War historians attribute Adolf Hitler’s loss of World War II in large part to his decision to attack Russia while already embroiled in his war against England. Military leaders caution against trying to fight a war on two fronts—it almost always ends badly. Division of resources, energy, strategy, and attention make the two-front war virtually unwinnable.
Job faced the unwelcome prospect of a war on two fronts. His was not a war over land or a battle fought with weapons. His was a spiritual battle waged on the emotional landscape of his broken heart. The first battle was against his “friends” over his integrity. The second and more painful conflict was with the God he trusted and served.
What is interesting in Job’s story is the way it is told. Often we focus on the suffering Job experienced. It was so horrific that it defies understanding. However, Scripture recounts these tragedies in only two chapters (1–2) and spends the remaining 40 chapters of the book of Job recounting Job’s wrestling match with his friends and with God over the reason for his suffering.
With Friends Like These . . .
When news of tragedy first reached Job, he responded with profound faith and confidence: “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” (job 1:21). However, those powerful words of trust would soon fade into a darker, more painful tone. The first push toward the cliff of despair came from Job’s wife, who no doubt was grieving the loss of their children as well. With angry cynicism she encouraged her husband to “curse God and die” (2:9). Though he refused, the introduction to Job’s speech in chapter 3 shows the weight of his suffering and its effect on his faith and resolve: “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (job 3:1).
Job’s glowing faith had been subdued by the grief and suffering that had invaded his life. His cry of lament reached a painful crescendo as he declared: “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and search for it more than hidden treasure?” (job 3:20-21).
What arrived instead of death was an experience of darkest night—troubles and fears that robbed him of even the hope of peace (vv. 22-26).
As though the pain were not already unbearable, Job’s song of lament is met with cynicism and judgment. As he stood before watching spectators, unable and perhaps unwilling to hide his pain and grief, accusations not sympathy, condemnation not comfort came in waves—just like the tragedies had days earlier. His wife’s “advice” was only the beginning.
For seven days, Job’s friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) had sat silently and observed his agony (job 2:13). On day eight, they unleashed a storm of criticism (job 4–31). The waves followed a similar pattern: accusation and Job’s response. The three friends applied their theological scrutiny to Job’s experience. Their tactic? Each of them accused Job of a lack of integrity in claiming a righteous life. You must be hiding some gross sin, they said. After all, God does not punish the innocent. When Job adamantly defended his innocence and rebuffed their accusations, his friends went on the offensive and assaulted the already emotionally, spiritually, and physically wounded man. The relentless assaults left everyone weary and drained from a war that in the end proved futile.
Unbelievably, after his wife and three close friends have accused him, a fourth colleague, Elihu, launched his attack (job 32–37). Like the others, Elihu saw in Job’s suffering evidence that he had displeased God. In fact, Elihu’s arguments reached new heights (or sank to new lows). Job 32:2 describes his deep wrath. Elihu’s angry accusations drive home the seeming contradiction between Job’s claims of innocence and the suffering that was surely divine judgment.
This argument is tragically familiar. It is a point of view that can surface when people suffer. This is where the accusations of Job’s “comforters” were rooted. It is often called the Doctrine of Retribution: that God only rewards the righteous and always judges/punishes the wicked.
This presupposition, echoed in Psalms 34 and 37, is justification for the relentless battle the three friends waged against Job. Countering these attacks was a losing battle, fought on unfamiliar ground with inadequate resources. It was a war Job couldn’t win, evidenced by his response to Elihu’s accusations . . . silence.
Job’s war began with a relentless assault from family and friends, but there was a second front as well.
Where Is God?
Throughout the verbal melee with his friends, Job defended his integrity and proclaimed his innocence. But his defense also contained an offense as he made accusations of his own. However, Job’s target was not his wife and friends. Job took aim at God Himself, lashing out with his own questions, doubts, concerns, and even accusations. His rebuttals are laced with anger and derision.
Job’s transparency is part of what makes his story so accessible and relevant. We feel his grief and pain; we begin to understand the depths of his anguish and his confusion and why he feels that way. As a result, Job’s laments resonate with our own perplexed cries.
Job’s wrestlings carried with them at least three implied questions—questions likely on the tip of our tongue when we suffer.
A Question of Fear to the God of Comfort
“I am afraid of all my sufferings; I know that You will not hold me innocent” (job 9:28).
We wrestle with our sufferings and the God who seems to be permitting them and find our hearts stricken with a paralyzing fear. Sometimes, instead of finding comfort in our relationship with God, we question that relationship. Suddenly we have no firm footing from which to climb out of the abyss of our pain, and we wonder why the God of comfort would allow us to be so tormented.
A Question of Injustice to the God of Justice
“If I cry out concerning wrong, I am not heard. If I cry aloud, there is no justice” (job 19:7).
The more mysterious our suffering and the more it seems without cause, the more unjust it seems. Something is terribly wrong in the universe, and we don’t know what to do. This is an understandable reaction to suffering, and it is amplified when we see the weak, the innocent, and the young suffer. Like Job, we wonder how we can believe in the possibility of justice when life seems irreversibly unjust.
A Question of Weakness to the God of Strength
“For God made my heart weak, and the Almighty terrifies me” (job 23:16).
When suffering is overwhelming, it reminds us how small we are and how big the world is. In such moments, we desperately need the strength of the Lord, but at the same time it seems that the Lord Himself is allowing the very things that are draining the life from us. Job’s words of terror can echo in our hearts as we are confronted with our weakness in the moments when strength is needed most.
Job’s questions sound like accusations, framing his disappointments, suspicions, and doubts; and his questions (like ours) go unaddressed—until he comes into the presence of the living God.
Job wanted to confront God; he requested an audience; he wanted his questions answered. And God showed up (job 38:1)! When God spoke to the accusing, indignant, frustrated, and still suffering Job out of a whirlwind, He challenged Job with questions of His own:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (job 38:4-7).
Job was brought face-to-face with the Creator whose mind is unsearchable and whose wisdom and purposes are reflected in the majesty of His creation. What right did Job have to question the wisdom of the Creator? Will he accuse the Author of life? Will he proclaim his own worthiness in the presence of the holy God?
Job’s experience mirrors that of the song-leader Asaph, who had no answers to his struggles until he entered the sanctuary and the presence of God (psalm 73:17). In God’s presence, Job discovered that even without answers, without relief from his suffering, he had all he needed because God had given Job Himself:
Then Job answered the LORD and said, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (job 42:1-6 nasb).
Without explaining the mystery or reconciling the pain, God reminded Job that His power and wisdom were infinitely beyond Job’s.
The solution to suffering and the doubts it raises is not found in argument. It is found in learning to rest in God’s grace and to trust in His power—even when the suffering is mysterious and overwhelming.