular cause” (which would be true if God did not exist); or
(ii) “It’s my own silly fault, so God had nothing to do with it” (i.e. it was not God’s will and he did not bring it about); or do I say,
(iii) “This is a situation for which God is ultimately responsible and therefore it is something that he can and will use to do me good in the end?”
One obvious good that God could produce would be to teach me to look more carefully where I am going. That might prevent my doing even greater damage to myself on some future occasion. Furthermore if my wrist had to go into plaster, preventing me from writing or typing for a while, I might be forced instead to spend some profitable time in the company of others, or perhaps do some valuable reading that I would otherwise never have got round to. Above all by adopting view (iii) I would cheerfully expect some good to come out of my accident rather than foolishly deciding, for example, that I would never walk in the woods again. For how could I possibly decide such a thing if God had caused me to trip up for my good?