Sovereign over suffering

Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:10)

Job is a really awkward story. If you’ve never read it, frankly I don’t blame you. It’s really long and somewhat tedious. Trust me on this: It’s really awkward. When one reads the first part of the Old Testament, the Torah, one learns that when the people put their trust in God and walk in his ways, he will bless them. When the people turn from God he shall punish them. It’s a pretty simple notion.

When we look through the pages of Job that theology is challenged. The premise of the story is this: Satan challenged God that Job only believes in him and worship him for all the blessings God has showered upon him. Indeed, Job is a very blessed man. He owns a lot of land, has a big family and is well respected. More importantly, he walks according to God’s law. That means he gives to the poor, lends without demanding interest and is altogether loving to his neighbour.

So, Job is living a life pleasing to God and enjoys all the blessings associated with it. If you know Proverbs at all, you’ll notice that Job is always quoting them, showing this man to be wise.

Anyway, in a rush of confusing and contradictory ideas, Satan is in the presence of God and God allows Satan to take everything away from Job. This raises several questions about God, namely: Isn’t it a bit underhanded of God to use Satan to do his ‘dirty work’. Additionally, one could ask is not God breaking his covenant with Job by cursing him when he should be receiving blessing? These and many other questions I shall ignore. I don’t think that’s where the text goes.

So, we are left with this awkward tension. Naturally, being me, I really enjoy Job.

This man who walks aright before God has been hit by the most astonishing, brutal suffering. The loss of his business, his family, health and reputation. In all of this he does not forsake God.

Now, Satan thinks that Job fears God because of the blessings God has given to him. It’s a legitimate complaint – if someone offered you a free car for being their friend, wouldn’t you hasten to be that man’s best buddy? One of the ways the covenant can be interpreted is as some kind of Karma: If we are good, God owes us good. Job shatters that notion. This story takes a righteous man and has him receive all the curses promised to the unrighteous.

Worse still, God allows this to happen!

To my mind, Job asks the question “How do believers interact with personal suffering in the light of God’s sovereignty?”

His initial response to suffering hints towards the right way to deal with suffering:

“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 1:21)

“…Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
(Job 2:10)

I wonder if you have ever been around Christians who believe that God doesn’t ordain suffering? I’ve heard stories of people being rebuked because they thought it was God’s will that someone should die from cancer. Indeed, when I am praying with others for the grace of physical healing, it is common to hear people speak against doubt – as if  God’s blessing is somehow proportional to how much we believe. In some churches, they emphasise ‘declaring’ God’s blessing against things which are not desirable.

Yet the righteous man, Job, does not react in this way. He doesn’t ‘declare’ anything against the suffering he has endured. He accepts it as directly from the hand of God. He doesn’t accept that he has a lack of faith. He is astonished when his friends rebuke him.

I think the tendency of all people is to view suffering as an assault on their kingdom – their lives which they have spent much time and energy building up. As Christians we are instructed to abandon our own kingdoms in favour of participating in God’s. Yet, the way we can react to suffering and trial and loss indicates that we do not believe the kingdom to be God’s. When we perceive death and disease to be totally outside the sphere of God’s reign, we make God smaller and ourselves bigger. Just because something seem disastrous to us does not mean God sees it that way.

Indeed, if we only accept the good things of life as being from God we are suggesting that God is some sort of ‘cosmic cash machine’ from which we can withdraw all the time. God then becomes our servant. Our magical shower of blessing.

This is not how the Bible portraits God.

Of course it is equally tempting to assign the blame to God for our suffering and then walk away from him. For me, that has been a real struggle. Sometimes I have been so angry with God that I thought it a small thing to act in an abusive way towards others and myself as a way of ‘getting back’ at God.

Again, I was on the throne of my life and expecting God to do as I commanded.

The faith of Job is far deeper than this. His faith interprets his life as being in the hand of God.

For Job, God is God and is worthy of blessing in the midst of blessing and in the midst of loss. God has granted Job favour and he had blessed the Lord. The Lord allowed Job to lose everything, and still he had blessed the Lord. If we only bless God when things are going well for us, have we truly beheld God as the Almighty ruler who sits upon the throne?

I think what it means to walk with God is this: That God is on the throne and we must see our reality as though everything that happens is somehow ordained by the Lord. This is never an easy idea to accept, yet to me it seems biblical. When we accept all circumstances as being from the Lord, we see something more of his glory and his vastness, and maybe even discern something of his purpose for our lives.

He gives. He takes. Let us forever bless the Lord.


Add yours →

  1. Hi Ian – loved this post. I am (and have been) wrestling with all these issues and have reached the same conclusions although I know many other wonderful and wise people who disagree. It’s the sort of stuff you can ignore or not get too bothered by if your life is going along comfortably – but when things fall apart the crucial question is (I think) “does God ordain suffering?”. Another is: “Is it OK to sing “You give and take away”? I think “yes” but so many seem to think “no” and then miss out that (to me) v important and actually strangely comforting section of “Blessed be Your name”. I am thankful for all the times I’ve suffered (and am suffering right now with yet another migraine) – because without these times I would be a **** (not very good) psychologist!


  2. PS: To clarify a bit more what I meant above, I read somewhere recently that “people who are suffering want to be ministered to by others who have suffered”. (I think it was in a book called “The North Face of God” which I really enjoyed). I know that the struggles I’ve had have made me a more patient and compassionate listener, especially around issues of loss and transition. By the way, I’d recommend the book to anyone who is not feeling “victorious” and is struggling in their Christian walk.


  3. One of the most amazing graces of God is the transforming, redeeming effect he has in the midst of suffering. He can work miracles in us when we feel less than capable of doing even the most ordinary things.


  4. Very Augustinian sentiments here abound (that, in some fashion, suffering is ‘good’ for you). Augustine did, at least, concede that ‘God’ had it within his power to bestow all the ‘benefits’ of suffering without any actual suffering… if he felt like it.
    At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, this fails to address the Epicurean Paradox in any ‘morally’ satisfying way. I suppose this is because Augustine didn’t see ‘evil’ (or suffering) as an actual thing, but a privation of a thing, a lack of ‘good’. I have my own criticism of this (oddly, using the book of Job as ammunition, heh) but I’d rather hear your thoughts first, before running off on some tangent. So.
    Tell me, Ian… what is the ‘point’ of suffering?


  5. I only feel capable of addressing the purpose of suffering in God’s people, since that’s really where the Bible goes. I don’t think I have adequate enough grasp of the faith to make universal claims. Having said that, I think there is a very clear purpose, for the people of God, in suffering.

    God’s purpose for his people is always that they should bring glory to him. Thus in blessing the point of blessing is not the good stuff it brings but rather that God would be glorified. Blessing can become idolatry if we elevate the gifts above the giver.

    In suffering, the point is that God’s people should bring glory to him, in that when Christians encounter suffering they have opportunity to share with the world something of the truth of their God.


  6. So, very Augustinian (in the case of believers’ suffering, anyway… what about the larger world?). The potential benefits are that God may be ‘glorified’ through it. Why suffering, though? Explicitly? Don’t you wonder?


  7. Yes, I do wonder and I think that, in part, is the point. In the Scriptures, many of the truths proclaimed about God are expressed by those enduring and wrestling with the subject of suffering. This is the identity of God experienced as reality in a different context. Suffering can become a means of grace, a means by which God’s people can meet with and know God.


  8. Can’t believe I’m doing this guys – but heh – here’s a revelation straight from the word of God – God does not want suffering. God does not send suffering “so that we can learn” . Suffering is not God’s plan or God’s Will (and I can supply plenty of bilical support for that but guessing Ben won’t be impressed).

    There is suffering simply and plainly because there is sin. There is sin because God granted free will. God granted free will because he loved us too much to force us to follow him (even though he knew that following him would be the very best thing we could do for our own benefit). Satan is responsible for ALL the suffering in this world – not God. Once we have established this point perhaps suffering can be talked about in rational terms instead of blaming God. Lets talk healthly about blaming Satan shall we – and the damage and mess and distress and sin and suffering caused by allowing Satan to dominate our lives.

    Yes God can and indeed does work through suffering because he is Love and hates to see his people (or actually Ben – any people suffer – that’s why Jesus came.) And of course we learn through suffering but actually if we just learn through scripture (which is what we are told to do in Timothy) – we wouldn’t HAVE to learn through suffering. A child has two ways of learning a) it can choose to obey – it learns that obeying is good and doesn’t bring stress and continues to choose to walk in this way or b) it chooses to disobey – reaps the consequences – and eventually through a lot of struggle finally learns to obey and then realises that it would have been a lot simpler to obey in the first place!! I would strongly maintain that a child who chooses to obey rather than disobey maintains a much healthier and closer relationship with its parents than one who chooses to disobey and holds its parents at arms length rather than submitting.

    To read Job as God allowing satan to work is to misread Job. Firstly Job was written before the law was given (and actually Ian Job wasn’t “quoting” proverbs as proverbs hadn’t been written when Job was alive – so maybe Proverbs was quoting job!!). Secondly the righteousness described of Job was in fact in the best possible sense self-righteousness – he was doing all the right things. No-where in Job does it tell us that Job had been accounted righteous because of his faith (unlike Abraham and all the saints mentioned in Hebrews 11). What God showed him at the end was the message of Grace – that we can’t earn ourselves a place in heaven. Job had it partly right – but his statement – God gives and God takes away blessed be the name of the Lord was in fact incorrect theology. The bible wanted to show us that any attempt to get ourselves right with God doesn’t work. We can only receive as a gift the righteousness of God given to us through Grace.


  9. How is it a misreading of Job to say that God allowed satan to cause suffering?

    Job 1:12 – 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.

    Again, Job 2:6 – And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”

    I don’t think it’s right to say Job was self-righteous because he was following the word of God diligently. And does not God declare his righteousness?

    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?” (Job 1:8)

    If that’s not righteousness, I don’t know what is! God himself declares Job’s faithfulness, and how he fears the Lord.

    If God is not responsible for suffering, is he even a god? As i said above: if we only accept the good things of life as being from God we are suggesting that God is some sort of ‘cosmic cash machine’ from which we can withdraw all the time. God then becomes our servant. Our magical shower of blessing.


  10. God’s comments are a declaration – before Jesus came – all humankind are in Satan’s domain. God was just stating a fact to satan not “giving him permission”. God was actually just pointing out to Satan the obvious! And then God asked him not to go all the way. If God was in control of the whole situation why would he have asked something of Satan?

    God doesn’t say his “faith” in God is the reason for his righteousness. The righteousness of God ony comes by faith and is a gift to us (plenty of NT passages confirming this point). Where does God declare Job’s faithfulness – the quote says blameless upright fear of God and turning away from evil. This was being achieved by Job in his own strength. Abraham Moses David – the great men of faith along with all the others mentioned in Hebrews by their story are not blameless totally upright and sinless and turning away from evil. They were all sinful men who gained God’s righteousness by their faith and their faith alone not by their self righteousness actions.

    Haven’t you ever wondered if Job was seeminly in an even better position with God than all the others(none like him on the earth) why Job isn’t mentioned in Hebrews?

    What on earth do you mean by “if God isn’t responsible for suffering is he even a god? Why where who says that to be omnipotent God you have to be the source of suffering? James says Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Now forgive me if I am wrong but when did suffering become a good and perfect gift? Jesus quite clearly distinguishes between good gifts (food) and nasty gifts (scorpion) and then confirms that God only sends good. Otherwise that would make God worse that the evil people Jesus speaks of who know to do good.

    Do you believe that had Adam and Eve not given in to temptation – that they would have experienced suffering in the Garden of Eden anyway?

    I don’t get this fixation with the quote of a cosmic cash machine – that is certainly not how I see God. But I would love to know your definition of grace if it isn’t the most amazing free gift of all time? We don’t “demand” blessings – but accept humbly it’s what God wants to give us because HE SAYS SO!


  11. Revelation 4 v 11 – created for his pleasure – justification for Adam & Eve’s existence – for God’s pleasure – created as an object of God’s love – he could Love and minister to them – they could love him back – a two way street – God got pleasure out of fellowshipping with Adam and Eve. No pleasure in causing people to suffer


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: