This question got asked by a thoughtful person the other day. Are we right to sing “You give and take away” in the song “Blessed be the name of the Lord?” The line of course is drawn from Job’s response to his suffering (Job 1:21). But was Job right in his assessment. We know that not all of the observations about God and Job are correct and at the end, God rebukes human speculation. So, Is this one such example? Or should Job have recognised that Satan was the cause of his suffering? God had nothing to do with it?
This becomes pertinent when we consider our own experience and those we care about. When I suffer, is it because God causes it? What does that mean about God and his character? How do we respond to the most intense and distressing examples of suffering, harm, persecution and abuse?
This comes down to the problem of “theodicy.” Why is there suffering in the world? By the way, I don’t think that there are really any easy answers to the question. In effect, it breaks down to two routes. Let me explain why.
There are two basic possibilities here. The first is that God does not cause suffering at all, that he is in no way at all responsible. Suffering then is caused completely by others, by Satan, by human wickedness, by fate, by our environment. It’s nothing to do with God at all. Indeed, many attempts at theodicy are attempts to absolve God from blame and therefore to in effect remove him from the scene of the crime.
The problem with this approach is that it begs the question “Then what sort of God is He? If he is God at all.” In effect, we’ve decided that God is in some way, weak or absent. You see, if God was able to, then you would assume that he would stop the suffering. It is no good to argue that he allows it to begin for whatever reason, that doesn’t in the end explain chronic, extreme, unresolved suffering. The thing is that such weak or distant God begins to look rather irrelevant. We have in effect begun the trajectory towards atheism.
The other possibility is that God in some way must be considered to have at least permitted/allowed suffering. And if God has permitted it, then again, the distinction between primary cause and indirect cause isn’t so major. We are still left asking “why didn’t he prevent it.” Ultimately then, if we believe that God is sovereign, eternal, omnipresent, all knowing, all powerful then we must acknowledge that God is somehow involved.
This means that you cannot remove God from the scene by taking an Arminian approach. You cannot argue that he has allowed things to happen because of free will and so that’s okay.
It’s also important to be clear at this stage that the Reformed/ Calvinist position is just as careful as other positions not to suggest that God is in anyway the direct author of evil. So the immediate cause is Satan, wicked human intent or reckless, negligent humanity. This is not though a kind of Deist or Gnostic way of avoiding God “getting his hands dirty”, it is rather, to make clear the different intent of the actors involved. God intends for good what humans intend for evil. A helpful example is in Isaiah where we find that God appoints Assyria to discipline his people but Assyria take delight in their cruelty and arrogantly see it as their own advancement. So God judged Assyria.
You see, unless God is weak, then even our free will must be something that God chooses to allow. Therefore, Arminians and Calvinists alike are in the end saying that God permits suffering because in some way, that suffering must serve his greater purposes. The question is “What are his greater purposes?” In other words, they work for his glory and our goodness. The difference is, I think, that you either say that the greater good for us is that we grow in holiness and we learn to cling to Christ, or that the greater good is that we are allowed to exercise greater personal freedom.
Now, I will be honest here. The “It’s about free will” option is usually presented as the easier, more loving option. However, I personally find it the most cruel and obnoxious. In effect, those who argue that it’s about free will are telling me that as a child I faced the daily fear that the gang of bullies would beat me up in the playground because God ultimately valued their freedom. In other words, suffering happens primarily for the benefit of those who inflict it.
However, ultimately I have to go, not on how I feel about the options, especially given that there are no easy options. Instead, I have to go to revelation. What does God’s Word actually say.
So, it is worth going back to the original and immediate Biblical context of the statement, “You give and take away.” Was Job right to make this assessment that this had happened, or was he getting it wrong like his comforters. I believe that he was right in his assessment. Why? Well, there are three reasons in the immediate context.
First, we are given an insight into the heavenly courts. Satan may be the immediate, direct cause of Job’s suffering, yet he is only able to act because God permits it. He is only free to do what God authorises him to. It’s worth noting as well that God has pointed out Job to Satan, he’s drawn attention to him. Secondly, when God addresses Job and his friends at the end, when he vindicates himself, his response is not to excuse himself, to argue that Job’s suffering was down to the freedom of his creatures, nor to suggest that he was absent. Rather, it is to insist that he is sovereign.
Third, Scripture offers it’s verdict on Job’s response with these words:
22 Throughout all this Job did not sin or blame God for anything.Job 1:22 Holman’s Christan Standard Bibkr
This last point is crucial. Job is not accusing God, not blaming him. He worships him and he is right and blameless in his own response.
This is an important Biblical theme, it comes up again particularly in Romans 9-11. We may struggle with it, we may not like it, this may be one of those places where God’s Word disagrees with us but God’s response to our questions is not that we have freedom, not that he is weak but rather that he is sovereign and that he is the one who is ultimately free to do as he wills. This is because he alone is holy and perfect, he is the only one whose will and purposes can be trusted, even when we don’t understand them.
Then we must consider what Scripture says about why suffering is present in the world. First, we must recognise that it is present because of judgement. God wills judgement and curse on this world as the fitting response to sin. Just as Isaiah 53 insists that it was God’s will to crush Christ at Calvary, so it was his will to subject this world to death and decay, with all that entails. It is also his will to discipline his children.
Thirdly, Scripture tells us, implicitly, and then in Genesis 50, why God wills or allows suffering. We are told that the direct agents of suffering do what they do for evil purposes but God intends whatever happens to us for good. Romans 5 is crucial to our understanding of suffering. God uses suffering to work good in our lives.
Now, I acknowledge that there are still hard questions around this. We can all think of particular examples of suffering and harm that we find especially shocking and inexplicable. Why does God allow certain horrendous illnesses? Why the holocaust? Why do children suffer? What about the abuser, the rapist? And the question that is going to be pushed back is this “How does God work good from situation x?”
It is perfectly permissible to answer at this stage “I don’t know!” We can acknowledge that we find it hard, that we wrestle with it. I personally stay away from debating specific examples, not because any are unanswerable, not because they are more or less tough. Rather, I am not convinced that the purpose of finding an answer is to win debates and I am uncomfortable with people’s suffering being used in order to provide knock down answers in debate. Not only that but I don’t think it is for me to impose the reasons on to others. We do best to allow people to discover themselves what God’s purpose is in their own lives, even if it takes until eternity to find those answers.
What I can say is two things. First that in my own experience, I’ve learnt to cling to Christ and discover more of God’s goodness in suffering -whether from bullying, physical health, depression or bereavement. Second that I’ve learnt that it is often those who have been through what seem to me the most extreme examples of suffering who seem most able to sing of the goodness of God. And that challenges me. If they can say “God has been so good to me.” Then I want to know why and how they can say that.