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.

Living in the Waves

waves.jpg

One of the most well-known stories in the New Testament must be when Jesus invites Peter to walk on water in Matthew 14:22-33. Peter is often held up as either an example of bold faith in stepping out of the boat or faltering faith in sinking into the waves.

However, there is another part of the story that captures my attention and it has to do with the waves. When this memorable episode from the life of Jesus and the life of Peter takes place, it is surrounded by waves of challenge.

The first type of waves is the waves of people. Immediately before this, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of more than five thousand people. This crowd was pressing in around Jesus. Jesus dismissed them, but, even after the walking on water episode, they hunted Him down and asked for more. It is likely, from what we read in parallel accounts, that the crowds actually hoped to make Jesus king. The waves of people surrounded Him.

Along with the waves of people came the waves of emotions. After an exciting yet stressful ministry day with people, the disciples were exhausted. They seem not only exhausted by the work they were doing with Jesus, but also by the fact that Jesus Himself was difficult to understand. This led to a sort of emotional exhaustion and anticipation that always kept the disciples on their toes. They needed to get away.  It seems that Jesus also needed to get away. The pressures on Him to live into a human-defined image of Messiah-ship, yet pushing against that in obedience to the Father, lead Him to want to draw away with the Father again.

Of course, along with these waves of human pressure and emotional pressure come a third type: the waves of natural life. The literal winds and waves that beat against the boat threaten everyone in this situation. The natural order was not on their side and could not be easily controlled. This heightened physical circumstance augments the other more subtle waves around Jesus and His disciples.

Attention to the waves in this situation tells me one important thing to keep in focus. The waves – the challenges we face – are a normal part of life.

I want to draw this out because so many of us are waiting for “someday.” We all do this at times. We have that tendency to wait for a day when we believe that everything will become calm or everything will be at perfect peaceful. If not that, many of us are simply looking for the day when everything feels “normal,” even if we have never defined what that is.

When that normal day comes, many of us say, we will then be ready to follow Christ or take some dramatic step of faith. Until then, we are on hold in fear or confusion.

However, the very setting in which Peter makes his bold step of faith is in the waves. This is important to pay attention to because the Lord is reminding us through the context of this story that waves are normal.

The challenges of people and relationships that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the waves with people that we face.  The challenges of emotions and pressures that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the emotional waves that we face. The challenges of the natural things that happen – natural life changes, natural aging, natural circumstances of the environment – are similar to the natural waves that we face.

And this is what strikes me today: these waves are the normal setting in which faith rises up. Because of this, we don’t need to wait for someday.  Someday will not come because it does not exist. The waves in which we find ourselves are the setting in which we must take a step of faith.

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.

Why Can We Glory in Our Sufferings?

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Paul begins our fifth chapter of Romans by savoring “the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2) we have through justification by faith in Jesus Christ. He savors the peace with God we have in Christ and the grace of God in which we now stand in Jesus Christ. There is so much to enjoy and savor given us by God as a gift.

But Paul carries on from there to “glory in our sufferings” (5:3). This may seem shocking. While it is understandable to glory in God’s peace, grace, and hope, to glory in suffering seems less understandable. But Paul ties together the hope of God’s glory flowing from the justification by faith with hope that arises amid suffering. If approached with long-term perspective and clinging to God, suffering can have a shaping influence in our lives that leads through perseverance and character to hope. In suffering we look for what is to come. Christian suffering, regardless of its cause, can lead us to look for our hope in God while also yielding to God’s work in us. We anticipate the hope of the glory of God yet to come.

We are upheld in this longing by the reality that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (5:5). The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God and the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Ephesians 1:14). But here, the Christian is sustained amidst suffering’s shaping by the love of God in the present brought home to us by the Holy Spirit’s presence in us. It is this manifest presence of God’s love that strengthens us in suffering to persevere, to grow, and to hope.

Growing in Christ During Trying Times

For several years I have served as a seminar speaker for the No Regrets Men’s Conference. This year’s conference was primarily online, but I still had the privilege of speaking within the discipleship track on “Growing in Christ During Trying Times.” I spoke from Hebrews 12:1-13, giving attention to six aspects of growing with Christ in trials and difficulties:

  • Running with a crowd (Hebrews 12:1a)
  • Running with hindrances (Hebrews 12:1b)
  • Running with our eyes fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1c-3)
  • Running who we are (Hebrews 12:4-6)
  • Running with discipline (Hebrews 12:7-11)
  • Running bandaged (Hebrews 12:12-13)

I could not seem to embed the message here on my blog, you can visit the No Regrets website to view the message video here.