The Mystery of Suffering

Posted 10/7/2018

Scriptures: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Children killed in a school shooting. Shoppers in the market killed by a terrorist attack. Women, children and the elderly killed by the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. These are just a few examples of events that can leave us wondering “Where is God? How can God allow the innocent (or at least relatively innocent) suffer so?” 

Yet it is not simply these news headline events that leave us wondering. There are also the events of our own lives that leave us wondering. We might have say or may say to ourselves, “I have been a good and reliable employee. How could God allow me to be fired?” or “I have been a good spouse and parent. How could God allow my spouse to file for divorce after all these years?” or “I have been a faithful church member, how could God allow me to have a terminal illness?”

How could God allow it? Where is the justice in the suffering of innocents? Even more to the point, where is God?! 

There is perhaps no other book of the Bible that can stir up the puzzlement that Job does. As we read the story of Job, we are almost inevitably led to wonder why in the world righteous Job must suffer so. When even God calls Job righteous, why doesn’t God deliver him? What in the world is going on in this frankly rather troubling story?

And, in fact, if we read through the entirety of Job, we will find little solace, and no answer, to these kind of questions about Job’s suffering. No explanation — or at least no explanation that is satisfactory from Job’s perspective — is given to Job for his suffering. There are long speeches — speeches that form the bulk of the book — that assert God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Yet if this is true, why is the righteous Job suffering so? Why does God remain silent? The book of Job never answers those questions. 

In fact, it is only toward the end of Job that God speaks. And then God’s words are far from a satisfactory answer to our questions about the innocent suffering.  In essence, God seems to put Job on the spot, asking why Job would even dare to question God. God points out that his knowledge and power are beyond Job’s — so far beyond that Job can’t even begin to grasp them. God basically says to Job, “Just who do you think you are?” Not exactly the kind of answer we are hoping to hear.

Yet if Job is troubling when we read it this way, there is one thing that is clear. Job tells us the answer to suffering isn’t an easy one. We can’t simply equate suffering with wickedness and prosperity with righteousness. The world simply doesn’t work that way. Suffering remains a mystery — beyond our ability to explain in a satisfactory way.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we are without hope in our suffering. The conversations between the satan and God in the beginning of Job may seem strange to us, yet there is at least one thing to be noticed about them. God places limits on the suffering Job experiences. Even when we can’t understand why we suffer, we can trust that God remains God. It is God who establishes the limits of what we are to suffer.

However, even this is meager comfort in the midst of intense, unmerited suffering such as that which Job experienced. This is why what the author to the Hebrews says is so important as we think about the mystery of suffering.

In Hebrews we are confronted with the suffering of Jesus. Jesus, the one who is truly innocent, suffers death on the cross. Jesus becomes, as the author says elsewhere, like us in everything but sin. That is, if anyone is truly suffering innocently, it is Jesus. Yet he suffers. He knows personally, intimately what it means to suffer — to suffer profoundly. He knows what it means to suffer to the depths of his soul, having even sweat blood as he prayed in Gethsemane. He knows what if means to suffer betrayal, having been betrayed by Judas. He knows what it means to suffer rejection, having been rejected by the leaders of his own people. He knows what it means to suffer excruciating physical pain, having died on a cross.

We may not have an answer to the why of the mystery of suffering. But we do have an answer. We have the answer that Jesus gives. We have the answer that we are not alone in our suffering. We have the answer that Jesus himself suffered — for us. We have the answer that in Jesus, God become man, God himself takes on our suffering and in his mysterious way redeems even our suffering in His love.