The questions about God and suffering that people have raised with me come from their emotions and not academic interest. They don’t view the question as a spectator.
Suffering is perceived differently by each person. What might seem routine to one might seem like a crushing burden to another. Suffering could be physical pain, experiencing the death of a loved one, the loss of property, or the loss of reputation.
Dr Francis Andersen, in his introduction to Job, writes, “It is a tribute to the greatness of the book that the work of interpreting it is never finished. After each fresh exploration, the challenge to scale the heights remains.”
Most readers will automatically equate Job with suffering, and that is true, but can we read it only to identify with another who suffered? The central theme in the book of Job is not that of suffering, but the relationship between God and people. The background, rather than the foreground, is suffering.
I have lost count of the number of patients who have said, “I must have been very bad for this to have happened to me.” Although Job was clearly sincere and regular in his offering of worship to God, it was God who invited Satan to “consider my servant Job.. God had a relationship with Job. God described Job as a unique individual who was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
I have many patients who would fit that description. In the first test (Job 1:13-21) God allowed Satan to take away everything that Job had, but Satan was not to lay a finger on Job. Job’s oxen and donkeys were rustled by a nearby nation. Then lightning destroyed 7000 sheep. Another nation stole Job’s 3000 camels. In each of these events a large number of Job’s servants were killed.
The final stage of Job’s first test was that, as his seven sons and three daughters were partying, a storm blew the house down, killing them all.
A combination of violent crime and “natural” disasters ripped away from Job everything except his health; and Job’s response? He tore his robe and shaved his head. This was a standard way of expressing grief.
Did Job hold all these bad things against God? Not at all. Job fell to the ground in worship: ”The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
The second test (Job 2:1-10) involved Satan attacking Job’s health. Sores broke out all over Job’s body. His wife taunted him, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” Job answered, “You are talking nonsense!” When God sends us something good, we welcome it. How can we complain when he sends us trouble?
In spite of everything he suffered, Job said nothing against God.
No doubt there are lessons for hospital visitors in the extensive account of the visit of Job’s three friends. We learn from Job 3:11 that Job’s first comment to his three friends included the phrase, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die I came from the womb?”
Job was human, and although God had a relationship with Job, he still got low spirits. After all the loss, indignity and pain, the often un-empathetic counsel of so called friends, Job finally affirms his faith. “I know that my Redeemer lives and that he will come at last to my defence” (Job 19:25). Many patients who have a faith in Christ still have their “down days.”
A hospital patient gave me permission to share his attitude to God in relation to a lifetime of suffering. He told me:
“My conditions are cerebral palsy and spastic diplegia. I have also had an ileostomy which means I have a bag. I have type 2 diabetes. I have partial use of my limbs and limited movements. I have been in a wheelchair since the age of 17 and am now 59 years of age. Before the age of 17 I had crutches, but they did not work.
“I have a normal relationship with God and am not bitter towards him. I am an Islander so I treat God like a father. I view suffering as ‘putting on clothes’ and my wheel chair like ‘getting into a pair of shoes,’ although sometimes being in a wheel chair feels like being in a prison cell.
“Suffering comes from being part of God’s family. There are ups and downs, just like a normal family. Things don’t always go right. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, when in pain and sore, I get angry with God, but still love God in my own way.”
I have been amazed by the depths of his relationship with God in the face of considerable suffering.
The ministry I offer is inevitably set against the backcloth of my “suffering.” I highlight some episodes of my suffering, but by no means the only instances.
When I was 7 one of my favourite aunts died. I was devastated. By 16 my mother was diagnosed with cancer. For six years there were many surgical procedures and radiation therapy. I was 22 when Mum died.
In 1981 my sister’s husband, a pilot, died in a sporting aviation accident. He was 32.
Decades later I found myself having major surgery and radiation therapy. How did God fit into my “suffering”? In the case of my Mum, while believing that the Lord could heal her, I placed her in his hands to do what he thought best. However, the sense of loss was huge. As my health took a turn for the worse and surgery was imminent I prayed, “Lord, do your will. I know you can heal me and, I commit to you my life, my family and the ministry you have called me to.” In his mercy he restored my health.
Each person has a unique experience of “suffering”. The individual’s response will be distinctive. If, like Job, the sufferer can reaffirm their faith in God, then that is wonderful. Try as they will some people seem unable to do so.
It is one thing to ask “Where is God when I suffer?” It is another to consider “The God who suffers.”
Two members of the Trinity suffered the emotional and spiritual pain of Golgotha. God the Son shouted out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Does this heartfelt cry of anguish from the Son also represent the grief of God the Father? It was he who, after the Baptism of Jesus, spoke from Heaven, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased?’
God the Father empathises with all who are bereaved. Jesus had an awareness of the suffering that would be his.
The suffering of Jesus was physical; the crown of thorns, the scourging, the nails in his hands and feet, the sword in his side. It was emotional; he was denied and betrayed by disciples, forsaken by all except one of his other disciples and scoffed at by his enemies.
The serious student of the God who suffers would do well to read The Creative Suffering of God by Paul S Fiddes.
Trying to do justice to the topic of the suffering of God within the context of an article dealing with God in relation to our suffering is a bit like trying to capture the Whangarei Falls in an egg cup. Without going into great detail and debating various aspects, suffice it to say that God suffered and therefore can relate to the suffering we experience.