The Meaning of Suffering

Suffering as a consequence of not fearing God and keeping His commandments is deserved: “You reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7), as taught in the Book of Proverbs. Fearing God and keeping His commandments is God’s purpose for humanity (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Hence deserved suffering is the consequence of violating the purpose of life. And Ecclesiastes also teaches that God so works, such as instituting deserved suffering in this world, specifically so that humanity should fear Him and thus keep His commandments (3:14). This means deserved suffering is actually intended to keep us from violating God’s purpose for humanity. Thus deserved suffering fits coherently into the purpose of life, and is therefore never meaningless.

Problem of Undeserved Suffering

However, Ecclesiastes recognizes that a righteous person may suffer the consequences of an unrighteous person (8:14). This “innocent” or undeserved suffering is meaningless unless it also fits coherently into the purpose of life. Does it? The teaching that God so works that humanity should fear Him includes God permitting undeserved suffering in this world. This means that even undeserved suffering somehow fits coherently into God’s purpose for humanity. The question is, How?

This is where the Book of Job comes in. This wisdom book is divided into three distinct parts: prologue (1:1-2:13), dialogue (3:1-42:6), and epilogue (42:7-17). The prologue and epilogue, written in prose, spell out that Job suffered tragic calamities—he lost his children, his wealth and even his health—not because he had sinned. It was a classic case of undeserved suffering, and an extreme one. The dialogue, written in poetry, must be read in this light.

The dialogue, which forms the bulk of the book, consists mostly of three rounds of debates between Job and each of his three friends respectively: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. It ends in a deadlock—Zophar does not even enter the third round—because while Job’s three friends unrelentingly argue that Job must have sinned to suffer such calamities and must thus repent, Job keeps on defending his innocence, unyieldingly insisting that his suffering is undeserved. We as readers know from the prologue and epilogue that Job’s three friends are all wrong. Essentially they stubbornly believe that the proverb “You reap what you sow” is a rigid mechanical formula that admits no exception, not even in the case of Job, who is reputed for his exceptional righteousness.

Humanity Has No Answer

According to Eliphaz, he has come to this belief based on his (selective) observation of human experience (see 4:7-9). Bildad has (blindly) accepted it as an authoritative time-tested tradition (see 8:8-10). As for Zophar, his belief is based on (sheer) assumption that the formula has been in operation without exception since the creation of humanity (see 20:4-5). Though he admits that the wicked may prosper for a “brief moment,” it is too brief and momentary to suggest that there are really exceptions (Hartley 1988: 304).

Job on his part has been patient, despite his physical and emotional pains. He even rebukes his wife for telling him to curse God and die, asking her rhetorically, “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (2:10). However Job himself also believes in “You reap what you sow” and so could neither understand nor accept that God, whom he firmly believes knows that he is indeed innocent, would treat him so unjustly, as though he has sinned to the extent of deserving such extreme suffering. Thus he also suffers philosophical turmoil, which then leads to spiritual torment, because the God whom he worships has apparently become his enemy. So he curses the day of his birth (3:1).

His suffering is severely aggravated by his three friends who heartlessly keep accusing him of having sinned and being stubbornly unrepentant. In response, Job protests not only against them (see for example, 6:24-30), but also against God even when he is supposed to be responding to his friends (see for example, 10:1-7). In defending his innocence, Job even argues that “You reap what you sow” does not always work by highlighting that the wicked do prosper (see for example, 21:27-34). However, even in the midst of protesting against God for His apparent injustice against him, Job still has faith in Him (see for example, 19:25-27). “His genuine faith is grounded in his conviction that God is just and merciful despite the evidence to the contrary” (Hartley 1988: 372).

God Has to Answer

Following the deadlock in the three rounds of debate, we find a beautiful hymn on wisdom which points the way to breaking this deadlock (Job 28). For the hymn, though it recognizes human ingenuity, as expressed in the ability to mine metals even from the depths of the earth, denies that humanity has the ability to do the same in finding wisdom. This is an apt commentary on the lack of wisdom in the three rounds of debate, which produced so much heat and no light. The hymn then affirms that only “God understands the way to wisdom, for it is He who knows where it is found” (28:23), that is, wisdom belongs to God alone (see the words of Job in 12:13, which means, the hymn could have come from Job; otherwise it is the work of the narrator; cf. Andersen 1976: 223-24). It ends with a supposed word from God to humanity on how to attain wisdom: “Look, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (28:28). In other words, “The attainment of Wisdom is not a quest but a response [fear God]” (Garrett 1993: 106, drawing on Kidner 1964: 77).

In this context, the affirmation that wisdom belongs to God alone implies that humanity does not independently have the wisdom needed to unravel the mystery of undeserved suffering, and thus even the long-drawn debate between Job and his three friends cannot break the deadlock. The disproportionate space given to this debate serves to drive home this truth as well as warn against similar debates. Philosophers using human reason alone (unaided by Scripture) to argue that in view of undeserved suffering God does not exist, as well as those who in the same manner defend the existence of God, will come to a similar deadlock. And the affirmation here that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom alerts us that undeserved suffering indeed has something to do with God’s purpose for humanity—fearing God and keeping His commandments.

The hymn on wisdom implies that only God has the wisdom needed to break the deadlock. So it is not surprising that the plot moves forward with a final impassioned speech by Job in which he brings to the climax his demand for God to respond in order to break the deadlock (Job 29-31). Job confidently swears an oath of innocence disavowing a long and impressive list of sins (31:1-34, 38-40) and then makes an audacious challenge to God to respond (31:35-37).

Prelude to God’s Answer

Then unexpectedly, Elihu, a younger man who evidently has been there all along, speaks up in response to the deadlock and to Job’s challenge to God (Job 32-37). He avoids, but does not break, the deadlock by not assuming that Job had sinned prior to his calamities (cf. Hartley 1988: 485-86). He implies that Job’s calamities are intended to discipline Job to prevent him from committing a sin so serious that it brings a consequence as severe as premature death (33:12-22). He then warns Job that, while he may not have sinned prior to his calamities, he has now sinned in challenging God (34:5-9). He thus exhorts Job to repent (34:31-33) to avoid divine retribution (36:10-14).

Earlier Eliphaz had mentioned in passing the disciplinary role of suffering (5:17-18). But since he had assumed that Job had sinned, he implied that Job was disciplined for his sin, a view that Elihu does not support. As a general principle, Elihu’s view that God allows undeserved suffering to save us from experiencing a more severe (deserved) suffering, is a sensible answer to the question of undeserved suffering (cf. Hebrews 5:8; 12:4-11). Such undeserved suffering does fit coherently into God’s purpose for humanity, as it disciplines (or trains) us to fear God and keep His commandments. However it is questionable whether it can be applied to Job’s case. For Job’s suffering is already so extremely severe that it looks more like the deserved suffering to be prevented than the undeserved suffering intended to train him.

Nevertheless Elihu’s four speeches do prepare Job for God’s two speeches that follow. Since he does not accuse Job of having sinned prior to his calamities, Job is likely to be open to his repeated accusation that by challenging God, Job has spoken out of ignorance (34:35; 35:16), from which Job needs to repent. And as we shall see, this is exactly God’s verdict, in response to which Job eventually repents. Elihu also repeatedly defends God’s justice (34:10-15; 35:5-15). In his final speech, after demonstrating God’s exaltedness and majesty by alluding to God’s wisdom and power displayed in His creation, Elihu concludes that it is specifically because the all-wise and all-powerful God “does not do violence to justice” that humanity fears Him (36:24-37:24). This anticipates God’s own speeches where God defends His justice by also demonstrating to Job His wisdom and His power as displayed in His creation. The fact that Elihu, a human being, was able to anticipate God’s response implies that God’s answer to Job would strike a responsive chord in human hearts.

God’s Answer to Sufferer

When God finally speaks “out of the tempest” (38:1), what He says is “not what Job has asked for. He has requested either a bill of indictment, with specific charges which he is prepared to answer, or else a verdict from his Judge which he confidently expects to be a declaration of his innocence. Neither is forthcoming” (Andersen 1976: 268). This does not mean that what God says does not answer to Job’s needs. In fact, as we shall see, God’s two speeches are exactly what Job, or any believer of God in his situation, needs to hear.

God is all-wise

God begins with announcing His verdict that Job has spoken out of ignorance by asking rhetorically, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2). He then supports His verdict by first overwhelming Job with a sense of His incomparable wisdom. He asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” and challenges him to “Tell me, if you have understanding,” before asking him a series of questions on the design and working of the earth and the cosmos, all of which Job cannot answer (38:4-38). Since Job already believes it was God who created and designed the working of the earth and the cosmos, it would have powerfully dawned on him how extremely ignorant he is compared to God.

Before Job could respond, God asks him another series of questions, all of which Job also cannot answer (38:39-39:30). This time it concerns the design and working of the animal world. Suffice it to look at this one: “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars, stretching his wings toward the south?” (39:26). It refers not only to the instinctive ability of the hawk to fly but also to its “migratory instinct” to fly south (Clines 2011: 1131). Unlike scientists today Job may not even understand the aerodynamics involved in how birds can fly. But even if he does, God’s question goes deeper: “Did you implant the instinctive ‘understanding’ in the hawk so that it ‘knows’ to fly and to migrate south?" (paraphrase of 39:26). Engineers today can design aeroplanes that not only can fly, but also “knows” to autopilot itself. However before the invention of aeroplanes even modern people, let alone people as ancient as Job, could not believe this was possible. So this series of questions would have again overwhelmed Job with a sense of God’s incomparable wisdom.

Recall the confession of Bill Gates (1996: 228) that even the most advanced computer software that human beings have ever written is “far, far” inferior to the genetic code in human DNA, which even atheist Richard Dawkins (1996: 17) acknowledges is “uncannily computerlike.” If Job were Gates, God would have asked a different question like, “Is it by your understanding that a human embryo grows into a foetus and eventually into a human being who can write computer software?” In other words, “Did you design and implant the genetic code, or ‘understanding,’ into a human embryo so that it ‘knows’ to develop into a human being?” If even the best human mind cannot write a computer software that rivals the human DNA, it is mind-bogging to the extreme that evolutionists like Dawkins could believe that the computerlike genetic code in human DNA could have evolved mindlessly.

After the second series of questions, God invites Job to respond: “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it” (40:1). Job has spoken against God as though he fully understood the design and working of God’s created world. Recognizing by now how little he actually knows, and so realizing that he has spoken against God out of ignorance, Job confesses that he is too insignificant to even reply to God and thus chooses not to answer Him (40:3-5). Job’s response falls short of repenting of his earlier presumptuousness in challenging God.

God is all-powerful

God then continues with another speech to open Job’s eyes to how presumptuous Job was. In order to justify his innocence, Job had effectively accused God of unjustly violating “You reap what you sow” and thus perpetrated injustice against him. God’s question, “Will you annul my judgment (literally, justice)?” (40:8), “means that he has correctly heard Job’s speeches as not merely a demand for personal vindication but, more far-reachingly, a critique of God’s government of the world and as demanding an alternative world-order. Now Job has had two separate criticisms to make of the world-order he experiences: the one is that a righteous man like himself may suffer unjustly; the other is that the wicked, who ought to be punished, often prosper. Yahweh [the LORD] takes up only the latter point here, but no doubt it stands also for the former” (Clines 2011: 1180).

So having convinced Job that he does not know enough to speak the way he did, God begins this speech with asking Job whether it is just for Job to question His justice in order to justify himself. Since Job has spoken as though he could do a better job than God in governing the world, especially in implementing “You reap what you sow,” God asks Job rhetorically whether he, like God, has the power needed to govern the world (40:9). To drive home the point God further asks Job to act as though he were given the responsibility to govern the world, and to do so according to his sense of justice, which God has supposedly violated (40:10-14). So God asks Job to implement his vision of “You reap what you sow” and punish wickedness accordingly. And God adds that if Job could indeed do this He would praise Job and Job would then have the power to save himself, and thus would have no need for God to save him. Since Job has no doubt that only God has the power to govern the world and only He can save him, it must have dawned painfully on him how powerless he is and how much he needs God on his side and thus needs to repent from having spoken presumptuously against Him.

To further help Job come to terms with his undeserved suffering, God continues to overwhelm Job with a sense of His incomparable power. God highlights two powerful animals, labelled as Behemoth (40:15-24) and Leviathan (41:1-34), both of which God says are under His control but are beyond human ability to control. Scholars are divided whether these refer to real or mythical animals, or both (Hartley 1988: 521-22). If real, the closest match would be the hippopotamus and the crocodile respectively. If mythical, they symbolize cosmic powers. More specifically, it has been argued that, “Behemoth and Leviathan, while containing elements drawn from physical characteristics and habits of animals, [are] embodiments of the powers of death and evil [respectively]” (Fyall 2002: 128-29).

In either case, what God says would overwhelm Job with a sense of God’s incomparable power, more so if the intended references are to mythical monsters. And there are valid reasons to understand that this may indeed be the case. Firstly, we know that within Job’s vocabulary Leviathan may refer to the mythical sea-monster (3:8; cf. Isaiah 27:1) also known to him as Rahab (26:12-13; cf. Isaiah 51:9-10, where it refers to the power embodied in Egypt as the evil oppressor of the Israelites). Secondly, God began this speech with asking whether Job had power like God so that he could rule the world and punish wickedness according to his sense of justice. This amounts to asking whether Job had the power to control the cosmic forces symbolized by Behemoth (Death) and Leviathan (Evil).

Sufferer Accepts God’s Answer

Having thus been overwhelmed by a sense of God’s incomparable wisdom and then of God’s incomparable power, Job confesses that he is the one “that hides counsel without knowledge” and "have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). God’s speaking to Job out of the tempest, though it neither answers what Job has requested nor explains why Job suffers, leads Job to testify, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You” (42:5). That is, Job has an existential encounter with God that meets the deepest longing of his heart—to “see” the living God with his own eyes (19:25-27; Hartley 1988: 537). So he gladly retracts what he had said and repents of his ignorant presumptuousness (42:6).

Hence what a believer of God in Job’s situation really needs is not to have his questions answered or even understand why he is suffering, but to have his heart filled with the sense that the God he worships is both all-powerful and all-wise. For when he has such an existential assurance that God, who does no violence to justice, is not only all-power (He can deliver him) but also all-wise (He knows what He is doing), he is able to leave his situation to God and bear patiently with the suffering.

God’s Answer to Atheists

Actually the twin idea that God is all-powerful and all-wise is also all one needs to respond intellectually to the popular atheistic argument that the existence of evil, and thus of innocent suffering, proves that the God of the Bible does not exist. For it is argued that if God is all-powerful He could remove evil and prevent innocent suffering; and if He is all-loving He would remove evil and prevent innocent suffering. And since evil and innocent suffering exist, either God is not all-powerful (so He could not remove evil even if He would), or He is not all-loving (He would not remove evil even if He could), or even both. This then proves that an all-powerful and all-loving God does not exist.

This argument, which uses a simplistic formula that dictates how God, if He exists, should behave, is like that of Job’s three friends. For they also used a simplistic formula that dictates how God should behave: He must implement rigidly and mechanically the proverb “You reap what you sow,” which then means innocent suffering does not exist. Thus they also conjectured a God that can easily be shown from actual human experience to be non-existent. In response to their foolish argument, God said to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right” (42:7). But God was merciful to forgive them when they repented (42:8-9).

Unlike Elihu, and contrary to his warning of divine retribution, God did not actually rebuke Job for expressing how he felt about Him, let alone would punish Job for doing so. What God did was gently but firmly expose Job’s ignorance to relieve him of his philosophical turmoil and spiritual torment. God even said that Job, unlike his three friends, had in fact spoken “of Me what is right” (42:7). For “Job has been genuinely groping for the truth, but the friends have spoken falsely in their attempt to defend God … [and] their counsel would lead Job away from the true worship of Yahweh” (Hartley 1988: 539).

Hence like the psalms of lament where the psalmist questions God over undeserved suffering (such as Psalm 44, where the psalmist even accuses God of sleeping on the job), the Book of Job teaches that believers of God who experience severe undeserved suffering are allowed, in fact encouraged, to express to God how they actually feel about Him when they are going through the ordeal. They can then draw strength and comfort from God’s response to Job and get to know God better. We saw how questioning God over undeserved suffering is consistent with the monotheism of the Bible, as it involves affirming that God is in absolute control of whatever happens in the universe.

It is significant that God filled Job’s heart with the sense that He is all-powerful and all-wise, instead of the sense that He is all-powerful and all-loving. What we consider as the “loving” thing to do, like parents doting on their children, may sometimes not be the wise thing to do (cf. Proverbs 13:24). In fact it takes more love to do what is wise when it is an “unloving” thing to do. Recall that when Joseph did not do the “loving” thing of revealing himself to his brothers but instead accused them of being spies in order to do the wise thing of testing them, “he turned away from them and wept” (Genesis 42:24).

Hence when it comes to the question of evil or innocent suffering we can be confused when we think of God as being all-powerful and all-loving, instead of God being all-powerful and all-wise. The question then arises: What is so wise about God allowing undeserved suffering?

Reason for Undeserved Suffering

This brings us back to the teaching of Ecclesiastes 3:14—“God so works that people should fear Him”—and to the prologue of Job, where we read about Satan’s rhetorical question: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9). In other words, Satan was making the accusation that Job or any human being would fear God not because of who God is (“for nothing”), but only because of what God gives (“for something”). So God allowed Job to suffer to demonstrate that Job did indeed fear God for nothing, which means it is possible for a human being to fear God solely for who God is and not for what God gives. And the example of Job has been a tremendous blessing to believers.

Satan’s accusation and Job’s experience show that to truly fear God one has to fear God for nothing. When people “fear” God for something it is no longer the fear of God. Ecclesiastes 3:14 should therefore be understood as, “God so works that people should fear Him (for nothing).” Imagine what happens if God guarantees that everyone who fears Him will always be blessed in temporal and material terms. Given fallen human nature there will then be few, if any, who truly fears God. So God has to do the wise though painful thing of allowing some righteous to suffer and some wicked to prosper to avoid tempting people to “fear” God for temporal and material gains. We saw that Scripture even uses the reality of undeserved suffering to warn against going to the extreme of strenuously trying to be wise and righteous to attain prosperity and avoid adversity (Ecclesiastes 7:14-16) and in the process fail to enjoy our life (Ecclesiastes 8:14-15).

However the fact that eventually Job was blessed not only spiritually (with a close encounter with God), but also temporarily and materially (42:10-17), affirms that “You reap what you sow” indeed works, especially in the long run, though not necessarily in the short term (cf. Ecclesiastes 8:12-14). A righteous God could not have created and designed a world that is otherwise. There is thus motivation to fear God, but not temptation to do so for selfish gains.

Hence Job’s undeserved suffering also fits coherently into God’s purpose for humanity: Fear God (for nothing) and keep His commandments. Therefore even such suffering is not meaningless. The fact that apart from the psalms of lament, Scripture has an entire book in Job that meets the needs of believers who experience undeserved suffering shows how much God cares for them. It takes an all-loving God to do what is wise but painful for the welfare of humanity—to allow even extreme undeserved suffering in some people. Why then did God not explain to Job the reason he suffered? When someone is still suffering, telling him the truth actually aggravates the problem: “But why me?” It takes an all-wise God to respond to Job exactly the way He did.

Hence the Bible does not conceal, but in fact reveals, that the God we are called to believe in is a God who uses undeserved suffering for His purpose (for the ultimate good of humanity). So the reality of undeserved suffering is consistent with the truthfulness of the Bible. The real question then is whether to accept or reject such a God. If we reject God, it does not mean undeserved suffering will go away. And much undeserved suffering is caused by human wickedness unrestrained by the fear of God. So when a culture rejects God and does not fear Him, undeserved suffering will only increase. In other words, rejecting God only means rejecting the very source of strength and comfort in times of suffering, whether deserved or not, when we can turn to no one else except God. Even Job, who vehemently accused God of blatant injustice against him, was fully aware of this truth.