The Riddle of Suffering

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Thirty years ago, Kate’s parents were traveling in Israel. During their stay in Jerusalem, they wanted to see as many holy sites as possible and so one day, they were planning to make an early start. Just as they were about to get on the appointed bus, they encountered some fellow tourists who invited them to share a meal. Later that afternoon, they found out that the bus they were planning to board contained a bomb that went off, killing and injuring several passengers.

Steve was really angry. He misplaced his cell phone and when he finally found it, he had missed his flight. He wanted to beat the storms that were hitting the Midwest. Fuming he sat in the bar, awaiting a later flight, when a news flash came on the air, indicating that the plane he missed had just crashed in the storm.

His friends sought to explain his survival. “God really protected you,” “Your guardian angel was on duty.” “It must have been providence.”

None of these explanations satisfied Steve. He asked himself, “Why did I survive and others die?” “Didn’t God have a plan for their lives, too?” “Did God choose me and not them? If so, why?”

When someone asks me, “What does the Bible say about a particular issue – the scope of salvation, homosexuality, abortion, divorce, or the relationship of women and men?” I usually respond by saying, “Which part of scripture do you want me to cite?” You see, the bible is not a uniform text, but more like a library of books, often expressing very different viewpoints.

This is certainly true in regards to the mystery of suffering. When the book of Job was written, perhaps 2300 years ago, the primary biblical viewpoint was that righteousness and good behavior leads to good fortune, while misbehavior leads to suffering. In other words, if you’re good, you’ll be successful. If you turn away from God’s rules, you will fail. Prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing and your goodness; poverty is a divine curse and a sign of immoral behavior.

This is where Job comes in. This ancient tale begins: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. Job was blameless and upright; he feared God and turned away from evil.

Job did everything right. He was respected, and healthy, wealthy, and wise until God and Satan have an argument in heaven. As the story goes, and I believe that this is a tale about the human condition and not a factual account, Satan has been roaming the earth, observing the human condition, as one of God’s district attorneys.

When Satan reports back to God, God asks 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.” Satan retorts, “He’s only good because of his good fortune. If you take away his fortune and social standing, he’ll turn away from you.” God says go ahead and test him, so on three successive days Job loses his sheep, cattle, and children.

Job remains faithful. In response to another divine boast, Satan fires back, “Take away his health, and he will abandon you.” So, God again withdraws Job’s protection and he comes down with a terrible skin disease. In the midst of life, with no warning, Job loses everything. He doesn’t deserve his suffering, but he must deal with it.

The book of Job asks us to consider undeserved suffering: Is God just? Is the universe just? How do we respond when bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people?

Cause and effect operate in the universe. We depend on the consistency of acts and consequences in daily life and the legal system. Every president tells us, “If you get an education or training, follow the rules, work hard, you can live the American dream.” But, tell that to a laid off worker whose house has just been foreclosed.

A pastor I know visited two men diagnosed with lung cancer. The first confessed, “I don’t blame God for my cancer. I smoked for all my adult life.” Later, he talked to another congregant, filled with anger: “I’ve followed a healthy diet, exercised, and never smoked, and now I have lung cancer. Is God punishing me for something?”

No one can fully fathom the mystery of suffering. Job tells us that one answer is obviously wrong: the rewards-consequences approach, which assumes that if you are suffering, it is somehow your fault and that you brought it on yourself.

This belief is still alive. In new age circles, people are told “you create your own reality.” Negative thinking leads to sickness and failure, while positive thinking leads to health and success. This viewpoint is partly right: our attitudes shape how we experience the world and have a role in shaping our lives. But, too often this viewpoint is used to blame the victim: if you only had more faith, you would get well; your negativity is the reason you’re not in remission from cancer; or you’re poor because you have a bad attitude.

Another view we must challenge is that suffering is God’s will. This view asserts that God has a plan and what we perceive as evil will be proven to be good in the long run. Our suffering is a spiritual test, an opportunity for growth, or a way to strengthen your faith. But, in the wake of his daughter’s death from leukemia, another parent complained, “Surely God didn’t give my daughter cancer to deepen my faith. That’s simply evil.”

When asked why a man was born blind – was it due to his sins or the sins of his parents? – Jesus responded, “Neither are to blame…We must do God’s work while it is still light.” Jesus also asserted that the “sun shines and the rain falls on the good and evil alike.” Jesus never explained evil. He challenged any notion that God was the source of evil – either as punishment or as the cause of our pain. After all, the one who wants us to have abundant life opposes any unnecessary suffering. God wants us to be well and all of us to prosper, congruent with the well-being of the planet.

Jesus says, “Do God’s work while it’s still light.” In other words, the best response to suffering is to be compassionate for those who suffer. Jesus knew that life holds no guarantees, and because all of us are at risk, we should reach out to each other in love. Don’t blame the victim, work to heal the victim. Welcome her or him to the circle of love, for we are all one.

We’ll hear more from Job in the weeks ahead. But today, remember that we can’t avoid suffering – our own or our loved ones – but we can let suffering challenge us to love better and become God’s partners in healing the world.