Learning a Biblical Approach to Seasons of Hardship
We currently reside in time and space where suffering feels particularly rampant. Whether as a result of injustices, violent behavior of varying kinds, diseases and death, financial loss, or much of the like, it can suggest or feel as though this season is unique to us right now. In reality, suffering has been a component of life from the moment that sin entered into the world. Moreover, all of the adversity, discomfort, and hardship that is occurring has both existed and manifested in a variety of ways within generations prior. Much of the said suffering can be seen throughout the stories of the Bible as well. In particular, the story of Job is often referenced with regard to hardship. One would like to think knowing history in and of itself would help us to learn from it and have proper tactics to deter such difficulties from happening again; when in reality, Ecclesiastes 1:9 stands true. "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." What then, are we to accept the repetitive nature of both our and other people's challenging circumstances and shrug our shoulders as if to say, "Oh well"? Of course not. There is much to be learned from the historical figures inside the Bible that can and should be applied to our particular situations now. Because nothing new is under the sun, I would suggest that that points to our utterly desperate need to continually go back to God's word for instruction on such things. Since we as Christians believe His word is living, breathing, and inerrant, it should be the first "instruction manual" we reference for navigating the promised sufferings this life offers. As the source of suffering varies from the person, to the group, to the country we then need to look beyond a "one size fits all" approach to both walking through suffering and supporting the sufferers. Therefore, I don't offer all the solutions. Instead, I propose a few particular lessons from a well-known sufferer and his group of "supporters" in the Bible. Insert, lessons from Job (the sufferer), and his friends (the supporters).
I am not the first to propose the erudite nature of the story of Job. His incredibly toilsome story is and has been the center of many teachings on "how to trust God in a season of calamity." Additionally, Job's friends have served as an example of how not to walk through difficulties with those in relational closeness to you. I've often heard Job's friends described as first-year seminary students, haughty Christians, and well-intended but incorrectly applied. It is important to note something Job's friends did do right first. They gave Job 7 days without saying a word to him. They sat with Job who had lost his children, his well-being, and now his health and did not say a word for 168 hours. No matter the source of suffering, their actions here serve as an important lesson for the supporters of those walking through difficulty in life. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar traveled "each from their own place" after "they had heard of all the evil that had come upon Job." (Job 2:11) Continuing on in verse 11 it states that these three friends came together to make an appointment to "show him sympathy and comfort him." Their intentions, like many of ours, can be correct; while their actions, like many of ours, can display a lack of humility, grace, and wisdom. For whatever reason, as Job's friends continued to be with him through chapters 3-31, their support turned from solitude to in many ways, misguided and self-righteous rebuke. What lessons for all of us can be learned from their foolish and inappropriate guiding, advice, and 'wisdom' as we walk beside those who suffer as a result of the promised hardships of this world? Furthermore, what can be gained from looking at Job's response to the incredibly difficult season we find him in, in the Bible? In my and other's studies, many have come to realize much can be learned.
First, though, it is important to note the source of Job's suffering. Suffering can be as a result of our own actions and their consequences, the actions of others, living in an innately fallen and sinful world, or all of the above. In the case of Job, his suffering source can feel a bit complicated. Even more, it can often lead believers into thinking that God is a God of unnecessary anger, rebuke, and injustice to even those that love Him. When in reality, that is not at all who most Christians or even Job know God to be. The revelation of who God is in the midst of suffering is not a newly pondered concept. Job, in particular, knew great suffering. He had lost three daughters, seven sons, all of his wealth, had open sores covering his whole body, was gasped at and mocked by onlookers, detested by wife, and abhorrent to his siblings. He was in a pile of despair many of us will never encounter while on earth. If Job is described as "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil," (Job 1:1b) why then was Job the receiver of such great hardship and suffering?
In my recent work in apologetics, I have become familiar with this question not even as it relates to Job. Often, you'll hear people phrase it like, "Why do 'good' people suffer in what feels like such undeserving ways?" Although I often wish I could give an exact answer to that question every time it is asked, no one human can tell you to a perfect level of undeniable truth for the specific reason for one person's sufferings. As stated before, there are different sources of suffering from any given situation, and many of them can lead you to derive a potential answer for why said hardship is occurring. More often though, I've found it is beyond the finite human mind to know for certain every detail of the reasoning behind such suffering in someone's life. God alone is omniscient and all-knowing. Because of this, we must look beyond the common answer of, "I don't know" and instead look at the things we do know. As Christians, we come to know more and more of the character and nature of God as we study His word (the Bible) and experience life as we abide in Him. Contrary, our incorrect view of God can ultimately lead to an incorrect view of suffering as well. John Piper sums up Job's suffering, our response, and God's character in the midst very well in an article titled, "Job: The Revelation of God in Suffer."
In the article, he says, "Job's suffering has a twofold explanation: its purpose at the outset was to demonstrate God's value and glory, and its ongoing purpose was to refine Job's righteousness. His suffering is not punishment. It is not a sign of God's anger. Job's pain is not the pain of the executioner's whip but the pain of the surgeon's scalpel. The removal of the disease of pride is the most loving thing God could do, no matter what the cost.
Remember the words of the Lord: Better to suffer the excruciating pain of a gouged-out eye than to let any sin remain in your heart. If this does not seem obvious to you—namely, that sanctification is worth any pain on this earth—it is probably because you don't abhor sin and prize holiness the way God does and the way you should. Let us examine ourselves carefully at this point."
So, what do we know about the character and nature of God both from this statement, the book of Job, and other supporting passages of scripture throughout the Bible? Much can be said, and I could write a whole blog series on this. For the sake of this post, a glimpse of the nature and character of God both in and out of suffering can be described like this: God is holy, all-knowing, existing everywhere and outside of time, all-powerful, good, just, abundantly merciful, perfectly loving, infinite, can commit no evils, and on and on. When we look at suffering through the revelation of who God is, we should and can come to see our sin rightly in the light of His gracious mercy and steadfast love to us. Furthermore, we can begin to see that as God uses all of our sufferings for our good and His glory (whether we fully see or recognize it or not), that it is not a burden but rather an undeserving gift of abundant grace.
A.W. Tozer describes the character of God seen through Christ's death like this, “When Jesus died on the cross the mercy of God did not become any greater. It could not become any greater, for it was already infinite. We get the odd notion that God is showing mercy because Jesus died. No--Jesus died because God is showing mercy. It was the mercy of God that gave us Calvary, not Calvary that gave us mercy. If God had not been merciful there would have been no incarnation, no babe in the manger, no man on a cross, and no open tomb.”
Although Christ, the Messiah, had yet to come to earth during the time of Job's suffering something here remains the same: God is unchanging. Therefore, His character not as an angry executioner waiting to inflict pain and misery on those He loves is the same. His character of love that manifests by casting out self-righteous pride, and His holy and perfect desire to sanctify us through all things are unchanging. The God that uses suffering for good now, is the same God that used it in the Old Testament with Job. Even as the source of suffering differs often as a result of ourselves and others, God's character remains the same. Therefore, how we react and act towards suffering as the sufferer should continually stem from a heart of wanting less of our sinful nature and more of God's perfect nature. This heart can be seen in our lives through true repentance of our sins and praying on behalf of others. It can be seen by asking God for a heart that truly believes everything He allows is and can be used for what is right and good. It can be seen through praying to God for the conviction that His absolute sovereignty over all things actually does bring comfort and peace. Lastly, a heart-changing response to suffering as the sufferer comes from finding satisfaction in Him who is holy, perfect, and good.
Don't hear me wrong, though. God doesn't command us to be stoic and put on a face of happiness when we have hardship in our life. Job lamented, cried out to God, mourned, and pleaded with God many times. God tells us, in fact, to cast our cares onto Him. (1 Peter 5:7) In all that you do in the midst of suffering, go towards the one who is unchanging in character and nature. Approach His throne of grace with confidence because you are in Christ Jesus. Not because we can instruct God on what is best. He who knows abundantly more than we can ever fathom is worthy of our trust and desires for us, in our suffering, to draw near to Him who is both abundant in comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3) and love in discipline.
Maybe your life is not in a place of much suffering. Praise God! Although Jesus says this life will bring us suffering (John 16:33), there will also be moments where it feels like life is going well. If that is where your life is, I think it would be fair to guess there are probably others around you that don't feel the same. Whether close to you in proximity, relationally, or simply because they are a fellow brother or sister in Christ, we should aim to be a supporter for the sufferer that is for their best and God's glory. Again, the source of suffering can and will differ, but I think there is much to be learned in a wide range of situationally varying hardships from the book of Job. As we aim to now learn from the misplaced advice of Job's three friends, let's actually instead look at the teachings of Paul which wholly apply to their particular behavior.
"Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's." (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)
When Paul writes, "for it is written" He is referencing certain passages from the Old Testament. In this specific case, Paul is actually quoting Eliphaz's very first speech to Job. As Eliphaz speaks to Job for the first time since their 7 days of silence together, he says, "As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause, who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number: he gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; he sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands have no success. He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end." (Job 5:8-13)
At first glance, what Eliphaz is telling Job seems wise, correct, and applicable. Interestingly enough, Paul isn't disagreeing with Eliphaz. At a further glance, many commentators agree that Paul is not quoting Eliphaz because he is particularly wise, but because Eliphaz's words were incredibly ironic. Paul is showing that even as the right words are leaving our mouths, they can ironically be pointing towards our own inability to uphold them ourselves.
Much of the misguided instructions to Job point towards some particular truths we all forget from time to time: God is all-wise and we are not. God is infinite and we are finite. God's ways are not ours. We operate on a minuscule knowledge base and God is Himself perfectly omniscient. With that in mind, let's continue to unpack Job's friends' speeches and the lessons to be learned from their lack of humility, wisdom, and grace in the midst of Job's calamitous suffering.
There are continual themes and folly found in the moments each of Job's friends speaks. Much of what Job's friends suggested centered around Job being evil and as a result is under the punishment of God. Although all are born sinners, the use and reasoning behind such assumptions were both irreverent and misplaced. In chapter 11, Zophar says, “If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear.…Your life will be brighter than the noonday” (Job 11:14-15,17). Although all of them say it in a different way, all of their reasoning is a syllogism. After seven days of silence with Job in his desperate difficulties, they arrive at two main things: Job's wickedness caused this suffering, and God will restore and bless Job if he becomes more faithful. While there is much Biblical support for the idea of God punishing the wicked, it does not mean God always works in this way. As Job points out, if a man is foolish enough to think he can contend with God, the man would soon realize he is not able to even answer one of a thousand things that God would ask. (Job 9:3) We simply cannot say to those suffering or in peace exactly what God is doing and exactly what they are to do because we cannot contend with the knowledge and wisdom of God. There of course is much wisdom in opening up scripture and showing the truths that may apply to their particular situation, but one should refrain from saying definitively what God will do if we will do ____.
As Job continually responds to his friends' rebukes lacking in any grace, there are moments where he agrees with much of what is said. Similar to Paul's teachings prior, Job says things to show that his friends weren't necessarily speaking heretical thoughts. Rather, their intentions were misguided and their words empty in the support and love of their friend. After much defending himself against outrageously hurtful assumptions and predictions, Job says to his friends, "How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?" (Job 21:34a) It wasn't just the falsehood of what they were presuming was the cause, consequence, and solution for Job's suffering; it was the emptiness of which their callous and presumptuous speeches came from. Chapter after chapter we find Job crying out to his friends and God, and see his friends unable to lament with him or even acknowledge their lack of basis for judging Job themselves. As if they, themselves, are lacking in wickedness that should result in the utter destruction of their lives too. In each answer from either Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar, we see a continuous theme of self-righteousness, lack of humility, and little desire to just mourn with their friend. You might be saying, "no way, this is never my reaction to the pain of those around me." While I pray this is true, the book of Job demands that we see ourselves in light of Job's friends at least for a moment.
Even if we, like Job's friends, know much of the good and right choices we or others should make in accordance to God's word, there is something to be learned from the lack of care in which these three men approached their friend's suffering. I want us to repeat it together: We do not know all of God's ways. Such knowledge is too powerful for us (Psalm 136:9) Friends, even if we feel confident we know exactly what God is doing in someone else's life through the difficulties surrounding them, we have to continually humble ourselves before God remembering that we cannot know all of what God is doing at any given time. It is impossible. He sees all things, exists everywhere at all times, was before the beginning (He made the beginning remember), and He cares far deeper for your friend than you ever could in any given moment. Sure, it's not always wrong to offer advice or want to give answers, but it is equally as good to be slow to speak. Let us seek God on how we, ourselves, can grow in the ability to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19) Even more, as Job's friends were wholly convinced that faithful works = blessing and lack of suffering, let us lay aside that superficial theology that still exists today. Suffering can happen to the most devoted follower of Christ. The life of a Christian is not based upon receiving a blessing for our good works.
The Christian life both as the sufferer and the supporter is placing all of our trust in Him who is perfect, holy, and blameless. It is being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can begin to know the will of God - what is good, pleasing, and perfect. (Romans 12:2) Both as the sufferer or supporter, we should always remember that His thoughts and ways are higher than ours and that that is a good thing. Because of this, you don't have to have answers for every person's suffering. Instead, you can rest in your purpose of being an example of the light and servant-nature of Christ. Furthermore, you can be really slow to speak, quick to listen, meet immediate needs, and speak truth as you wait upon the Lord's guidance. If you find yourself seeking answers for the suffering in your own life, cry out to God. Do not turn your face from Him who loves more, knows all, and cares for His adopted children with utter perfection. Pain is promised as a result of being in this fallen world. Whether suffering is as a result of our actions or the sinful nature of the world in which we live, we can trust in the perfect Creator that works all things for the good of those who love Him, disciplines with the love of a perfect Father, and doesn't allow anything to separate those that are His from the His love in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39)