Suffering and the Book of Job

by Tremper Longman

Everyone suffers in this life. I have never met anyone who has denied this fact. If I ever did I would call them a liar or a sociopath. They certainly would verge on heresy. After all, Paul, reflecting on the effects of the fall (Gen. 3), talks about our “present sufferings” as a result of God subjecting the world to “frustration” and presenting in “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:18–21). Disease, natural catastrophe, betrayal of relationship, abuse, slavery, death, the list goes on and on.

Don’t get me wrong. There are seasons of life. There have been many times in my life when people have asked me how things are going, and I have responded “Great!” and it was true. Of course, I was talking about the world close to me. I was doing well, as were my wife, children, grandchildren, parents, intimate friends, and so forth. Of course, if I watched the nightly news or read the paper, I would know that the world was not “Great!” And even my own world is not great forever. And there are some people whose world is never great.

The inspiring Joni Eareckson Tada spoke recently at Westmont College where I teach Old Testament. As a young woman in her teens, she dove into a pool and hit her head, and she has been quadriplegic since. Over forty years later she movingly spoke of how every morning is a struggle to get up and continue life. She also spoke of disabled people in many parts of the world who are chained in a locked room during the day while their parents go about their business shielding them from public view.

Why does such suffering take place? We want an answer. We want to say, for instance, that human suffering is a result of sin—at least, those of us who aren’t in pain at the moment hope so. After all, we can control our pain that way. We can delude ourselves into thinking that as long as we are good, we won’t suffer.

Of course, that was the view of the three friends of Job. They believed that suffering resulted from sin, so if someone suffered, that person must be a sinner. Thus, when they confronted Job, they immediately thought he had sinned to deserve what he was getting. The funny thing is that Job felt the same way. Why else would he think when he suffered that God is unjust? While Job knew he didn’t deserve it, he still felt that God owed him. He wanted to find God in order to set him straight. Job got his wish to meet with God, but it didn’t go quite the way Job wanted. While the book makes it perfectly clear that Job’s suffering did not result from his sin, he never gets an answer about why he suffered. In a word, the book of Job tells us that we have to live with mystery. The book of Job shows us how God wants us to respond to the difficult things in our life. Yes, as many have pointed out, he allows us to rant and rail like Job does (and the lament psalms illustrate). But ultimately like Job at the end of the book (and the “man of affliction” in Lamentations 3), God wants us to submit silently before him and put our trust in him.

Of course, the book of Job is not the final word about suffering. God’s ultimate answer to our suffering is Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, who comes and suffers and dies on our behalf.
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Tremper Longman III (PhD, Yale University) is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Before coming to Westmont, he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for eighteen years. He has authored or coauthored numerous books, including An Introduction to the Old Testament, How to Read Proverbs, and commentaries on Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Jeremiah and Lamentations, and Daniel.

For more information on Job, click here.

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