In college, a philosophy professor of mine in introducing the problem of evil used to smile devilishly and remark, “This is the nastiest philosophical problem that Christians will have to deal with.”
We are going to discuss the problem of evil through the lens of what happened to Job and the suffering that was brought upon this man of God.
All of us have experienced evil being done to us. We don’t need anyone really to convince us of the existence of evil in this world. Theologians have generally agreed that evil can be broken up into two categories:
1) Natural evil- Suffering that is produced by means of nature. This could be a massive earthquake or the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
2) Moral evil- Evil, and thereby suffering, that emerges out of human will and choices.
The problem of evil (or theodicy as it is known in philosophical circles) is simplified in this statement: there is evil and there is a holy, loving God. These two things seem incompatible. How do we reconcile these two things?
This advances the following statements regarding God and evil:
1) God wills to undo evil and is unable too. This would be an impotent God and is not the God of the Bible.
2) God is able to remove evil but is unwilling. People might view this god as malevolent and mean-spirited. Perhaps a god that enjoys observing people suffer. Again, this is not the God of the Bible.
3) God is both willing and able to remove evil. This is the God that is revealed in the pages of Scripture but we still have to contend with an overwhelming presence of evil in this world.
These ideas have been discussed by philosophers and theologians for thousands of years. They are statements that are dissected and analyzed by really smart people but sometimes they miss the excruciating and emotional reality of suffering that people deal with.
How many of us have suffered abuse of one kind of another? Had our possessions stolen from us? How many of us have seen family members pass away long before their time and even more painful, saw these family members suffer greatly before dying?
When potential life shattering events happen, we instinctly ask “why”? Why would something this painful occur? Why would God cause/allow something like this to happen to us or to people we care about?
Suffering is a commonality of all human beings including people of all cultures and of all places and times.
What do we make of some of the horrible headlines we have seen in the past couple of months?
Remember the women in Cleveland who were kidnapped in their early teens and held prison at a demented man’s home. He tortured them and raped them and kept them from enjoying moments of life that come with growing up including going to high school, learning, and making friends. We can’t even imagine what these poor women will face for the rest of their lives as they have an entire decade of terrible memories. Why would this have to happen to any of those ladies?
In late April, there were reports in the media about a building collapse in Bangladesh. There was a bank in the building. All of those workers were evacuated on a Tuesday when a large crack was found in the building and then told they shouldn’t show up for work on Wednesday. There was also a factory in the same building with poorer workers. They had to show up for work on Wednesday because they were afraid of losing their jobs. Some of them made an equivalent of $60 dollars a month. The building collapsed on Wednesday and 1,127 people are dead. Why would this happen? What is the point of this tragic loss of life?
Usually, when a sermon is preached, answers are given. Strong answers are often presented from God’s inspired Word persuading us to believe in the risen Lord Jesus, calling us to help the poor and needy and in so doing, helping God. When it comes to the issue of evil and pain in the world, there are no easy answers. Tragic events happen to us and a lot of them lack any compelling reason as to why they would occur. Horrible things happen to some of the most godly people that one could ever meet. They also happen to some of the most vile people that one could imagine.
The Bible, being an honest book, gives us a few general multi-facted reasons for why suffering occurs that flow from an ultimate reason:
“The LORD God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring[a] and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.’
To the woman he said,
‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for[b] your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’
And to Adam he said,
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:14-19)
When the Fall happened in Genesis 3, not only was humanity’s will and morality impacted (people were separated from God) but creation was also affected and cursed. A fallen world mixed with humanity’s state of sinning against God has concocted the world that we experience and that thousands of generations of human beings have experienced. A key element is realizing the theological impact of the Fall: humanity’s will was not the only item that was affected. All of creation was also separated (in a sense) from its Creator. Sin marred the creation. Evil corrupted God’s creation which He had previously called good.
This is an over-arching, general theme of why sin, suffering and pain occur. However, there are still valid questions as to why suffering happens on more specific community or individual levels. Even if the Fall is a generalized explanation of evil in the world, there are still questions as to why God allows pain and suffering when He could stop it. Why would something as horrible as the holocaust be allowed to happen? What about the killing fields in Cambodia?
If we were to investigate some other general reasons for suffering in the Bible, we could come up with some other general explanations:
1) Classical suffering- People suffer because God is punishing them for sin. This is definitely taught throughout Scripture. Amos 3-5 is a good example as well as some other prophetic genres in the Old Testament. Israel had sinned against God and was worshipping other gods. Therefore, this is why they were suffering famines, economic hardships, plagues, political setbacks, and untimely deaths. Prophets often preached that God had given (via the Law and prophets) instructions on how to love and worship Him. If these were not obeyed, there were consequences.
The Bible teaches that this may be a reason for why people suffer (consequences for their actions) but it does not explain every instance of suffering in the world.
We have to be careful with this viewpoint though because Christians have used this viewpoint very wrongly and insensitively when people suffer. For instance, Jerry Falwell said that 9/11 happened because of political groups in America. His comments: “And I know I’ll hear from them for this, but throwing God…successfully with the help of the federal court system…throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad…I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen.” – 9/13/2001 on “The 700 Club”
Falwell’s comments are appalling precisely because there is nowhere that God Himself has said, “this is why 9/11 happened”. For all we know, a group was following a version of radicalized Islam and made the choice to harm people who had simply gone to work or happened to be in the World Trade Center. They were not being punished for their sins but were victims of terrorism.
In the recorded Scriptures, however, God does say that there are instances when people are punished for their sins. Let’s turn to Acts 5:1-11. Ananias and Sapphira had sold a piece of property and held back some of the proceeds from the church and by doing that, had lied to the Apostles. In verse 3, Ananias falls dead. Verses 7-10 tell us that his wife followed him because of their deception. This couple lied to God and the church in Acts. There was a real consequence for that, Scripture tells us.
Sometimes, the choices we make to sin bring consequences and thereby, suffering.
2) Redemptive suffering- We see this with Jesus. Christ had to go through untold suffering in order to bring about our salvation and connection to God. God can bring good out of evil according to the famous verse is Genesis 50:20 about how God saved Jacob’s family and delivered one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, from a terrible existence in bondage and slavery.
This is obviously a huge theme in Scripture given the death of Christ as another reason that people may suffer. Many people suffer for the greater good which is recalled as a completely altruistic act.
3) No discernible meaning in suffering- Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3
4) Apocalyptic suffering- God’s people suffer because evil forces in the world stand against the advancement of God’s kingdom. Examples: Christians being burned to death in Nero’s gardens, Christians being thrown to the lions, etc. Sometimes, people suffer because they stand for truth or are uncompromising about the right thing and factions that exist in the world punish them for that stance.
We are going to discuss and think about the problem of evil today through what happened to the Biblical character of Job. We’ll analyze parts of Job and talk about what his experiences tell us about the problem of evil. From this, we will grapple with the very real questions of: 1) How do I respond when I am suffering? 2) How should we respond as a community when people are suffering in our midst?
1) Job: 1:1-22, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did continually.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, ‘From where have you come?’ Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?’ Then Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.’ And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’ So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, ‘The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants[ with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, ‘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, and I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.’
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘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.’
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”
-The passage describes Job was “blameless and upright”. This doesn’t mean that Job had never sinned but it means that God identified Job as an exceedingly godly person. Job had been richly blessed. Job looked after his family and his children (especially in a deeply spiritual sense) by making sacrifices on their behalf.
-Satan is wandering the earth (the context suggests that perhaps he is looking for someone to pick on). God points out that Job is an extremely righteous person and a tremendous servant of God. Fascinating to note that nothing bad in chapter 1, prior to the devastation of Job, is EVER said about Job’s character.
-We, as the readers of Job, are given a small insight into why Job was suffering. Apparently, this was some sort of test devised by Satan. God allowed Satan to torment Job but God had explicit instructions to not kill Job. Satan desired to test Job to see if Job would curse God if a bunch of bad things happened to this servant. However, Job probably did not know this and probably had no idea why all of this had happened.
-“And he (Job) said: ‘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.” Verse 22: “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. The impulse to praise God after one’s entire life is turned upside and, frankly, ruined is a foreign response for most of us. Job still praised God and looked to Him at the very lowest point (perhaps) of his life.
2) Job 2:1-13, “Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, ‘From where have you come?’ Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.’ Then Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’ And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.’
So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
-Job’s friends come along and accuse Job essentially of hiding a sin. In their minds, Job must have done something terrible to deserve this. Job says he has done nothing and demands a counsel with God.
-Eliphaz is the first friend to speak (Job 4:1-9). Eliphaz here is introducing the classical view of suffering. Job has extremely suffered. He must have done something wrong to deserve what happened to him. Bildad the Shuhite chimes in: Job 8:1-7. Then Job’s friends tear into him. Eliphaz files more accusations: Job 22:4-7; 9-10
Through all of these accusations, Job defends himself and maintains his innocence. (Job 6:24-25, 28, 30; Job 16:12-14, 16-17; Job 30:18-21)
-Job also laments that the wicked prosper and seemingly do not fear God. Job 21:7-9, 12-13. This tells us that, in Job’s experience, he is a righteous guy having horrible things happen to him. He describes many wicked people who he perceives as prospering and living relatively comfortable lives.
-Eventually God responds to Job…with rhetorical questions (Job 38:1-13). Job never gets a firm answer as to why the suffering occurred.
-Interestingly enough, God rebukes Job’s friends (Job 42:7-9). Contextually, it appears that the three friends were rebuked by God for not saying what is right about God regarding Job’s situation. They were intent on finding out Job’s sin, maybe even beyond mourning with him or comforting him. Therefore, they are rebuked by God. Job is praised by God for saying what is right about God.
Having thought about Job and engaged with a brief overview of the book highlighting his experiences, how do we respond when we are suffering?
-We can be real about our suffering. No facades, no fakes when we are going through something difficult. Job was very real with his questions and about his pain.
-We can ask God questions and we can ask others questions. We may not ever get an answer but asking a question about something extremely difficult is not a sin. It is a part of our relationship with God.
-We should never accuse God of wrongdoing. This was the distinction of Job. He exclaimed, “May the name of God be praised” and through all of that did not accuse God of wrongdoing. Honestly, this is what makes faith hard. I was dialoguing on facebook with an agnostic who brought up Karl Marx’s famous quote: “Religion is the opiate of the people.” Essentially, he was saying religion or faith makes us feel good or comforted which is why we believe in it. I want to turn this phrase on its head. I think faith is difficult. It is hard to choose to trust and cling to a belief in a loving God in a world like this one. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to have faith when there is so much suffering in the world.
-Asking “why”? can be very, very important. But another important question to ask while suffering is “what”? What am I going to do in light of this pain? What are the next steps forward? What does my faith look like moving forward? Please don’t hear me say that “why” is not important but when obsessively dwelled upon, sometimes can leave us in the past rather than moving forward.
How do we respond when others are suffering?
-We have to know each other well (share all things in common- Acts 2) in order to know how we can encourage or help people in tremendous suffering or pain. A lot of well meaning people have quoted Genesis 50:20 (What was meant for evil, God meant for good) or Romans 8:28 (And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to the will of God.) but, as most of us know, quoting these verses can sometimes seem very cold. When someone is hurting in the moment, and someone flippantly throws a Bible verse (out of context of course) at them as if to say , “Oh, just feel better.” That’s not the way that we try and help people who are really hurting.
-Michelle and I saw the movie “42” which is about Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play in the baseball major leagues. There is a scene in the movie where the general manager (played by Harrison Ford) is talking to another player about the racism that Robinson was suffering from. He mentions sympathy. Sympathy is a greek word that literally means “to suffer with”. A community does not bury suffering or pain. We don’t intentionally avoid it. We suffer together. We cry together and we make an effort to empathize with what a fellow brother/sister has lost. A Biblical response is to really feel their pain with them. The Apostle Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)
What hope do we have as we suffer? There may not be any easy answers as to why we go through some of the things that we go through.
But God is not far away. As a matter of fact, when God became a man…he suffered in every way that we do during life (and perhaps even more than some of us ever will). The incarnation had Christ experiencing extreme human suffering so we have a God who experientially knows what that is like. God is never far away when we are suffering or in pain.
***This was a sermon preached at King’s Cross Church on June 9th, 2013. One can listen to the sermon at: http://www.ourkingscross.org/.