This is the sermon I preached this last Sunday in light of the events of Newtown, Connecticut.
Suffering, Sovereignty, and Salvation
Job 1:1-2:13; 42:1-17
This past week has been devastating for many of us. Though not personally affected, it was nonetheless devastating to hear of the lone gunman who entered two classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and opened fire, killing at least twenty children and six adults, before turning his weapons of death upon himself.[i] All weekend, news anchors, radio hosts, and newspaper editors have groped for words to express their shock and dismay at the atrocity that was committed. Not because we’ve never suffered violence in this country before. But perhaps because it was perpetrated on the most innocent and defensive children in the school. But we were not alone in our suffering this weekend. The same day children and teachers were being gunned down in Connecticut, 22 students and a teacher endured a knife attack at a school in the Henan province of China.[ii]
In some ways, such events should not surprise us because of the times in which we live and history we have experienced, even in the last decade. Yet, they still shock us. They still cause us to grieve and mourn and wonder about the world in which we live. This is what the reality of suffering does to us. And the question that we often ask—the question that is asked by people all other world—is ‘Why?’ Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to them? Why is this happening at all, if a good God exists and he is in control?
This morning, we want to think about these questions. And to do so, we want to go to a book that embodies the experience of the suffering the desire to know ‘why?’ like no other book in the Bible. In this book—called Job—we see a man who undergoes intense suffering and, like so many, asks the question ‘why?’ As we look to this man Job, we need to understand that we will not find any easy answers. We won’t find trite words or cliché responses. Instead, in Job we find bedrock, foundational truths about God and suffering. And if we embrace those truths—if we believe them as Job did—then we can begin to understand what we see in this world, and even prepare to endure faithfully through the suffering we will ourselves may experience one day.
We begin by reading Job, chapters 1 and 2. Follow along as I read.
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.
6Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8And the Lord said to 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?” 9Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 14and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
20Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21And he said, “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.”
22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
2:1Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2And the Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3And the Lord said to 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? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. 5But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”
7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
11Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. 12And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. 13And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Job is in every way pictured as a righteous man in this book. Yet, Satan makes the argument before God that he only obeys the Lord because the Lord has prospered him. God knows that’s not true and he permits Satan to take away virtually all that he has. But Satan isn’t satisfied. He says the loss was all external. If the suffering gets even closer, if his own body becomes the source of his suffering then he will not remain loyal to God. And again, God permits Satan to attack him, this time in his health. But God knows what Satan will not believe: Job is blameless and despite what happens to him, he will not curse God.
In Job, we see a man who suffers greatly. And it’s from his response to that suffering, both here and throughout the book, that we find an example that we should follow as we think about human suffering and the sovereignty of God. As Job serves as a lens for the teaching of the whole Bible, four central truths emerge that guide in our understanding of suffering in this world.
1. The Reality of Human Suffering
To begin, we need to understand that Job is a man who really lived. This is not some fairytale or story made up to tell a moral lesson. It’s the recounting of historical events that show us how one man endured suffering, and how that suffering reflects—in part—the suffering of us all.
1.1. Innocent Suffering
We live in a sinful world and sin has consequences. All sin has consequences. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not, if you engage in sinful behavior, there are natural consequences that will to anything from making your life miserable to making your life short. If you get mad for someone stealing your parking space and decide to hit their car, there will be consequences. God can forgive you but you still might go to jail.
Likewise we even see in the 1 Corinthians 11, that God used suffering to get his own people’s attention. They we so profaning the Lord’s Table that he caused sickness and even death to come upon them. They were still God’s people, but were being disciplined for their sin.
Yet, that’s not all that we see in the world. So often see today we see suffering that is innocent—suffering that comes upon a person without any direct connection to how they lived their lives.
Today, not in a week or a month, but in the course of this day, 30,000 children will die in the world from starvation or preventable diseases. Has their sin brought this about in their life? Hardly. Leaving aside whatever past the adults in Connecticut may have had, could the 20 children—between ages 5 and 6—have done anything to deserve such a violent and unspeakable death? No. Likewise, with Job—his suffering was an innocent suffering. In fact, the author of this book goes out of its way to tell us that.
The very first verse says, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Now, blameless does not mean sinless. Even Job knew he wasn’t sinless, but he offered the appropriate sacrifices for those sins. ‘Blameless’ speaks to his integrity as a person. Along with the description of him being upright, we see that he was one who faithfully adhered to what he knew to be the righteous will of God. In this way then, he was one who feared God and turned away from evil.
We are given more details in chapters 29-31. There, Job is recounting how he has sought to live a blameless life before God. We see that with this wealth Job rescued the poor and the orphan, he assisted the dying and helped widows. He never committed adultery. And even made a covenant with his eyes not to look lustfully at women. He knew God was ever-watching and so always spoke truthfully in his business dealings, and heard any complaint from his servants.
Though of great wealth, he never trusted in it, nor gloated over those less fortunate than himself. He offered sacrifices for his own sins and the sins of his family, acting as a priest, interceding for them. Here is man who lived before the Law was given, before Christ came, and yet puts most of us to shame.
And in the midst of the suffering that falls upon him, his friends—though silent in the opening chapters—get very verbose and began to berate Job to confess his hidden sin that has brought such suffering. But the whole point is that God doesn’t work that way! Job is blameless before God. And yet he suffers terribly. It’s innocent suffering and it’s—
1.2. Unexpected Suffering
Here is a man who seems to have everything going for him. In fact, for a society that would have largely measured wealth by livestock and cattle, Job was a very rich man. In fact, he was so wealthy that he is even called “the greatest of all the people of the east.”
And in the moment suffering comes, it comes without warning. Job’s children are in the middle of a party. They are celebrating life when a windstorm comes and destroys the house in his children are in, killing all of them. The same day invaders come and run off with his animals and kill his servants. Still yet, fire from heaven consumes his sheep and only a handful of all his servants remain to tell him the news. In one moment, life in its fullness—parties, work—and then in the next moment, tragedy and suffering. No one could have seen in coming. Job wasn’t doing anything to cause it, nor could he have done anything to stop it. His suffering came unexpectantly.
How normally must Friday have begin for students and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary? If they were like my kids, they were looking forward to it being the last day of the week. Some may have even earned something special for their good behavior or some goal the class had for getting schoolwork done. Yet, the day had hardly begun when suffering entered their lives and changed them forever.
Someone has said that trying to prepare for suffering is like trying to prepare to jump into freezing cold water. You know what it might be like, but once you plunge into the icy depths, your breath is taken away. Suffering comes unexpectantly and when it does come it’s painful.
1.3. Painful Suffering
Job surely suffered emotionally, but more than that, he endured actual, physical pain. He not only suffered the loss of his family and his wealth, but then he also lost his own health. Verse 7 says Job was struck, “with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.”
This was just the first symptoms, though. For later in the book, Job goes on to describe more symptoms of whatever this illness might have been: peeling skin (30:30); wart-like eruptions (7:5); loss of appetite (19:20); fever (30:30); sleeplessness (7:4); nightmares (7:14); foul breath (19:17); failing vision (16:16); and rotting teeth (19:20). So painful was Job’s experience that when his friends came to check on him after hearing the news, we read, “when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him” (2:12).
The kind of suffering Job experienced wasn’t really unique, but it was painful—emotionally and physically. It came to man who didn’t deserve it, and it came without warning. And this is the same kind of suffering we experience today. This is the reality of suffering in a world marred by sin.
But we also need to see another reality from this passage. Perhaps one that we struggle to comes to terms with. Nevertheless, we need to see, not just the reality of human suffering, but we also need to see the supremacy of God’s sovereignty.
2. The Supremacy of God’s Sovereignty
Throughout this book and especially this passage, God is shown to be unequivocally sovereign over all things. That means that he is the absolute authority—nothing happens apart from his will. We see this first in that God is—
2.1. Sovereign over Satan
When I was younger, I used to have this view of Satan that held up him up to be more or less the evil version of God. In my mind, for all intents and purposes, he was all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful. But this passage—and really all the Bible—says the opposite is true. Satan is—like everything besides God—a created being. That means that while God is limitless, Satan is limited. Though he may attempt to ravage God’s people and impugn God’s name, he is only allowed to go so far. In fact, here he has to ask permission before he does anything to Job. God is sovereign over Satan. More than that, God is—
2.2. Sovereign over Nations
Notice that Job lives in Uz, and it’s the Sabeans (1:15) and Chaldeans (1:17) that come to invade Job’s land and raid his cattle and kill his servants. God is not some local deity whose power is limited to geography. All of the world is under his sovereign control.
In Daniel 2, we read, “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.” (2:20-21).
Even today, when leadership and industry fail and economies plummet, God is still sovereign over the nations. When countries are at war, God is still sovereign over the nations. When nations seem hardened to the gospel, persecuting our brothers and sisters in Christ, trying to hinder the work of the Church, God is still sovereign over the nations.
He is also—
2.3. Sovereign over Creation
Verse sixteen says that “fire fell from heaven” and burned up his sheep and servants. Then in verse nineteen, we are told that it was a “great wind” that “came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house” causing it to fall upon Job’s children, killing them. ‘Who made the heavens and the earth?’ is the question God asks Job when he finally reveals himself to him at the end of the book? ‘Were you there, Job, when I formed it?’ he asks.
God is sovereign over all of nature, from the animals to the rain and the wind. In Job, chapter 37 we read that, “The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen. He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love. Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders” (37:10-14).
So, on the most beautiful day as an early, light rain gives way to piercing sunlight that spawns rainbows across the sky, God is sovereign. Likewise, when a superstorm of hurricane rain followed by snow and ice hits the Northeast, God is sovereign. When a tornado tears through a small town, God is sovereign. When a Tsunmai hits Thailand and multiple typhoons converge over the Philippines, God is sill sovereign over his creation.
Job shows us that God is sovereign over Satan, sovereign over the nations, sovereign over creation, and that he is—
2.4. Sovereign over Sickness
We’ve already seen the terrible descriptions that Jobs gave to his illness. And in all of that, Job himself affirms that his affliction came from God. In verse 21, in response to his loss of wealth and family, Job says, “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.” Later after he loses his health, his wife says why don’t you “Curse God and die.” But [Job] said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”
Some would say flat out that Job is all wrong here. Some who hold to something called, “Process Theology” says that, like everything else, God is still evolving as a being. He doesn’t know everything and he isn’t powerful over everything. So nothing like this comes from him. He isn’t sovereign over suffering and evil. One example of this is the famous Rabbi Harold Kushner. As he was reflecting on the death of his son at fourteen from progeria, he wrote a book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There he says that God is not all-powerful. He does not control the forces of nature and therefore bad things will happen whether he wants them to or not.
Now, we may even be tempted to look at this passage and say, “No! Job, we can see what you cannot see— Satan did all of this, not God!” But Job says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away…. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And the divinely-inspired author says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips; In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Job is right. Job understands that God is supremely sovereign over all things. Job knows that even when bad things, horrible things, happen. It’s not apart from his permission or sovereign control.
The Bible is clear that God’s sovereign over these things does not make him the author of evil. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and holy in all his works (Psalm 145:17). God stands behind evil differently than he does good. So that if something bad happens, the Bible always holds that thing which actually did the evil morally accountable. Satan was the instrument of Job’s suffering. But Satan was under the control of God. The question for us then becomes this: what do we do with these two truths? Here again, Job provides the example for us. In him, we see—
3. The Worship of Humble Submission
At the end of chapter two, we were introduced to Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They are the ones who come do not even recognize Job after all of his ordeal. We read that “they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. 13And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Now, first of all, let me say that this very good pastoral advice. Sometimes there are no words to say to a friend who is suffering. You just need to weep with them. For these men, especially, that is where their help to Job begins and ends. For, over the next thirty-some chapters, what they say to Job is essentially, ‘What secret have you committed that has brought all of this upon you? Obviously you’ve done something or else God would not have visited all of this trouble on you. Confess your sins and God may take it all away.”
But Job tries to explain, ‘Look I haven’t really done anything to deserve this.’ But that only makes them mad, and they continue to argue. Job rightly insists his innocence in all of this. Again, he admits he is sinful, but he has not secret, terrible sin that would merit all of this. He regularly repented of his sins, offering the appropriate sacrifices.
But in the course of all these endless debates, Job does succumb to one sin—he presumes God owes him an answer to his questions. Job thinks he deserves an answer to the question, ‘Why?’ and in chapter 38, after all the friends are done talking, God comes down and reveals himself to Job and for four chapters he reminds Job of his unrelenting glory. God alone is the maker of heaven and earth, God alone made all of the forces of nature and keeps them in check. God alone hung the stars in the universe and set their courses. God alone created the dinosaurs and wild beasts which no man can tame. God alone gave wisdom and skill to the even the smallest of the creatures that they might survive a world of sin and death. God alone has done all these things and so much. And in the end, Job simply submits to God. And he shows us that we should do the same. We should—
3.1. Submit because we do not always understand
In chapter 42, Job says, I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Again, Job doesn’t repent of some secret sin. His friends are wrong. Satan was wrong. God was right—Job was blameless before him. But he does repent of thinking he deserved an answer from God. He repeats God’s question back to him: ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Job says, “It was me. I tried to offer counsel without knowledge.”
The reality is, we will never be able to see the end from the beginning like God. We are the man who goes to the airport for the first time and looks out on the runway and sees planes circling, plans landing and taxiing, and to him it all seems chaotic. But to the man in the control tower, ordering the planes in and directing their path, the pattern is plain to see.
When we experience suffering, we cannot and should expect an answer to the question ‘Why?’ because we do not and never will, this side of heaven, have the kind of understanding that God has. But more than that, in worship, we should,
3.2. Submit because we have One worth trusting
The most amazing thing about Job is that never once throughout all of this did he doubt that God was just. In fact, when he first hears of the terrible fate that has befallen his family, it says “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.”
In tearing his robe and shaving his head, he was acknowledging the pain of his suffering. He didn’t blow it off, he didn’t shrug it off, playing the fool with false bravado. No, he understood and felt that pain to his core. Yet in humble submission to God he still worshipped. In the end, Job could do this because, even in the midst of suffering, Job still trusted God.
And remember that Job didn’t know what we know. Job didn’t know about the challenge of Satan who impugned his character. But Job did know something that would steady him in suffering: he knew of God’s power and his goodness. He banked his life on these things. So much so that in the midst of his ordeal, Job could say, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (13:15).
Here we have a window into the character of God that engenders faith amidst suffering. In Job 12, we see that “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding” (12:13). In Psalm 107 reminds us that we should “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!” (107:1). John reminds us that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is always righteous in what he does and what he allows. And so to Abraham, the assurance is given: even in the midst of the worst situations, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25). But perhaps the most convincing display of God’s worth for our trust and hope is seen in—
4. The Glory of Gracious Salvation
We can not only believe that God is sovereign and God is good, but that God is acquainted with suffering. This is what we see in the cross. The cross show us first that—
4.1. We need salvation from sin
In an ultimate sense, no one here today stands innocent before God. The Bible is clear that ever one of us has in some way, probably numerous ways, rebelled against God. We’ve defiled the relationship for which we’ve been made by rejecting him and his love. The result is a just condemnation by God. But in his mercy, in his goodness, in his love, God is willing to save us from our sin. God is willing to save us despite our rejection of him and the suffering we help inflict in this world. In fact, the very salvation he offers comes through an atoning work of suffering. Thus, while we need salvation from sin, God ensures—
4.2. We have salvation through suffering
So many people in the news this weekend lamented that fact that the events of Newtown were doubly tragic because it was Christmas. Maybe. But maybe they’ve forgotten what Christmas was all about. Even the birth of Christ was marred by suffering, as a wicked king feared for his life and so ordered the deaths of the children born near the place and time of Jesus. How many died that day? Perhaps as many as in Newtown. That tragic day, Jesus escaped suffering because an angel warned his parents of Herod’s murderous rage and they fled.
But Jesus didn’t escape suffering forever. In fact, that Jesus came to show God’s presence and power in the very midst of suffering and death. Being the very Son of God, Jesus took on flesh and lived as one of us. Alongside humanity, Jesus experienced suffering in his life just as we do.
But more than that, he willingly went endured ultimate suffering so that sinners might be made right with God. On the cross, Jesus provided the needed payment for salvation by pouring out his life under the full, righteous fury of God against sins—even our sins. Jesus was our substitute before God, taking what we deserve so that we might be forgiven of their sins and enjoy life with God forever.
Thus, David Platt is surely right when he says: “When we consider all that Scripture teaches about God and evil, we are led inextricably to the gospel: the good news that God has taken the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world (the death of His Son) and He has turned it into the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world (the salvation of sinners). Evil is tragically real, God is supremely great, God is absolutely good, and the gospel is shockingly glorious.”[iii]
In the end, the story of Job ends like the story of Christ. In the very last chapter, we read:
“And the Lord restored the fortunes [of Job]….. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before…. 12And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. 13He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch. 15And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. 16And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17And Job died, an old man, and full of days” (42:1,11-17).
Likewise, God raised Jesus back to life and gave to him eternal glory after his saving work on the cross. And just like Job, Jesus shows us that God will one day vindicate the righteous. It may not be in this life, but he surely will in the next. God doesn’t put you through suffering now without the promise of heaven later. God is just. And one day, he will wipe every tear from our eyes and bring into existence a world without sin, without suffering, and without pain. In this life, evil and suffering may be mysterious, they will never be triumphant.
Therefore, in the end, the message is this: you may never get an answer to why you, or your loved ones, or the people of Newtown had to endure suffering. But you can endure it. You can even find peace in it by drawing close to God. He is powerful. He is sovereign. He is wise. He is good. And he knows your suffering.
In Christ, it is clear that he is a God worth trusting.
[i] R. Albert Mohler, “Rachel Weeping for Her Children: The Massacre in Connecticut,” accessed online at: http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/12/14/rachel-weeping-for-her-children-the-massacre-in-connecticut/
[ii] BBC News, “China school knife attack in Henan injures 22 children” accessed online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20723910
[iii] David Platt, “The Gospel and Newtown” accessed online at: http://www.radical.net/blog/2012/12/the-gospel-and-newtown