Job suffered. His name is synonymous with suffering. He asked, “Why?” He asked, “Why me?” And he put his questions to God. He asked his questions persistently, passionately, and eloquently. He refused to take silence for an answer. He refused to take clichés for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook.
Job did not take his sufferings quietly or piously. He disdained going for a second opinion to outside physicians or philosophers. Job took his stand before God, and there he protested his suffering, protested mightily.
“All I want is an answer to one prayer,
a last request to be honored:
Where’s the strength to keep my hopes up?
What future do I have to keep me going?”
Job 6:8, 11
It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us. It is because he suffered in the same ways that we suffer—in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job is also important to us because he searchingly questioned and boldly protested his suffering. Indeed, he went “to the top” with his questions.
It is not suffering as such that troubles us. It is undeserved suffering. Almost all of us in our years of growing up have the experience of disobeying our parents and getting punished for it. When that discipline was connected with wrongdoing, it had a certain sense of justice to it: When we do wrong, we get punished.
One of the surprises as we get older, however, is that we come to see that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. An even larger surprise is that very often there is something quite the opposite: we do right and get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit from the blind side and sent reeling.
This is the suffering that first bewilders and then outrages us. Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. And it is this kind of suffering to which Job gives voice when he protests to God.
Job gives voice to his sufferings so well, so accurately and honestly, that anyone who has ever suffered—which includes every last one of us—can recognize his or her personal pain in the voice of Job. He says boldly what some of us are too timid to say. He makes poetry out of what in many of us is only a tangle of confused whimpers. He shouts out to God what a lot of us mutter behind our sleeves. He refuses to accept the role of a defeated victim.
“I know that God lives—the One who gives me back my life—
and eventually he’ll take his stand on earth.
And I’ll see him—even though I get skinned alive!—see God myself, with my very own eyes.
Oh, how I long for that day!”
It is also important to note what Job does not do, lest we expect something from him that he does not intend. Job does not curse God as his wife suggests he should do, getting rid of the problem by getting rid of God. But neither does Job explain suffering. He does not instruct us in how to live so that we can avoid suffering. Suffering is a mystery, and Job comes to respect the mystery.
“I’ve obeyed every word God has spoken
and not just obeyed his advice—I’ve treasured it.
But he is singular and sovereign. Who can argue with him?
He does what he wants, when he wants to.
He’ll complete in detail what he’s decided about me,
and whatever else he determines to do.
In the course of facing, questioning, and respecting suffering, Job finds himself in an even larger mystery—the mystery of God. Perhaps the greatest mystery in suffering is how it can bring a person into the presence of God in a state of worship, full of wonder, love, and praise. Suffering does not inevitably do that, but it does it far more often than we would expect. Even in his answer to his wife Job speaks the language of an uncharted irony, a dark and difficult kind of truth: “We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”
In our compassion, we don’t like to see people suffer. And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse. But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job’s friends, not to do our “helping” with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them “better.” We may look at our suffering friends and imagine how they could have better marriages, better-behaved children, better mental and emotional health. But when we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep in mind several things.
First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don’t really understand the full nature of our friends’ problems. Second, our friends may not want our advice. Third, the fact of the matter is that people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God. But when these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.
So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering—which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway—perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able—entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and—if they will let us—join them in protest and prayer. Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing. As we look at Job’s suffering and praying and worshiping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.
But sometimes it’s hard to know just how to follow Job’s lead when we feel so alone in our suffering, unsure of what God wants us to do. What we must realize during those times of darkness is that the God who appeared to Job in the whirlwind is calling out to all of us. Although God may not appear to us in a vision, he makes himself known to us in all the many ways that he describes to Job—from the macro to the micro, from the wonders of the galaxies to the little things we take for granted. He is the Creator of the unfathomable universe all around us—and he is also the Creator of the universe inside of us.