A continuation of the series by Luke, Faith in Doubt.
How can we trust a God who allows so much suffering in the world?
Some don’t realize it, but the Bible actually addresses this question directly. The main point of an entire book is to deal with this question. This book is often misunderstood. It is about a man named Job.
Job was a guy who was very faithful to God, and consequently God had blessed him. He was rich. He had tons of kids. His servants were loyal. He had sheep coming out of his ears. This is the good life in the Bronze Age. Then one day, for reasons completely hidden from Job, God allows it all to be taken away. His calamity is very theatrical. The whole book plays out like a kind of theatre production. The story goes like this.
One day Job is sitting in his house enjoying a cup of tea, and in rushes one of his servants.
“Job, Job! A group of Sabeans attacked us and killed all your servants and stole all the Oxen. They’re all gone Job!”
And before Job’s jaw can even drop another servant runs in and says “Job, there was a meteor! It fell from the sky and incinerated all your sheep. I’m the only one who survived.”
Then in comes another. “Job! Your camels Job! The Babylonians attacked us and killed everyone and stole the camels!”
Then another. “Your children Job, they’re all dead! They were eating together and a storm came and knocked the house clean over. They were all crushed!”
Just like that, Job’s world falls apart. It only takes about 200 words in my Bible. It happens so fast it seems more like a poorly executed practical joke, but Job isn’t laughing. It’s real. Before the week is out, he is huddled up in the middle of a field, scraping at the burning boils that now cover his skin, and wondering what the hell God is doing up there.
Job’s loss is so complete that it sets him up as a kind of ultimate sufferer. A guy whose suffering is so unexpected and so severe that few could compare themselves to him. And then, he and his friends begin to talk.
Most of the rest of the book is lengthy dialogues between Job and his friends as they wrestle through the reasons for his suffering. The summary is something like this: Job’s friends are convinced that God is just, and therefore he would never do something like this to Job unless he deserved it. But Job argues for his innocence. He insists that some mistake has been made, and if he just had the chance to present his case before God then all would be made right again. Both he and his friends agree that since God is just, nothing like this could rightly happen to a person like Job. Either Job has done something to deserve it (Job’s friends’ argument) or Job is being treated unfairly (Job’s argument). They battle back and forth and back and forth, until God appears. Enter God, stage left.
What would we want or expect God to say in a situation like this?
Maybe: I’m so sorry Job. I didn’t want this to happen to you either, but sometimes bad things just happen to good people.
Maybe: Job, don’t worry. This has just been a trial and it will pass, and you will receive even more from me later (which he does at the end of the book).
Maybe even: Job, I know that you are suffering, but if you could see it from my perspective, you would understand why things have to be this way.
From the perspective of the book, I think this last answer is a true answer, but this is not the answer that is given to Job.
Here’s how God starts his reply to Job.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Wait…what?) “Tell me, if you think you’re so smart.” It goes on like this for a while. It is everything from “do you know the measurements of the earth?” to trivial stuff like “do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” God replies to Job’s suffering by spending three chapters cutting him down to size, without even addressing the question that has driven the entire book. The entire book has been a debate about whether or not Job’s suffering is just, yet God does not weigh into this debate. The reader is given a reason why Job is suffering, but God does not convey even this to Job. He sticks to “I am God, and you are not.”
On the surface, God kinda looks like a jerk. Here is a guy who had everything taken away from him for no good reason, and all God can say is “I’m better than you so pipe down.” If you come to Job looking for an intellectual argument for why a just God would allow a good person like Job to suffer, then you may be disappointed.
But Job is not disappointed, and if we miss this we miss the whole point of the book. I don’t think that God’s speech is intended to be an intellectual argument. God’s speech is meant to convey verbally what Job is undergoing experientially. Job has been begging for the opportunity to present his case before God, but when God actually shows up, Job realizes that he is the one who has made a mistake. The experience of facing God is nothing like he expected. The categories in his mind explode in the face of God. He has been following God faithfully his entire life, but meeting him is a shock that realigns everything. The petition that Job has prepared against his unjust treatment melts away. It seems downright foolish. God asks Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the almighty, He who argues with God, let him answer it.” And all Job can say is “Look at me, I am nothing, what could I say to you.”
In Job’s final words he summarizes his experience of God like this:
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job was seeking an answer. God’s answer was himself.
So why does God allow so much suffering in the world? The answer is simple: We don’t know. We can’t know. We can guess and we can imagine, and many Christian thinkers have produced some compelling explanations (I hope to blog about a few of these eventually). Yet at the end of the day we will acknowledge that there is something lacking in our explanation. Whenever there is a famine or an earthquake in a third world country, the images will always call back our confusion.
However, someday we will meet God, and it will be very different than we had expected.
Someday the answer to this big question will be unmistakable.
It will be the most obvious thing in the world.
Children and philosophers will both laugh at the thought of such a question.
The answer will be plain before our eyes.
We will see God, and God will be our answer.
Why do Christians trust a God that allows so much suffering and cruelty in the world?
We trust him because he is greater than us.
We trust him because he loves us.
We trust him because we don’t have access to all the information.
We trust him because we have experienced a fractional part of the awe that overwhelmed Job.
We trust him because he is our Father.
We trust him because he is God.