The Bible does not shy away either from the reality and ugliness of suffering, or from the issues that it raises. There are plenty of instances of war, murder, rape, and other forms of brutality related within its pages, plus a number of natural disasters. Whether we like it or not, this is how the world is.
“I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead, who had already died,
Are happier than the living, who are still alive.
But better than both is the one who has never been born,
Who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)
A whole book, the book of Job, is devoted to the philosophical problem of suffering: if God is good and just, why do bad things happen to good people? The brief storyline sets the scene. Job is a very good man – as good as a man can possibly be – and yet he suffers as much as any man can possibly suffer (short of dying). As a result, he starts to question everything that he has previously believed.
The first thing to note is that Job and his friends are not Israelites. This means that they know nothing of the great act of deliverance from Egypt that pervades the rest of the Old Testament and gives context to the sufferings of the Jewish people. They have a simple but well worked-out theology: they believe in an all-powerful, holy, infinitely wise and good Supreme Being who rewards righteous people and punishes the wicked. This is all fine – until, like Job, you find yourself on the receiving end of undeserved misfortune. And what misfortune! To lose all his wealth is bad enough, but then comes the news that his family has been wiped out in a freak accident. And on top of it all, he is then struck down with a painful and disfiguring illness. Men have killed themselves over less.
Then along come three of his friends. While they sit beside him in silent sympathy (Job 2:11-13), Job holds high hopes of receiving comfort from them. But when they open their mouths, he is deeply disappointed (Job 6:21; 13:4,5). They try to counsel him, but succeed only in rubbing salt into his many wounds. Believing, as they do, that suffering is a divine punishment for sin, they try to convince Job that what has happened to him proves that he is a wicked man who deserves everything that he has suffered (e.g. Job 22:4,5) and who needs to repent in order to enjoy God’s favour again (e.g. Job 11:13-16). Since this is not true, Job is pushed even further into depression and despair.
Job, not surprisingly, wishes that he were dead (e.g. Job 10:18,19), can’t understand what is going on (Job 7:20,21), and feels that God has abandoned him (Job 30:20). The burning question in his mind, as one might expect, is: WHY? “Why has this happened to me?” (e.g. Job 7:20,21) And later, when his mood is more reflective, “What might I have done to deserve this?” (e.g. Job 10:2; 13:23) He flings these questions at God, demanding an explanation for this apparent miscarriage of justice – but God does not answer.
But his friends have plenty to say on the subject. They are absolutely convinced that suffering is invariably the result of sin; therefore, if Job’s children met with such a tragic fate (the kind of thing that insurance companies would describe as ‘an act of God’), it must somehow have been their own fault (Job 8:4)! And Job also must be harbouring some secret wickedness; if he won’t own up to it, then he is guilty of hypocrisy as well!
When God does finally come on the scene (Job 38-42), He doesn’t give us a theology lecture, nor does He immediately and miraculously solve all of Job’s problems. He doesn’t give Job any explanation for all that he has gone through, and He doesn’t answer any of Job’s questions. He doesn’t say anything about Job’s personal situation at all! He just makes Job aware of His presence, His power, and His concern for the whole world.
What God says, in effect, is simply this: “I am God. I am all-powerful, and I know what I’m doing. Trust Me.”