‘If God loves us so much, why does he allow us to suffer?’ It's the problem of suffering and it’s certainly one of the great challenges that Christians have always had to face either from the opponents of faith as well as from our own feelings of disheartenment as we, each one of us, to a varying degree must suffer the trials and tribulations of life. There appears to be no limits to the suffering we might be expected to endure. And occasionally we will hear that cliché that ‘there are worse things than dying.’ Job, as he suffered, began not only to wish that he’d never been born but began to long for death, to go down into his own grave, so to speak.
Job cried out:
Oh, why give light to those who are in misery, and life to those who are bitter? They long for death and it won’t come. They search for death more eagerly than for hidden treasure (4:20-21)
As we begin to consider again the opening chapters of this wisdom story from the Old Testament, we will remember that (from the first part in this series) we left Job surveying the wreckage of his life, the deaths of his seven sons and three daughters and all his worldly wealth, his 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, and 500 female donkeys and nearly all his servants; everything gone; either killed, stolen or murdered.
Omitted in the first instalment of this series, was that Job seemed to have instituted his own insurance policy with God. Well, it was an insurance policy for his children really, because in the first chapter starting at verse five it reads that:
Job’s sons would take turns preparing feasts in their homes, and they would also invite their three sisters to celebrate with them. When these celebrations ended sometimes after several days - Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular practice. (1:5)
Now we have all heard the phrase ‘burnt offerings’ and as we’ve just heard Job would offer a burnt offering to God. Now a ‘burnt offering’ is not a Sunday joint or some roast potatoes that have been left too long in the oven and then offered to you for dinner. The burnt offering is of course a kind of sacrifice to God. The first mention of a burnt offering in the Bible is found in Genesis 8:20 and this burnt offering was a thanks giving to God from Noah after the Flood had receded and his family were once again able to resume their lives on dry ground:
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and there he sacrificed as burnt offerings the animals and birds that had been approved for that purpose. And the LORD was pleased with the aroma of the sacrifice and said to himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent toward evil from childhood.’
Now, in the story of Job we are told of the feasts held at the houses of his sons. And these feasts were not just simply occasions for a casual barbeque or an evening meal, but rather, much more than that, they were lavish affairs of eating and drinking stretching out over several days. We can assume that Job wasn’t present at these extended parties and it would be hard to imagine that they were events that Job would have entirely approved of. Rather such occasions for Job come across as being problematic to say the least. Job as we have already seen was a highly respected man, a man who had found favour with both God and man. We have these words from God himself saying:
Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless – a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil (1:8)
Yes, ‘Job fears God and stays away from evil’. Here we come to the nub of the problem, let’s look at that statement again, ‘Job fear’s God and stays away from evil’. The story of Job is supposed to be a wisdom story. How do we square the problem of evil and suffering in a world created by a loving God? How do we do it? We all want to be in control of our own lives, because at the very least we would wish each one of us to be secure or at least to be prepared for some sudden misfortune or a foreseeable eventuality. But as Job found out, and as experience shows us, forces outside of our control often impact on our lives and our plans. As Robert Burns famously wrote:
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
And so, we have it from the pen of Scotland’s greatest poet, the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go wrong. Let’s hear these words of grace from God as he speaks of Job:
He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless – a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil (1:8)
How hard it must have been for Job to live up to such standards of holiness as he faced the unholy problems of day-to-day life, like:
‘Hi dad, just to let you know I’m having another feast at my place’
‘Right son, are you celebrating anything in particular?’
‘No, not really Dad, it’s just that it’s been a few weeks since we had a get together, plenty of good food and plenty of booze; you can come if you like’.
‘Erm, well, no thanks son, I’d rather not, it’d be a bit much for me and your mum, but you go ahead and enjoy yourselves.
Here we go again, Job’s sons and daughters, getting ready for another round of good old-fashioned debauchery. The old fellow doesn’t know exactly what they are all getting up to at these parties but I should imagine that he’s got a good idea. Then in the Bible we have Job saying:
Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts. (1:5)
Do us a favour Job, if you’re having to get up early in the morning after your adult children have indulged in one of these week-long pleasure-seeking parties, to offer a burnt sacrifice to the Lord as an atonement for each of them for their probable sins, like it’s some kind of pay off to the Lord, some a sort of holy insurance policy - I would rather get the impression that perhaps Job, you are trying too hard. Trying so hard that you are even trying to take responsibility for the possibility that your grown-up children are not right with God.
It all sounds a bit manic to me because it just can’t be done, we can only live the one life, actually our own life, we can’t live another person’s life even to help them, and once our children have grown up, they have to be free to live their own lives and free to make their own mistakes if that’s what they want to do. I’m not saying that Job shouldn’t have prayed for his children, of course he should, but it’s clear from the text Job was going further than that. If we look at the text again, it says:
Job would purify his children and offer a burnt offering for each of them.
But suppose that this ritual of Job is just that: a ritual. Suppose that once he’s done that, he thinks he can tick that job off his ‘to do list’ until his sons decide to have another party where again they may potentially sin, then old Job will have to have another early start so that he can put things right with God on their behalf. The question is, can anyone really buy their children that kind of indulgence from God? What kind of God do we think we are dealing with anyway? We should bear in mind the words of Thomas Merton who once said that:
What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God
And Job certainly had no insight into the mystery of God. That’s the whole point of the story. We might remember that scene in the heavenly court, God asking Satan where he had come from and Satan’s answer that he, Satan, had been wandering round the earth watching everything that had been going on. Now in the story as we have it, we can read that it wasn’t Satan that brought up the question of Job, it was God. It was God that exposed Job to Satan’s attention in the first place and it was God who gave Satan permission to test Job and to make him suffer. And It’s only natural that we ourselves should seek to understand, to explain and interpret this story for ourselves.
In the Book of Proverbs, we are told that, ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ Could it be that in spite of Job’s protestations of innocence that it was true, as Satan implied, that Job really was taking God for granted? Or could it be that Job was trying too hard to be a favourite of God and as such was, he beginning to display some kind of inverted pride, a sort of spiritual pride hidden behind a mask of piety or humility? Or is the point of the story simply that we should take the Book of Job at its word, that God really meant it when he said that Job was a ‘blameless man, a man of complete integrity, a man who feared God and stayed away from evil’ and that we should just accept that God has his own reasons for all that he does and it simply is that we are not privy to the deliberations of his wisdom, his judgements and his plans. And that ultimately, we are led to conclude that we must live by faith, to trust in the Lord our God, and not to lean on our own understanding, but in all our ways to acknowledge him and know that he will direct our paths.