The Furnace of Affliction: Suffering in the Book of Job
A theology of suffering in the book of Job provides a rich and nuanced picture of the sovereignty of God and the realistic suffering of the righteous. This article will explore how this theology unfolds in Job’s life as God’s sovereign grace is put on display, which in turn demands a human response of faith. This thesis will be supported first by examining the suffering of the righteous. Second, it will investigate God’s sovereignty. Third, it will look at the human response.
The Righteous Suffer
There is no cookie cutter theology for the suffering of the righteous. Job’s friends attributed his suffering to sin, but the book of Job clearly refutes that accusation. Scripture calls Job “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, 8). Even after Job’s life was shattered—losing his family, earthly possessions, and health—he did not charge God with wrong (Job 1:22). He did not sin with his lips (Job 2:10). “Job is not insisting that he is sinless—he offers sacrifices,” James M. Hamilton comments, “but in the interchanges he is objecting to the conclusions of his friends.” Job was blameless, but he did not get what was expected, namely, a life without suffering. Most of the time the principles that Proverbs sets forth prove true: righteous living leads to a rewarding life. But the book of Job tells us there are exceptions. Grisanti notes that “Job and Ecclesiastes address the approximately one-tenth of life that is wholly unexpected and unexplained.” Job shows that there are no impenetrable formulas that say the righteous always prosper on earth and the wicked are always ruined. Job knew this firsthand.
God is Sovereign
Correlative to the suffering of the righteous is the sovereignty of God. The righteous can and will suffer, but God is in complete control of each person’s life and faith. In the book of Job, God is seen as the wise Creator who has a plan for His creation. Mystery surrounds that plan, but nothing can happen without God’s permission. Thomas R. Schreiner affirms that, “The book of Job teaches that God is sovereign and just, but it does not explain why God allows such evil in the world in a way that answers all questions.” He continues: “It leaves us instead with the questions with which God confronts Job in chapters 38–41.” Sufferers do not always get their “why” questions answered.
The Creator God is sovereign, but people are limited creatures—limited in knowledge, wisdom, and ability. Grisanti notes, “God is seen as sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, and caring. By contrast, man is seen as finite, ignorant, and sinful.” Job’s know-it-all counselor friends did not truly comfort him because they were limited in their understanding, as Job was. Remember Job had no idea that “a great contest between God and Satan [was] underway.” He did not know that behind the scenes “Satan wants to annihilate all that is holy.” Sufferers are limited in knowledge. But even without knowing the reasons for suffering, people are still called to trust and obey God. To paraphrase what Dr. Moseley said in his Old Testament class, in suffering there are many questions that come up, and while we might not understand the “why,” we get the “who.” We get a person. We get Jesus.
With that point in mind the book of Job outlines three main internal responses to suffering. First, suffering under the hand of a sovereign God in the context of a real enemy evokes a human response. Suffering pumps wisdom or folly out of the heart. Job’s friends, for example, responded with folly, whereas Job spoke what was true. Thus God commanded Job to pray for them. God said to the friends, “I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:8). Wise or foolish responses emerge from a suffering heart.
Second, suffering not only exposes wisdom or folly in a heart, but it also unearths what a person treasures. If health, wealth, or earthly success are the gems sought after, then “as soon as God does not send what we have desired, we dispute against Him,” Calvin points out in a Sermon on Job 1:22. “We bring suit, not that we appear to do this, but our manner shows that this is nevertheless our intent.” Calvin demonstrates that this response is from a poisoned heart saying, “[i]t is as if they accused God of being a tyrant or a hair-brain who asked only to put everything into confusion. Such horrible blasphemy blows out of the mouths of men.” Job’s question still stands, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10). Will sufferers hold God in contempt? After unimaginable suffering Job cried, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job. 1:21). Job’s hope was not built on the sandy foundation of earthly goods, physical health, or prosperity in this life. God was Job’s rock—his final treasure.
Third, suffering not only digs up what the heart truly treasures, but it also displays a response of faith or a lack thereof. The three-dimensional heart, which beats with thoughts, emotions, and actions, is the battleground for faith and affection; it is the place where the contest is waged. Suffering unmasks what is in the heart. During Job’s great trial, his faith was like a valuable piece of gold; Job was blameless. But suffering was the furnace that revealed a storehouse of treasure. Affliction burned away from the soul all that was unrefined, the dross of sin, and revealed a genuine faith that would endure. Job says, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10). Faith, affection, and repentance were all branches on the same tree of Job’s life that was rooted in the sovereign Lord.
Not only does the book of Job show internal responses to suffering, but it also outlines external responses. In suffering God is self-sufficient and supreme, but there is still human responsibility. We can see this point in Job 1:17: “…The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword…” Under God’s control and Satan’s destructive plan, real people raided Job’s property and they were responsible for their actions. God’s sovereignty is not divorced from human responsibility.
Suffering, in God’s sovereign plan leads to an external ministry. This point is evident in Job’s life. He was entrusted with the message of reconciliation. After tremendous suffering God called Job to pray for the very people who hurt him (Job 42:8). Job’s ministry of reconciliation was both vertical and horizontal. It was reconciliation with God and man. “Job needed forgiveness,” John Piper states, but “He also needed to forgive.” Additionally, the people persecuting Job needed God’s forgiveness, so God called Job to intercede on their behalf. Believers who suffer are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. This point is echoed in the broader context of Scripture. 2 Corinthians 5:18 says “…Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” It is possible to love God and neighbor while suffering tremendously.
Good news is found in Job because suffering is not the end of the story. There is restoration. Grisanti says, “God vindicated Job’s righteousness and blessed him again.” Job’s blessing was not earned. It was a gift from God. (Job 42:10). Job was so blessed that even his daughters received an inheritance (Job 42:15). That historical reality points to the glorious gospel, where a different blameless man suffered for the sake of another’s inheritance. Jesus is the true and greater Job in that He faced many accusers and yet he restores people to God making men and women co-heirs with Him. Jesus truly comforts and prays for his followers—keeping them in the faith.
The book of Job teaches that God is sovereign and yet righteous people suffer. When they do, a response in the form of wisdom or folly will emerge, and they will be held accountable. The battle waged in each life, is over faith—which a real enemy seeks to destroy. The sufferer may have no earthly goods, but he can still be rich in God’s eyes. Jesus comforts and restores people who suffer by giving them Himself. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”