The Problem Of Suffering

By Homer Hailey

There is no experience more universally peculiar to the human family than that of suffering. Suffering may be physical, or it may be mental. Its source may be that of nature, the great benefactor of man, which blesses us, and then indiscriminately inflicts inestimable suffering upon her subjects. Or, its source may be man himself as he wounds and hurts his fellow men. Or, suffering may be self-inflicted, either willfully or in ignorance. But of whatever source it may originate, suffering is the common lot of all. The real question is not how to avoid it, but, “How shall I meet it?” and, “What use shall I make of it?”

God and Suffering

How often when calamity strikes, and suffering or death invades the sacred realm of a home, does one hear the plaintive cry, “Why did this happen to me? What have I done to cause God to send this tragedy into our home?” It is unjust to God and to His holy nature to blame Him with the suffering or calamity that comes into the experiences of men. Men would make a brute of God, a cruel monster who strikes the little children with dread disease, leaving their bodies helpless or their minds deranged, or the mature man or woman with afflictions, excruciating in their intensity. The claims of many in trying to explain suffering only make God contradict Himself.

“It is the Lord’s will,” say some. But, No, it is not the Lord’s will; it is the devil’s will. Imagine God sending sickness, disease, blindness, deafness, and other afflictions, and then have Jesus come and undo the very thing God had done. Jesus healed the sick, restored soundness to the deformed, caused the deaf to hear, and the dumb to sing the praises of God. Did He do this in opposition to the very thing God had sent upon men, and that according to His will? A thousand times, NO! Upon being questioned for having healed a woman on the Sabbath, one who had possessed a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years, so bowed together that she could in no wise lift herself up, Jesus made His defense saying, “And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo these eighteen years, to have been loosed from this bond on the day of the sabbath?” (Luke 13:16) Her binding was according to Satan’s will; the loosing was of God.

To the apostle Paul there was given a “thorn in the flesh.” What it was no one knows, nor has he the means of knowing. Instead of telling us what it was, the apostle has told us from whence it came and how God gave him the power to use and bear it. “There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted overmuch.” The thorn in the flesh was “a messenger from Satan”; it was not from God. But there was something which was from God, and it is that which God gives to all. Paul said, “I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart me. And he hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). God does not send the thorn, Satan sends that; and God may not remove it, even though we implore Him. But He sends the grace with which to bear it.

God’s Inexorable Law

And inexorable, unchangeable, immutable law of God – one that cannot but be – is, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” This is universal as well as individual. All of’ God’s laws are good; they are founded on the very character of God Himself, for they emanate from Him. Conditions that exist, sufferings that must be endured, death that comes to all, are the result of man’s being out of order with the Law or Laws of God. Somewhere, by someone, at some time, law has been violated, and that sowing demands it own reaping.

God does not change the natural order or law because a saint must suffer in consequence of the violation of law. He cannot change it, for it is good; it is best for man as God made him. In a moral world, governed by laws of an infinite wisdom, both the law and its consequences are best for man. We speak of the law as having been “broken.” This is a mistake; the law is not broken, but man breaks himself against the law. The law remains.

Suffering, therefore, is not sent from God; nor is it punishment from God for sins done by the individual. It is the inevitable consequence that comes from violated law. The law may be unknown to the violator; he may be in utter ignorance and darkness as to what he or others have done, but the consequence is the same. When God provided the means of human redemption in Christ, He provided redemption from the guilt of sin, not from the consequences of sin. The consequences must be avoided by removing the cause: violation of natural law or laws, which result in physical suffering; and the violation of spiritual or moral laws, which result in mental or spiritual suffering. Suffering is the price one must pay for being a moral creature, living in a world governed by law, in which he and his predecessors have had the right of choice.

“Thy Will Be Done”

Probably no saying of the Bible is more misused than that of Jesus, as in the garden of Gethsemane He fell on His face and cried, “My Father, if this cannot pass away, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39-42). This was not a cry of despair; it was not a fatalistic resignation to the principle of “Come what may.” It was and is an expression of cheer, of faith, of glory. It is the prayer of one whose disposition is to have God’s will done in and through himself. Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth” (Matt. 6:10). When, from the heart, one seeks that the will of God be done, he is not resigning himself to a cold, hard fate, but is praying that in himself the will of an infinitely good Father shall be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

Tragedy strikes and death invades the family circle. In a frantic effort to find consolation and to discover some explanation for the cause, the bereaved one cries, “It was the Lord’s will.” Or, “This is punishment for some sin I have committed.” Or a well-intentioned and well-meaning, but badly misinformed friend says, “You loved it too much, God took it from you.” Or perchance, “It was too precious, God wanted it with Himself.” What ignorance! What profound stupidity in so charging God. Suffering is not sent by God; how wicked to blame Him with that for which He is not responsible.

Occasionally one is called into a home where the mother sits by the lifeless form of her beloved child, only recently snatched from her loving presence by the insatiable sickle of death. Heart-broken, between the grief stricken sobs that rise and fall like the billows of the unrestrainable sea, she strives in the plaintive cry, “The will of the Lord be done,” to find an explanation for what has happened. Without being fully conscious of it, what has she done? She has blamed the Lord with the disease that so recently smote the darling of her heart, or with the accident in which a drunken wretch crashed into the frail body of her beloved, robbing it of life’s precious breath. Is God to blame? Is one being fair to Him who gave life, and who sustains its every waking moment, when fatalistically he resigns himself to the unholy doctrine that God sent either of these, or one of these, or one of a thousand other messengers of death that leaves hapless mothers to nourish a broken heart by such tragedies? Again, NO! Emphatically, No. This is not the God of the Bible.

“Thy will be done” is a prayer that in our lives God’s will shall be carried out as it was in Jesus, His Son. It is not an inspired expression by which to blame God with our woes and ills, too often the result of ignorance and sin, and always the consequence of law violated somewhere by some one, at some time – the consequences of which I am heir. Possibly we can find some help to the solution of our problem in the trials and conclusion of Job.

Job, and His Trials

Suffering in one of its most baffling aspects is set before us in the book of Job. The opening scene presents to the reader a man described as “perfect and upright; and one that feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:1) – a good man. Not only a good man morally, but he was a man deeply interested in the spiritual welfare of his children; a man who “rose up early in the morning and offered burnt-offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). Nor was his goodness and piety spasmodic; it is said of him, “thus did Job continually.” His goodness was habitual.

From the plane of one enjoying all of the blessings and pleasures of such an honorable estate, the hero of the book suddenly found himself bereft of all his children, his possessions and his health. In the stead of such prosperity he found himself afflicted with the loathsome and dread disease of what some think to have been black leprosy, forced to sit in the ashes of the city dump, separated from friends and loved ones, suffering excruciating bodily pains. And, added to all this, there was the mental anguish of having no explanation for it all, which pain likewise must be endured.

The condition of this good man suddenly plunged to such an awful depth of suffering and humiliation for no cause so far as he could see, raised the challenging question which must have some solution: “Why do the righteous suffer, while on every hand the wicked are seen to prosper?” “Why does God allow this, since He is wise and good?”

Back of the problem confronting Job was an adversary unknown to himself. Satan had raised the question before Jehovah, “Doth Job fear God for nought?” (1:9) That is, does a man serve God except for the pay he receives for the service, such as the blessings enjoyed by Job? This question, in turn, would raise the question with God, “If man serves God for the pay there is in it, can God trust man to serve Him for love of righteousness?” While in the mind of Job, in the midst of such inexplicable suffering, there would be the added question, “Can man trust God – can he continue to believe in His goodness, benevolence and power under such conditions – when he has no explanation for the suffering?”

Other questions arise from time to time throughout the discussion, but these three appear to be the most prominent: 1. Why do the righteous suffer? 2. Can God trust man to serve Him simply for the love of God? 3. Can man trust God, when his suffering is inexpressible in its intensity, and unexplainable as to its cause? Soon after the arrival of the friends, who came to comfort him but remained to accuse, Job lamented his condition before them, which opened the way for the discussion that followed.

The Philosophy of the Friends

Eliphaz, apparently the eldest and most sedate of the group, opened the discussion. In his first speech he presented his philosophy of suffering, which was the wisdom of the ancients. His position can be summed up in a word: It is the wicked who suffer; they suffer because of their sin. Suffering is punitive. If men will return to God, and do that which is right, their prosperity will return unto them. In the form of syllogism the position of Eliphaz would be:

1. Suffering is the result of sin.

2. Although apparently Job, you have been a good man, yet you suffer.

3. Therefore, since you suffer, you have sinned.

Eliphaz is saying likewise which is the inescapable consequence of his doctrine, that God controls the world by the principle of good for good, and bad for bad. Job is receiving bad; therefore he has been bad.

In his second speech Eliphaz becomes more intense in his accusation of Job. The wisdom of Eliphaz is not his, but the fathers’ – it cannot be wrong. In his speech his accusation is more direct; he has nothing to say about Job’s having been a good man. The premise of this speech is the same as the former, only more intense:

1. Only the wicked are cut off speedily.

2. You, Job, have been cut off speedily.

3. Therefore, you are a wicked man.

In the third speech of Eliphaz there is no change in his position. There is only a stronger accusation, of Job, charging him with great wickedness, and appealing to him to confess his sin and return to God. There is much truth in what he says, but his premise and application are wrong. His premise is that all suffering is punitive, the result of the individual’s sin. His application is that Job suffers because of sin; therefore Job is a sinner.

Bildad assumes the same position as that of his elder associate. In his first speech he accuses Job’s children of sinning, while he simply iterates and reiterates the charges of his predecessor, incriminates and reincriminates Job as a sinner. In his second speech he does not more than depict the awful lot of sinners. His premise and conclusions are the same as of Eliphaz:

1. The lot of sinners is terrible.

2. Your lot, Job, is terrible.

3. Therefore you must be a terrible sinner.

Zophar is the most direct, harsh and blunt of all the friends. He charges that Job’s suffering is not even so great as it should be: “Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth” (11:6b). Not only has Job committed the former sin which brought the calamity upon him, but, according to Zophar, he has added to it by denying that he had sinned. Wherefore he has charged God with letting him suffer when he has not sinned.

The only change in the position of the friends is the concession made by Zophar. In his final speech he modifies his position to allow that if the wicked should prosper, it would be for a short time only. “Knowest thou not,” says he, “that the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment? (20:5) The same modification would have to be made for the good man who suffers. It, too, would be but for a short time.

In the words of a former teacher, the position of the friends throughout the discussion is, “Piety pays, perversity punishes.” To this position they tenaciously cling from beginning to end, even when they are put to silence, convinced that they cannot meet Job’s challenge made from the first respecting his own integrity.

The Contention and Perplexity of Job

From the beginning of the discussion, and throughout to the end, three points stand out most prominently:

1. Job always affirms his integrity: “I am innocent.”

2. He is undergoing terrible suffering; suffering beyond all description.

3. He continues to go back to God as the cause.

Toward his suffering Job is perplexed. He has been a good man; no man can accuse him of wrong-doing, so why should his suffering be so intense? He blames God with being unmerciful to him, of being unduly and unjustly hard on him (chapter 6). He then charges that there is no moral standard in the universe, that God makes no distinction between right and wrong (9:22-24). All power belongs to God, but it appears as if God uses it to further the cause of the bad as well as the good (chap. 12). In this Job accuses God unjustly, and without knowing some of the things he later came to realize he did not know.

A change in Job’s attitude toward God is seen as the discussion progresses, beginning in chapter 13. He there charges the friends with seeking to shield God with falsehood, while Job affirms “that a godless man shall not come before him” (13:16). However, this changed attitude toward God on Job’s part only raises more questions in his mind:

1. “How many (what) are mine iniquities and sins?” (13:23)

2. “Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and boldest me for thine enemy?” (v. 24)

3. “Wilt thou harass a driven leaf? and wilt thou pursue the dry stubble?” (v. 25) This attitude of friendliness toward God continues to develop. Job appeals to God to witness for him (16:18-17:2), while continuing to lament his condition. This friendliness reaches its highest degree of development when Job turns to Him, confident that He will vindicate him (19:23-29). The contention of Job here adds a fourth phase:

1. Job is innocent.

2. Job is suffering.

3. God is back of the suffering.

4. But God will vindicate him in his suffering.

As Job progresses with his argument he proclaims God’s greatness, declaring that He is so great and majestic that one cannot get to Him; He is beyond the plane of being reached with the suffering of man. His ways are baffling, one cannot get to Him; while at the same time good people suffer, and the wicked prosper. Job almost turns the philosophy of the friends around, “the righteous suffer, while the wicked prosper.” But he is forced to conclude that in the end God will vindicate him in his righteousness and innocence. The contention of Job may now be stated as follows:

1. I am righteous.

2. God is all-mighty, powerful, wise.

3. Therefore there must be some other solution than that of the friends; they are unquestionably wrong. Suffering is not punitive.

Throughout the discussion one can see in Job’s attitude toward his friends only disgust and disdain. He charges them with lying, and their theology and position as rubbish. They are not friends! Only once does he make any gesture of friendliness toward them (chap. 19), only then to turn from them to his appeal to God.

As the cycles of speeches draw to a close, Job describes his glory of former days, his suffering of the present, and reaffirm his integrity before God and man. With the speeches complete, one point is clear: the friends’ claim that suffering is punitive is wrong. Job has been good; so whatever the answer to the problem of suffering, the friends, do not have it. The righteous suffer, the wicked prosper; therefore the suffering of the righteous is not in punishment for sin in the individual life.

The debate has been won by Job, so far as the position of the friends is concerned. The two questions growing out of Satan’s query to God have been answered: 1. Man will and does serve God for the pure joy of that service, for righteousness sake; therefore God can trust man so to do. Job’s stedfast holding on to God has proved this point. 2. Man can trust God, for God does not afflict simply to hurt man. This question, however, is not so clearly and completely answered at the end of the cycle of speeches as one would like. More must be said, for Job has affirmed some hard things about God which need to be corrected. The distorted view of God must be changed, the conception of God is too low.

Elibu Speaks

The friends have failed. Job has spoken harshly of God. And no correct view of the use of suffering has been suggested. Elihu has sat silently by, but he can endure silence no longer. He asks permission to say a few words, “He would vindicate God, rebuke the friends, and upbraid Job for his ideas fo God,” which have not been correct. He then points out a new suggestion on suffering. It may be disciplinary or corrective. The speeches of Elihu pave the way for Jehovah to speak and bring the debate to an end.

The Final Word

Jehovah speaks. His speeches become an examination of Job, testing the wisdom and knowledge of the suffering patriarch. At times the sufferer has spoken as if he knew all behind the government of the universe, yet admittedly ignorant as evidenced by his search for the answer. He now confesses his ignorance in the presence of the majestic wisdom of God. In all of God’s works there are manifestations of wisdom and purpose. Job had been boastful in his suffering. He had lacked humility and a sense of dependence on God. God speaks that simple faith in Him might be restored; that man should trust when he cannot see, because of the great evidence of purpose on the face of the universe. Surely if there is the stamp of design and purpose in the whole of the universe there must be purpose in God’s designing a world in which suffering plays such a part. In the book these problems seem to be solved:

1. The traditional position is refuted: all suffering is not punitive; it cannot be traced to the sin of the individual sufferer.

2. God can trust man to serve Him for righteousness’ sake, and not simply for the pay that might be involved.

3. Man can trust God when he cannot see. For though he cannot know why he suffers, he may know that God cares, and that He rules in the universe, and that in all His ways there is purpose. God does not arbitrarily inflict suffering, nor is God disinterested in the suffering of the righteous.

4. No matter how often we may be told a thing, some things can be learned only in the school of affliction. After his experience in the crucible of suffering, and after God had spoken to him, Job could say, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee: Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Although the book leaves many of the “Whys” of suffering unanswered, it does answer the greater question: “What use shall I make of my suffering?” Job is the answer. Out of the furnace of affliction he came forth a less self-righteous man, possessing a deeper faith in God, and a humble trust he did not know before, and which he could not have learned in any other school. Suffering is in the world; this fact is evident on every hand. The solution of the “why” would be worth little if clearly reached. The important thing is to learn how to use it for the development of a deeper and more abiding trust in God, assured of the great truth that God cares, and through suffering to come out with a greater insight into God’s strange ways in disciplining His children. God is mindful of every moment of that suffering, and through it He can work to His glory and to the development of the trusting soul that suffers.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 10, pp. 304-307
May 21, 1987