Title: The Complexities of Life and Suffering
Date: 10:45am Traditional. 8 August, 2021
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Job 38:1-7
In the depth of suffering, Job cries out to God and asks the question, “Why? Why am I suffering?” In the third sermon of this series, God responses to Job, highlighting the complexities of life and suffering. We will be exploring how we can understand God’s response and even apply it to our own lives.
For two weeks we have been working through the Old Testament book of Job and if you missed it, it has been not a nice story. Job was a man of faith who had a blessed life – married with a large family of kids, wealth, crops, cattle and other animal stocks. And then in a horrible turn, Job’s life crashes down. His wealth is stolen, his crops are destroyed, all his kids are killed in a terrible accident and his health deteriorates to the point that his wife says, “Curse God and die”.
Three of his friends arrived and when they saw Job’s aguish they sat with Job in silence and cried. For seven days they were just sat silently with Job – but then they spoke. And in a sentence, they basically said, “The way God works is good things happen to those who honour God and bad things happen to those who don’t. You must have done something really bad to deserve all this”.
But this is Job’s issue – he hasn’t done anything wrong. He has been faithful to God and God’s ways and therefor this suffering makes no sense. This conversation between Job and his friends goes back and forth for 27 chapters. And then in chapter 29 Job makes his final defence:
- 29:1 I wish things could go back to what they were … but they can’t
- 30:16 My life ebbs away
- 30:20 God has forgotten me, I cry out to you God but you do not answer
- 31 If I had done something wrong … then all this makes sense … but I haven’t
- 31:35 Let the Almighty answer me!
So that’s where Job chapter 31 finishes … with Job crying out in his suffering for God to answer him.
But then there is another 6 chapters – from Job 32 to 37 – where a fourth friend speaks. Elihu is a younger person who says that he has held his tongue in respect to the others but now must speak.
He starts with some great statements – that we need to be careful what we say; we need to be careful not to put words into God’s mouth; and that God is not evil and therefore does not do bad things. His best point to Job in response to Job’s cry for God to answer him is that God is always speaking, its just that sometimes we are listening in the right places. Some great wisdom from the younger Elihu.
BUT, then he can’t help himself and ends up making the same conclusion as the other three. People who obey and serve God live their days in prosperity but if they do not listen to God they suffer and perish … therefore Job, your case is with God. Stop the questions because you must have done something to deserve this.
But this is Job’s issue. Sure, sometimes people suffer as a consequence of their own sinful or poor decisions but you can’t backward engineer this. If a person is suffering, that does not mean they did something do deserve the suffering.
And that was my point in my sermon last week. Most of the time stuff just happens for no reason whatsoever. Job is demanding answers to why he is suffering, but I am not sure if there is an answer.
Still Job did finish his defence in chapter 31:35 with “Let the Almighty answer me!” and in our bible reading for today that Marion read out for us, Job chapter 38:1 we read… Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm.
But in a reminder that God Almighty and Jesus are indeed the same person … God answers Job’s question with a question. Actually instead of answering Job’s question directly, God asks Job a total of 60 questions over the next 2½ chapters.
Where were you when …
Have you ever… Can you … Do you …
Question after question God quizzes Job on the complexity of the world and universe; the creation, the vastness of the space; the stars and constellations; weather systems, animal behaviour; food and resources; the seasons and rhythms of life. God asks Job … do you understand these things, can you make these things happen?
I encourage you to read these chapters for yourself. God is relentless asking these questions and as one preacher said, “After each question, if you listen carefully you can almost hear Job whisper, “I’ll pass on that one.” If Job can’t answer one of sixty, there’s no way he can answer the 60 billion other extravagant intricacies involved with sustaining the universe.
In chapter 40:1 God takes a breath and asks Job if he has a reply? Listen to what Job says in 40:4
I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
5 I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”
But God is not finished yet and goes on for other two chapters worth of questions, this time covering complexity of justice and the mythical creatures of the Behemoth and the Leviathan.
And then God pauses again and Job jumps right in – and I will read this part of the story out for you in chapter 42
42 Then Job replied to the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Ok … what do we make of that?
It seems like Job is genuinely asking God to help him understand why things have gone bad for him and in response God slams him with question after question about the complexities of everything until Job finally says, “You’re right God, I don’t understand. I am sorry”.
But … did God actually answer Job question? Or did God just shame Job into not asking it anymore?
How do we understand this part of the Old Testament book of Job? (Keen for you to write some of your responses in the comment section)
I have read a lot of sermons, articles, and books on this and have thought about this a lot … and wish to share with you three different ways of understanding Job chapters 38-42. I am not suggesting that any of these are perfect, but I think that there is something in each of these perspectives that might speak to us.
Perspective #1 – The Complexity of Life and Suffering
- In a Sentence … Our human thinking is not able to understand the complexities of the life and the universe which includes the complexities of suffering.
This perspective is founded in Job’s response to God’s 60 questions in 42:3, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Job admits, he doesn’t understand the path of the stars in the sky and can’t count the clouds in the sky or understand how the animals were created or comprehend the power of the behemoth. Even with unlimited time and teaching, we are just not capable of understanding these things.
Therefore … this perspective suggests … it is the same with the complexity of suffering. We will never completely understand why people suffer. One preacher used a nice analogy of when we travel (or when we did travel) to a place with a very different culture than our own. Even with the best intentions, we sometimes simply don’t understand why something is happening. We just have to trust the travel guide or the people who are there that they are have our best interests at heart. It is the same with God, we will never understand why bad things happen to good people but we trust that God is working for good for those who love God.
Perspective #2 – The Sovereignty of God.
- In a Sentence … God is God and we are not … and so we just trust that God knows what God is doing.
When it comes to sermon on these chapters, this is the most common way of preaching on them – to affirm the sovereignty of God. The 60 questions are highlighting that it is God who created all things, it is God who is in all things, understands all things, sustains all things. In other words, God is the one who is in control – God is sovereign. Where the first perspective focuses on the complexity of suffering and our lack of understanding, this perspective is highlighting the other side of the coin … that God is able to understand the complexity and is the one who is in control. We just have to trust in God.
Neither of those perspectives give a satisfying answer to Job’s question but rather simply invites us to trust in the goodness of God. I have a third perspective which is more from my thinking than reflected in other sermons … and while I am not suggesting this is perfect or a satisfying answer either, it is another perspective that might be helpful.
Perspective #3 – There is a beauty / mystery in the balance between blessings and suffering.
- In a Sentence … A time of suffering can help us see and be thankful for the times of blessings in our lives.
I remember in a youth group discussion a number of years ago that I was leading about why bad things happen to good people, one of the young people said: But if nothing bad ever happen to us, how would be recognise the good stuff. It would all just be … stuff.
I thought it was a profound insight by a high schooler. There is a beauty in the balance between good and bad, blessings and suffering. He is right. If everyone’s lives were only full of blessings, would we even know how blessed we were, or do we only know when we are blessed because we have experienced suffering. It is in the comparison that we find perspective.
It doesn’t necessarily give an answer to the question of suffering, but it might give us some insight to why God doesn’t just stop all suffering in all situations. Just as we need mosquitos and snakes and spiders in the ecosystem, maybe there is a mysterious place for suffering in the complex scheme of life.
None of these perspectives give Job the answer he is looking for … but maybe that is the point, there is no simple, complete answer. I don’t think that Job is being kind to himself when in 42:6 he says he despises himself and repents. I don’t think it is bad to ask questions of God, or to engage God in the discussion about suffering. Job didn’t do anything wrong here. Actually I think that even in the midst of his suffering, he ended up at the point of ultimately trusting in the goodness of God. Maybe that is what we can take away from today’s passages. It’s ok be frustrated when we are suffering, and even to cry out “Why?” but we need to be prepared that that there is no complete answers, but rather a mixture of embracing the complexity and mystery of suffering and trusting in the sovereignty of God … and as we will see in our final sermon of the series next week, the promise that the suffering will not last forever but there will be a time of restoration and blessing. Amen.