Wrestling with God in the Midst of Suffering
When I was 19 a doctor told me I might have a disease that would allow me only a few more years to live. I had been ill, and with my not-so-enviable family genes, a team of doctors was analyzing me in a clinic far from home. I left the clinic that night, knowing the details of the disease and contemplating what it would mean for my life.
In the apartment we were renting, I began to send messages to a friend back home in Oregon. I detailed the symptoms that I had and the ones that may be coming if this was true.
His response: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be praised.”
My response as I read those words: “Jerk-face! Who says that when a friend shares hard stuff?”
Thankfully, I only thought it and didn’t type it back to him. It took 30 minutes before I began to question if he was right. If God rules the world, then does all I have belong to him anyway? Am I called to praise him even when I wrestle in suffering?
His message began the struggle with God, with a pounding of questions, in the midst of cycles of suffering to come.
Indescribable Loss and Incompetent Comforters
Job was blameless in the eyes of God, as well as rich in commerce, greatness, and family. He feared God, caring about what he thought first and foremost. Yet there was still cosmic debate and Satan questioning Job’s motivations, so God allowed Satan to take his possessions, children, and, eventually, his health. His response was what my friend referenced – he praised God. (Job 1:21, Job 2:10). Nonetheless he still mourned.
As good friends, the comforters gathered first with kindness in silence. However, when the silence was broken, so was the peace. After Job’s opening expressions of despair and anger came a deluge of accusations, assumptions, and insinuations. Job’s friends “knew” God better than Job, so, of course, they were “right.” Job must have sinned, or God would not have allowed this evil to happen to him.
They were master over-simplifiers. They took the biblical wisdom literature and made it into formulas. Bad things happen to bad people, and good things to good people, they reiterated incessantly. Job must be bad. His only hope was to repent so God could restore him.
Job defended himself for 3 rounds, responding to his friends before the cycle began again. He was innocent, he maintained. They were wrong. In his grief, Job described his pain and the character of God, all the while he pleading for God to do something or to respond. Job knew God had put him where he was (Job 19:6-7), yet he also knew that God would vindicate him. God was righteous and still his hope. (Job 27:1-22)
Then a fourth junior team friend speaks; Eliju comes with a more moderate position. He says that neither the friends nor Job are right, and, with an air of authority, he declares that he knows. While his argument isn’t perfectly correct either, he does shift the conversation from centering on Job and humanity’s iniquity to the majesty and faithfulness of God.
In my apartment late that fearful night, I didn’t have accusers or bad theologians as friends. But those did come later. – “Your suffering was generated by God’s anger at your sin.”-- This allegation related to my health, my circumstances, as well as other kinds of suffering. Like Job, I’ve sometimes responded with strong words to those who told me this. Like Job, I’ve wrestled with questions about physical, emotional, and relational pain. Like Job, I’ve needed to hear from God himself.
The Astounding Interview
The LORD God answered Job out of a whirlwind. He gave him the interview he had been begging for. But the conversation consisted of questions for Job, rather than the planned questions for God. God brought perspective through his correction, reminding Job of his place. He allowed Job to reexamine who he was and who God was. Job was not God. He does not see it all. He did not create the world and he does not rule it now. Can Job judge God? Can he evaluate if God is doing what he should?
God reminds him of the wild, dangerous, beautiful world that it is. With examples of the Behemoth and the Leviathan, he shows him this world is not tame. It is complex. Job responds with faith, faith in God’s words and God’s role. He changes his mind and is finally comforted. (Job 42:1-6)
In all of this, God does not condemn Job. He is not provoked to punishment. He actually vindicates Job. He tells the “friends” that they need Job’s prayers to avoid their punishment from God, whom they represented falsely.
Faith in Pain
I find great hope in the fact that the struggle of Job was not condemned. Job fought to understand. He sought to know the character of God combined with what he saw happening to him. God saw and engaged. And he held him up as the righteous one among his friends. God vindicated Job by showing him that his suffering was not due to sin. But Job needed more. Later in history, the Redeemer Job hoped for came to bring the fullness of his hope. (Job 19:25) He is our mediator, so we can come to God with our questions and wrestle with hope. Hope because we know his response will be only love and discipline, never God’s anger towards our sin. Because our Redeemer took all of that forever.
The book doesn’t answer why God allows suffering. It doesn’t give us impersonal truths to cling to. Instead the focus lands squarely on faith- the faith of Job to trust in the One who he knows is also allowing him to suffer. It is choosing hope in redemption from the God who brings pain to our lives.
Many years later, I am still alive. The next morning the diagnosis the doctors had feared was eliminated as a possibility. But the truth still remained- God gives and takes away. I wanted to praise him no matter what. Suffering, hardship, pain come to us in this dangerous world. Sometimes it is because of our own sin, directly or indirectly. Other times it is not.
I still wrestle sometimes. We will all likely wrestle like Job at some point in our lives, asking God to answer. The same God-in-the-whirlwind will engage us as struggling sufferers with truth. He will meet us with a reminder of what our Redeemer has done, as the full answer to our suffering. He will comfort us with hope. And he will humble us by telling us that he is still God. Yes, Lord, you are. And we praise you.