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Meaning and Suffering

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

The world we live in is full of suffering. The innocent often suffer for no apparent reason. Those who do evil often prosper in spite of their wickedness. When confronted with such apparent injustice people are often at a loss of how to handle it. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching example is that of children who suffer from painful and debilitating diseases. Why should the most innocent among us be subjected to such utter and inescapable suffering? Typical platitudes, or even theological speculations of theodicy, do not often lend themselves well to answering these kinds of questions. Reflecting on the book of Job can be of use to understand the suffering of the world, but it is a difficult book to understand and people often struggle to interpret its lessons.

Every person wants answers when confronted with suffering. In the beginning of the book of Job, the Accuser bets God that Job is only faithful because of the many blessings he has received. God then allows the Accuser to test Job, inflicting great and varied tribulations upon him. Job cries out to God in the midst of his agony, demanding a chance to argue his innocence before God (Job 10). His friends come to support him, sitting Shiva with him, not speaking a single word for even days (Job 2:13). However, once Job begins to speak his friends explain that he must have done something to deserve his pain. His protests fall on deaf ears with his friends questioning his integrity. His friends insist that God’s justice is retributive in nature, those who do good will receive good and those who do bad receive evil.

However, when God appears in the story, he chides Job. He asks Job to explain the laws of nature, which he is not able to do. God tells Job that his gifts fall where he wills, rain on desolate lands and food for the predator (Job 38:25-27,39-41). God describes the Ostrich to Job as a ridiculous creature, but it is according to the design he made (Job 39:13-18). In a certain sense, everything is under the plan of God even though Job cannot understand it. Job is too close to his situation, like being up close to a painting. He can only see a tiny splotch in the painting, ugly up close; however, from the perspective of one viewing the whole painting the splotch is not ugly but a part of a creative act on the part of the painter to create a larger, more beautiful whole. The world is full of injustice, but God says it is all under his control. God denies retributive justice as a norm, though he can act this way (as he does toward the end of the story). Yet, although this might make a certain theological sense, it is not a comfort to the one suffering.

But, perhaps an even more interesting question is, why does God take the initial bet with the Accuser in the first place? The Accuser disparages Job’s character, suggesting he is not genuine but only a slave of material gain. Perhaps the answer to the story lies in this: God takes the bet because of how valuable Job really is. Job is so important that he will suspend his justice to demonstrate that Job is worthy of his reputation. This vote of confidence is probably little comfort to Job who takes the brunt of it, but, as the reader with a broader perspective, we may be able to take some comfort that God loves Job, and is willing to defend his reputation, even at the expense of his own justice. The value of a human being endures, no matter their suffering or how little regard others have for them.


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