Why is there Suffering?


Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Job and His Family

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify 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.” This is what Job always did.

One day the heavenly beings[a] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan[b] also came among them. The Lord said to Satan,[c] “Where have you come from?” Satan[d] answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan,[e] “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan[f]answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence 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. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan,[g] “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan[h] went out from the presence of the Lord.

13 One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Questions help us gain understanding.

Questions allow us to wrestle with issues.

Questions help us explain life

Questions are a part of life. God gave us incredibly complex brains capable of advanced thought and problem solving. Asking questions and searching for answers comes naturally to us.

  • How many licks DOES it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
    • According to a study conducted at Purdue University, on average, about 252.5
  • And how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
    • According to a New York Fish and Wildlife technician who studies woodchucks and did the math, about 700 pounds.

But not all questions have such pat answers. And when our search brings us to a dead end, where do we go? Some questions need answers that transcend what can be seen, and felt, and measured. Some questions lead us on longer, more difficult journeys.

Why are we here?

What is our purpose in life?

And when bad things happen, we are confronted with the simple question “Why?” Why this? Why now? Why me? Why them? And perhaps more troubling for the person of faith, “Why did God allow this?”

The poster boy for that question is Job. When tragedy strikes, and the innocent suffer, it’s hard not to think of Job and to look to his story as a source of insight and wisdom. Job is one of the most well-known yet unread stories in the Bible. I think most people could tell you the basic plotline.  The story begins by describing Job as “blameless and upright,” a man who “feared God and turned away from evil.” He is a family man with many children, and a herdsman with vast numbers of sheep and camels and oxen and all sorts of farm animals. He’s a wealthy man, with many servants, and he is widely respected in the area where he lives.

Yet within the first two chapters of the story, he loses everything: his wealth, his children, everything. And after that, as he grieves his loss, he is afflicted with painful boils on his skin. But in spite of everything, he refuses to say anything against God. Job’s wife, looking upon the wreckage of his life, says to him [Why don’t you just] “curse God and die.” But Job responds, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not the bad?”7

The Book of Job is a long philosophical poem, 40 chapters in length, padded on either side by two and one-half chapters of prose prologue and epilogue, on the question of whether there is a greater good that is present in something as terrible as the death of children, as terrible as the diagnosis of a debilitating, terminal illness, as terrible as war or a natural disaster which destroys property and livelihoods and life itself for tens, for hundreds, for thousands of people.

There is a theological word for this question, perhaps the thorniest question in all of religion and one that has occupied theologians from the beginning of time. The word is theodicy—why a good God permits the manifestation of evil. When dealing with theodicy, it is important to remember that Job is only one book in the 66-volume library that is the Bible. Job alone cannot and does not answer the question, but when we take the Bible as a whole, I believe that there are at least three things which can be said about senseless tragedy and suffering.

The three things that can be said are these:

  1. There is no consistent and ultimate biblical explanation about why bad things happen to people, be they good people or bad people in the eyes of whomever is making the judgment. The Bible never says, “Things happen for a reason…and this is the reason.”
  2. In the midst of tragedy and suffering, we can turn to God. We can turn to God not for answers, but to be strengthened and comforted. (1)
  3. In the midst of midst of tragedy and suffering, we can be angry at what has happened; we can even view our anger as God’s own indignation at the world’s pain and injustice; and being so moved we can join our own efforts to God’s work to continue creating a world which moves toward that hoped-for day when, as the book of Revelation says, mourning and crying and pain are no more for they are now the former things which have all passed away.

I think that we are left with more questions about pain, suffering and why humans must deal with loss.  One of those experiences for me was receiving a phone call from a college friend that his seventeen-day old nephew was found dead in a crib.  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS had killed this child.  I was asked by the family to lead the Service of Witness to the Resurrection.  I recall how inadequate I felt to lead the service, how much I struggled to find the right words to say, how guilty I felt that my own son—only a few years older than this little boy was at that very moment romping merrily on the playground, very much alive, how as the service ended, I felt that I had failed this precious child, this grieving family, every person who was present in the sanctuary where silence and sadness made even it difficult for anyone there to breathe.

After the service, a woman, a young mother about my age at the time, stuck her head into the open door of my office. She had been crying, and she told me that she had come as a member of Compassionate Friends, a network of support groups for families whose children have died. She told me that she wanted to tell me something. I drew in my breath and steeled myself, because I just knew that she was going to tell me that I had said precisely the wrong thing and added to the pain of the family. I braced myself for what was sure to hurt but also to teach.

This is what she said: I just want to say that when my child died, someone said to me that when a child dies, we are called to remember that God knows what it is lose a child to death too. It was something that I had never thought about. It didn’t take away the pain, but it made me know that I am not alone in my grief. And I just wanted to say thank you for saying that in the service today…for this family and for me.

She was only one person, but I took her words to heart. And now, as we come to the Table where we remember Jesus’s “saving death,” I pass her words on to you – knowing that at some point, each of us will have to deal with loss, death and pain.   May we remember that when tragedy strikes that we are not alone, and may we echo Job’s words: blessed be the name of the Lord!

Commentary provided by Lib McGregor Simmons, Derek WH Thomas, and Bill Gause