There are certain lessons that we prefer to keep theoretical and abstract. But in that environment, they can never be fully understood. Professor Howard Hendricks once said that there are no correspondence courses in swimming. Nor are there any distance-learning experiences in suffering—only deeply, inescapably personal ones. When in the vise of suffering, what is it that we experience that contributes to the burdensome difficulty of it all? Following are several insights from Job’s experience.
Suffering Feels Mysterious (Job 1:1-12)
Primo Levi, a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, described a time when, huddled in his barracks and parched with thirst, he reached through the window for an icicle to provide some moisture for his dry mouth. But before he could wet his cracked lips, a guard snatched the icicle away and shoved him back from the window. Shocked by such unkindness, Levi asked the guard why. The guard responded, “Here there is no why.”
That is how life feels sometimes. It feels as if we suffer with no reasonable answer to our why, only silence that seems to sneer why not. Job must have felt that way when he entered the crucible of suffering. He had no idea of the spiritual backdrop to his life. In fact, Job is offstage for the opening scene of his story. Job 1 tells of a gathering of angelic beings before God’s throne, including Satan, when something remarkable happens: “Then 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, one who fears God and shuns evil?’ So Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’” (job 1:8-9).
God questions Satan, our spiritual enemy, about his observations of men and women on the earth by highlighting and even bragging about Job. But Satan pushes back on God’s commendation. He questions Job’s motives for loving God: Why shouldn’t he serve You? Satan implies. You gave him everything! And so God grants Satan permission to test Job’s faith. Job is to be part of a cosmic experiment, and suffering will be the variable in testing the purity of his devotion to and relationship with God.
This exchange between God and Satan clearly shows that our lives are connected to the eternal spiritual realm. But it also shows that Job was completely unaware of the reason for his suffering—he only knew the suffering. The cause was a mystery. As Os Guinness put it, “Life is not just difficult. Life turns out to be unfair, and cosmically unfair in a way that is terrifying. After that, the ground no longer seems so firm.”
As the sudden onslaught of pain, grief, and loss engulfed him, Job’s heart beat with questions that had no answers.
Suffering Feels Overwhelming (Job 1:13-19)
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius says, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” This was certainly true of Job’s experience; one messenger after another came bringing him news of devastating loss.
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came 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!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” (job 1:13-19 emphasis added)
Rapid-fire reports of devastating loss ripped into Job’s heart. Servants practically tripped over each other as they arrived with more bad news. In Job’s world, wealth was measured in terms of servants and property. Both were weapons in the assault on Job’s heart. First, it was the loss of donkeys and oxen and the death of servants (1:14-15). Then came word that the “fire of God fell from heaven,” consuming Job’s sheep and more servants (1:16). Next came the message that Chaldean raiders had stolen the camels and killed even more servants (1:17). With each announcement, the stakes rose as the losses became greater and greater. But the greatest loss came when the messenger arrived with the heart-wrenching news that Job’s sons and daughters had been killed (1:18-19).
When waves of heartache wash over us, whether single spies or whole battalions, their sheer weight and relentless nature can be suffocating. Suffering simply overwhelms us.
Suffering Is Experienced Alone (Job 2:13)
So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great (job 2:13).
Satan’s final assault was on Job’s health (2:1-8). After that, Job sat in the dust scratching painful sores, bewildered by the turn his life had taken. Job’s wife and friends were with him, but in reality he was alone in his pain—alone but for the presence of his God.
Simone Weil, a 20th century French philosopher, wrote, “Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul.”
The sense of isolation in seasons of suffering was given voice in the grief-stricken wail that left the lips of Christ on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? . . . My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (matthew 27:46). That also must have been the cry of Job’s heart as well, as he sat in the dust grieving his great losses.
Across the millennia, neither the nature nor the causes of suffering have changed. For some, suffering will never approach the horrors of Job’s experience. For others, it may actually surpass them. But in each case, our suffering is uniquely our own and we feel the weight of that suffering because it is mysterious, overwhelming, and ultimately experienced alone.