Questions for God: Why Do We Suffer?

Scripture for Sunday: Job 2:1-10, 38:1-7

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God , and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Notes on the Text:

Job is a book of wisdom with a story that is told to us about a righteous man named Job. The story begins just like many fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time…” “There was once a man in the land of Uz…” with an emphasis on the innocence and goodness of Job. Even the setting of the story is in the land called Uz which in Hebrew means fertile. So, we come to this story expecting good things to happen. But instead, we hear about the plight of Job where his righteousness is tested. He loses his children, his wealth, and his health. By chapter two, Job is confronted with the eternal problem of suffering. His wife even tells him to curse God and die. The image of the heavenly court of this story is very indicative of the people’s understanding of the problem of suffering at the time. We see God sitting in a court-like setting. Satan was an image drawn from the Persian court system. Satan’s job was to question every decision that the king made, to ensure that he had thought things through. In that sense, he was an adversary of sorts, but he was simply doing his job. In the folktale, Satan is not presented as “the Devil,” the arch enemy of God. Instead, Satan is presented as a member of the celestial court, one of the “heavenly beings” who attend God and assist in the management of Creation. In fact, in the original Hebrew of the passage, “Satan” is not even a proper name: it is a title, bearing a definite article, “the Satan,” meaning “the Adversary” or “the Opposition” or even “the Naysayer.” So, with this role of the Satan we see that there is no real explanation of the origin of suffering but an attempt to deal with it by using an image that people at the time would have been able to understand. In fact, the book of Job does not end up giving a real explanation of why people suffer. But what it does is that it negates all the traditional answers that were popular at that time and provides an invitation to trust in God’s presence in the midst of suffering. We see that clearly later on in the arguments between Job and his three friends who present the traditional view that Job must have sinned (or will sin in the future) and therefore deserved his suffering. They berate him to confess his sins, although they themselves could not think of what sins he needed to confess. Their worldview said that God always rewarded good behavior and punished bad behavior and there was no exception to that rule.

So how does God respond to the questions raised by Job about innocent suffering? Well, it seems that God answers the questions with more questions to help him change his perspective. God does not give Job a clear explanation, but instead, God questions Job’s perspective on God’s role in suffering and life. God reframes the question about innocent suffering to enlarge Job’s limited human understandings and need for a logic control of cause and effect. In his book Job and the Mystery of Suffering, Richard Rohr suggests that “We will have a problem similar to Job’s so long as we picture God as ‘the one who does not suffer.’ Job didn’t know about Jesus, of course, so it’s easier to excuse his mistake. But it is amazing that, even after we’ve seen the incarnation, we Christians fall so readily into the same misconception. The enfleshment and suffering of Jesus is saying that God is apart from the trials of humanity. God is not aloof. God is not a mere spectator. God is participating with us…Our usual definitions of God depict him omnipotent, infinite, perfect in every way. Yet, if the suffering of Jesus is the image and revelation of God the invisible God (Col. 1:5), this is totally at odds with all the other philosophical and theological definitions of a supreme being. Jesus doesn’t fit…He basically turned theology upside down. He said, in effect: Who you think God is, God isn’t.”

The key to faith for Job was not regaining his sense of control or his understanding of the reasons behind his innocent suffering. It was instead about changing his perspective so that he could focus on his relationship with God instead of trying to control the circumstances of his life.

With this folktale of Job, this wisdom book, the people of ancient Israel were being challenged to grow in their understanding of God. They were invited to let go of their worn-out belief that God punishes people. The book of Job was a very radical message about God’s love. In his book, Why God, Burton Cooper notes that “Perhaps the book of Job will not make sense until we see it as turning away from the monarchial image of God and toward an image of God as vulnerable. Our failure to look forward, so to speak, in interpreting Job makes us like Job’s friends who cannot speak rightly about God because they cannot break away from earlier patterns of thinking.”

Here is a link to a short video with an overview of the book of Job video:

https://youtu.be/xQwnH8th_fs

For Reflection:

As it deals with the question of human suffering the book of Job raises some hard questions for us. When bad things happen in your life and in the world, how do we understand/know/experience God’s presence? Do we blame God? Do we question God’s providence? Do we lose heart? Do you just think that your suffering is a test that we must conquer or endure? When our dreams turn into nightmares, how do we cope or where do we see God? Can we let go of old images/understandings of God?

There are no simple answers to our questions about human suffering and this is difficult for most of us because answering life’s big questions could give us a sense of control that there is some logic we can understand. Control is one of the big traps of our human experience. We have the illusion that if we could control things, then we would be truly happy. In his book Job and the Mystery of Suffering, Richard Rohr writes that “the opposite of love is not really hatred, but control.” We even project this need for control onto God. But faith is about expanding our ability to live in trust and not in control. Faith is about learning to live with uncertainty. Love demands that we trust, especially when it is hard to trust. And so when it comes to the problem of innocent suffering, we struggle because we can’t find simple answers to satisfy our need for control. The problem of human suffering is an age-old issue that we confront. This issue more than any other issue in human history has been the leading cause for many people to lose their faith in God.

This week I invite you to wrestle with the question of innocent suffering to let go of the need for simple answers and to trust that God is in this struggle with us. God’s love is constant. The temptation to seek logic and control over situations of pain robs us of the opportunity to live in trust and to embrace love in the midst of suffering. Focus your energy on love, especially in times of struggle. Examine any images of God that show you God as aloof or outside of suffering. Embrace the power of Jesus’ suffering as a way to show us that God is part of our suffering instead of being outside of it.

In his book The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald May writes that “Suffering arises from the simple circumstances of life itself. Sometimes human suffering is dramatic and horrifying. More often it is ordinary, humble, and quiet. But neither way is it ‘God’s Will.’ The divine presence doesn’t intend us to suffer, but is instead WITH us in all the experiences of life, in both suffering and joy.  And that presence is always inviting us toward greater freedom and love.”

Prayer:

Spirit! Power and Passion of my being,
press upon my heart your profound love.
Move through the fragments of my days;
enable me to sense your Presence
consecrating my most insignificant moments.

Spirit! Source of Vision, Perceptive Guide,
permeate the moments of my choices
when falsehood and truth both call to me.
Turn me toward the way of goodness,
so that I will always lean toward your love.

Spirit! Blessing for the heart grown weary,
encircle me with your loving energy,
empower me with your active gentleness.
Deepen within me a faith in your dynamism
which strengthens the weak and the tired
and gives courage and hope to those who suffer.

Spirit! Breath of Life, Touch of Mystery,
you are the ribbon of inner connection,
uniting me with all of creation.
Because of you, my life gathers into a oneness.
Keep me attentive to this interdependence.
Fill my being with constant compassion
and a deep hope that knows no bounds.

Spirit! Dwelling Place, Sanctuary of Silence,
you are the home for which I deeply yearn.
You are the resting place for which I long.
I find both comfort and challenge in you.
Grant that I may be open
to the transforming power of your indwelling,
that I may ever know”
the blessings of your friendship.

Compassionate God,
your generous presence is always attuned to hurting ones.
Your listening ear is bent toward the cries of the wounded
Your heart of love fills with tears for the suffering.
Turn my inward eye to see that I am not alone.
I am a part of all of life.
Each one’s joy and sorrow is my joy and sorrow,
and mine is theirs.

May I draw strength from this inner communion.
May it daily recommit me to be a compassionate presence
for all who struggle with life’s pain.

This we pray through your son, Jesus. Amen

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