Since becoming a pastor I've been persuaded that one of the greatest burdens of the ministry is to preach, pray, and shepherd in a way that prepares others to suffer. Even in the small congregation I'm privileged to call my family, I'm continually astonished at how much God's people suffer – losses, depression, pain in body and soul, loneliness, and brokenness. Next to being grounded in an understanding of the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation and the unique role and ministry of the church, how to glorify God in suffering tops my pastoral priority list. It's for that reason that I began several months ago to preach through the book of Job.
Job is a difficult book. If I can admit it I've regretted my decision to preach it almost every Monday morning. There are many riddles and complexities that seem, in my mind, to mirror the complexities and riddles of suffering itself. But one of the most challenging aspects of preaching through Job is the repetitive content of Job's three friends. Maybe a brilliant someone has discovered something more but it seems to me that eight times Job's friends in slightly different ways say the same thing to their friend: the unrighteous suffer so you must be unrighteous. While many of their pithy lines and maxims have an echo of the truth they are very wrong to apply that truth to Job. He isn't suffering because he is unrighteous; rather, he is suffering because he is righteous.
The logic of Job's friends, however, is a logic deeply imbedded in the human heart. Like them, we are prone to think wrongly about suffering. Remember, the Psalmist was puzzled about the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:3), and Jesus himself was challenged over who sinned that a man was born blind (John 9:2). Whenever we begin to think of suffering in terms of what is or is not deserved, or are directed by some form of karma, or declare that what one reaps he has sown, or say that what goes around comes around, this logic begins to niggle its way into our hearts – the unrighteous suffer and the righteous prosper. The theme of Job stands to remind us that the righteous suffer too!
But the unique thing about Job is that this message is repeated. Quite literally it is repeated again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Why? Well, I remember in elementary school I had a teacher who always made us repeat her instructions three times. She did it because she had realistic expectations – we weren't going to understand, remember, and do unless the point was driven in again and again. After all, repetition breeds familiarity. In much the same way I think the Holy Spirit bombards us with this message in the book of Job because we're prone to think wrongly about suffering, and we can't afford to! Suffering is too important, pivotal, and central to Christianity that when we think wrongly about it there's a lot at stake. If we adopted the logic of Job's friends – the righteous prosper and the unrighteous suffer – we lose a significant part of our theology.
We lose a right understanding of God. In the simplicity of their logic, Job's friends tried to fit God into nice and neat categories measuring him by their own understanding and experience. I think this is why when God breaks his prolonged silence he gives to Job an exhibition of his magnificence, power, immensity, and eternity. He is the God who laid the foundations of the earth; it's in his hands that the storehouse of snow is held; he commands the waves in their boundaries; he gives to the hunter the flesh of the prey; he draws out leviathan. The failure of Job's friends to understand that God doesn't operate in their neat little categories leads God to rebuke them for not speaking accurately about him (42:7).
We lose a right understanding of assurance. Every Christian has struggled with that question: "How do I know I'm a child of God?" We want an inward persuasion that we belong to him. That inward persuasion is what we call assurance. The rationale of Job's friends is that his outward condition, namely his suffering, positively demonstrates that he is not saved. Can you imagine if someone came to you and said: "How do I know I'm a child of God?" and you responded by saying: "Let me see your bank statement." That's how his friends are reasoning. To break that down a little, his friends are arguing that because he has lost his wealth, children, and health Job cannot be saved. He is suffering because he is a wicked and unrighteous man. But biblically speaking, our outward condition – wealth or poverty, worldly success or failure, plenty or want, children or childless – is not the ground of our assurance. What should Job's friends have said? They should have said the same things he was saying to them. They should have said: "Job, do you know that your Redeemer lives (19:25)? Job, do you have a heavenly witness to plead your case before God (16:19)? Job, do you see evidence of the fruits of the Spirit in your life (23:11)? If so then you are not God's enemy whatever you may suffer."
We lose a right understanding of sanctification. In the mind of Job's friends his suffering could serve no purpose but the retributive justice of God. In that sense Job's friends have a very narrow view of the use of suffering. That is to say, his suffering couldn't be something that in the hand of a good and wise God was promoting his growth in grace and holiness. Yet, the Bible is clear that the suffering of a Christian is always subordinate to that end. Job himself says in one of the most moving passages: "But he knows the way I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold" (23:10). That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. It does! Job's expressions bear that out as he describes his sorrows with imagery similiar to hell itself. But suffering is the refiner's fire that burns away the dross conforming us to the image of the glory of Christ.
We lose a right understanding of the gospel. According to his three friends it can only be the unrighteous who suffer. But what does that gospel say? The gospel tells us that the eternal Son of God became man (John 1:14). The gospel tells us that in becoming man Jesus was made like us in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). The gospel tells us that in being without sin he was righteous, holy, undefiled like a pure and spotless lamb. He is "Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1). But the gospel also tells us that this unblemished Lamb was slaughtered. As we're told he "suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous" (1 Peter 1:18). And the great tragedy of Job's friends is that the truth of the gospel – a truth about the righteous One who suffered – doesn't work with their logic, and so they undermine the precious truth of Christ and him crucified. As one of the earliest books possibly written (and certainly its events are some of the oldest in the Bible), we are being prepared for that glorious message of the gospel of God.
What we've been given in the book of Job isn't going to answer the question why we suffer. It still leaves us with the puzzle that is suffering. But in it the Holy Spirit pleads with us to think rightly about suffering. And thankfully He doesn't have unrealistic expectations but reminds us again and again and again in the pages of the book of Job.