Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Reflections on Job and the Suffering of the Innocent

Along with members of Saint Matthew who are reading the Bible in a year, I'm wrestling with the Old Testament book of Job these days.

Job is no theoretical essay on the question of why faithful or innocent people suffer. (What the theologians call theodicy.) It's the story of the experiences and feelings of one faithful man who undergoes multiple tragedies. It also recounts the ensuing arguments he has with "friends" in trying to explain it all.

Despite their bitter disagreements, through much of the book, Job and his friends all believe in "retributive justice," the idea that when we suffer, it's punishment from God for sin.

It's a tempting argument. So much of life evidences "the law of cause and effect." And the Bible does teach that, in an ultimate sense, suffering is rooted in the human condition of sin, our inborn alienation from God, Who is the source of life. Ultimately too, the Bible teaches that those who refuse to turn from sin and turn to the God revealed in Christ for forgiveness and new life, will suffer eternal alienation from God.

But the Bible--including the book of Job--also affirms two disturbing facts about life in this world:
  • The innocent sometimes suffer.
  • The unrepentant sometimes thrive.
The book of Job is a warning from God against any simplistic thinking about human suffering. Anyone who, like Job's misguided friends, think they have figured out why people suffer would be well advised to read Job and then, clam up.

Both as a human being and as someone who's counseled people for almost thirty years, I believe (I know) that ultimately, no intellectual explanation of suffering will help people when they suffer or grieve.

That may be why the book of Job ends without an explanation, but a call for continuing reliance on God.

Today, heeding that call may be easier than it would have been for Job. The New Testament records how God came into the world in the person of Jesus and bore both the weight of human suffering and our debt for sin, then rose from the dead. For people who dare to hand over their sins and their lives to Christ, suffering and all its painful questions are not the last word. We have two incredible comforts:
  • The presence of Christ with us, "to the close of the age."
  • The promise of a new life, free of suffering, with God for eternity.
There are lots of things in the book of Job that disturb me and that I can't explain. And there are many things in this life that disturb me, driving me to fervent prayer. But, I ask God to help me be more like Job, who believed even when he got angry with God. I ask God to help me to keep holding onto Jesus whatever life brings.

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