Toward a Theology of Suffering

By Joe Harvey

The story of Job suggests several formulas for figuring out the relationship between God’s purposes, good people, and the suffering they must endure. Not till we reach the end do we understand the proper equation.

04_Harvey_JNI suppose everyone has heard the story of Job. In a nutshell, you probably know he was a wealthy, influential man who lived what we now call “the good life.” He had family, money, power, and prestige. The book of Job describes his situation as being ideal. “He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:2, 3).

That being the case, we might compare him to any number of successful people living today, but that is not the only thing we learn about Job. Verse 1 says he was “blameless and upright” and “feared God and shunned evil” (v. 1). In verse 8, God himself declares of Job, “There is no one on earth like him.”

So then, Job has a good life, and he is also a good person—a very good person. What’s more, good Job may be described as righteous Job because he is not merely behaving well by social standards, he is conforming his actions and attitudes to the standards of a good God.

Now, we might ask, what is the relationship between God’s goodness, Job’s goodness, and Job’s good life? Our answer might be something like this:

God Is Good + Job Is Good = Life Is Good

Turns out, that is a basic theological formula of Job’s day. You will see it expressed over and over again by Job’s friends, and they are as confident of that truth as we are that 1+1=2.

WHY SERVE GOD?

If the book of Job ended after the first few verses, we would simply declare that the righteous are blessed and move on. But that’s not what happens. Job begins as a righteous man with a good life. Very quickly, however, his good life evaporates, and the formula above no longer seems to work. What happened? What went wrong?

After reading of Job, we read about “the adversary” whose question challenges the pop theology of Job’s day: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (v. 9). The challenger is Satan himself.

Satan continues by asking God, “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” (v. 10). Then Satan offers this bold assertion: “You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (vv. 10, 11).

Then, with God’s permission, Job’s sufferings soon begin.

Notice what Satan has done regarding our theological formula. He has changed the order. It now reads like this:

God Is Good + Life Is Good = Job Is Good

In other words, Satan says Job is good only because his life is good. The implied truth is, of course, that Job is only using God for Job’s own benefit and that God has to buy his friends. This raises the fundamental question of the book of Job: Does anyone serve God solely for the love of God? Does Job? Do you?

This is not a hypothetical question for Job. When his lands are invaded, his property stolen, and his children murdered, will he still believe in the goodness of God? When his health is taken, will he still worship God?

Job, the prominent, becomes Job, the pathetic. Deprived of all his possessions and children, his life transitions from insult to injury. The text tells us Job had “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” His state is so miserable that he “took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes” (Job 2:7, 8).

Interestingly, the only person of his family left to console him, his wife, turns out to be Satan’s little helper. “Curse God and die!” (v. 9) she says. Unwittingly, she tries to advance the adversary’s agenda.

This is where Job becomes our hero and his book takes its place among Hebrew wisdom literature. Job begins to ask questions of God, for himself and for us. He refuses to be a victim of circumstance and will not take the matter lying down. He declares that he is righteous. He surely does not mean to say he is perfect. Rather, he has not done anything that should force God to such a heavy-handed treatment of him. Unbeknownst to Job, God agrees, but the torture continues.

WHERE IS GOD?

Next we meet Job’s friends, and they’re thinking is entrenched in the theological formula of the day. So, they simply restate it in a different form. Instead of saying Good God + Good Job = Good Life, they say this:

Good God + Bad Job = Bad Life

In one way or another, they repeat the words of Job’s friend Eliphaz:

Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless? You demanded security from your relatives for no reason; you stripped people of their clothing, leaving them naked. You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, though you were a powerful man, owning land—an honored man, living on it. And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless. That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you, why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you (Job 22:5-11).

Since, for him, there can be no other explanation for Job’s experience, Eliphaz guesses at what Job’s sins must have been. He picks the ones typical of a man of power and possessions at the time.

Job’s friends come to comfort him, but react when Job cries out in sorrow and confusion with words something like this: “Not fair! This is not fair! I demand an explanation. I want God to make his case against me. I need him to make sense of this horrid life circumstance.”

Job friends feel him pulling them out of their theological comfort zone. They hear Job say,

Good Job + Bad Life = Bad God (Unfair, Unjust)

But that isn’t Job’s point. He simply wants to make sense of it all. He wants nothing less than a chance to stand before God and plead his case. Job knows he doesn’t deserve the opportunity and even believes he can’t win, but he wants his day in court nonetheless. He says concerning God, “If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me” (Job 23:3-5).

WHO CAN FATHOM GOD?

The book of Job ends dramatically. God shows up. He gives Job the unimaginable gift of his presence and attention. In chapters 38-41, God thunders at Job in what will become the ultimate reality check for mankind. And what does God say to Job, his suffering servant? Two things: (1) You’re not competent to try this case against me, and (2) You’re not capable of taking my place.

Job had demanded a justice that he could make sense of. He said to God, “I don’t understand why I am experiencing what I am experiencing—all this hardship and suffering.” God, in essence, responds by reminding Job that the list of things Job doesn’t understand is quite substantial.

God does not then offer Job such understanding; rather, God offers himself. God knows what Job does not. Job thinks he needs answers, but what he really needs is to trust God and let him be God. Listen to Job’s reply,

I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, “Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:2-6).

And there it is: the lesson of the book. We find our comfort in suffering not from what God will do for us, but from God himself. The final formula could read something like this:

Bad Life + Good God = Always Enough

Our real need is for him to be near and greater than our affliction. And so it turns out that the more he knows God, the less Job needs to know about himself.

And for now, for Job, that will have to be enough.

Joe Harvey serves as associate professor at Johnson University Florida in Kissimmee.

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Read a related article about the author’s daughter, Mandy Harvey, who became a professional jazz vocalist after losing her hearing.

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2 Comments

  1. Cindy Romeis
    April 10, 2015 at 10:06 am

    I can attest that what Job learned is true. God is enough, and God is always good.

    Great essay, Joe.

  2. April 15, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Very clear and timely teaching. Joe has learned and explained a very profound truth for our day and time. When “happiness,” “pleasure,” and “comfort” are thought to be inalienable rights and evidence of God’s existence and blessing, the oldest book of the Bible disagrees. Thanks for the reminder Mr. Harvey.

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