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Suffering and God

DSC_3703_2Dear Comfort Cafe Friends,

In this short Bible Study series we are looking at what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. The lessons are running monthly through July 2014 and focus on “Looking Inward,” (relating to and loving God), and “Looking Outward,” (relating to and loving our neighbor). In this series, the entire lesson each month is presented here on the front page. We hope you will join us in applying knowledge of God’s character to deeper levels of life. Previous lessons from 2014 remain available under the Table of Contents and Archive page.

©2013 Kay Smith and Ruth Wood. All rights reserved. Used by permission. User Permission Notice: This study may not be sold or used for profit. However, copies may be made for personal use. Questions? Contact: ruthywood@gmail.com.

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Looking Inward

By Ruth Wood

Let’s take a closer look at how we relate to this King whose jurisdiction not only includes the earth but the whole universe. Imagine standing before His throne. Would you begin arguing with him or questioning Him about His rule? Probably not. Most likely you’d sink to your knees.

However, here on earth we have no trouble complaining about how God runs things. We get angry when He doesn’t do what we want and pout our disappointments. As Christians we point to Job and say that God can handle our anger. This is true. Yet if we persist in this anger it can become toxic because it will ultimately distance us from the only true source of comfort and peace. Long-term, unresolved anger at God then becomes an entrenched habit and leads to a miserable, unproductive Christian life.

Rebellion

The attitude behind this kind of anger is similar to that of the Israelites who repeatedly grumbled, certain God had brought them to the desert to die whenever food, water, or enemies posed a challenge. Their anger, born from out-of-control fear, revealed their unbelief. They did not trust God at all. The result? Forty years of wandering in the desert without ever being able to enter the promised land.

What if we become stuck in a negative attitude toward God? The only antidote that finally helped Job was the Truth. Have you noticed how easy it is to get drawn into subtle lies when suffering? For example, hurting Christians sometimes say, “I know I just need to forgive God.” Even if they mean letting go of blaming God, using this kind of language reinforces a wrong perspective.

A Better Perspective

If God is who He says He is—perfect in wisdom, character, and good purposes towards us—then “forgiving Him” certainly isn’t appropriate because He never did anything wrong! If anything, saying “I forgive you, God,” is an insult. Nowhere does scripture say that Job finally “forgave God.” Instead, like Job, we need to repent. The question is, of what did Job need to repent? We will find out in our study!

Most of us at some point wrestle with difficult questions about life. If we’re in the middle of such a time, we may be asking: How do I work through my resentment towards God? I can’t just turn a switch and suddenly feel okay about God and the bad things in my life.

Job’s Suffering

We will study selections from the book of Job to gain some insight into this question. As you study, keep in mind three qualities about Job in his suffering: First, he fully faced his questions about life with raw honesty. Secondly, he was brutally honest when expressing his feelings about God. And third, even though Job’s faith may have been hanging by a thread, he never gave up on God.

One thing about Job, though, you’d never be able to describe him as apathetic. If we want spiritual breakthroughs, we cannot afford to be passive. Denying our true feelings with technological distractions, busyness, or entertainment, will only keep us stuck. Though there’s a time and place to vent in times of suffering, complaining and talking incessantly to others about our problems can sometimes make matters worse if we’re using this coping mechanism as a way to avoid God. Like Job, we must honestly deal with the reality of God’s sovereignty over our lives.

The Hope

Scripture assures us that God welcomes our authentic interactions. All the great saints of the Bible passionately engaged God in the heat of their emotions, and He took them seriously. In addition to Job, think of Abraham, Moses, David, or the disciples. And we may, too! In fact, to have a genuine faith, we must. The good news is that God promises help when our faith barely enables us to hang on:

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

***

Diving In

In this lesson we will try to put ourselves in Job’s place. The events that happened challenged everything he had believed in up to that time. They propelled him into an agonizing struggle to understand life, to understand suffering, to understand God. We want to know what great insight he received that finally set him free from his tormenting questions.

A quick review of the story will bring us to the passages we want to examine. At a challenge to the authenticity of Job’s righteousness, God allowed Satan to test him. Satan then devastated Job’s life by destroying his possessions, killing his children, and ruining his health. As Job is reeling from these tragedies, his wife and three friends ramp up the emotional pain by their insensitivities and false accusations. Job and his friends enter a long, heated debate about the nature of God and suffering until finally Job comes to the end of himself and says:

35 “Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
36 Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.
37 I would give him an account of my every step;
I would present it to him as to a ruler.)—

38 “if my land cries out against me
and all its furrows are wet with tears,
39 if I have devoured its yield without payment
or broken the spirit of its tenants,
40 then let briers come up instead of wheat
and stinkweed instead of barley.”

The words of Job are ended. (Job 31:35-40)

1. Job is a very poetic book so it is important that we take time to ask ourselves what is being said. It might help to read these passages in a translation like The Message or the Living Bible. In your own words, sum up what Job is saying here. In what ways do you identify with him?

2. At this point in the book we see a transition. Job and his friends have nothing left to say. A young man named Elihu, who had apparently followed the discussion, feels compelled to speak up (Job 32:1-5).  According to Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Elihu’s name means “My God is he,” a foreshadowing that only God will be able to open Job’s understanding. Note that Elihu is not included at the end of the book when God tells the three friends to go to Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for their folly (Job 42:7-9). His exclusion from God’s rebuke builds confidence in this young man’s arguments. Elihu appears to speak truths that prepare Job to hear God.

3But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. (Job 32:3)

8 “But you have said in my hearing—
I heard the very words—
9 ‘I am pure, I have done no wrong;
I am clean and free from sin.
10 Yet God has found fault with me;
he considers me his enemy.
11 He fastens my feet in shackles;
he keeps close watch on all my paths.’

12 “But I tell you, in this you are not right,
for God is greater than any mortal.
13 Why do you complain to him
that he responds to no one’s words?” (Job 33:8-13)

Job’s friends had repeatedly accused him of hidden sin somewhere because they believed that bad things only happen to bad people. In contrast, what appears to be the main point of Elihu’s message? What does he say is wrong about Job’s view of God (see Job 33:10, 12) and what is wrong with Job’s view of himself? Write as if YOU were Elihu, saying it in your own words.

3. In the following verses, look for what Elihu says is the correct view of God:

10 Listen to me, you men of understanding.
Far be it from God to do evil . . .
12 It is unthinkable that God would do wrong,
that the Almighty would pervert justice.
13 Who appointed him over the earth?
Who put him in charge of the whole world?
14 If it were his intention
and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
15 all humanity would perish together
and mankind would return to the dust. (Job 34:10, 12-15)

Write down in your own words what you believe is being said here. What part of this message speaks to you personally? What feelings do these truths evoke?

4. Elihu continues to challenge Job:

Can someone who hates justice govern?
Will you condemn the just and mighty One? (Job 34:17)

Should God then reward you on your terms,
when you refuse to repent?
You must decide, not I;
so tell me what you know. Job 34:33

What point is Elihu making here?

5. Great suffering creates vulnerability to great temptation. Listen to Job’s complaint in earlier chapters which we will then examine further in light of Elihu’s comments.

7 Why do the wicked live on,
growing old and increasing in power?
8 They see their children established around them,
their offspring before their eyes.
9 Their homes are safe and free from fear;
the rod of God is not on them. (Job 21:7-9)

Is Job stating a truth or a half-truth here? How might his circumstances color his perspective?

6. In his discourse Elihu warns:

21Beware of turning to evil,
which you seem to prefer to affliction. (Job 35:21)

In what ways might we be tempted to evil when we’re suffering?

7. Elihu tells Job why he is not in a position to argue with God.

Tell us what we should say to [God];
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness. (Job 37:19)

What is the nature of this darkness? Why does our “darkness” disqualify us from arguing our case with God?

8. Elihu indicates that even in our suffering we need to retain a fear of the Lord.

20Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would anyone ask to be swallowed up?
21 Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
22 Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
23 The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power . . . (Job 37:20-23a)

Which attributes of God are depicted in this passage? How does a proper fear of the Lord help us in times of suffering?

9. Famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, said, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.” This quote aptly describes what Job was about to experience.

When God dramatically showed up on the scene, He was the one asking the questions, not Job:

1Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: 2”Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. (Job 38:1-3)

(a) Note that God spoke to Job out of the storm. What past or present storm needs addressing in your life?

(b) Also note that God refuses to treat Job as a victim here. He’s saying, “Man up; I’m not the one on trial; you are.” What’s your reaction to God’s tough approach? In your response to suffering, how might God be pointing out areas to “buck up?” (e.g. putting a stop to self-pity, complaining, blaming, or cynicism).

(c) God told Job we obscure Him by speaking “words without knowledge.” He was essentially saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” This assertion might feel like an affront to our pain; however, try to objectively consider what God might see about your life that you can’t see. As an experiment, think about what you know about the following:

  • How every person’s choice in the world might affect you
  • Every possible way your choices affect others
  • What goes on behind closed doors at your neighbor’s house
  • The year’s weather forecast in your city
  • The environmental health hazards lurking in your home
  • The personal problems of every driver on the freeway in the cars around you
  • To what degree your body efficiently assimilates vitamins from food
  • Every hurtful word said to your spouse in childhood
  • What your child is thinking every moment
  • Your hidden faults and the consequences if they’re left unchecked
  • How much time you have left to live and all events that will occur before then

What else? In an area troubling you, what is your knowledge gap?

(d) In order to qualify for the job of running your life wisely, would you not at a bare minimum need to have the above data? Prayerfully ask the Lord to show you more of what He wants you to see and write down any insights that come to mind.

10. God went on to give Job evidence after evidence to prove He knows what He’s doing. He was out to Wow his servant, Job.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:4)

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you? (Job 38:16-17)

Can you raise your voice to the clouds
and cover yourself with a flood of water? (Job 38:34)

Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? (Job 39:1)

What kind of emotions do these images evoke in you? If God has this kind of knowledge and power, what does that say about His ability to run your life?

11. In this vein, God relentlessly continued with His questioning for two chapters, then directly addressed Job once more:

2 “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:2)

By now Job’s reaction is rather humorous, and he probably barely squeaked out these words (optional: for fun paraphrase these comments into today’s language):

4 “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
5 I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40:4-5)

But God cuts him short and once again tells him to “man up”:

7 “Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

8 “Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:7-8)

Notice how God reinforces Elihu’s message when He says, “Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” Then God rattles off more evidence for two more chapters, overwhelming Job with a majestic picture of Himself. A worship exercise that’s really worth doing is to read chapters 38-41 all in one sitting (you may wish to respond in the journal section at the end of this lesson). Seeing God in these chapters is like standing at the ocean on a stormy day. Your senses overload at the beauty and wildness of the sea as the waves slam into the rocks, the wind howls, and the gleaming white surf churns and rushes towards your feet . . . You want a sense of God like this? Well, do read those four chapters!

Consider what the Creator might be inferring about Himself when He describes the animals in chapters 39-41. For example, when God describes the wild donkey, the horse, and the powerful Behemoth, is He making a point to Job that if those animals cannot be tamed, how much less can the Creator be tamed? Record your discoveries.

12. When God finally finished, Job was completely undone.

Then Job replied to the Lord:

2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:1-6

(a)    What would Job say about his questions now (see vs. 3b)? Paraphrase what he’s saying.

(b)   According to verse 5, what amazing experience did his suffering ultimately bring him? Was Job satisfied with God’s “answer”? What are his emotions?

(c)    Verse 6 says that Job repented. What did he repent of (consider Job 40:8b in question 11)?

(d)   Job had been very defensive about his righteousness throughout the book. When we look at our own righteousness, where is our focus? Now after the encounter with God, where was Job’s focus?

(e)    How did Job’s perspective of Himself and of God change? How has yours?

JOURNAL. Record new insights, praise, thanksgiving, or goals for change. One idea is to take your work from question 11 and write a worshipful response.

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For further study: Were there really fire breathing dragons?
See a fascinating report in http://www.truthingenesis.com/2013/02/20/were-there-really-fire-breathing-dragons/

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