If God is good, why does He allow us to suffer trials and tribulations?
This question ceased to be just an interesting intellectual puzzle for me after the tragic death of my son a few years ago. In the aftermath of his death, a good friend recommended that I read a one of C.S. Lewis’ books. C.S. Lewis, as you may know, was a well known Anglican layman and Christian apologist of the 20th century. His most well known book on the problem of suffering was called “The Problem of Pain“, but my friend recommended another book, “A Grief Observed,” a very short work written in the month or two following his wife’s death from cancer. It’s a very personal, poignant book, and its rawness cuts to the heart. He shares many good insights in it, but one that riveted me was his discussion of suffering as a test:
“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t…He always knew my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”
As I was coming face to face with my own inadequacy in the aftermath of my son’s death, I was learning, or rather, re-learning, some important truths: He is big, I am small, and I am inadequate without His grace.
Suffering has the potential to reveal to me the truth about myself. It has the power to clear away the pretenses and self-delusion that are only boulders in the road of Christian discipleship. I cannot walk very far down the road with Jesus Christ, or even start down that road, without beginning to learn that truth.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor. 12:9a
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! Job 19:25-27 RSV
Even if you haven’t read the Book of Job yourself, perhaps you remember the story: The wealthy and influential Job is a just man in God’s eyes (1:8), but God, at Satan’s prompting, allows him to be tested. Job loses all of his property, livestock, friends, and with the exception of his wife, his entire family. He then is afflicted with dreadful sores all over his body and sinks into depression. Three friends come to console him, but end up harassing him instead. Job responds to their harangues and to that of stranger too. After lamenting bitterly, God visits him face to face. Job is silenced, and his wealth and health are eventually restored two-fold. (42:10)
The Book of Job addresses two burning questions:
Is suffering only a retribution for wickedness? Why do the just often suffer, while the wicked often thrive?
How should a just man respond to suffering?
Suffering as Retribution?
Is suffering only a retribution for wickedness? Job’s “friends” certainly think so (4:7-9). They consistently impugn his character (22:5) and tell him to repent (22:23). God, though, has the last say: “After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eli’phaz the Te’manite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7)
The old idea that suffering is God’s retribution for sin is, at its best, inadequate.
The Response of a Just Man
While the inspired author does not provide us with a definitive purpose for suffering (we find that in the person of Jesus Christ), he does give us some guidance on how to respond to suffering, and I found four elements of such a response by a “just man” in the Book of Job.
First, the just man takes personal initiative to relieve the suffering of others, especially the oppressed.
“I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy…I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made him drop his prey from his teeth.” (29:13-17)
Let’s stop and ponder that last picture for a moment. In a personal act of courageous mercy, we are to get close enough to the wild beast to smash its teeth with a rock or stick, forcing it to drop its helpless prey. In word, our response to the suffering of the oppressed should be one of bold mercy.
Job also maintains his trust in God:
“Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high.” (16:19) and “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (19:25-27)
When it comes to his own suffering, Job does not fail to praise God, even in his bitterest laments: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (1:21) and “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding.” (12:13) Praising God in the most desperate of situations is quite difficult, and challenging even if one’s trust in God is great.
Lastly (and eventually), Job responds to his suffering with humility:
Then Job answered the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’ (40:3-5)
A face-to-face encounter with God finally silences Job.
A challenge laid down by the Book of Job, perhaps, is to drop our old conceptions of suffering as always and everywhere a punishment, and concentrate instead on encountering God in it by responding to it as a just man would. With courageous mercy when we see the suffering of others, and with trust, praise, and humility when we experience it ourselves.
“No one has ever seen God, but as long as we love one another God remains in us and his love comes to its perfection in us.” 1 John 4:12 (NJB)
Novak’s states his purpose in writing the book very succinctly: “…unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation…“, and in it, he addresses the recent attacks on Judeo-Christian belief launched by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.
I bought this book soon after it was published to help me deal with a newly declared atheist in my family, but only picked it up to read recently, when, after a terrible family tragedy, I experienced my own dark night and the questions Novak addresses became my own questions.
Novak begins his work by relating the stories of well known saints that suffered their own dark night – long stretches when God seemed silent or absent: Theresa of Calcutta, Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. He then proceeds to narrate a long-running written conversation that he had with a thoughtful atheist, bringing forth insights as he does so.
Novak reflects deeply on the the presence of evil and suffering in the world, which is perhaps the atheists’ most popular complaint. While he does not present the book as a list of lists, by the book’s conclusion adventuresome readers will learn 4 points of agreement between believers and atheists, 4 virtues to practice when God seems silent, 5 insulting ways to speak about God (and how to avoid doing so), 4 limitations of secularism, and 2 fundamental deficiencies of the secular worldview.
If this book will help us converse with atheists, it will do so by allowing them to see a depth in the Christian perspective that is missing in their caricatures of the faith. And even if it doesn’t, it might well bolster the faith of believers like myself, jarred by unexpected tragedy and searching for meaning.