Encounters with God is a sermon series about the theophanies or divine appearances and how they reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him. People have always wrestled with the nature and meaning of suffering. The ancient story of Job presents five perspectives that help us better understand suffering, even today. Recorded on Nov 28, 2021, on the book of Job, by Pastor David Parks.
All year, we’re talking about The Greatness of God. And today, we’re continuing a sermon series called Encounters with God. In the Bible, when God appears to someone it’s known as a theophany or divine appearing. And these encounters are wild stories, full of surprises. God never seems to act how we would expect. However, these stories reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him. Today, we’ll consider the fascinating encounter with God in the book of Job. Job is famous in the Bible for what he suffered because the book of Job is a series of dialogues dealing with the nature/purpose of suffering. This is a topic that human beings have always wrestled with — and whether you have yet or not, you will one day, too. So many of the answers to suffering have to do with what you believe about who God is and what God does in this world. Now, this morning we’re going to do something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before. I’m going to preach through the whole book of Job. We won’t read through the whole thing (although I’d encourage you to do so). But it’s necessary to have at least a working understanding of the flow of the whole book to understand the theophany at the end. So if you have a Bible/app, please open to Job 1:1. We’ll unpack this as we go. First, the prologue:
Job 1:1-5 (NIV), “1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. 2 He had seven sons and three daughters, 3 and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East. 4 His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.” Let’s pause here. So first, what kind of man is Job? Job is a very wealthy man, he was also a family man, and he was a devoutly religious man. Job is presented here as being exemplary in every way. V. 6
Job 1:6-12 (NIV), “6 One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan [Hebrew word meaning the Accuser or the Adversary] also came with them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” 8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” 9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.” The bible presents Satan in a matter-of-fact way, but also with fewer details than we would probably want. But here he’s presented as an angel who is named the Accuser or the Adversary. And here, the Accuser says that the only reason Job is such a good guy is because he has suffered so little. God allows him to afflict Job’s circumstances, but he can’t harm him. So after this, we have a series of the worst kinds of calamities anyone could imagine. One after another, messengers start coming to Job with the news of tragedy beyond comprehension. All at once, his vast wealth and many servants were taken from him by multiple attacks of raiders and in a fire. Also, his beloved children were killed when the house collapsed in a storm when they were eating dinner together. Of course, any one of these events would be enough to bring you to your knees with grief. All his wealth, all his children…how does Job respond? Job exhibits a poise, a calm acceptance in his response. He is somehow able to worship the Lord in the midst of the depth of his grief. After this, the Adversary makes another appearance before God and accuses Job of responding in this way only because he himself wasn’t suffering. God allows Satan to afflict Job physically, but not to take his life. So Job not only lost his vast wealth and the lives of his beloved children, but now he’s covered with “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” He’s so physically miserable from this disease it says Job, “took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.” Here is a man who is absolutely wrecked. What more could he possibly suffer? Have you ever felt that way? That things in your life couldn’t possibly get worse? What a discouraging place to be. But it’s here that we come to the main portion of the book of Job, which is a series of dialogues on the nature/purpose of suffering and what, if anything, God has to do with it. In the rest of the book, we get five different perspectives: Job’s wife, Job’s friends, Job’s own perspective, Elihu, and finally, in our theophany, God himself. Let’s take the five answers in turn. First, Job’s wife.
Job 2:9 (NIV), “9 His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” So the first perspective comes from Job’s wife. Now, I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn her. After all, she’s been through everything that Job has been through. She lost her wealth and she lost her children, too. She isn’t physically afflicted but she is wrecked. And in the midst of her crushing grief, her response to Job is to curse God and die. To curse God is the opposite of blessing/worshipping God. In other words, she’s saying, turn away from God, give up on God. Why? Because 1. Suffering is meaningless. There is no truth/justice/hope, only misery in this brief life. At one point, Westley from The Princess Bride says, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Religion won’t help, it’s only a delusion that will mask the reality of suffering. Now, she doesn’t say this here, but the typical result of this type of naturalistic/nihilistic thinking is to turn to hedonism. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die.” If suffering is meaningless, then we need to just enjoy what we can while we can, because this life is all we get. This response to suffering, which does make sense if you believe that suffering is meaningless, is seen repeated throughout human history. And I see this perspective all the time among modern people today. Life is short/hard, do what makes you happy. But is this the truth? Ok, that’s the first perspective. Frankly, it doesn’t get much attention in the book of Job, but it might be the perspective shared by most of the people you and I know today.
Second perspective: At the end of chapter 2, three of Job’s friends show up, and from ch. 3-31, Job engages in a series of dialogues with them. You see, Job’s friends heard what he was going through and came to comfort him. But then they say things that might be true to a degree, but are far from helpful. They tell Job that, 2. Suffering is justice. After all, good/innocent people prosper, right? So Job must be a truly miserable sinner for how much he is suffering. In fact, in an especially cruel moment, one of his friends says he probably deserves even worse! And if suffering is the punishment for sin, the solution is this: Repent and find relief. Repent of your sin and God will alleviate your suffering. But from the beginning, it’s clear that Job is an exemplary guy. There isn’t some secret terrible sin that he has been hiding. So Job calls them miserable comforters for their comfort is really condemnation. Just a brief note here, if you aren’t sure what to say to someone going through a difficult time, just be with them and pray for them. Don’t be like Job’s friends. The truth is that sometimes the innocent prosper, but sometimes they suffer; sometimes wicked prosper, too. But again, this is a common perspective: people basically get what they deserve. Now, sometimes suffering is a consequence of sin. If you get injured in a car accident when you were driving under the influence, the injury is a consequence of your sin. But if someone else is injured in the accident, it’s not necessarily a consequence of their sin, right? Is suffering justice? Well, it seems life is a bit more complicated than that, but even if this is true sometimes, we find one possible reason why suffering isn’t meaningless.
We get the 3rd perspective from Job’s response to his friends. 3. Suffering is unjust. In many places in his dialogue, Job essentially asks, why do bad things happen to good people? Why have I suffered so much when I have tried so hard to be a good person? This isn’t fair. Suffering is unjust. Now, Job is all over the place emotionally in his dialogues as anyone could expect. One minute he affirms his faith/hope in God. The next minute he questions the wisdom of God in allowing him to be born at all. Again and again, Job says that he has sought to be a good man. If his statements are even close to accurate, he was probably was a better man than most people. He had not trusted in his wealth over God. He had cared for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor. He had used his strength/wealth to fight injustice. He was faithful to his wife and had determined not to even look at another woman inappropriately. He did not offer sacrifices to idols, but regularly offered sacrifices for himself and others. How could God stay silent while Job suffered? Have you ever felt that way? I read the Bible, I pray, I go to church, I give, I serve…and yet I am hurting/suffering/desperate in need. Where is God in my pain? Did he not see how I was living my life before? Does he not care for me now? Can God even be good while suffering exists? C.S. Lewis wrote a helpful book on this called The Problem of Pain. But then, 20 years after he wrote the book, he lost his wife, Joy Davidman to cancer. In the book A Grief Observed, Lewis recognized that there are many good answers to the question of suffering, but when you are in the midst of grief or pain, it may not be the most helpful time to learn these things. This is one of the reasons I think that it’s helpful to have a sermon on Job so close to Thanksgiving. It’s in the good times that we can best prepare for the hard times.
Ok, we’re almost done. The fourth perspective comes from a young man named Elihu starting in chapter 32. Elihu had waited to speak because Job and his friends were older than him and he thought they would have some wisdom to share in how to deal with suffering. Elihu agrees that God is just. But, he says, suffering can also produce good fruit. Elihu says that, 4. Suffering builds character. This is sort of the football coach’s approach to suffering. No pain, no gain; rub some dirt on it. Pain and hardship can be crushing, but they can also serve to refine our character. Suffering can produce the fruit of strength, humility, repentance, wisdom, compassion, and more. God’s work in suffering might be motivated by justice to punish sin, but God might also be motivated by love and a desire for us to grow and mature in our character and our faith. And this is true. The Lord disciplines those he loves. However, Elihu, like many young men, speaks the truth without love. It says he burned with anger at Job and Job’s friends. You know, you can be right and still be wrong. But as Elihu’s anger was building, a storm was building as well from ch. 32-37. We can imagine Elihu raising his voice to shout over the wind and thunder and lightning and rain. But then, out of the whirlwind, out of the storm, when all the other voices and perspectives and questions had ceased, God speaks.
Job 38:1-5, “Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” Now, sometimes God appears as a still-small voice. But here, God appears in power, majesty, thundering from the midst of the storm. And for four chapters, God basically says, who are you, Job, to judge me or my plans for anything or anyone in the world? You are not ultimately just. You are not even the strongest among the creatures on earth. Do you have an insight you think will help me or will improve my plans? Do you, oh creature, have a better perspective than your Creator? Interestingly, God never really addresses the other perspectives or questions. Of course, there is much to say about the various perspectives on suffering from other places in the Bible. But here, God shows up in power. And how does Job respond? He says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6). What did Job confess here? Commentator Robert Alden, “I prefer to say that he confessed that his God had been too small. He needed the theophany to remind him of the fact that the God of the universe and the Creator of all creatures is greater, grander, higher, and wiser than a mortal can imagine, much less challenge.” [Alden, R. L. (1993). Job (Vol. 11, p. 408). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.] Now, an interesting fact in all these perspectives on suffering is that no one refers to God as Yahweh, but only God in a general sense, never personally. But it is here, when God meets Job in the midst of his suffering he is called Yahweh, that he is known personally. After this, the Lord graciously restored to Job all that he had lost.
So what do we learn from Job? There is meaning in suffering. Suffering, in general, is the result of sin in the world but is not always a direct punishment for your sin. God allows suffering for his purposes of love and justice, but also has the power to redeem and restore what is broken or lost. People who are suffering need truth in love, they need both gentle answers to the philosophical issues that come up in response to real suffering, and they need the ministry of quiet presence. They need a friend to sit with them and listen and love and bear the sometimes crushing burden of this broken world. Finally, they need a vision of this God, high and lifted up, infinite in wisdom, perfect in justice, abounding in love. But also a God who was willing to come down into the brokenness and suffering of this world as the man, Jesus Christ. One who was willing to bear the worst suffering in his death on the cross. And one who has defeated suffering once and for all in his resurrection from the dead. Whether we rejoice or whether we mourn, may we turn to Him and trust in Him. He is with us, He is our comforter, He will be our restoration and our peace.