“Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliation of decay,” writes Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead. These are profoundly true words which hit home when we remember that our bodies are “material things.” Our bodies are always subject to the humbling effects of decay and destruction. These effects can happen slowly as we age or in a moment from a simple mistake. Car accidents, falling down, cancer, a tornado, any of these and more could ravage or even take away our lives. Life is so fragile.
As I write these words COVID-19 has swept across the globe. This pandemic is a visceral reminder that as humans we are all vulnerable to sickness and ultimately to death.
What is God doing about all of this? If we are so weak and vulnerable and God is all-powerful, why isn’t he stopping the virus and sparing lives? Wouldn’t God want to put an end to the pandemic if he was really good? COVID-19 raises these and many similarly heart-wrenching questions. There are no easy answers to these questions. Until Christ comes again, there are no complete answers. However, there are answers to questions about God’s character and purpose in the face of sickness, suffering and evil. One of the most thorough and ancient answers comes to us in the form of a story. The Bible tells us a tale about a man named Job, a man who experienced great personal loss, suffering, and sickness. Throughout the narrative he wrestles to understand why he suffers as he does. In the story Job is offered three different answers.
Answer 1: You’re a Sinner or God Isn’t Just
Job’s entire family, apart from his wife, died. His home and wealth were lost and his health was stripped away. After all this he was visited by friends. Their perspective on Job’s suffering was straightforward. God is just; he rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. If Job is suffering, his friends conclude that God must be punishing Job for some unrighteousness. A large portion of the story of Job consists of his three friends putting forth variations of this argument to him. Job continually replied that he has not sinned and there is no reason for God to be punishing him with such awful suffering. Job’s assertions entail one of two things. Either Job is lying and has sinned but won’t admit it, or God is unjustly punishing Job. Job insists it can be neither of these things, yet he still does not know why he is suffering. Job and his friends are at something of a standstill over this question until another friend, a younger man, chimes in.
Answer 2: God Is Disciplining You
Elihu was sitting silently as Job talked with his three friends. Elihu, out of respect as the younger man, had held his tongue as long as he could. Finally, full of anger, he spoke up. Elihu argued that Job and his three other friends were missing the point. They were debating whether or not God was justly punishing Job for sin when they should have understood that God was discipling Job so that he would grow in righteousness and holiness. Elihu said that God,
Opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn man aside from his deed and conceal pride from a man; he keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword. Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones. (Job 33:16–19)
The difference between punishment and discipline is significant. A judge renders a punishment with impartial justice. A just punishment fits the crime, either bringing retribution or restitution for a wrong committed. In contrast, a parent disciplines. Discipline is meant to correct, guide, and teach. Its goal is ultimately greater than the retribution or restitution. The goal of discipline is the sanctification of the one being disciplined. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Thus, discipline is consistent with and even required by goodness and love. Elihu’s answer is full of truth and it shows us that Job’s suffering as a righteous man does not contradict God’s goodness. However, it is not the final and ultimate answer that Job receives.
Answer 3: Trust God
Elihu’s answer paves the way for the next speaker: God himself. We read,
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:1–3)
This must have been terrifying. Rather than provide a further answer or clarification to the questions and issues Job raised, God asks Job a series of questions. Each question is designed to drive home God’s greatness and power as creator as well as his goodness and righteousness. After this barrage Job can only repent of his presumption to question God’s power and goodness (Job 42:1–6). He has learned what God wants each of us to do when we experience sickness, sin, and death. God wants us to trust him.
Behind the Curtain
At the very beginning of Job the reader gets a peek “behind the curtain,” a benefit that Job and his friends don’t have the benefit of. We get to see that all the evil, tragedy, and suffering that befalls Job happens because God has allowed Satan to do it. Job doesn’t know this. When we suffer, like Job, we do not know the reasons. This does not mean, however, that they don’t exist. The story of Job teaches us that God is sovereign over all; no suffering or evil event happens that he has not permitted. He has his purposes, for his glory. God wants us to trust him and trust that he is good even when we don’t understand why he allows the things he does. We are to trust that he can bring all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
At the end of the book of Job we see a picture of the future glory that all Christians have to look forward to. Job’s fortunes were restored, in fact he was even more prosperous than before. This points us to the eternal hope that all Christians have. One day we will be resurrected, like our Savior Christ, to live with God forever in a new heavens and earth. Every sickness will be eradicated, every injustice righted, every tear wiped away, and death itself will be no more! Until the day that our faith becomes sight, God calls us to trust him, in every circumstance he allows us to go through.