The Omnipotence of God and Human Suffering – Part 1
Introduction: “The Book of Job,” writes D.A. Carson, “frankly insists that suffering falls within the sweep of God’s sovereignty.”[i] Down through the centuries Christians have found comfort in knowing that whatever difficulties and suffering they have encountered, they know that God has good and wise purposes (Rom. 8:23). Furthermore, they have confidence in the promises of God and know that He providentially directs all the affairs of this world (including the pain and suffering we individually experience). But a new group of professing evangelicals informs us that we have all been seriously mistaken. Open view theists confidently assert that God does not know the future. He is unable to prevent evil and human suffering, and try as He might to direct us in the right way He is sometimes faulty in His guidance and stands in need of our forgiveness. Listen to the words of Open View theist David Basinger, “since God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run. For example, given that God may not know exactly what the state of the economy will be over the next five or ten years, it is possible that what God in his wisdom believes at present to be the best course of study for a student may not be an option that will allow her after graduation to pursue the profession for which she has prepared.”[ii] Open View theist John Sanders argues that God cannot control the weather and as such He is every bit as surprised as the rest of us when a hurricane or earthquake occurs.[iii] May I suggest that if the Open View theists are correct, God, like Job’s three friends, is a miserable comforter (16:2)!
I. Job’s Sufferings and Initial Reactions (Job 1-3)
A. God is Sovereign: The reader understands, as Job does not, that Job’s afflictions owe everything to the exchange between God and Satan. Satan himself recognizes his limitations: he had to secure permission to afflict Job. He charges God with “putting a hedge” around Job to protect him. Only when God grants permission can Satan lash out at Job’s family and livelihood. Even then he must secure separated permission to strike Job’s body. In short, all forms of dualism are radically rejected. Job will not resort to easy comfort about this not really being the will of God: it must be the work of Satan. Of course, it was the work of Satan. But in God’s universe, even Satan’s work cannot step outside the outermost boundaries of God’s sovereignty. G. C. Berkouwer perceptibly observes, “In the contest that follows we see God’s permission of Satan to manifest his power: “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life” (2:6). Once again, the essential point is that the accusation of Satan takes place before God’s throne. Thus the devil’s indictment cannot possibly be viewed apart from this relation to God. If anywhere, it is certainly clear in these chapters that the power of the evil one is no “overwhelming force.” Even the most dismal of human tragedies and emergencies are under God’s control. “Only spare his life…” The fact that Satan could not touch Job’s life is an indication of that border beyond which he was not able to go.”[iv] While that is what raise the problem, it is also what promises hope.
B. Innocent Suffering Does Occur: The emphasis on Job’s goodness is meant to highlight the fact that there is such a thing as innocent suffering. This means more than that not all suffering is directly related to a specific sin; it means that some suffering in this world is not directly related to any sin. Undoubtedly one can posit indirect connections by appealing to other Scriptures about the fall and the universality of sin. But they do not rob the Book of Job of the point being strongly emphasized: the link between suffering and retribution found in, say Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Romans, is never so mathematically rigid, so symmetrically precise, as to rule out the kind of suffering this book considers.
C. True Faith is not Blind Optimism: The degree to which we struggle with this question is likely to be related to the extent of our own sufferings. That Job can say, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me” (3:25) is not a sign that he did not really trust God, and therefore he got what he deserved: that would subvert the purpose of the entire book—in the third chapter, at that! The purpose of these words, rather, is to show that Job had already thought about these matters. He had thought enough about them to know that, from his own observation, from his own knowledge of God, he could not consider him-self exempt from the possibility of disastrous loss. Such loss was what he feared. To that extent, he was prepared for it; probably that prepared mind was also one of the reasons why his initial responses are so entirely noble (13:15).
D. Stoicism is never the Response of Faith: God does not blame us if in our suffering we frankly vent our despair and confess our loss of hope, our sense of futility, our lamentations about life itself. One cannot read chapter 3 without recalling that God will later excoriate the miserable comforters, but will insist that Job himself said right things (42:7). Of course, it is possible in grief and misery to say the wrong things, to say blasphemous things. Job’s wife is not praised for her counsel: “Curse God and die!” (2:9). But within certain boundaries, yet to be explored, it is far better to be frank about our grief, candid in our despair, honest with our questions, than to suppress them and wear a public front of puffy piety. God knows our thoughts in any case. Whatever “resolution” the Book of Job provides turns on Job’s questions and God’s responses. Without the questions, there would have been no responses.
E. The Mysterious Side of Suffering: Already the theme of mystery has intruded. Neither at the beginning of the affliction nor at the end does God tell Job about Satan’s challenge and his own response. Indeed, had he done so, the purpose of the affliction would have been subverted. God’s intent, (the readers know) is to show that a human being can love God, fear God, and pursue righteousness without receiving any prompt reward. This pursuit of God is therefore independent of material comfort; it may be in defiance of material comfort. Satan’s thesis, that all religious interest is ultimately grounded in self-interest, or worse, in mercenary commitment, is thus shown to be false. But Job himself is not permitted to see this dimension of his suffering. As far as he is concerned, he faces inscrutable mystery.
F. Faith Does Not Seek Easy Answers: That is why Job’s initial lament, and his later questions, must be placed within the right framework. At no point does Job abandon faith in God; at no point does he follow his wife’s advice to curse God. It is precisely because he knows God to be there, and to be loving and just, that he has such a hard time understanding such injustice. Job wrestles with God, he is indignant with God, he challenges God to come before him and provide some answers; but all his struggles are the struggles of a believer. That is why Job can be praised, by God himself, for saying the right things: at least he spoke within the right framework. His miserable friends did not.
II. Job’s Plaintive Outrage and his Miserable Comforters (Job 4-31): Job’s lament is all the encouragement his three friends need to break their silence. The way the drama is set out, each of them—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—have a go at Job, trying to correct his theology and lead him to repentance. After each speaks, Job himself replies. Then the entire cycle is repeated, and starts to be repeated yet again. The third cycle sputters out with a short contribution from Bildad (25:1-6); Zophar never does contribute to the third round. By this time, Job is really indignant, and makes a lengthy speech (Chaps. 26-31) that silences his interlocutors without convincing them. Job and his friends represent deeply entrenched and opposed positions on the questions surrounding Job’s sufferings. To simplify a bit, we may summarize their positions.
A. Job’s Friends Offer Glib Answers and a Condemning Spirit: The heart of their theological position is summed up by Eliphaz’s question: “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it” (4:7-8).
B. Job Responds With Self-Justification and Hard Questions: He is guilty of nothing that can justify such suffering. The readers know this to be true: Job is suffering because God is demonstrating his servant’s spiritual integrity to Satan, not because Job is being punished. But to feel the weight of their arguments, we need to follow the line of some of their speeches. Eliphaz begins with a sly swipe at Job’s distress. After all, Job has offered advice and help to many others who have suffered. “But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed” (4:5). Furthermore, his remarks in4:17-21 cannot be square with what he said in 4:6! Bildad does not consider the gravity of sin since he assumes that it is possible to stand before God blameless (8:6). Zophar’s counsel reeks of pure Pelagianism (11:13-20). Job reiterates several points. None can escape this God; there is plenty of evidence for suffering that has nothing to do with punishment (“Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble,” 14:1); Job himself is innocent, and is certain that in a fair trial he would be vindicated (13:18). The second cycle of speeches begins, and then the third. There is not space here to survey them, not to detail Job’s responses to his “miserable comforters” (16:2). But several things must be said in summary.
1. They have Simplistic Theology: Suffering is understood exclusively in terms of punishment or chastening. There is no category for innocent suffering: in their understanding, such a suggestion besmirches the integrity of the Almighty.
2. They Lack Compassion and Empathy: Although they are quick to defend God and say many wonderful things about him, their arguments are cast in tones so condescending to Job that one begins to lose patience with them.
(To Be Continued)
Conclusion: A large portion of the book of Job is devoted to the counsel of Job’s three friends. William Henry Green in his classic work on Job writes, “We cannot be mistaken in supposing that they have much to do with the case here pending. They are not mere spectators in a scene, which deeply affects them as concerning their intimate and life-long friend. They are themselves actors and participants, and that in a most significant and important way. They appear in the very crisis of Job’s trial; in the last and most terrible stage of his sufferings, and when it would seem as though nature could bear no more. They, too, are unwittingly taken into the service of the tempter, who makes use of them to add a fresh aggravation to Job’s intolerable woe, which is most artfully contrived to drive him to that result which Satan seeks to compass, to make him do what his cunning and unscrupulous enemy has from the first been aiming to bring about, viz., to renounce the service of the Lord.”[v] This was Satan’s strategy with Eve in the Garden of Eden—doubt the goodness of God. Scripture refocuses our hearts and minds on the God whose character is revealed in it. Knowing him better is our deepest need. Meeting that need will put all of our other needs—our doubts, discouragements, depression, disconsolation—in their proper context. On one occasion when he was greatly discouraged, Martin Luther, the sixteenth century reformer, was forcefully reminded of this by his wife, Katharine. Seeing him unresponsive to any word of encouragement, one morning she appeared dressed in black mourning clothes. No word of explanation was forthcoming, and so Luther, who had heard nothing of a bereavement, asked her: “Katharine, why are you dressed in mourning black?” “Someone has died,” she replied. “Died?” said Luther, “I have not heard of anyone dying. Whoever can have died?” “It seems,” his wife replied, “that God must have died!” Luther took the point. He, a believer, a Christian, with such a great God to call his Father, was living like a practical atheist. But Luther knew that God was not dead. God was living, reigning, active in the events of history, and in Luther’s own life. How foolish he had been! Discouragement was immediately banished.[vi]
[i] D. A. Carson, How Long O’ Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker, 1990), p. 158. I have relied onCarson’s survey of the book of Job for the structure of this sermon.
[ii] D. Basinger in The Openness of God (IVP, 1994), p. 165.
[iii] J. Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (IVP, 1998), p. 263.
[iv] G. C. Berkouwer Studies In Dogmatics: Sin (Eerdmans, 1971), p. 119.
[v] W. H. Green, The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded (Robert Carter & Bros., 1873), p. 111.
[vi] This story is taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s Deserted By God (Baker, 1993), p. 16.
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