While I was in seminary, I waited tables for a season at a Belgian brasserie. I learned all sorts of things about Belgian beer and I always appreciated the free dinner, but in retrospect, I learned a few things about ministry, too, even while I listened to the people I served. They were always interested to learn that I was going to school in order to become a minister.
I remember one customer, in particular, who had come in to enjoy the happy hour specials. We started to talk, and when he learned a little bit about me, he started to talk about how he didn’t believe in God.
He put forward the usual atheist objections. The more he talked (without me trying to refute each of his intellectual claims), the more he opened up. Finally, he got to the heart of the matter: his mother had suffered through a long terminal illness.
As he described the pain that she had been in, and how her pain ended in her death, he exclaimed, “I just couldn’t believe in a God who would let that happen!” This man’s relationship with God was not non-existent. It was so clear to me that he was not actually an atheist, just someone who blamed the evil in the world on God.
If we believe that God is sovereign, then we have to ask, “Where is God in the midst of human suffering?” And, “How do we engage God when we are in the midst of our own suffering?” As well as, “How do we respond to others around us when they suffer?”
On one level we, like Job, do not have insight into why we suffer, unless God himself reveals his reasons. There is no algebraic formula that will help us arrive at the unknown “x” factor.
The opening scene in heaven in chapter 1 is hidden, veiled from Job’s eyes. And God’s seeming casualness about Job’s impending suffering is hard to understand. So, too, in today’s reading, when God finally responds (after 37 chapters!) to Job, his response might seem harsh to our ears.
But, in fact, God’s discussion of his hand in the creating and sustaining of the world is meant to silence Job’s anger, his self-justification, and his demand for an answer. God is echoing to Job the idea behind the prophetic words of Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).
In his sovereignty and majesty, God is high above us, transcendent and inapproachable. God made the universe, and he sustains it. This truth is true for us today, too, even though science has provided us insight into some of the specific “hows” of this sustenance.
God asks Job, “Where were you?”— as if to say, “You don’t question my creating ability, so why do you question my ability to sustain, defend, protect, and provide for you?” At first this feels like a parent’s annoyingly unhelpful response to a whiny young child’s “why?”: “Because I said so!”
But, the full witness of Scripture shows that God’s ultimate response to human suffering is not to silence our doubts and our questions, but to send down to us One who was there when he laid the foundations of the earth. We know from John’s Gospel that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1, 3b).
Unlike Job, Jesus—the Eternal Word—did exist when the world was made, and his specific purpose is to make known to us the inscrutable mind of God. In Jesus, God lifts the veil that obscures his mind from us, by revealing himself to us. In Jesus, our Heavenly Father has spoken over us the words of both creation and redemption, because God sent his own Son—one with him in substance of divinity, dearer to him than his own self—to live, to suffer, and to die.
Through Jesus, God has descended to sit with us in our misery, to succumb to that misery himself, and through his own death and resurrection to bring us the sure hope that one day all our suffering will end, and every tear will be wiped away.
So, “Why do we suffer?” We don’t know necessarily, and God might not reveal his reasoning to us in this lifetime, but we trust in the trustworthy One, and we ask God to give us faith beyond our understanding.