The Meaning and Purpose of Suffering - Part 3

In our last article, we discussed how suffering is the consequence of sin; due to mankind’s choice to rebel and oppose God’s commands. Suffering, therefore, is a result of sin, not because God enjoys seeing people suffer. In fact, He even provided a way out of sin, which is to come to Jesus Christ with faith and repentance. Ultimately, only God can destroy sin and its effects. Thus, we also discussed that this world, which was made imperfect and damaged by sin, will continue its course until the Lord Jesus returns a second time to eradicate evil once and for all and create a New Heaven and a New Earth. But while this glorious future has not yet arrived, suffering has a role under His sovereign plan. For this article, we will emphasize that in suffering man realizes his limitations and is moved to see the glory of his Creator as the Supreme Ruler, Sustainer and Savior.

Suffering Exposes Mankind’s Limitations

Man’s limitations are exposed when he experiences suffering. Imagine a person who has an abundance of money and resources. His stocks, bonds and other investment vehicles are earning him huge profits and his businesses are at the top of the competition. His family is intact, he is a role model and he is envied by all men. He is hailed as the personification of success. But let us say that another crisis hits the global community and everything he has loses value. Or perhaps he develops a debilitating disease that makes him unable to fulfill his duties. That paradigm shift will show him that he is just a human being who is limited by natural forces within and around him – forces controlled by the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. While I used a modern scenario, there was one person in the Bible who lost everything he had. That person is Job. In the Bible, Job was “the greatest of all the men of the east” (Job 1:3b, New American Standard Bible). He was very wealthy, had vibrant children, a loving wife and was described by God as “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1; 2:3). But in the narrative, we read that God allowed Satan to take away his possessions and strike him with sore boils from the top of his head to the sole of his feet. The suffering was so intense that even Job’s friends could not recognize him (Job 2:12). In this situation, we find Job unable to protect everything that resembled his success. In his suffering, all he could say was:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.&rdquo" (Job 1:21; cf. 2:10)

Of course, this is not to say that Job did not feel any form of hurt or pain for his loss. Job was not a masochist or one who delights in being subjected to pain. Moreover, he was not a come-what-may-easy-go-lucky person who has no regard for whatever happens in the present. Job’s three friends even noticed in Job’s appearance and demeanor that “his pain was very great” (Job 2:13). He even cursed the day he was born and felt it better for him to die that to live another day in his pitiful state (Job 3:1-16). Job felt genuine pain and suffering.

Aside from his inability to protect and preserve what he had, Job’s suffering exposed his limited comprehension or knowledge. We would normally commend Job for his unwavering faith. But the Bible is honest enough to show Job as a man like us who is prone to doubt God’s wisdom and goodness when things do not go our way. In his pain, Job cries out:

“Have I sinned? What have I done to You / O watcher of men?
Why have You set me as Your target / So that I am a burden to myself?” (Job 7:20, NASB)

Now, why would a man, whom God has affirmed as blameless and upright, question God for what He did? Is this a display of self-glorifying atheism wherein suffering is seen as the proof of God’s non-existence? No. James A. Wharton, in his commentary on the Book of Job, explains:

…the Bible records a number of instances when people risk telling God how things are from the human side with unsparing candor, when the hard experiences of life call God’s side of the relationship in question… [but] the aim of such reckless prayers was never to break off relationship with God from the human side, by some Promethean “declaration of independence. [Rather] prayers of lamentation express a kind of “upside-down trust”: trust that God can handle anything and everything that we have to say, trust that God alone can answer our cries of the heart, if any answer is possible at all (Wharton 50).

It was because of the magnitude of his suffering that Job questioned God. It was so intense that he begged an explanation for the terrible fate he was in.

Suffering Exalts God as the Supreme Ruler, Sustainer and Savior

With Job’s limitations, his recourse was to draw near to God and ask for divine intervention. He wanted God to provide Him a good reason for his suffering. But was he able to solicit a detailed report from his Creator? No. Even in human suffering, God is not obligated to explain Himself to mankind, as a monarch is not inclined to explain his actions to his subjects. Moreover, Job would not be capable of comprehending the fullness of God’s sovereign plan in suffering. For example, in His infinite wisdom, God answered Job rhetorically:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4).

And with a series of questions about creation, the origin and continuance of life and natural laws on earth, Job realized that he was nothing and that God has supreme control over everything. As God declared to the prophet Isaiah:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa.55:8).

Indeed, God is the Supreme Ruler of the universe and Sustainer of His creation. Moreover, whatever He does or allows to occur is consistent with what He intends to accomplish in the hearts and minds of His people – to acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior. Hence, upon realizing that his wisdom is far beneath the wisdom of God, Job responds:

“Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Once I have spoken, and I will not answer;
Even twice, and I will add nothing more” (Job 40:4-5)

Job knew that even if he cannot understand what was going on, he is not in any position to question his Lord. And after a second round of questions from God, Job learned his lesson and his place:

“I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
…I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:2-3)

Job rests his case and submits to the will of God. He was humbled by his own inability to understand the fullness of God’s ways. Now, the problem is that man has this innate desire to be independent of God. Even in suffering, he would try his best to do things his way. His favorite logo is in line with what William Ernest Henley’s renowned poem Invictus boasted about:

“It matters not how strait the gate / How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”

Certainly, within our scope of influence we can orchestrate factors so that in a limited way things would turn out our way. But can man really control his fate? Can we define the beginning and end of our existence? Can we dictate where world history is going to? Think of the mass destruction caused by wars and natural calamities or the simple inability of man to prevent old age, death and sickness. Job, therefore, provides the correct response to suffering – submission, repentance and sincere faith in God who alone is able to save his from his demise. Thus, his final recorded words were:

“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:4-6).

On this final statement, William Henry Green, in his book Conflict and Triumph, comments:

[Job] trusted in God, who was afflicting him, so far as steadfastly to believe and to declare that God would certainly, hereafter, in the world to come, if not in this, lay aside his seeming hostility and reveal himself as his friend. He trusted in God in spite of these afflictions, confident that he would deliver him out of them and would then be his God (Green 150).

We conclude that suffering reveals man’s limitations and highlights God’s glory as the Supreme Ruler and Sustainer of the Universe and the Savior of those who put their trust in Him. But because suffering will always be a part of life our final article will conclude this series by a teaching on how suffering will sanctify God’s people through actions of faith and obedience, and a renewed eagerness for Christ’s second coming. 

Works Cited
Green, William Green. Conflict and Triumph: The Argument of Job Unfolded. PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999. Print
Wharton, James A. Job. KY: John Knox University Press, 1999. Print

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