Suffering is an inevitable part of our human existence, and it often leaves us grappling for answers. Naturally, we want to understand WHY things happen in life and our churches are a source we inevitably turn to.
However, not all churches approach the topic of suffering in the same way. In a world that craves certainty and rational explanations, churches can sometimes fall into the trap of trying to provide neat formulas to explain suffering.
Let’s extract some ancient wisdom from the book of Job. After we do, we’ll be able to understand how a healthy church deals with suffering; namely that it is drawn closer to the Lord in the midst of it.
God allows suffering
The book of Job is about an blameless, upright man who honors God, but experiences unimaginable suffering that God allows.
The story starts off with a heavenly court scene where a character called “the accuser” puts forth the notion that the only reason Job obeys God is because He’s been blessed with prosperity. The accuser’s claim is that if God would allow Job to suffer, he likely wouldn’t be so righteous.
And so God agrees to allow the accuser to inflict intense suffering on Job.
Human assumptions about suffering
This of course, brings up one of the hardest things about life we humans struggle with – trying to wrap our minds around why God allows suffering in the lives of those He loves. Our natural inclination is to reason that the more righteous we are, the more prosperous life we’ll have.
But this is an assumption humans make about how God must run the world that isn’t correct. We tend to think that the world should be run according to a strict rule of justice – that good people should have good things happen to them and bad people should have bad things happen to them.
Throughout the story, Job and three “friends” dialogue back and forth in an effort to resolve why this has happened to Job. They do it under this assumption.
Job argues that he’s innocent and his suffering is not a divine punishment. He’s right, it’s not. So he sees two possibilities – either God doesn’t run the world according to justice or God is Himself unjust.
He seems to lean toward the second, going so far as accusing God of being a bully who just does what He wants regardless of the quality of people’s lives…because He can.
As you can imagine, he’s intensely emotional here, so he’s working through all the possibilities.
The “friends” argument
The friends disagree with Job. They argue that God IS just. Therefore, Job must have done something really bad (they’re wrong, He didn’t) or God must use suffering to teach humans lessons that will help them avoid doing bad things in the future.
But Job knows he’s innocent. So after many rounds of conversation, he eventually dismisses the friends’ arguments.
Still at a loss, Job demands that God show up and explain Himself. And He does!
He takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe and it’s here where we get the famous verses of chapter 38 that challenge Job’s minute perspective…
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding, who set it’s measurement? Since you know. Or who stretched the measuring line over it?
Basically, God is offering Job a perspective of how small he is and how that affects his ability to truly understand how God runs the world.
But what He does help Job understand is that the world is much more complex than both Job and his friends have assumed. Because of this, it’s impossible for Him to run it according to their limited thinking.
Not only is the world complex, but it’s also not perfect or safe all the time. While God’s world has goodness in it at this stage, that doesn’t prevent suffering.
So God doesn’t tell Job why he’s suffering, but He shows him that he doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to challenge God about how He runs the world.
This is an invitation to trust more in God’s love and wisdom that He knows what He’s doing in the world instead of trying to figure out the reasons we suffer.
Which way do we move?
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because we’re alive in this complex world. The main question we have to answer is not “Why?” but “Which way do we move when we go through suffering; toward God or away from Him?”
The book of Job strikes directly at philosophies built on the notion that prosperity and suffering operate according to any sort of formulas. Being a “good person” doesn’t mean everything will go well for you. Jesus Himself lived a perfect life and died with nothing.
We can’t figure it out
We live in an age of reason. We put an emphasis on trusting in what we can figure out. We have all the information in the world in our pockets at all times. We tend to feel like there should be answers for everything, and churches are seen as a source of finding answers.
Churches can fall into the trap of being like the three “friends,” trying to provide logical answers for suffering. But in the effort to help, the three friends show us that more damage than good can be done.
Unlike the “friends,” healthy churches won’t give the following reasons to people for times of suffering in their lives…
- You did something wrong.
- God is teaching you a lesson to help you be a better person.
A healthy church knows that we humans have a minute perspective that can’t explain away everything. It doesn’t try to explain away suffering through cause and effect formulas. The world is much more complex than our minds can comprehend at this point.
Instead, it emphasizes moving towards a God who is Love in trust that He knows what He’s doing even when we can’t figure out what’s happening and why.