The Omnipotence of God and Human Suffering – Part 2

Introduction: One very common notion, and one that is without any Biblical foundation, is the assumption that everything that takes place in God’s universe ought to be explained to us. In this mindset, God owes us an explanation and there cannot be any reason for God not to explain to us why things are the way they are. In fact, this view of God says that God is accountable to us, and instead of being worshipped and trusted, He must first give His creatures a rationale for His actions! “It is not the design of God,” wrote William Henry Green, “to offer a vindication of His dealings with men in general, or a justification of His providence towards Job. He has no intention of placing Himself at the bar of His creatures, and erecting them into judges of His conduct. He is not amenable to them, and He does not recognize their right to be censors of Him and of His ways. The righteousness of His providence does not depend upon their perceiving or admitting it. The Lord does not here stand on the defensive, nor allow it to appear as though He were in any need of being relieved from the strictures of Job, or it were of any account to Him whether feeble worms approved His dealings or confessed the propriety of His dispensations. He puts Himself in a totally different attitude, and moves upon quite another plane. He is the sovereign Lord of all, accountable to no being but Himself. He does not appear to vindicate Himself, but to rescue Job.”[i]

I.          Job and Elihu – Job 32-37:  Chapters 32-37 are among the most interesting, and the most difficult, in the book. They start off by raising our expectations. Elihu, not mentioned until this point, has kept his peace throughout the debate, because the other participants are older than he; custom demanded that age take precedence. But now they fall silent, and Elihu, whose wrath has been stoked by the debate, declares himself angry with both Job and his three friends. It should be noted that at the end of the book, Elihu is neither praised nor condemned. We may summarize his argument this way:

1:         Elihu begins with a rather lengthy apology for speaking to his seniors (32:6-22). Among the factors that compel him to speak is his conviction (as he says to Job’s three friends) that “not one of you has proved Job wrong; none of you has answered his arguments” (32:12). This does not mean he thinks Job is entirely right, as we shall see; but Elihu has carefully distanced himself from the theology of the “miserable comforters.”

2:         When Elihu turns to Job, he first rebukes him for impugning God’s justice (33:8ff). Job may be innocent (Elihu will come to that in due course), but that does not give him the right to charge God with injustice. There is a sense in which Job himself has been snookered by a simplistic doctrine of mathematically precise retribution. The major difference between Job and his three friends is not their underlying views of retribution, but their views of Job’s guilt or innocence. Because Job is convinced he is innocent, he is prepared to skirt the view that God himself is guilty. Elihu will not have it: “But I tell you, in this you are not right” (33:12). The first reason why Job is not right is that “God is greater than man” (33:12). By this Elihu does not mean to say that greatness provides an excuse for wrongdoing, but that God may well have some purposes and perspectives in mind of which Job knows nothing. However much Job insists he is innocent, he must therefore put a guard on his tongue and refrain from making God guilty.

3:         The second thing Elihu says to Job is that God speaks more often and in more ways than Job acknowledges. “Why do you complain to him that he answers none of man’s words?” (33:13). The truth of the matter, Elihu insists, is that God may also speak in the language of pain (33:19ff.). This is an advance on the argument between Job and his friends. Here is a chastening use of suffering that may be independent of some particular sin. Its purpose may be preventative: it can stop a person from slithering down the slope to destruction.

4:         In chapter 34, Elihu is so concerned to defend the justice of God that his rhetoric becomes a little overheated. On the positive side, Elihu is determined to stop Job from implying that God is guilty of injustice.

5:         In the last two chapters devoted to Elihu (chaps. 36-37), several themes come together, and Elihu begins to appear in a more compassionate guise. The burden of the passage is this: whatever else may be said about the problem of evil and suffering, the justice of God must be the “given”: “I will ascribe justice to my Maker,” Elihu pledges (36:3). But God is not malicious. He does care for His people. Therefore the proper response to suffering which we cannot fathom is faith and perseverance; and to avoid bitterness (for it is the godless who harbor resentment, 36:13). Job is in danger here: “Beware of turning to evil, which you seem to prefer to affliction” (36:21)—that is, Job
must not turn to evil as a way of alleviating his suffering. Be patient, Elihu is saying, “those who suffer (God) delivers in (lit. through) their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food” (36:15-16). Be patient; it is better to be a chastened saint than a carefree sinner.

II.         Job and God – Job 38:1-42:6:  Finally God Himself speaks, answering Job out of the storm (Chaps. 38-41). “Who is this that darkens My counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me” (38:2-3). Then there follows question after question, each designed to remind Job of the kinds of things he cannot do, and that only God can. “The grand object of the whole of this magnificent address of Jehovah to Job is to impress him with his utter ignorance of the world in which he lived, and incompetency therefore to interpret God’s moral administration. He gives him to understand that, as he cannot explain the phenomena of His natural government, it is useless for him to attempt understanding His moral; and, therefore, he should submit, and not contend. The moral of the whole sublime communication appears to be this, Be concerned, Job, for a moral trust in my character, rather than for a theoretical knowledge of My ways.”[ii] Job is satisfied. His vision of God had been expanded beyond all previous bounds. He has a new appreciation of the scope and harmony of God’s world, of which he is but a small part. But this discovery does not make him feel insignificant. Just by looking at ordinary things, he realizes that he cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to be God. The world is beautiful and terrifying, and in it all, God is everywhere, seen to be powerful and wise, and more mysterious when He is known than when He is but dimly discerned. The Lord has spoken to Job. That fact alone is marvelous beyond all wonder. Job has grown in wisdom, he is at once delighted and ashamed.[iii] His first spontaneous outburst, so different from the reserve of his reply to the first speech, is an expression of unrestrained admiration for God’s complete sovereignty: “You can do everything! None of your plans can be frustrated.” (42:2).

Concluding Observations:  

1:         We must be aware of our tendency to interpret the world from our own finite (and biased!) perspective. When the suffering starts, the same self-centered focus on my world and my interests, rather ironically, wants God to provide answers of sparkling clarity.

2:         Throughout his excruciating suffering, Job has demonstrated that he serves the Lord out of a pure heart. True, he has said some stupid things and has been rebuked, but at no point does he simply curse God and turn his back on Him. Even his demand that God present Himself before Job and give an answer is the cry of a believer seeking to find out what on earth God is doing. Even while sitting in the ash pit, Job trusts God enough to express extraordinary confidence in Him, having no ulterior motive.

3:         No matter how happy the ending, nothing can remove the suffering itself. The losses Job faced would always be with him. A happy ending is better than a miserable one, but it does not transform the suffering he endured into something less than suffering. A survivor of the Holocaust has not suffered less because he ultimately settles into a comfortable life in Los Angeles.

4:         The Book of Job has no interest in praising mystery without restraint. All Biblical writers insist that to fear the Lord ultimately leads to a better life. If this were not so, to fear the Lord would be stupid and masochistic. The book does not disown all forms of retribution; rather, it disowns simplistic, mathematically precise, and instant application of the doctrine of retribution. It categorically rejects any formula that affirms that the righteous always prosper and the wicked are always destroyed. There may be other reasons for suffering; (rewards of blessing or of destruction) may be long delayed knowledge of God is its own reward.

5:         The blessings that Job experiences at the end are not cast as rewards that he has earned by his faithfulness under suffering. The epilogue simply describes the blessings as the Lord’s free gift. The Lord is not nasty or capricious. He may for various reasons withdraw His favor, but His love endures forever.

6:         We are perhaps better situated now to understand precisely why God says that His servant Job spoke of Him “what was right,” while the three miserable comforters did not. True, Job is rebuked for darkening the Lord’s counsel: he became guilty of an arrogance that dared to demand that God give an account of His actions. But Job has been genuinely groping for the truth and has not allowed glib answers to deter him. He denies neither God’s sovereignty nor (at least in most of his statements!) God’s justice. Above all, so far as the wager between God and Satan is concerned, Job passes with flying colors: he never turns his back on God. Contrast that with the three friends. Although they are trying to defend God, their reductionistic theology ends up offering Job a temptation: to confess sins that weren’t there, in order to try to retrieve his prosperity. If Job had succumbed, it would have meant that Job cared more for prosperity than for his integrity or for the Lord Himself; and the Lord would have lost his wager. Their counsel, if followed, would have actually led Job away from the Lord; Job would have been reduced to being yet one more person interested in seeking God for merely personal gain. This is, at the end of the day, the ultimate test of our knowledge of God. Is it robust enough that, when faced with excruciating adversity, it may prompt us to lash out with hard questions, but will never permit us to turn away from God?[iv] John Wenham sums up the matter, “Job accepted what his mind could not understand, but what his heart told him was true. To take refuge finally in the inscrutability of God is not evasion, it is the highest wisdom demanded both by reason and sincere piety. Job knew nothing of the cross, yet he believed God. How much more then is it true of a Christian that, when he sees himself as a creature and a sinner in the presence of his incarnate Creator crucified, he knows that he can neither understand nor doubt.”[v]

References

[i] W. H. Green, The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded (Robert Carter & Bros., 1873), p. 286.

[ii] David Thomas, Problemata Mundi: The Book of Job Exegetically and Practically Considered (rpt. James & Klock, 1976)), p. 435.

[iii] Francis I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP, 1974), pl. 291.

[iv] The substance of this outline is adapted with slight modification from D. A. Carson’s analysis of Job in his How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering & Evil (Baker, 1990), pp.153-178.

[v] J. W. Wenham, The Goodness of God (IVP, 1974), p. 86.

Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism (2 DVDs)

 

What is Calvinism? Does this teaching make man a robot and God the author of sin? What about free will? If the church accepts Calvinism won’t evangelism be stifled, perhaps extinguished? How can we balance God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? What are the differences between historic Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism? Why did men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Edwards and a host of evangelists deny the Arminian definition of free will and label it heresy? Why did the Roman Catholic Church condemn the Reformed teaching of predestination and election and embrace free will theology? And why do so many Protestants, perhaps unwittingly, agree with Rome on this issue?

Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism is the first video documentary that answers these and other related questions. Hosted by Eric Holmberg (Hell’s Bells 1 & 2; The Massacre of Innocence) this fascinating three-part, four-hour presentation is detailed enough so as to not gloss over the controversy. At the same time, it is broken up into ten “Sunday-school-sized” sections so as to make the rich content manageable and accessible for the average viewer.

Part One explores the history of the debate. It begins with the pivotal dispute between Augustine and Pelagius and continues through the semi-pelagian controversy; focusing particularly on the debate between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus. Many viewers will be shocked to discover that free-will theology was NOT the doctrine of the Reformation but instead the teaching of an increasingly apostate Roman Catholic Church. The history section ends with a definitive historical explanation of the issues that arose during the Calvinist/Arminian controversy. By examining the five points of Arminianism and the Synod of Dort’s response, the viewer will clearly see that the Protestant Church understood how the Gospel would be compromised if Arminianism prevailed.

Part Two opens the Word of God, our ultimate authority for life and faith. The five points of Arminianism are put on trial as what would later come to be known as the “five points of Calvinism” are clearly and forcefully presented.

Part Three asks and answers the provocative question: If Calvinism is true, if God is absolutely sovereign; then why should we evangelize? It also explores the vital issue of how to and to whom the gospel should be presented so as to be faithful to the great doctrines of God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and the miracle of amazing grace.

Rich in graphics, dramatic vignettes, and biblical analogies, Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism features many of the finest reformed thinkers and pastors of our time: Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. George Grant, Dr. Stephen Mansfield, Dr. Thomas Ascol, Dr. Thomas Nettles, Dr. Roger Schultz, Pastor Walt Chantry, Dr. Joe Morecraft, Dr. Ken Talbot, Pastor Walter Bowie and Dr. R.C. Sproul, Jr.

Learn what the great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon meant when he said, “…to deny Calvinism is to deny the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

 

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