Not to think about suffering during this last year and a half was difficult. We have discovered new social liturgies that present us with death’s mask even when the result goes unseen. The questions of injustice and suffering we face are especially present in my law practice, which sometimes makes itself known most poignantly in my clients, disappointed with the justice to be had in this life. In the Bible, this is felt most keenly in the book of Job. But even though this book is known for addressing the problem of suffering, yet, as a friend of mine once observed, for all its poetic beauty and Socratic dialectic, Job doesn’t seem to answer the question at all. One might even come away with the view that God is powerful, we are ignorant, so just apologize to him for asking, “Why suffering?” But this, I think, would be to dismiss the jury too early. And Job is by no means willing to let the judge off so quickly. His three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (fantastic names for any child today; somebody should give them a chance!), make the common arguments as to why Job is suffering: the moral evil of sin and its solution in repentance. In Adam’s case, they would not have been wrong; but in Job’s case, they were surprisingly quite wrong. But if you are like me, Job’s friends’ position is often our default. So how should we see Job’s suffering?
In this court room of heavenly and earthly perspective, Job puts God in the dock, and we are introduced to another kind of suffering—not of the wicked but of the righteous. While Job is not let in on the secret, we readers are given a better horizon. We know that God approves of Job, and we hear the divine wager with Satan. The purpose of Job’s suffering is to prove the deceiver wrong, to prove that Job serves God out of a love for God and not for what God gives him.
Suffering is an undisclosed test of life’s biggest question for a human being: Do we love God primarily for God himself, or do we love him primarily as a means to our pleasure and power? In the words of Satan, “If you let me touch his body, then he will curse you” (2:5). Job’s response to suffering was a matter not just of morals, but of existential loyalty to the good creator despite the real temptation to curse him. The tree in the Garden of Eden raised the same question: Will human beings offer up to God the place of moral and epistemic ultimacy because we love him and it is his rightful place as the good creator, or is God a mere means to our ends?
Initially, Job responded well and does not speak against God, for naked he came into the world, and all is a gift, so naked he will return without complaint (1:21). But eventually Job’s insistence upon his innocence (proper as it was initially) and his physical suffering result in him questioning God’s justice. Interestingly, Job finds the answer not so much in God’s power, which puts Job’s ignorance to shame, but in God’s very presence. Job declares (42:5-6, ESV):
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
After much impassioned thinking, Job finds his answer: His friends were wrong to accuse him, but he was wrong to doubt God. But what is it that changes him? He finds what he needs to know in the presence of God himself and nothing else. The answer to the question of why Job suffered is not direct—he is never told of the heavenly wager—but rather indirect: Knowing God himself is worth everything this life throws at us.
But the story of Job’s suffering raises a lingering objection for us readers: Isn’t God just playing with Job? And isn’t it morally problematic for the good God to ask humans to suffer as tokens to prove that he is our maker and should be loved without ulterior motive? In Job’s answer to his trial of suffering—that we should love God for himself—we stumble over the problem of love and the concern of being used. Does God use us—his creatures—unjustly simply to prove himself great? And this leads us to the deeper problem of the suffering of the innocent creature—sacrificial animals and even young children. Does God use this suffering as the coin to pay off the cost of the good he is to bring about in the world? As Dostoevsky’s Ivan asks, is the ticket into this world paid for by the suffering of the innocent creature?1
This problem is not overlooked in the Old Testament. David is told that the sacrifices of innocent animals do not set things right with God, for what can be given back to God which did not come from him (Ps. 40:6; 50:12-13)? The writer of Hebrews (10:4) also raises the problem of the insufficiency of animal sacrifice.
Rather, God’s personal sacrifice is the central focus of the promise made to Abraham: God will be the surety for his promises (Gen. 15:12-17). In this fascinating passage, God shows Abraham that he will bear the suffering and death necessary to accomplish his promised blessing for man. It is a foretaste of the idea that God knows that the sacrifice of creatures is not enough, the moral problem of forgiveness rests between man and God, and it is God, as the offended party, upon whom it hangs.
The idea of a substitutionary sacrifice is surprisingly central to this teaching. Some think negatively of this idea of penal substitution because they interpret it as an example of the very problem—namely, God is asking man to suffer for what God wants to accomplish.2 From this cynical angle, God is willing to ask his son, a third party, to be a sacrificial substitute for another part of creation. Here, we have the cruel vision of the god who asks for humans to pass their children through the fire to show how much they serve him, how far they are willing to go. But the sacrificial substitution found in the Old Testament and the cross of the New Testament are the exact repudiation of this notion of creaturely sacrifice, even while maintaining the truth that each person owes God a sacrificial love. The central question, however, is not whether love requires sacrifice, but rather who is willing to sacrifice first. In Genesis 15, God does not ask Abraham to pass between the sacrificed animals as a pledge, nor is it Israel who bears the penalty of her own misdeeds in Isaiah 53, but in fact, it is God who promises to have his mysterious servant act in Israel’s place (Is. 52:13-14).
Job found his answer in the presence of God. To ponder the mystery of suffering, we also need to look at the face of God in another place, the place of the cross. In Jesus, we find the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament. Jesus is the one who will suffer on behalf of the people. When Jesus is asked, “Show us the Father,” he replies, “Have I been with you so long and you do not recognize me?” (Jn. 14:8-21). Jesus’ suffering was not the suffering of just a creature whom God asked to bear the costs of making a good world, but in fact, it is the maker—in the very form of the creature—who is sacrificed for the life of the world. Salvation is the act of one God, as heavenly Father and earthly Son in the power of the Spirit on behalf of Adam.
God decided he would make this sacrifice from the very beginning. From the “foundation of the world,” God counted the cost of allowing sin and deemed it worthy of his sacrifice. He does not ask his creatures to suffer to prove that he is a good maker, but he decided first that he was willing to suffer for the inherent glory of demonstrating his righteousness in keeping covenant with Abraham, even to die for his people to bring about the blessing he promised (Rom. 3:26).
More specifically, suffering is shown to be good in the very act of forgiveness. God chose to be the hero who forgives his people and bears their reproach. Many people miss that forgiveness is not trivial but rather a deep suffering and that forgiveness is inherently an act of divine penal substitution. We do not often think of it this way, but God was a victim of sin in the Garden and on the cross. God substitutes his forgiveness for our punishment. The one forgiving gives up his rights and suffers as a result of his free act. If God forgives, he must suffer in the act of putting away his displeasure and forbearing the judgment of the one who betrayed him (Col. 2:14). But he does this for his own glory and for our sakes, and then he asks us to be like him in our forgiveness of others (Matt. 6:14). So, he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Matt. 16:24-26). God does not push the creature into suffering for the world but has set his own heart upon this heroic love and then calls us to join him, hand in hand. For the oppressor, this means to turn from our oppression; but for the victim of sin, it means to forgive.
In this way, the question that the story of Job raises—“Is creaturely suffering the coin God uses to pay for the life of the world?”—is answered with a resounding “no.” The cost we pay, unless we refuse the washing of our feet on his dime, is only a sympathetic reflection of the real cost of his cross—a cost he paid on our behalf, a cost born by the good shepherd, the substitutionary lamb, from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). So, we should walk away from Job with a new appreciation for what Paul proclaims in wonder, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
Although I see many injustices in the practice of law, rather than despair, I try to take heart and remind those around me that, in our pain, we utter what we do not understand, but we should stand with Job and know that:
Our Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after our skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in our flesh we shall see God,
whom we shall see for ourselves,
and our eyes shall behold, and not another.
Our hearts faint within us! 3
1 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, (Penguin Books, New York, 1880, reprint 2003), 308, 316.
2 See discussion in: Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2004), 82.
3 Job 19:25-27, ESV. The singular has been changed to plural.