Job – God’s sovereignty in suffering

He said, “Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked I will return there. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be blessed!” In all this Job did not sin, nor did he charge God with moral impropriety. Job 1:21-22

This passage follows Job’s extravagant outburst of sorrow. He tore his robe, shaved his head and threw himself face down to the group. Imagine a child in a shopping aisle in tantrum. This picture frames his words. In his anguish, he philosophises with a sense of symmetry:

  • We came with nothing and we leave with nothing
  • God gives and God takes away

Job’s rollercoaster life illustrates the very things that our sovereign God gives and takes away – life and everything in it while his spoken analogy of birth and death reflects the sovereignty of God giving and taking away perfectly. This illustrates 2 things for us:

  • Nothing in this life is permanent – the gift of life (on this earth) is transient
  • Nothing is outside of God’s control – the sovereignty of God is all encompassing (Job 42:2)

These are 2 very important concepts that Job teaches us. But lets not forget the third – God’s plan is good:

So the Lord restored what Job had lost after he prayed for his friends and the Lord doubled all that had belonged to Job… So the Lord blessed the second part of Job’s life more than the first.
Job 42:10, 12 (see 10-17)

God wants good for us. The ultimate goodness that God wants for us is not comfort, health and wealth because these things are all transient but Himself – everlasting, all powerful and all good. Sometimes God does bring goodness in this life as is the case in Job but we can be sure He brings it in the next. Notice that although it says that all these good things are restored to him “after” or “when” he prayed for his friends, it was not because of Job’s actions. God’s goodness is not shown here to be dependant on our action.

Job’s exclamation is entirely appropriate: “May the name of the Lord be praised!” This is not fatalistic “que sara sara” exclamation, this is “praise God” active acknowledgment for His gift (transient it may be), his sovereignty and his goodness. Job even before God restored him had already found the ultimate goodness – God himself.

To bear arms

When it came time to bear arms
Against mine enemy
The truth of my mortality
I resisted.

Bear resilience! Take up arms!
The fight already
In my mind begun
But then I saw.

Within the ugly crevice of mine foe
A truth
It’s maker, His face divine
And a dawning realization.

The face of its maker, also mine.
Then all resistance yielded
That in my humanity
The Glory of His deity- eternal.

There is no need for more.

Atonement and suffering

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:22-26

Atonement (Leviticus 16:15-16; 1 Peter 3:18) is the reality that Christ has taken our place and received the suffering and punishment for our sins so that we don’t have to. Atonement is necessary for our redemption. Christ isn’t the example or model for us to follow to atone for our own sin, He is the atonement once and for all. Our sinful lives can never atone for our own sin, only Christ can. John Piper puts it this way, “The death of Christ is in our place, not for our inspiration.”

But what about the suffering for Christ that the Bible often mentions? If it isn’t for atonement of sins, why do we suffer? I want to look at a few of the times when suffering is mentioned to see if any of these is for our sins:

  • Take up our cross daily (Mark 8:34-38, Luke 9:23-26): Self-denial and taking up the cross daily is opposed to saving his own life and gaining the world. What Jesus is denouncing and discouraging in these verses is self-protection (saving his own life, Luke 9:22) and self-provision (gaining the whole world).  Notice that denying oneself and taking up his cross comes before following Christ; we need to pay these things before coming to Christ. If “our cross” is interpreted as atoning for our own sin, absolutely no one would be able to come to Christ. Instead, if denying oneself from self-protection and self-provision means denying oneself from atoning from his own sin and denying oneself from providing his own atonement that makes the Gospel truly good news.
  • Suffering for our allegiance to Christ in doing good (1 Peter 2:18-25): It says in that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps.” (v21) So Christ suffering is a model for our suffering. However, the reason for this suffering is not our atonement; it is for our allegiance to Christ and our allegiance to our earthly masters (in a slave-master relationship). The explanation is that even though Christ did what was good – he suffered for our sake so that we may “cease from sinning and live for righteousness” (v24). In that way, we should do good and endure suffering for doing good, if we have to (v20). God favours the good done and the suffering endured through it (v19-20).
  • Suffering granted on behalf of Christ (Philippians 1:27-30): The church was under persecution and Paul was imprisoned and speaking about the hesitation, hope and joy of His own possible death or release, belief is put alongside suffering. To believe is to suffer. Does that mean that belief in Christ requires suffering to atone for our sin? Philippians 1:10-11 gives us a clue of Paul’s frame of mind when he writes the introduction to his letter, it says “So that you… may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”. Paul acknowledges that righteousness comes through Christ, not through our own atonement. What’s more, this suffering is persecution due to external opposition to the truth that righteousness comes from Christ (v28)!
  • Enduring hostility (Hebrews 12:1-13): Here suffering is from allegiance to the Gospel and from external opposition (Hebrews 10:32-34, 11:36-38) and is seen as God’s rod of discipline. And this discipline produces the “fruit of peace and righteousness” (v11). Does that mean that our suffering can produce righteousness? That suffering is then atonement, isn’t it? Not quite. This passage is seen in the light of the entire Hebrews. Particularly Hebrews 10:17 where God says He doesn’t even count our sins anymore and is therefore no more offering or atonement required for sin. Hebrews 12 cannot then be talking about suffering to atone for our sin, then what is it? Verse 7-9 says that suffering for Christ is evidence of our sonship. Our faith in Christ is increased in spite of suffering, because suffering confirms more and more our sonship; suffering thus trains us to trust in Him and His promise – that is the mechanics behind suffering producing “the fruit of peace and righteousness”.
  • Present suffering (Romans 8:15-18): The “present suffering” spoken about here is the bondage of sin and its effects (Romans 8:20-22), not suffering to atone for our sin. That is pretty obvious once the context if taken into account.
  • A chosen vessel to suffer for Christ (Acts 9:14-16): Paul is Christ chosen vessel to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, this includes suffering for being God’s vessel. Does that mean that Paul is atoning for His sins (Acts 9:13)? Absolutely not. 2 Corinthians 12:23 – 13:10 gives us as clue of what this suffering is and what it attains. His conclusion is that his suffering allows him to boast about his weaknesses, thereby exalting the strength of Christ. It doesn’t exalt his ability to atone for his own sin, instead it magnifies Christ!  

To label Christ’s suffering for our atonement as an inspiration for us to follow for our own atonement belittles Christ and the cross. It distorts the gospel and makes it bad news. The gospel is only good news if the only boasting we can ever do is on the Lord. We must acknowledge that we, as unrighteous sinners, can never atone for our own sin and righteousness comes at no other cost than Christ and

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:28-31

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

Trials of many kinds

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4

Yes, the bible does mention trials that come from sources other than persecution. I identify with Barne’s definition of a trial as “anything that will try the reality of religion”. Temptation, suffering, difficulty, troubles, hard decisions are all trials. We know trials from experience. No one in this life is so privilaged that he/she doesn’t experience trials in one form or another. Trials are just part of life. We get not just one kind of trial once, but we experience different kinds of trials many times over. In fact, we are promised trials and troubles and not because God is displeased with us but because life simply is full of them (John 16:33).

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
James 1:12

This verse speaks volumes when I remember what Doc John said many years ago, “The key to a successful christian life is… (pause for dramatic effect) perseverence”. The crown of life is not won because we got it easy or had a smooth ride. It is won by persevering through trials. Without a race, there will be no prize.

Some days will be easier, other days will be tough. We sail through our good times and persevere through the tough times, and when we look toward Christ, it is all worth it.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, 
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage (our life is a pilgrimage, Genesis 47:9)
As they pass through the Valley of Baka (tears/weeping)
they make it a place of springs (older translation: wells)
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, 
till each appears before God in Zion (our final destination of pilgrimage).
Psalm 84:5-7 (notes in italic are my own)

We read these verses often without taking note of the first verse. It doesn’t say “Blessed are those who have the strength to persevere” or “Blessed are those who draw strength from God” but it says “Blessed are those whose strength is in you“. In other words, we have no strength of our own. Our strength is in God.

Persevering might seem like a difficult thing. But the famous poem Footprints in the Sand reminds us that we often don’t even know it when God is making it easy for us.

Sovereign

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, 
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; 
may the name of the LORD be praised.”
Job 1:21

I have often taken this verse to mean so little when it speaks of so much. Job’s loss was not solely material possessions but abstract possessions as well. There were human lives lost, along with these were relationships that were built. There were servants he worked with and lived with, perhaps among them were some of his friends. There were sons and daughters, born to him by his own blood, raised by his own hands. He lost his stature and respect among the people as a rich man, his entitlements to the finer things in life, his authority over his (now defunct) household and his rights to natural fairness and justice as he kept his integrity. So much of himself to lose in just a few minutes!

“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
Job 2:10b

His response is so valuable and teaches us so much about suffering:

  • Suffering is not only handed out to the unrighteous but also to the righteous. We should not view our poverty, loss or suffering as God’s punishment. No one in this life is immune to valleys.
  • It is ok to lament, feel agony and sadness over suffering. Job did exactly that. God did create us with a full range of emotions at our disposal (Job 3:26). Jesus himself was familiar with sorrows and suffering (Isaiah 53:3).
  • Our response to God in times of suffering reveal something of our inner person and relationship with God. It is possible to graciously accepting suffering from God as Job did, and we should do so.
  • Whatever happens in our life, we can have assurance of one common denominator: death. However much suffering this life may bring, it is only temporal, for there will be nothing of it that we can bring into our next life other than ourselves and our relationship with Him (Romans 8:18).
  • Our God is sovereign over good times and bad. He is sovereign over suffering and happiness, our loss and gain, our poverty and prosperity. Notice the word “and”, not “or”. He is sovereign over them both. In His infinite wisdom and sovereignty, He does as He pleases, all for His purposes. Everything is within His control, and nothing goes on without His knowledge or supervision (Job 42:2).
  • In every circumstance, we can worship. Even in our loss, we can bring Him praise, because in all that God does, He deserves praise. We don’t worship Him because He brings us good, but because He intrinsically deserves worship.

Worldly riches are like nuts; many a tooth is broke in cracking them, but never is the stomach filled with eating them.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Job reads like a play, with the prologue (Job 1-2), monologue (Job 3), dialogue (Job 4-42:6) and epilogue (Job 42:7-17). He shows us that our questions regarding suffering are often inconsequential because once we have a correct view of the sovereignty of God, none of those questions need answering (Job 42:3-5). All we need to do is to focus on Him.

Sometimes I feel like God is toying with my life and I am no more than a pawn in a game of chess between God and Satan, but really Satan wasn’t playing chess with God. There was no competition at all, there is no question as to who is right, who has the final say, and who has the authority. Beyond that, who are we to dictate our own lives? We are simply trying to play God and equate ourselves to the Maker in that statement. The fact is: God is sovereign over us.

Now comes the important question: is this view of suffering still relevant in the New Testament, after the cross?

Yes it is.

Read:
http://au.christiantoday.com/article/suffering-in-the-new-testament-part-one/9286.htm
http://au.christiantoday.com/article/suffering-in-the-new-testament-part-two/9287.htm

One other strange reaction to suffering that I often hear is to “rebuke the devil for stealing away “. Saying that suffering comes from Satan and not from God offers no comfort and implies that Satan is in control. If Satan can do nothing without God’s permitting, we might as well be rebuking God. Perhaps instead of rebuking Satan, we need to focus on God. The New Testament passages about suffering point towards the work of God in our lives, not towards Satan.