- God is not all-powerful (he cannot prevent our suffering)
- God is not loving (he does not care about it)
- God is not there (he is both incapable and uncaring, because he is imaginary)
Ask a person who does not believe in God their reasons for their unbelief, you will often find them guided in some way by the above rationale. People dismiss God because they think him irrelevant and lacking power to affect our circumstances, or they hate him, because they suspect him of having power but a disinclination to use it for our relief.
So is there any circumstance in which an all-powerful, loving God would allow suffering? The bible’s answer is yes. To understand why, one must first become aware of the nature of God’s power, love, justice, wisdom and glory. We must also ask ourselves difficult questions like: to what are we entitled?
Suffering itself is the lack of peace, satisfaction and joy which we are fundamentally built to desire. So suffering itself precipitates a crisis situation in our lives where we are forced to respond, to search and examine the nature of our condition, and seek answers that might help us understand, and perhaps even overcome our suffering. The book of Job reminds us that this is not simply an academic exercise.
Comfort is a key word. Suffering without comfort is unbearable. Comfort is the thing which offers context to suffering, and allows us to see something greater than our own suffering. Comfort is something that is different from blessing, though it is right that we should desire not just comfort in our suffering, but escape from it into a place of blessing. Job initially desires comfort in his death, but God withholds death from Job, because he has a greater purpose in Job’s suffering. God intends to bless Job through this terrible situation, but he also intends to bless us.
When we suffer and blessings are absent, where then can we at least find comfort?
This is one of the questions at the heart of the book of Job. Where does comfort come for a man who has lost everything but his life? The book follows Job from his initial state of prosperity and piety into outright desolation: pain and tragedy at every level. His friends who try to comfort him only add to his frustration, and we discover along the way that suffering and blessing is not arbitrarily connected with God’s justice in a kind of tit-for-tat system designed solely to keep us in line. We examine the nature of God from a number of fallen standpoints until God himself finally speaks to Job. After 41 challenging chapters, Job finally has been given a vision to give him context in his suffering. His right response: “therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes”.
When we, who regularly experience the blessings of God, assume that we are entitled to them, that very assumption can blind us to the true context of our situation. Suffering may be the only route by which we can ever find our true position before God. We are entirely dependent on Him. Rightly should we fear God, and rightly should we repent before him. But rightly should we trust him, and also praise Him, because he delights to bless his children, and he does not abandon those whose hope is in Him. Christ is the ultimate proof of this loving God: let us not take this most marvellous of all blessings for granted.
So I think it’s worth persevering with the difficult book of Job. These lessons (and many beside) are the same lessons that we can learn from suffering ourselves, and they are eminently valuable.