Job: Suffering and Sovereignty

Introduction

Suffering. It is impossible to avoid in this life, though many of us will try very hard. It doesn’t matter your ethnicity, age, gender, social or economic status—all people can and often do experience suffering. That is a huge “downer” to talk about, but it is our reality here on this earth. We walk around in this life, at any given moment, with different wounds that point to the suffering we have experienced. Some wounds are physical, some are emotional, some are mental. Some are self-inflicted, some are at the hands of others. Some we understand and many we still don’t have all the pieces to.

This morning we start a new series in Job. Job is not necessarily one of the books of the Bible that makes many people’s favorite list, but it makes mine precisely because of its topic—suffering. I don’t have a morbid fascination with suffering, but an awareness that suffering afflicts us all, and we—Christians—we have the best worldview and answer to suffering in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Background

Like many people, Job’s story doesn’t start with suffering. We don’t know much about how Job grew up, but at the beginning of Job we are told that life is going well right now for him. He has seven sons and seven daughters (Job 1:2). By God’s grace he has accumulated great wealth: 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, very many servants. The writer says, “This man was the greatest of all the people of the east.” (Job 1:3). Even his kids are doing well. They take turns having feasts at their houses, inviting their siblings over to the party. (Job 1:4)

More importantly, we see that Job is Godly in Job 1. He is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:5). He would pray and offer sacrifices for his kids in hopes that his sacrifices would cover any sins they might have committed during their parties.

Things are going well for Job! There are no hints of problems in his life. Life is just moving along and, from Job’s perspective, his life moves right from chapter one, verse five to verse 13. There was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking in the eldest brother’s house, Job was going about his business as usual, and then and Job’s day begins to fall apart.

Sabeans, a people group from Southern Arabia, come upon Job’s servants and his donkeys and oxen, and kill all the servants and steal his herds save this one messenger. Picture this scene. Job is standing there, in conversation with one of his servants, realizing that his main business machinery—the animals that helped them work the fields and crops—are gone.  Every appliance in your house, your computers, every machine and tool that you use at work, gone. Someone has broken into your home and your business and wiped you out. You would have to be thinking, “How are we going to move forward, how are we going to provide?” And before this servant has even finished, another is walking in the door.

 This servant tells Job that fire has fallen from heaven and consumed all the sheep and servants except this one. Imagine, to add insult to injury the thieves didn’t just take the expensive goods, they took every piece of clothing you own—even your underwear and socks—and the bologna in the fridge. The sheep represented Job’s ability to continue to make clothing and, often, a source of food and the source of his sacrifices to God. Yet again, while he is still hearing this news, a third servant enters.

 His camels have been taken by the Chaldeans and, again, his servants—likely people he cared for like family and close friends—have been killed. Your cars, your bikes, your main mode of transportation is gone. Your friends are dead. You are stranded here in this horrible situation.

 This is the making of a good movie or book. Especially in America, we love the story of the scrappy go-getter, rebuilding their life from scratch, proving they are a self-made man or woman in need of help from no one. But Job’s story doesn’t stop there, in fact a fourth servant enters while the third is still talking.

 “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking, and the house fell upon them with a great wind and killed them all.” Your family, save your spouse, is gone. And as Job sits there in mourning, head shaved, robe torn, sitting on the ground, he is struck with sores from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head. They hurt so badly that he takes a shard of pottery and scrapes himself all over, likely to the point of bleeding, to try to stop the pain.

Suffering

Praise God that few people ever experience this level of change and instant suffering. Yet, Job leaves almost no room for any of us to say we can’t relate. Whether it is the loss of physical possessions, family, health—Job experiences almost every type of suffering. At one point later, he even doubts aspects of his God.

Scripture doesn’t shy away from suffering. Adam and Eve are kicked out of the garden of Eden to toil. They lose their first-born son to death and their second-born son to his sin and punishment. The babies of the Israelites are killed in Egypt, plagues inflict the people, a generation dies in the wilderness. Sarai is barren, Hagar is kicked out of the house, and Abigail lives with the awful Nabal. The prodigal son shames his father and leaves, Aaron’s sons, Eli’s son’s, and Samuel’s sons all profane God and their roles and are punished. Saul chases David for years in the desert, trying to kill him.

 Why does it surprise us so often that suffering is present? Even if you don’t have an answer for it, you can’t avoid the fact that it is there and a common experience.

There was a fascinating interview that took place just two weeks ago on August 17.[1] Stephen Colbert, a comedian and the host of the Late Show since David Letterman retired, was being interviewed by fellow TV personality Anderson Cooper, host of CNN’s show Anderson Cooper 360. What was interesting was the topic: suffering. Both these men have been open about much of the suffering in their lives. Stephen Colbert was the youngest of eleven children, and when he was 10 his father and next two oldest brothers died in a plane crash. He was left alone in the house with his mother and they had to “raise each other.” His beloved mother died in 2013 at the age of 92. Anderson Cooper also lost his dad when he was 10 during a cardiac surgery and lost a brother subsequently to grief and suicide. His mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, passed away this last year after struggle with stomach cancer.

I want to share with you about three minutes of their conversation this morning.

Our short video link: https://youtu.be/7jkX9K-KPBE

Complete video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB46h1koicQ

I would commend this interview to you, not because it is all as theological thoughtful as the sections I pulled out for you this morning. In fact, Stephen Colbert later on in the interview has a chance to offer Christ to Anderson Cooper as the answer for him as well, but leaves him with a very pluralistic answer to how to find God. Neither of these men is claiming to have thought carefully through this topic and to have theologically sound answers. But they are doing something we often want to pretend isn’t necessary: they are engaging about the suffering they have experienced and they know others have experienced as well.

 We have two options when we think about suffering. We can try to hide from it, run from it. People do this in many ways. Drugs, alcohol, acceptable idols like work and family. We escape through entertainment and elusive pursuits of false joy. How often we notice this is true, even about ourselves, when we struggle to know how to respond when our friends and family go through suffering. “I’m so sorry,” is usually all we can muster.

 Our other choice is to face the suffering. Whether in our own lives or the lives of others, we can choose to wade into it. We find in our God a worldview that makes sense of the suffering. And Christian, we have answers amidst the suffering.

Sovereignty

 I think the hardest part about confronting suffering as a Christians is that in the middle of suffering we must come face-to-face with a sovereign God. He is utterly in control. Again, and again, Scripture describes our God as someone who is intimately aware of our lives, involved in even the words we say, the hairs on our heads, and who cares even for sparrows. And sometimes that can be the hardest answer when we are suffering.

I think we often would like to think suffering, sin, and difficulties come into our life because, perhaps at that moment, God’s plan has been thwarted. Something crept in that wasn’t desired and God couldn’t stop it. We understand that process: How often have we tried to do something with the best of intentions and great efforts only to have it effected by things outside of our control? Yet Scripture doesn’t give us that option.

The recorder of Job leaves no questions on this front. We might have wondered how to ascribe the blame when the Sabeans and Chaldeans come in, when Job gets sick, when his children die. As we see in our passage this morning, God is entirely aware and a part of the process. He looks down, and at each point in this process, sees Job, and says to the heavenly courts around him, including Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 2:8) God has seen Job before his struggles and still sees and knows him intimately in the midst of his suffering. He sees his heart and knows his desires. And though he never inflicts any suffering on Job himself, he is undoubtedly the one who holds the ultimate control of whether or not it will happen. He is the one who points him out to Satan and who approves every next step Satan takes.

 This is undoubtedly the difficulty we experience in looking at suffering as a Christian. We have a God who is sovereignly in control yet he allows suffering to occur. Why?

That is one of the major goals of this sermon series through Job—to help you reconcile suffering and the sovereignty of God. They are both true, and they are both for your good. And it leaves you with, at times, a hard life, but a very powerful and caring God. We want you to be able to say along with Paul, in Romans 8:28:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 ESV)

We want to remind ourselves that we can trust and follow our great savior. As our Lord Jesus said in John 16:33:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV)

And we want to be a blessing to our friends, our family, and point them to the only solution they have as well in the midst of suffering—Jesus!

“[God himself] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:4–5 ESV)

And ultimately, when suffering and trials come, we want to be able to join with Job and say as he does in our passage this morning:

“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.”” (Job 1:21 ESV) 

Conclusion

Suffering and sovereignty: they go together. Neither erases the other. God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean we will never face another problem again as a Christian, nor does suffering mean that our God is not utterly in control and will use every situation for our good and for his glory.  

The Christian author J.C. Ryle says it well:

There is nothing which shows our ignorance so much as our impatience under trouble. We forget that every cross is a message from God, intended to do us good in the end. Trials are intended to make us think — to wean us from the world — to send us to the Bible — to drive us to our knees. Health is a good thing; but sickness is far better, if it leads us to God. Prosperity is a great mercy; but adversity is a greater one if it brings us to Christ. Anything, anything is better than living in indifference and dying in sin. (J.C. Ryle, Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries, pg 130–131)

 I admit up front that series might be hard. It may often cause you to look at your own suffering: Why did I get sick and suffer that way? Why did my marriage fall apart? Why did we lose that child? In that same interview, Anderson Cooper said that he sometimes wished he had a big scar running down the outside of his face, symbolizing his loss. That way people couldn’t forget what had happened to him. Stephen Colbert agreed, and said that he often found himself perturbed at people asking him work questions when internally he had been thinking about his dad and his brothers, and mourning that moment even though it had been forty years ago and there was no way people could possibly know he was thinking about that.

 In those moment, those two men were staring out at the face of God and they were not seeing him. I don’t want you to miss God. I want you, in that moment of suffering to see him and know that he is saying, “Have you seen my servant, Rick. My servant Lauren. My servant Sarah, Margaret, Luke, Greg. My servant, you.  He is pleased with you! He loves you! He only allows what will strengthen and grow you.  

Benediction

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:10–11 ESV)


[1] Thanks to Marshall Segal for noticing this and his great article on this interview on the Desiring God website. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-punishments-of-god-are-not-gifts, last accessed 08/31/2019