I assume your answer to the question “Do you understand suffering?” is the same as mine. And that answer is “no.” But not knowing the answer doesn’t keep us from asking the question, does it?
Teaching my Old Testament survey class this week I had another opportunity to focus on the book of Job. The authors of one of our textbooks reminded me, “The book of Job is one of the greatest literary treasures in the world.” The authors of our other textbook note the book of Job does not offer an explanation of suffering but “a biblical perspective on suffering.”
The book of Job is about God responding to a challenge from the Accuser (Satan) that the only reason Job is righteous is because he is blessed. So God permits the accuser to bring great suffering on Job in terms of his family and his health.
In the midst of his suffering three of Job’s friends visit to comfort him and suggest he needs to confess and repent of whatever sin he has committed that has brought the suffering upon him. Job, however, insists he has not done anything to deserve his suffering and continually calls for an audience with God Himself.
The Accuser, Job’s friends, and Job himself all hold to what is variously called “The Retribution Principle,” “Contract Faith,” or “Traditional Theology.” This teaching basically says that if a person is good, obedient, and faithful he or she will be blessed by God. On the other hand, if a person is unfaithful, disobedient, and bad she or he will not be blessed but will suffer. In Job’s case his friends thought he had done something wrong and therefore he was suffering. But Job knew he had not done anything wrong and therefore did not deserve to suffer. That’s why he wanted an audience with God.
When God finally speaks to Job (chapter 38-41) He does not address Job’s suffering or respond to his complaint. Nor does He discuss the “Traditional Theology” held by the Accuser, Job’s friends, or Job. He doesn’t even tell Job why he is suffering. God emphasizes His great wisdom and power; and Job repents of wrongly accusing God of injustice. (I suggest you read at least chapter 38 and as much of the rest of the book as you can.)
I find it interesting that in the end God more than restored everything that had been taken from Job. Job proved that God was right and the Accuser was wrong. But Job was never told about the contest between his God and the Accuser.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament suggest there is a link between the blessing of obedience as well as suffering as a result of sin. For example, see Exodus 19:3-6 and Galatians 6:7 and 8. Yet the why of suffering is often a mystery. Retribution theology is a valid principle, but it is not absolute.
It would be a mistake to assume that tough times are always the result of sin or that success is always the result of righteous living. We cannot simply assume that for ourselves or others.
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