Why do good people suffer?

Post 23 - Job 1

This seems to be one of the most popular questions around Christianity. A quick search through religious pamphlets shows there’s no shortage of explanations: natural result of bad decisions, rotten luck (aka random chance), sometimes at the hand of bad people, the list goes on. In the Bible, especially the Old Testament (as God was coaxing Israel out of a polytheistic world), they suffered tremendously. God routinely allowed it to remind them to keep their faith and trust in Him.

In the early parts of our lives, we build up a tolerance to (some) suffering – like my three-year-old son not being allowed to eat candy before dinner. Eventually, our suffering and our tolerance level off, and we seem to adopt a baseline acceptance of how much suffering is just a part of our lives, and that becomes our normal. The real challenge, though, is when that level gets rocked, and the suffering we face is WAY beyond what our tolerance is accustomed to.

This is what happened to one of my favorite heroes from the Bible, Job. His suffering was incomprehensibly out of the scope of “fair” (well, at least as far as the world would see it). How he handled it, though, was the amazing part.

Sidebar:
If I were to choose my confirmation name again, it would be Job. He is at or near the top of the list of people I want to talk to in heaven. And the conversation will probably start with me giving him a hug. The Book of Job is also the first book of the Bible I ever read in entirety. I was probably around 12 years old, and I didn’t understand most of it. I started reading it because my grandfather referred to someone as “having the patience of Job,” and I figured I’d like to learn what that meant. (Ah, life before Google…)

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the book is believed to be the first book of the Bible that was actually written down, likely around 2100-1700 BC, around the time Abraham was called out of a polytheistic society, and at least 300 years before Moses wrote down the oral traditions that made up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

If you haven’t read it, it’s quite a story, and not at all what you would expect a timeless classic to be. (Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times.”) The majority of action takes place in the first two chapters. It’s about a five-minute read, but here’s the CliffsNotes version:

The book introduces Job as “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil… He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.” He was also a wealthy man, but not in the way that people are criticized of being wealthy – his wealth signified blessing and approval from God, similar to his family (a wife, seven sons, three daughters, and several servants.) And Job was a good father. “Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of [his children], thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom.” (Job 1:5) (What a loving thing for a father to do – he paid the price so his children could be right with God… Sound familiar? Jesus did the same thing for us. If I fail at everything else in life and die broke, broken, and alone, as long as my kids have a good relationship with Jesus, I’ll count my life a total success.)

The book then cuts to a scene in heaven:

The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
(Job 1:7-12)

And then, in short order, while all his children were dining together, neighboring tribes stole all his oxen, donkeys, and camels, his sheep died in a fire, a strong wind collapsed the house where his children were eating (killing them all), and all but four of his servants were killed as this tragedy unfolded, the minimum number of people necessary to bring this news to Job.

“At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
(Job 1: 20-22)

Then, again, the book cuts back to a scene in heaven:

The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”

“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
(Job 2:2-6)

Now, I can’t imagine what it’s like to incur the full, unrestrained weight of Satan’s wrath, where the only caveat is that he must “leave me alive.” (For an idea of the power of angels, read chapters 18 and 19 of 2 Kings. An angel lower in rank than Satan killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night. (2 Kings 19:35)) You may have noticed, but when you’re having a bad day, Satan doesn’t say, “oh, he’s had a tough afternoon. I think I’ll let up on him here.” No, when you’re at your lowest, Satan usually comes dancing in, looking to tighten the thumbscrews any way he can.

The book continues…

“So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. (Job 2: 7-10)

Now, the rest of the story is (mostly) dialog between Job and his three friends who come to visit. Understandably, Job laments his situation, while his friends’ advice amounts to little more than, “Job, you must’ve done something wrong to deserve this.” Horrible advice and little comfort.

Sidebar:
During Job’s laments, he makes several prophetic statements. Chapter 9 houses a few of my favorites:

    • As Moses was leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, he asked to see God’s glory. God refused, saying, “…no one can see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Instead, God shielded Moses so he couldn’t see and passed by.
      Job 9:11, (speaking about God): “When He passes me, I cannot see Him; when He goes by, I cannot perceive Him.”
    • Jesus’s disciples were rowing a boat against the waves, and just before daybreak, Jesus came walking (on water) to them. (Matthew 14:22-33)
      Job 9:8: “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.”
    • Jesus came to Earth to reconcile everyone back to God, (Romans 5:10), bridging the gap that sin had created between a holy and perfect God and sinful mortals, and taking the punishment so that our debt with God could be paid.
      Job 9: 32-35: “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him but as it now stands with me, I cannot.” That is exactly what Jesus came to do.

In the first two chapters of the book, though, four things really stuck out to me:

The first was how the devil inflicted damage. He didn’t show up wearing a red suit and sporting a goatee. And he didn’t sit next to Job and pitchfork him. He came as a natural disaster and as a sickness. He moved the hearts of godless men so they would raid Job’s farm. Nothing supernatural, and sadly, nothing “out of the ordinary” for a fallen world.

Second, did you notice that the devil didn’t kill Job’s wife? Why? Satan knew her heart and the limits of her faith. He was using her as an advocate for his purpose. He knew that he could use her love as an ally, to try to convince her husband to ultimately do what the devil wanted him to do all along, curse God. (But even in this, God uses her to bring forth a new family for Job. One more example of neither Satan nor Man being able to do anything evil that God cannot un-do.) Turning people away from God has been Satan’s prime goal since the Garden of Eden. And once God allows Job to be stricken, the first person telling him that he should curse God and end it all is his wife. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that she loved him. In fact, it seems like it was out of mercy that she hoped for his death – to end his suffering. But sometimes, the ones closest to us – who want the best for us – actually push us in the wrong direction.

Third, at this point in history, the devil has probably learned that he can’t win a bet against God, yet he goes before God and says, “I’ll bet if you stop being so good to this guy, he’ll turn away from you.” God knows exactly how this will play out, and I think the devil does, too. And so the devil isn’t really doing evil to prove God wrong, he’s doing evil for the sake of doing evil, and this is a telling look into how the devil operates and what really drives him. Those who believe the Billy Joel lyrics, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with saints; the sinners are much more fun,” are in for a surprise when they get to where they wanted to go, only to find out that it’s not the good-old-boys’ club, sitting around reminiscing about practical jokes and tales of conquest.

Finally, and maybe most surprising to me, God volunteered Job. It wasn’t the devil that went to God and asked permission to torment Job. The devil was looking for damage to do on the Earth, and God nominated a faithful servant. God didn’t nominate Job because he was unfaithful, God nominated Job precisely because he was faithful. And this still happens today – all. the. time. But Jesus said us this would happen: “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.’” (John 15:20)

And this leads me to the most important point in all of this: God knows what He’s doing, even in our suffering.

You see, I believe that if God came to Job and said, “I’ll give you a choice, and you can decide what to do. On one hand, I would like you to go through some tough trials. You will lose a lot, and you’ll suffer. It will be hard, and it will be painful. But at the end, you will come out of it. And afterwards, I will restore to you two times everything that you lost. More importantly, billions of people will read your story of faith and perseverance and draw hope from it for their own lives. You, as an example of faithfulness and steadfast perseverance, will help the world through tough times. Or, on the other hand, you can do nothing. The choice is yours,” I believe that Job would have answered as Mary did, “behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you have said.”

And I think that for most of us, if God ever came to us and said the same thing, we would answer the same way. If He laid it all out for us exactly as it would happen, and told us about all the good things that waited for us on the other side of our trials, we would endure them with a whole new attitude.

The hard part is that God doesn’t tell us this in advance. Oftentimes, we don’t know why we’re suffering. Just as Job’s friends erroneously did, some people rush to attribute our suffering to some type of sin… and yes, there are times when our bad life-habits catch up to us and we feel the stress of it, but it’s definitely not all the time. Just as in Job’s case, there are lots of times when we as “good” people suffer unjustly just so other people can watch how we react to the suffering and see our suffering as the light that brings people closer to God.

This is why I have so much respect for Job. When we read his story, we can see everything that’s going on behind the scenes in the realm that Job can’t see. We have an idea of why things are happening. But Job doesn’t. He’s living his life, a good life, and it all crashes down. No explanation, no indication, no justification. Just destruction. And yet he never waivers from his devotion to the Lord. And his faith stayed unshaken, even without a Church (or even a Bible) for support.

After Job’s three friends finish their monologues, God speaks to Job, and basically, He reads him the riot act. God walks Job through the unseen details of the six days of Creation, asking all along, “where were you when I was doing these things?” In other words, “You think your suffering is so terrible and senseless? There are so many things you don’t know about.”

Sidebar:
As God reveals some of the intricacies of Creation, He shows Job a lot of things that science didn’t confirm until (at least) the 19th century AD:

    • 38:8-11: “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?” (This is the major reason I’m not concerned about sea level rise.) Check out the durability of sand. The strongest, most storm-resistant substances on the planet, yet it can be moved by an insect.
    • 38:16: “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” It wasn’t until 1977 that we could build submarines that could dive to the bottom of the ocean and actually see that there were 1.) wellsprings, with complete ecosystems surrounding them, and 2.) really deep trenches down there.
    • 38:22: “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail…” How many men in the Middle East have seen snow, and why bother to write about it to a Middle Eastern audience?
    • 38:29-30: “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?” Again, how does a Middle Eastern writer know that deep water never freezes solid?
    • 40:15-19: “Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength it has in its loins, what power in the muscles of its belly! Its tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron. It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with His sword.” Lots of animals have strong legs and bellies and eat grass (elephants, rhinos, buffalo), but none have “tails like a cedar.” Anachronistic as it may seem, it sounds a lot like God is describing a brontosaurus.

Question: how did the author of Job know all these things 4,000 years ago?
Answer: he talked to the Builder.

At this point, I’m guessing Job realized he didn’t study for the test and says the only thing he can think of, “I am not worthy to respond.” God continues… and when He finished speaking, Job said, “You’re right. I spoke of [complained about] things I did not understand. I repent.” And with that, God relented. He told Job (and his friends) to make a sacrifice to atone for the things they said – and shouldn’t have, and the story ends happily:

“After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.

“The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys [twice what he had before the trials.] And he also had seven sons and three daughters. The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.

“After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. And so Job died, an old man and full of years.

There are a few other things in this story that help me believe that it’s not a work of fiction. Number one is God’s description of the universe. Writing – during the Bronze Age, by the way – about what’s at the bottom of the oceans, or the biology of an eagle’s eye – and being validated by science almost 4,000 years later – seems impossible to me. There’s no way a desert nomad would have guessed about all those things and have been right without divine influence. Second, this was written in the time of Abraham, when practically the entire world was polytheistic, yet it mentions one God. If it were a then-contemporary work of fiction, for it to be embraced by the populace, it would have had to reference multiple gods. Otherwise, the chances of it surviving as a “cult classic” (like the movie genre, not the “occult”) are practically zero, especially in a culture where only the educated elite could write. Finally, if you were trying to attract people to your religion, wouldn’t you carry a message of, “be good, and good things will happen to you,” like every other religion in the world? Nobody would craft a sales pitch like Job’s story, where Job was a really, really good man, and yet the worst things happened to him. And it was done, with the approval of the god we are supposed to worship.

So back to the original question, “why do good people suffer?” All of the reasons have some origin in the fact that we live in a fallen world, swindled by the devil from Adam and Eve. Whatever the reason, God uses it for good – to bring people close to Him, the way He initially intended it. Consider, for a minute, the trade-off: the suffering is temporal – afflicting our bodies, hearts, or bank accounts. Fast-forward 100-ish years, and that suffering will be gone. What will remain, though, is the soul, hopefully in a loving relationship with the Creator.

If you’re not sure about how much each human soul is worth to God, remember that “value” is determined by what you’re willing to trade something for. Look at the value God places on a soul – everything that He allowed to befall the earth-life and body of a great man (Job). Even if Job’s story only brought one soul into fellowship with God, I would bet that God would still know that He got a good deal. And I believe Job, now in communion with God, would agree, too. Even though it might not make sense to us, especially when held up to the dim light of this world’s standard of “fair”, I’ll defer to God’s judgment. If He says it’s worth it, I’ll side with Him.

We all suffer, and some of us are, at times, good people suffering unjustly. Just know that God is using it for a greater good. Maybe not in your presence, your eyesight, or your lifetime, but your faith in that suffering may just be the only pond ripple that saves a person’s soul. Stay strong.

4 thoughts on “Why do good people suffer?

  1. Today, we seem to live in times where complaining and over-thinking our feelings have become a sort of god. I believe those who lived in centuries past would be shocked to see how common place complaining about the smallest things, about our feelings, about how we don’t have the right outfits and more. It’s like we’re becoming ripe for takeover.

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  2. the weaker we are, the stronger God becomes inside us, as said, God resides inside us, the space we create for Healthy Spirit to live, while the world tells us to stack up with goodies, that we will all have to give away, be blessed, great story of God’s power, amen

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  3. Interesting that we did an entire Bible Study on Job. I had not been familiar with this story & it truly got to my core. I couldn’t believe first that God would offer up such a great man, but that this man would lose everything he had & still remain faithful & Grateful…& even repentful for feeling sad about his loss & not being able to give more!!! I was sure I couldn’t do it, be like Job. I would feel angry & betrayed & lost. I thought well if I dont get close to God then He won’t know me, He won’t “offer” me the next time. Fear. Fear for me, fear for my family. Crazy but true. No comparison to that man Job in any way. When I think Im brave to have accomplished some things in life I realize it was nothing in comparison.
    Though my early years had many sad events, some I wondered how I could handle & continue on, I honesty dont remember blaming God for me personally…but just wondering why? why my family? why them? And then, I should say now, why so many blessings? so many good things when I didn’t feel I gave enough?
    You’re right….who knows how to explain it all other than it is Gods will & He will choose what is best for us in the end….wether we agree or not. And Yes the devil is always looking for that weak moment to move in….so we have to know that God is with us in our faith…He walks before, beside & ahead of us at all times. How lucky we are to have Him there & now He’ll guide us in the right direction when we cant see for ourselves.
    Thank you Cory for your time, limited as it is these days with your family, your job, your daily upkeeps…thanks for sharing. And grateful…ever so grateful (& confused) for a son like you…..maybe my biggest “why me?”
    sms

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