Wrestling Lessons with Job: encountering God in our suffering

In Shakespeare’s powerful drama King Lear there is a moving scene where King Lear, bereft of the daughter he loves most, Cordelia, and being controlled by his two other self-serving daughters, Goneril and Regan, rushes out into a tempestuous storm.[1]

As the dark storm rages about him, Lear rages about his own suffering and loss. He calls upon the wild thunder and lightning to destroy him and the grief-filled world as he wanders wildly through the darkness. Eventually, King Lear goes mad with grief and confusion in this episode. He calls out for justice, meaning, and resolution, but finds none in the isolation of the storm. In some ways, King Lear’s struggle parallels that of Job. They are both looking for meaning in their suffering.

I’m sure that we’ve all either experienced dark times or been around others who have.  It is one thing to experience a brief adversity or set-back, but another thing to endure ongoing suffering for weeks, months, or years.

“We Have Much Yet to Learn…”
Remember that Job suffered great loss. He loses all of his children—7 sons, 3 daughters—and all of his belongings—7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys. All he owned and love is gone in one stunning afternoon.

Still, Job could make an amazing declaration:

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. (Job 1:21)

Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)

Job was able to make a great declaration of faith in the moment suffering struck. Now, however, we find Job is in a place of ongoing suffering. The initial dramatic declaration of faith is followed by a period of wrestling with that suffering. “Why, God?” is the question which resonates within Job’s mind.

In great fairy tale style, we all might like for God to immediately restore the fortunes of Job. We want to skip from the end of chapter 2 right on to the end of chapter 42 and have things put right.

Why do we need the rest of this book? As one biblical scholar writes, it is because we “have much yet to learn about suffering and about God.”

What Friends Are These?!
When Job’s friends arrive the best thing that they do is to sit silently with him in his loss and suffering. When they begin to open their mouths, things immediately go south. Their understanding of suffering and God’s role in suffering could be summarized most succinctly in the following ideas:

  • God corrects or disciplines those who need it
  • Sin in one’s life leads to adversity and God’s punishment
  • Lack of generosity leads to God’s punishment
  • If you confess and repent of your hidden sins, then restoration comes

Job, in their eyes, is encountering suffering, adversity, and dark times as a result of sin in his life which God wants to correct. If only Job were to confess his sins and turn back to God, then he would be restored. But there is something about the theological truth his friends offer to Job which doesn’t ring true.

Here is why Job’s friends’ statements don’t ring true:

  • Job’s standing and righteousness wasn’t a joke: Two times God described Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8 ; 2:3). Yet Job’s friends doubted his standing before God. Their statements about wrong ways leading to God’s punishment may have been true in general, but not specifically in regards to Job
  • Suffering is not necessarily doled out in proportion to one’s goodness or evil: Job rightly understood that “the wicked are spared from the day of calamity” (21:30) and that all too often the righteous are “a laughingstock” to those around them (12:4). The view of life that those who are good will avoid suffering and those who are bad will endure suffering just doesn’t prove true in life’s realities. It is not that clear cut in real life.
  • Sometimes God allows things we do not understand: Job was part of something bigger than him—a cosmic drama behind the scenes—and, as we see later in the book, he never really receives a full explanation for that. Neither Job nor his friends know the fullness of God’s ways behind the scenes. We are reminded that God’s ways are bigger than us and our understanding.

Job’s Growth through Suffering
While the ensuing speeches don’t reveal much further about Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, they do show us something about Job. He begins in despair, cursing the day of his birth and his continued existence. He complains of the absence of God’s justice. He laments his suffering and longs for the finality of death without a future.

But as the rounds of speeches continue, while not letting go of his call for God’s justice, Job’s perspective begins to change. The pinnacle of this is found in chapter 19:

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (19:25-27)

And then in chapter 23:

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (23:10)

Job may not understand all that is happening to him —his part in it, God’s part in it, Satan’s part in it—but he does experience a transformation that is extremely significant. Job trusts in God’s ultimate salvation even as he wrestles with not understanding his suffering.

And For Us…
Now, what can we gather from Job’s experience of suffering and wrestling with God before our eyes in this book? If we do have much to learn about God and suffering, then what do we need to glean from Job today?

Perhaps we need to learn something about getting honest with God as a form of wrestling with our suffering. Maybe it is time to allow God to grow our faith through that wrestling. Or perhaps we need to develop as a friend in the midst of others’ wrestling with suffering and God.

Hopefully, like Job, we too will trust in God’s ultimate salvation even as we wrestle with our suffering.


[1] William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, scene ii.

The Weekend Wanderer: 23 October 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


125694“How Might the COVID-19 Crisis Reshape our Churches for Good?” – Kyuboem Lee in Christianity Today: “In March 2020, as the American public only began to grasp the growing scope of the global pandemic, we suddenly went into a shutdown. Churches could no longer meet in person; many scrambled to find ways to broadcast their Sunday services online instead. Initially, many of us thought (wishfully, as it turned out) that the shutdown would last a few weeks and we would return to normal. But the shutdown dragged out for months and months. Many churches were unable to meet in person for more than a year. Pastors began wondering out loud to me if their churches would survive financially. They fretted about their buildings, sitting empty week after week. They were concerned about giving amid sudden job losses and economic downturn. They worried about a drop-off in online service attendance. There was much cause for deep anxiety, and the pandemic’s long-term impact on churches may be felt for years to come. But I don’t believe that the pandemic is a crisis we simply need to recover from. Instead, the crisis of the pandemic and its aftereffects presents an opportunity to reshape the church in transformative ways. It offers us a moment of clarity to perceive our need for reinvention for the sake of our mission.”


womanlightingcandleembed“Responding to Persecution: Where Western Christians would stand and fight, Eastern Christians have learned to endure – or flee” – Luma Simms in Plough: “In 2007, my friend Ishraq was an Iraqi biologist working in quality control in a government agency testing products coming into the country for contaminants – food products and plants, anything meant for consumption or planting – a job she had studied and worked hard to attain, a job she loved. Her husband, Luay, owned a car dealership. Although other Christians were leaving Iraq after the chaos that engulfed the country after the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, they didn’t want to leave their homeland. With the increase in crime and the abduction of Christians, they thought it best to sell the dealership and wait it out until things settled back down. One rainy day as Luay got ready to drive Ishraq to work, two cars pulled up in front of them. Men got out and snatched Luay. As they dragged him through the mud, she grabbed hold of his leg, shrieking. One of the kidnappers disentangled her from Luay and flung her off. ‘I lost my mind, I was screaming like a crazy woman, I was screaming for someone to come help us,’ she remembers. The men shoved Luay into one of their cars and left. A minute later a police officer came driving by and stopped when he heard her crying. He got out and stood over her as she lay shaking on the ground. When she told him what had happened, it became clear he knew who the kidnappers were. ‘He gave me his card and told me that when the kidnappers called me to ask for ransom money, to let him know and he’ll see what he can do. I told him, “What you can do is get in the car and go after them right now.” The policeman left and I just sat there in the mud on the side of the street wailing.'”


imrs.php“You’re a different person when you travel. Here’s why, and how to transform yourself at home.” – Jen Rose Smith in The Washington Post: “Every so often, I pack a bag for a solo trip that lasts as long as I can manage. The lifelong habit has weathered career changes, a pandemic and marriage. ‘Where is your husband?’ people ask. ‘Why are you here alone?’ ‘He’s at home,’ I say, perhaps while splashing through leech-filled mudholes in Borneo. ‘Because I like traveling by myself.’ I’m after more than sightseeing. Family, home and work are magnetic poles in my life; at times, I need to consult my personal compass away from the strong pull that they exert. When I leave familiar things behind, I look at the world with fresh eyes. Strange foods become new favorites. Curiosity surges. I am a different person when I travel. In her book, Getting Away from It All: Vacations and Identity, sociologist Karen Stein sheds light on the reasons that travelers, whether they’re going it alone or with friends, might feel different when on the road. She argues that travel is a chance to try out alternate identities — a temporary respite from ourselves.”


main-v00-81-1536x1024“China crackdown on Apple store hits holy book apps, Audible” – Matt O’brien at Religion News Service: “Amazon’s audiobook service Audible and phone apps for reading the holy books of Islam and Christianity have disappeared from the Apple store in mainland China, the latest examples of the impact of the country’s tightened rules for internet firms. Audible said Friday that it removed its app from the Apple store in mainland China last month ‘due to permit requirements.’ The makers of apps for reading and listening to the Quran and Bible say their apps have also been removed from Apple’s China-based store at the government’s request. Apple didn’t return requests for comment Friday. A spokesperson for China’s embassy in the U.S. declined to speak about specific app removals but said the Chinese government has ‘always encouraged and supported the development of the Internet.’ ‘At the same time, the development of the Internet in China must also comply with Chinese laws and regulations,’ said an emailed statement from Liu Pengyu. China’s government has long sought to control the flow of information online, but is increasingly stepping up its enforcement of the internet sector in other ways, making it hard to determine the causes for a particular app’s removal.”


29russellmooreembeddove“Integrity and the Future of the Church” – Russell Moore in Plough Quarterly: “Something was happening at the Vatican; I cannot remember if the issue was another sexual abuse cover-up or a contentious synod meeting. But I do remember seeing a woman I knew to be a serious Roman Catholic post on her social media an old music video, with no commentary. The video, R.E.M.’s 1991 song ‘Losing My Religion,’ prompted friends to ask if she had lost her faith. She responded that she hadn’t, but was afraid that she was losing her church. No wonder her friends were concerned. The song, after all, has entered popular culture as the soundtrack to almost any story of an ex-Catholic or an ‘ex-vangelical.’…In light of the current crisis of religion – seen perhaps most starkly in my own American evangelical subculture – I’m not sure that these are entirely different things. Perhaps ‘losing religion’ now is about both interpretations of the song, if not as much about intellect and argumentation as about grief, betrayal, and anger.”


John Coltrane

“Coltrane’s New ‘Love Supreme'” – Adam Shatz in The New York Review: “At a press conference in Tokyo in July 1966, a Japanese jazz critic asked John Coltrane what he would like to be in ten years. “I would like to be a saint,” he replied. Coltrane, who died the following July of liver cancer, at forty, reportedly laughed when he said this; but among his followers, he was already considered a spiritual leader, even a prophet. His reputation rested not merely on his musicianship, but on the example he set, the self-renunciation and good works required of every saint. Unlike the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, who launched the bebop revolution with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Coltrane was not a fully formed virtuoso when he first emerged, but rather a committed and tireless student of the horn—a hardworking man who arrived at his sound through a practice regime of almost excruciating discipline. “He practiced like a man with no talent,” his friend the tenor saxophonist Benny Golson remembered. The saxophonist Archie Shepp, one of Coltrane’s many protégés, exaggerated only slightly when he remarked that he never saw him take the sax from his mouth. The trumpeter Miles Davis, in whose mid-Fifties quintet Coltrane first rose to prominence, made the same observation, though more in exasperation than worship.”


Music: John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme, Pt IV – Psalm (Live),” A Love Supreme – Live in Seattle.

Is God’s Love with Us Even in Trials?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

We all experience seasons of difficulty and challenge in our lives. As a pastor I have walked alongside many who have endured great trials in their lives. I am sure many of us reading this right now may be walking through our own difficulties. This is the unavoidable reality of living in a sinful and imperfect world alongside sinful and imperfect people as sinful and imperfect selves.

The Apostle Paul is not so naive to think such seasons will not come. He has walked through them himself, as we know from his autobiographical description: “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). He does not inflict trite aphorisms or slap bumper sticker theology on the lives of other disciples.

No, in this passage Paul addresses the real, gritty experiences we all encounter that bring difficulty and suffering into our lives: spiritual warfare, physical suffering and death, our finite viewpoints, powers beyond our control, physical expanses of creation, other people, ourselves, and more. Even with all this, Paul writes, we are still “more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Why? Because nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Why? Because Jesus has gone through the utter extremity of human experience in His death on the Cross, endured its shame and the weight of judgment, and through that has brought us salvation and reconciliation with God.

Can physical death separate us from God’s love? No. Can spiritual warfare? No. Can our present realities or unknown future? Not at all. Can trouble or hardship? No. Can the utter lack of basic needs in famine or nakedness? No, it cannot. Can conflict with others in words or swords? Not at all. Can any powers or the expanse of creation? No. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

That bond given by God’s grace through faith the work of Christ is unbreakable and inseparable. We are held and sustained by God through Christ and the Cross. Even if everything falls apart and everyone walks away from us, nothing can separate us from God’s love and it is because of this that we are more than conquerors, even in the ruins. So be encouraged no matter where you are today that if you have faith in Jesus Christ, the Living God and King of all Creation holds you firmly in His loving and gracious grasp.

The Weekend Wanderer: 11 September 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


“In Search of a Truly Good News Faith” – Vince Bacote in Comment: “The problem of dissonance between ‘our people’ and ‘the others’ has been with us since the Fall. The lingering and stubborn challenge of race is a particularly acute example, and the evangelical movement has not escaped its thorns. How might this “good news” tradition better address this challenge? Let’s first discuss the label. American evangelicalism really took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and distilled Christianity to four essentials: the authority of the Bible, personal conversion experiences, salvation by Christ’s work on the cross, and an active life of faith expressed in mission and personal piety. Though both the evangelical movement and its theology have aspired to a model of complete fidelity to these essentials, the record has been mixed. As an African American who has inhabited the evangelical ethos since my time as an undergraduate, I have great appreciation for the commitment to biblical truth and efforts to encourage a serious faith that aspires to heed to the full sweep of God’s revelation. I am also acutely aware of its unfulfilled promise.”


“Our Theology of Prayer Matters More than Our Feelings” – Kristen Deede Johnson in Christianity Today: “For a season in my Christian life, I was known as the go-to person on prayer. If you had a prayer request, you could rest assured that I’d add you to my list and pray for you every morning in my quiet time. For years, a day had not gone by without me spending intentional time in prayer. If you asked me what I’d do if I was tired or discouraged, I’d have told you—in all honesty—that I found nothing more refreshing or encouraging than getting on my knees and praying….And then one day, without warning, reason, or explanation, that sense of sweet intimacy was gone. The life of prayer that I’d spent years cultivating appeared to vanish. My very relationship with God seemed threatened.”


“Orthodox church destroyed in 9/11 being rebuilt as ‘cenotaph’ to those killed” – John Lavenburg in Crux: “With less than a year left in the reconstruction of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, Michael Psaros foresees a church that honors the lives that were lost during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York. The original church was destroyed when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. ‘St. Nicholas Shrine is a cenotaph to the 3,000 people that were murdered, martyred and killed on that day,’ Psaros told Crux. ‘At ground zero today you have the museums, you have the reflecting pools, but now you have faith. You have this magnificent structure whose doors will be open to people of all faiths around the world.'”


First Nations Version“First Nations Version translates the New Testament for Native American readers” – Emily McFarlan Miller at Religion News Service: “It’s a Bible verse familiar to many Christians — and even to many non-Christians who have seen John 3:16 on billboards and T-shirts or scrawled across eye black under football players’ helmets. But Terry Wildman hopes the new translation published Tuesday (Aug. 31) by InterVarsity Press, “First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament,” will help Christians and Indigenous peoples read it again in a fresh way. ‘The Great Spirit loves this world of human beings so deeply he gave us his Son — the only Son who fully represents him. All who trust in him and his way will not come to a bad end, but will have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony,’ reads the First Nations Version of the verse.”


Evangelical Church“I Won’t Kiss Evangelicalism Goodbye” – Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition: “To me, the most powerful moment so far in Mike Cosper’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill comes near the end of Josh Harris’ deconversion story, when Ted Olsen, executive editor at Christianity Today, reflects on his disappointment and sadness in covering so many fallen leaders in recent years. ‘It hits you in the gut every time,’ he says. At one point, having seen more and more ugly truths come to light, Ted looked out over the evangelical landscape and asked: ‘Are there any Christians? Are there real Christians? Are there Christians who believe this stuff and act on it? Or are most people doing this just as a grift or because they’ve been grifted?’ As someone who, like Ted, has sometimes seen the underbelly of hypocrisy in the church, I have felt a similar sense of disappointment and disillusionment. But lately, that sentiment hasn’t been due only to the moral failure of leaders but also to the inability or unwillingness of many influential voices to recognize and pass on the riches of the evangelical heritage we’ve received.”


Marino_Last Word“The Why & the How: Approaching life’s horizon” – Gordon Marino in Commonweal: “‘If we have our own “why” in life, we shall get along with almost any “how.”‘ In his famous Holocaust survival memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl cites this quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Frankl explains that he did not follow his fellow inmates who took their lives by running into the electric barbed-wire fences because he kept alive the hope of being reunited with his recent bride, Tilly. Unbeknownst to Frankl, there would be no reunion with his beloved. She, along with both of Frankl’s parents, was turned into smoke and ashes in the death camps. Elaborating on Nietzsche’s wisdom, Frankl writes: ‘A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”‘ Take note of Frankl’s ‘almost.’ Now, in my own fifth act, I look back and shake my head in wonder at how I survived some of my travails, many of them self-inflicted and none of them on the order of what Frankl suffered. But he and Nietzsche were right: when you are slipping into the abyss, purpose is a life raft, one that I clutched.”


Music: Bruce Cockburn, “Pacing the Cage,” from The Charity of Night.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “It’s Possible” [Poetry for Ordinary Time]

I’ve enjoyed posting poetry series themed around the Christian year in the past couple of years (see “Poetry for Lent” and “Poetry for Easter“). I will continue that with a series called “Poetry for Ordinary Time.” Ordinary time includes two sections of the church year between Christmastide and Lent and Easter and Advent. The word “ordinary” here derives from the word ordinal by which the weeks are counted. Still, ordinary time does serve an opportunity to embrace the ordinary spaces and places of our lives, and the themes of the poems will express this.

Here is Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “It’s Possible” taken from his Das Stundenbuch or A Book for the Hours of Prayer. This rendering of the poem was translated by Robert Bly. Rilke was a 19th and 20th century German poet whose lyrical style often explored themes of the inner life.


It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief—
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.


Previous poems in this series: