The Word Among Us

October 2011 Issue

How Long, O Lord?

Insights from Job into the Mystery of Suffering

How Long, O Lord?: Insights from Job into the Mystery of Suffering

This is probably one of the most vexing questions we could ever ask. And it’s particularly appropriate these days, as we see so many people struggling in a bad economy.

If you compound this with other issues like unexpected illness, family difficulties, and other personal setbacks, you begin to wonder if God really is looking out for you. Many people in this situation wonder if they are being punished for some secret sin, while others become so frustrated that they give up on their faith altogether.

So many people want to work hard. So many are trying their best to raise their children the right way. So many sincerely want to live upright, moral lives. And yet, despite all their noble intentions and dedication, bad things happen— through no fault of their own—that can cause pain and hardship. Nothing is more discouraging than trying our best and giving everything we have only to see our efforts prove fruitless. It could be a sudden layoff at work, a spouse who abruptly abandons the family, a child killed in a car accident, or the discovery of a serious illness. Perhaps the best example in Scripture of a good person facing inexplicable tragedy is the character of Job. Let’s take a look at his story to see what God may want to teach us about handling our own crises and challenges.

A Good Man Faces Tragedy. The Book of Job tells the story of a man who had everything and then lost it all, through no fault of his own. The great French author Victor Hugo once said: “Tomorrow, if all literature was to be destroyed and it was left to me to retain one work only, I should save Job.” And Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem, whether of ancient or modern literature.”

We can assume that these men held the Book of Job in such high esteem because of its literary qualities— its moving story line, its memorable characters, and its clever use of language. But we can also imagine this story affecting them so deeply because of the way it explores the age-old mystery of suffering and the question of whether God is just and merciful.

The story begins by telling us how upright and successful Job was. He owned acres and acres of land, which he filled with herds and herds of cattle. He had a stable, close-knit family. He was a man of integrity who loved God and lived an upright life. In short, Job was “greater than anyone in the East” (Job 1:3).

But then everything suddenly fell apart. Job lost all his livestock through a series of raids, his children were all killed by a sudden windstorm, and he himself was later struck with mysterious boils that appeared all over his body. Understandably, Job’s wife was distraught. In her anguish, she blamed God for everything that happened and even urged Job to “Curse God and die.” But Job held onto his faith. “We accept good things from God,” he replied. “Should we not accept evil?” (Job 2:9,10).

While he still upheld God’s right to treat him this way, Job did begin to struggle with all that happened to him. Overwhelmed with grief, he gave voice to his feelings in the presence of three trusted friends. “Perish the day on which I was born,” he cried. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:3,11). As he dwelt on his misfortune, he also began to question God’s goodness. He began to question the way God treats his people.

I Have Seen You! Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to mourn with Job and comfort him. But they were convinced that Job’s misfortune was a punishment from God because Job had sinned. They urged him to confess whatever secret sin he might have committed. They offered to help him examine his conscience to see if he was guilty of some trespass that he didn’t know about. They kept talking and talking and talking, trying to convince Job of something that Job simply could not accept. They had good intentions, but their words only left him feeling more hurt, more discouraged, and more isolated.

As their conversation wore on, Job aimed his challenges and questions more and more to God, and not his friends. He wondered aloud if God enjoyed oppressing and destroying his people (Job 10:3,8). “Why do you hide your face,” he asked, “and consider me your enemy?” (13:24). He spoke of how his cries for help were not being heard, and how God had veiled his path in darkness and broken him down on every side (19:7-10).

Finally, God spoke to Job. But he didn’t answer any of Job’s questions. Rather, he had his own set of questions to ask. He asked Job about the intricacies of the created world and about the wonders of creation. He asked whether Job had any power or authority over the stars in the sky or the beasts of the field. In essence, he asked: “Can you do what I did in creation? Can you hold the universe together as I do?”

Humbled, all Job could say in response was: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

Not Why. How. Bad things happened to Job—even though he was a very good and upright man. Likewise, bad things may happen to us—even as we do our best to live upright lives and follow Jesus. Perhaps Job’s story is a bit like yours. Perhaps you have even found yourself asking, “Lord, I’ve been so faithful to you. I’ve always tried to do what is right. And this is how you repay me?”

If you are facing your own set of difficulties and challenges, know that the secret to survival is in your disposition. Job had a godly disposition, even in the midst of his struggles. Never once did God upbraid him for lack of faith or disrespect. In fact, it was precisely because Job was so honorable a man that God allowed Satan to test him (Job 1:6-12). And it was precisely because he held Job in such high esteem that he gave him such a full and complete answer to his questions.

Whatever trials we may be facing, we all need to reject the idea that God hates us or is out to punish us and ruin our lives. When asked about a man who was born blind, Jesus made it clear that this fellow was not being punished for some sin of his or his parents’. Rather, it was “so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:3). Even when God “disciplines” those he loves (Hebrews 12:6), it is never out of anger or frustration. It is always out of love, with the goal of building us up and teaching us.

Life is full of mysteries. Like Job, we won’t always know why some things happen. Sometimes we just have to stop asking “why” and focus on “how” instead. Sometimes we just have to ask: “How can I move forward now that this has happened? How should I work to overcome whatever it is I’m facing—and still hold on to my trust and faith in the Lord?”

It is critical that we believe that Jesus is Lord of all creation. It is vital to believe that he is in control of the universe—and that means that he has his hand on each and every one of us! He knows what happens to us every moment of every day. What’s more, because he himself was tempted—because “bad things” happened to this very good person—Jesus’ heart goes out to us in a very special way when we are faced with challenges and temptations (Hebrews 2:18).

How Long, O Lord? The Book of Psalms is filled with prayers of people who were experiencing hardships of all kinds. Psalm 55 tells of a betrayal from a close friend. Psalm 35 tells of a man who is being accused unjustly. Psalm 142 is the prayer of someone feeling alone and abandoned. In all of these examples, and so many more, the psalmist pours out his heart before the Lord honestly and freely. He tells God how much he is hurting over his situation, and in some cases (like Psalms 13 and 22), he even asks why God feels so distant to him.

These psalms—and others like them—are more than just prayers from ancient Israel. They are also lessons for us today. They are examples of faith that invite us to turn to the Lord for help and comfort when we face our own times of trial and difficulty. They teach us that no matter what the situation, and no matter how much we may be suffering, we can still place our hope in the Lord. Even when it makes no sense to do so, even when the evidence seems to tell us that God is not trustworthy, we can hold fast to our faith.

When you find yourself under stress and feeling abandoned, take these psalms as your guide. Take Job as your model. It may take weeks, months, or even years to see a breakthrough. But know that God is with you all along the way, ready to console you and help you. He will let you cry on his shoulder until you have exhausted our grief. He will speak words of hope and friendship into your heart. He is your Father, and he will never, ever abandon you!