The book of Job provides one of the biblical answers to why we suffer. It is not the only or the definitive answer. The Bible also says that we suffer as a result of our sins, but the book of Job tells us that not all suffering is divine punishment for wrong committed and that it is wrong to assume that any given person’s suffering is the result of their sins. The book of Job tells us, rather unnervingly, that suffering that has nothing to do with whether you’ve been bad or good, is quite possible and divinely sanctioned. In fact, the New Testament leads us to believe that we will go through suffering like this, not for anything bad we’ve done, but so that our faith can be tested and vindicated (Revelation 2:10, 1 Peter 1:6, Luke 22:31). In the New Testament, Jesus tells Peter that Satan wants to “sift” him “like wheat”. Job certainly underwent such a sifting himself.
A Short Summary
The book of Job opens describing Job’s considerable wealth and integrity. A divine council is described where God asks Satan to consider Job and his righteousness, but Satan disagrees with God that Job is righteous and God permits him to test Job with the death of his children, financial misfortune and sickness. Job laments his misfortune but he does not “curse God”, or he does not forsake his devotion to God. His friends arrive and sit with him for a time. Eventually, they start arguing that he must have brought his suffering upon himself through sin. In response, Job protests his innocence and argues that not all suffering and prosperity tracks righteousness and wickedness. Finally, God replies by rebuking Job for his complaints. Job repents. Then God rebukes his friends for what they’ve said. God’s wrath against Job’s friends is assuaged when he prays for his friends and God restores Job’s fortunes to twice as much as he had before.
Why did Job Suffer?
One thing worth noting is that the actual reason for Job’s suffering is never explicitly given. As the reader, we are given more information than Job himself has while he’s experiencing the suffering. We are told that God asks Satan whether he’s considered Job’s righteousness and Satan responds that he is not convinced that Job is righteous. So God permits Satan to test Job’s righteousness in various ways. Doesn’t this provide the answer to the question? It gives us the backdrop, but the crucial question of why God wanted Satan to consider Job’s righteousness, and why it was important that Job’s righteousness be vindicated in this way, is never answered. Peter provides a possible answer to this:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:6
We can extrapolate, based on 1 Peter 1:6, that a righteousness that has been “shown forth”, or that has been made manifest to the utmost degree, is better than a righteousness that is “dormant” and that is never really made manifest. In the same way, if you have a car that can reach very high speeds and that is made for the race track, but is never used for that purpose, what good is it? All of those capabilities are then essentially for nothing. If those abilities are never put to the test then what good are they? Jesus tells us:
What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
Whatever is in your heart, the type of person you really are, will be made manifest by the trials and tribulations of life. Job’s righteousness was tested to the extent that would make that righteousness shine the brightest for all to see. Or as Job himself puts it:
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
This is the same metaphor that is used in 1 Peter 1:6 ( which likens our faith to gold that has to be tried by fire). It is not surprising that it is Peter that tells us about this, because he himself was told by Jesus that Satan would test him (Luke 22:31), and had to overcome the guilt of denying Jesus when the time of testing came.
Is it Your Fault?
The lesson most commonly drawn from the book of Job is that it provides a biblical repudiation of the idea that suffering is necessarily divine punishment for the person’s wrongdoing. Three of Job’s friends argue at length that suffering is the result of God’s justice and that Job has to have done something to merit this deluge of misfortune. As Eliphaz the Temanite contends:
Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
However, as the reader, we have just read Job chapter 1 and 2, and we know that the reason for Job’s suffering is not something bad he’s done. On the contrary, the reason for his suffering seems precisely to be his righteousness.
And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”
Moreover, God rebukes Job’s friends at the end for what they said to him, from which we can gather that their main argument, Job’s guilt, is wrong:
After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has…”
However, if we only take it as a repudiation of the particular religious idea that suffering is always divine punishment, I believe we miss a deeper truth here. The truth is that whenever someone goes through some severe suffering, there is an impulse in those around them to blame them for that suffering. This need not manifest in a religious way ( though, if the people are religious, then it will). However, there are secular manifestations of this as well. It can be to say that they didn’t plan well enough, or didn’t work hard enough, didn’t mitigate the necessary risks, didn’t take good enough care of their family, they made the wrong people angry, they weren’t careful enough with their words etc. Of course, these things may be true to some extent or another. The interesting thing is not the extent to which it is true, but why people feel the need or the impulse to believe it. It isn’t wrong to learn lessons from the suffering of others (it’s good to do that), but as soon as we notice anger or contempt in ourselves for the suffering person or we look down on them or feel vindicated by their suffering, we should know that there’s something wrong. Suffering is always spiritual. Whenever someone suffers, the people around that person are confronted with the contingency of their own lives, the fragility of their happiness and all the good things they have to enjoy. They are confronted with the fact that it could all be taken away in an instant. When we see someone suffer severely, we see what we trust in spiritually, if anything. Either we see our dependence on God or we see the utter nihilism and pointlessness of the universe. We are forced to confront what we believe on a fundamental level.
Most people are very uncomfortable with this type of confrontation, even people of faith. In fact, no one is entirely comfortable with it. The easiest way to mitigate the spiritual angst the spectacle of suffering produces is to blame that person. In doing so, you take back control. You affirm that you are actually in control of your life. You only need to avoid A, B, and C and you won’t experience what they’re going through. We need some way to make sense of it, otherwise we face the void of uncertainty. Rather than deal with that uncertainty through faith in God’s goodness, we reassert our pride. You notice that this is what happened in you if you feel some sort of contempt, or superiority or anger against the suffering person, almost as though you’re heaping your own anger at being reminded of your contingency, on them. Another way to mitigate the spiritual angst is simply to avoid that person. People who suffer are often shunned to some degree and they lose friends. Job himself puts it well:
In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune; it is ready for those whose feet slip.