We see this idea advocated most of all in the book of Job by Job's friends. But before I talk about them, let me say a few things about Job's wife. Job's wife is the one who encourages Job, after the rest of his family dies, his possessions are destroyed, and his body is covered in boils, to "curse God and die." Job responds with one of the greatest examples of faith and fortitude I've seen: "Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?" (Job 2:10, NLT). Job's wife, I think, represents the typical response that we (or maybe just I) would normally have when suffering anywhere near the magnitude of Job's affects us. "Life is hard now? It must be that God has rejected you. Since he's already done that, you might as well cut your losses." To place her in Jesus' parable, she might be the seed that fell among thorns. She grows up fine while all is well, but when the time of testing comes, her faith is choked out by the thorns.
Even so, I have some sympathy for Job's wife. She has undergone the same suffering as her blameless husband. Her children are dead; she is now destitute. She is spared the boils (we presume), but almost everything else that affects Job also touches her. She is living with a champion of faith, but that doesn't mean his faith rubbed off on her. But I think there's a good lesson here that John the Baptist later teaches: proximity to faith does not equal faith; ancestry does not determine faith.
The Pharisees who came to John thought they were taken care of because they were Jews, because they came from good Jewish stock and were following the Law, but how does John respond?
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father!" I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham!In other words, God isn't looking for Abraham's children in the physical sense (he can create those out of stone). He's looking for Abraham's children in the spiritual sense, which Paul talks about in Romans 4 and Galatians 4. He's looking for children of faith. And while faith in some aspects is something communal, it is also something very personal--born out of a direct relationship with God. (Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, at least the way I read it, seems to go a bit further: faith, in some sense, isolates us from the community because it involves the direct call of God on us personally. Incidentally, the whole book focuses on Abraham and his call to sacrifice Isaac.)
Okay, now on to Job's friends. There is something very beautiful in Job 2:11-13 about Job's friends:
When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him. Their names were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.What discerning friends! Their silence here speaks volumes. I'm still unsure how to behave at a funeral, which is odd, considering I've had a few close family members pass away--I know the comfort I've liked receiving and the comfort I didn't like. The best kind of comfort, in my opinion, is silent presence. I know that others care, and I know that they are there grieving with me, but they aren't trying to talk to me. I try to keep in mind that those who offer platitudes mean well, but platitudes offered in a moment of grief seem to add insult to injury. As a Christian, I ultimately know that God has a greater purpose for suffering; for those who have died in the Lord, I know that heaven awaits them. But in the moment, I still need to process, I need to grieve. Paul says that as Christians we don't mourn like those who have no hope; he doesn't say that we don't mourn. Jesus calls mourning a blessed state. By all means, let me grieve; let me sorrow; let me mourn. Not forever, but for a time. I can respect Job's friends for seven days of silence.
Then, however, come their speeches. Job's first speech begins with, "Let the day of my birth be erased, and the night I was conceived. Let that day be turned to darkness. Let it be lost even to God on high, and let no light shine on it" (Job 3:3-4, NLT). Strong words, Job. And the words get worse. I can imagine Job's friends listening to this. They know Job's former blamelessness, and now they hear him behaving like this! "Job, buddy, this won't do. Shame on you! You've grieved seven days; isn't that enough? Put on a happy face." Okay, that's Jon's paraphrase. Here's a sample of what Eliphaz actually says:
Your words have supported those who were falling; you encouraged those with shaky knees. But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart. You are terrified when it touches you. Doesn't your reverence for God give you confidence? Doesn't your life of integrity give you hope? Stop and think! Do the innocent die? When have the upright been destroyed? My experience shows me that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same. (Job 4:4-8, NLT)First of all, this sounds like someone who hasn't suffered himself. Second, "Do the innocent die"? Yes! Everyone dies! But Eliphaz points the finger at Job: "You must have really screwed up this time, man. You're suffering because God is mad at you. The only people I know who've suffered are those who are wicked."
This finger pointing starts early and continues, with Job defending himself and his friends further accusing him, for the next 30+ chapters. God and Satan's "bar-room bet" at the beginning of the book, far from showing a frivolous and capricious deity, shows that we don't know all the facts, which is what God discloses in his speech from the whirlwind that forms the last few chapters of the book (I'll come back to the "bar-room bet" and God's response from the whirlwind later). Job's friends presume knowledge of the divine, but they are as in the dark as Job. Job is not suffering because he is guilty; he is suffering because he is innocent.
One thing the book of Job teaches us is that not all suffering or hardship is God's judgment. This is not an isolated teaching in the Bible. Think of the man born blind in John 9 (whose hardship might not have been blindness itself but the way he was treated because of the stigma of sin attached to his condition). The disciples see him, and their first response is, "Okay, Jesus, who sinned that this should happen to him? Was it he or his parents?" Jesus' answer cuts to the heart of the issue: "It was not because of his sins or his parents' sins. This happened so the power of God could be seen in him." This sounds very much like Job's story, and like Paul's teachings in 2 Corinthians:
We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies....That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10, 16-18, NLT)This post is getting long enough, so I'll discuss the nature of suffering another time. I will say a few more things about innocent suffering before I move on. It may seem callous for God to allow the innocent to suffer, especially the innocent who have been so faithful to him. But one thing to keep in mind is that God is not allowing anything that he has not done to himself. The ultimate example of innocent suffering is God's Son, who "emptied himself and made himself nothing." Jesus, too, was jeered and sneered at for being the worst of sinners because of his patient suffering. Consider this passage from Isaiah:
He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5, NLT)
If there was ever an example of innocent suffering not related to individual sin, here it is. (I mean that the punishment is not for Jesus' sin; he carried the punishment for all our sins. He was mocked as a sinner when he hadn't sinned himself.)
So, what does this mean for us? I think we should be wary of attributing suffering to others' sin. I don't like how when a major catastrophe occurs, the media always seem to find the loudest Christian voice shouting, "Doom! Apocalypse! Judgment!" The prophets did this, sure. But I think we need to be careful and make sure that our message is from the Lord and not condemnation for condemnation's sake (unfortunately, I fear it is often the latter). Perhaps natural disasters and catastrophes are times when "God's power can be revealed" in it.
The response I favor to disasters of that kind is the way Jesus responds in Luke 13 when some people are pointing to those whom Pilate has slaughtered while worshiping as being terrible sinners, certainly deserving of Pilate's death sentence. Jesus' response is, "Unless you repent, you too will all perish." When we are tempted to condemn, it is time to turn inward, to repent ourselves. Is some suffering related to sin? Undoubtedly. Is some suffering not related to sin? Also undoubtedly. We must not be quick to condemn those who are suffering as getting what they deserve. We must show them God's love by offering the comfort we have received from God in our own suffering. This is a subject for another post.