During the course of our lives, many of us undergo suffering at a level we thought we would never experience. The pain is excruciatingly protracted and seemingly endless. It seems the darkness will never lift. It is during times such as these that the ancient story of Job provides light for the dark path ahead.
For wisdom during these times, consider the Bible’s story about Job’s suffering. During the first installment of this series on Job, we compared God’s purposes in suffering to a metalworker’s purposes in smelting precious metals. God works through the times of “high temperature” in our lives to accomplish his good purposes in us. In this second installment, however, we begin to dig in to the details.
The first matter at hand is to trace the contours of Job’s life and suffering, for the purpose of gleaning some initial wisdom and strength from the Bible’s depiction of his journey. In upcoming installments, we will explore various aspects of Job’s experience and of God’s mysterious work behind the scenes.
A Good Man Undergoes Inexplicable Pain
The biblical writer introduces Job as a wealthy and powerful Gentile living far away from the promised land, yet one who “feared God and shunned evil” (1:1). When Scripture speaks of “fearing” God, it is referring essentially to living wisely under God’s reign. Job is also described as “the greatest man among all the people of the East” (1:3).
The fact of Job’s wealth and power is significant to note. The Bible says of wealthy people that it is harder for them to genuinely trust God than it is for a camel to crawl through the eye of the needle. In other words, there is something about affluence that tends to corrupt a man. Yet, the writer of Job makes clear that Job did not fit the stereotype. Job genuinely trusted God, which is a remarkable characteristic.
A Good Man Stalked by a Cunning, Powerful Predator
With Job’s affluence revealed to the reader, the narrative continues with Satan appearing pompously before his Maker, acting as if he’d been doing whatever he pleased. In reality, however, the narrative reveals that Satan can only do what God permits him to do. In response to this pompously evil creature, God turns the spotlight on Job, describing Job as blameless and faithful.
Satan begs to differ; in his view, Job is faithful only because he has been blessed with great wealth. Thus, Satan implicitly calls into question God’s infinite worth as the proper recipient of human worship by explicitly suggesting Job’s true motivation for worshiping God is to attain the gifts God gives. Satan insinuates that Job values the gifts more than the Giver.
Now, Satan was partly right. Every human being is a “mixed bag.” No person honors God with an entirely pure heart. The text alerts us that Job’s faithfulness was mixed with unhealthy fear and anxiety about the condition of his children. Thus, although Job is deemed “righteous,” neither Job nor the narrator think that Job is entirely righteous. God alone is absolutely righteous: Job was relatively righteous by way of comparison with other sinners.
Next in the narrative, we learn that God grants permission for Satan to put this righteous man to the test. Satan kills Job’s 10 children and obliterates his wealth (1:13-19) before finally inflicting him with a painful and seemingly incurable disease (2:7-10). Even in the midst of losing his livelihood, his children, and now his health, Job responds immediately in a faithful manner:
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.Job 1:21
Yet, the book of Job is not simplistic. The story does not end in this manner, just as the modern reader’s life story is not facile or uncomplicated. Indeed, the faithful life—whether for ancient men like Job or modern people like the reader—our life generally involves struggle and complication.
A Good Man’s Hellish and Protracted Suffering
Thus, in Chapter 1, we see Job overtaken by calamity. In one day, Job lost nearly everything; he lost his ten children, his wealth, and finally his health. Finally, in chapter 3, Job begins to despair and even curses the day of his birth. By the time we reach verse 25, he laments that his worst fears have been fulfilled, that his faith in God has not protected him from being thrown into the abyss. It is significant that Job’s trial did not induce a heart attack or stroke, paralyze him mentally and emotionally, or drive him to insanity.
Thereafter in the narrative (chs. 3-41), we learn of Job’s slow, hellish, protracted, suffering and of his attempt to be faithful in the midst of disorientation and despair. In fact, readers often find these chapters too slow and repetitive for their tastes. But its unhurried pace is exactly the point: Suffering is often excruciatingly protracted and seemingly endless. Yet, by the end of the story, Job was able to draw upon his experience of “living hell” to declare, “My eyes had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (42:5). For Job, as for most of us, there are no shortcuts in the journey of sanctification.
A Good Man’s Disorientation and Despair: Lessons to Learn
What wisdom and strength can we glean, initially, from Job’s experience of pain and tragedy? We can gain wisdom about human nature, about strategy and tactics of the Evil One, and about God’s sovereignty.
Concerning human nature, each of us is a “mixed bag.” Even as Christians, although we are filled with God’s Spirit, we sometimes lose our way or succumb to temptation. Though Job was a remarkable man—enormously wealthy and yet blameless and upright—he was not sinless. Christ alone was without sin. Thus, when we experience protracted suffering and God seems nowhere to be found, we can be comforted knowing that God was actively loving Job even when Job could not discern God’s loving hand. God was not punishing Job for sin. He was allowing Satan to take his best “shot” at Job, so that God in return could work through the situation to make an already “upright” man even more upright.
In relation to God’s sovereignty, we are reminded that God sometimes allows Satan to have a heyday in our lives. When we experience protracted and seemingly endless pain, we can be guaranteed that the Evil One is somehow behind it (either through direct Satanic action or indirectly through the effects of living in a world tortured by him). And we can rest assured that, even though God allows such demonic pain, he stands alongside of us during every step of the journey.
Concerning the Evil One’s strategy, it is predictable, even though it has many variations. It is predictable in that his strategy always is to promote his “Anti-thesis”—Satan’s contention that God’s thesis for the world (e.g. “Honor the Lord your God”) is false. Yet, in terms of tactics, the Evil One perpetually works the angles of a person’s life to tempt that person to question God’s existence, goodness, and worthiness of worship. In other words, he employs a many tactics to achieve his strategic goals. The Evil One is cunning, baffling, and powerful. He is ever on the prowl, discerning a person’s weaknesses to exploit them toward his own end.
In the face of suffering, therefore, we must learn from Job that the Evil One surely will try to seduce us and often will do so in the midst of our pain. Being a predator, he exploits good people at the point of their greatest vulnerability. But just as surely, God stands with us, enabling us to resist his seductions and refute his lies.
Therefore, we must take the broad view, understanding that there is much more than we could possibly know going on behind the scenes. And we must play the long game, waiting patiently for God to reveal his presence in the midst of the darkness. The darkness will indeed lift, either in this lifetime or in eternity, and we will one day be able to comprehend the mysterious and wonderful ways of God.