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The Cry For A Reason In Suffering

by Ravi Zacharias

With these words, the eighteenth-century Scottish skeptic David Hume summed up humanity’s greatest obstacle to believing that God exists:

Were a stranger to drop suddenly into this world, I would show him as specimen of its ills – a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field strewn with carcasses, a fleet floundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine or pestilence. Honestly, I don’t see how you can possibly square with an ultimate purpose of love.1

Yet another says this:

It is not science that has led me to doubt the purpose of God. It is the state of the world. It is the pitiful unending struggle for existence among the nations. It is the collapse of our idealisms before the brute facts of force and chaos. It is the feeling that there is something demonic in the heart of things which is working against us; that there is a radical twist in the very constitution of the universe which will always defeat man’s hopes, make havoc of his dreams and bring his pathetic optimism crashing in disaster. Purpose? Look at the world. That settles it.2

In Fyoder Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov says:

Tell me yourself–I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!3

It is very hard not to have some sympathy with the skepticism expressed here and with the question that is raised. (The particular slant of Ivan Karamazov’s question is more complex, and therefore, I have added a postscript at the end of the book to respond to it in greater depth.) The abundance of evil, and the extent to which so much of it seems apparently gratuitous, compels the thinking person to question the coexistence of a good God with a world of evil. Which of us has not looked at a deformed child, swallowed hard with pity, and pondered the purpose behind it? To live is to sooner or later experience or witness pain and suffering. To reason is to inevitably ponder, “Why?”

I do not know of any question that is asked more, nor of any obstacle to belief that is more persistent. The best of the prophets raised this very issue, with different slants. Habakkuk asked, “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Hab. 1:3). David cried out, “How long will the enemy mock you?” (Ps. 74:10). Jonah was exasperated by the violence of the Ninevites and wanted them wiped out. Jeremiah challenged the Lord, saying, “I would speak with you about your injustice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer. 12:1).

I have never been in a conversation with a skeptic who failed to raise this as the principal reason for his or her skepticism. The number of those who have ceased to believe in God because of the death of a loved one or the maiming of a friend is legion. The question is without doubt one of the most honest and genuine questions that can be raised of a Christian faith that talks of a loving God who is in control of all things.

Unfortunately, glib and incoherent answers to such heart cries have resulted in a breakdown of communication between honest skeptics who are seekers of the truth and those who claim to know it. We often dismiss the questioner as one who does not want to believe and, hence, finds a reason for his or her unbelief. There may be many who are determined to disbelieve, but there are also those for whom the mind and heart wrestle sincerely with the problem. Someone has put it more succinctly: Virtue in distress and vice in triumph make atheists of mankind.

But if the Christian can be charged with ignoring the genuineness of the questioner, the questioner must also face the indicting possibility that he or she has often not thought through the question fairly. There is a blatant oversight that often accompanies this challenge to the mind, and that is that the skeptics who have raised the question must also give an answer to the same question. How do they explain the problem of pain? Not only must they give an answer, but they must ultimately justify the very question itself–all that, while leaving God out of the picture. Here the voices get silent and their own answers border on the irrational.

G.K. Chesterton summed up this counterpoint well when he said, “When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from Him; but in heaven’s name to what?” The Christian does not deny that a meaningful answer must be found, but has the one who denies God found a better answer to the problem of evil? With a touch of humor, and in recognition that many answers come close but not close enough. Chesterton went on to say, “My problem with life is not that it is rational, nor that it is irrational…but that it is almost rational.” Just when we are able to form a cohesive framework, someone or something pokes a hole in it, and we take a step back.

The Bible does not ignore this question in silence but addresses it with great seriousness. Possibly the most misunderstood yet oft-quoted book that deals with the question of human pain and suffering is the Book of Job. His name has become synonymous with suffering, and yet so few have chosen to systematically weigh out his arguments. When we consider how old this book is we ought to be fascinated by how profound is his treatment of the subject.

It is my hope that we can dig deep and mine the arguments that provide the only viable answer to this mystery that plagues us all. But before we enter into that quest, let us at least face the question forthrightly in its philosophical ramifications. This will have to be brief and will demand immense cooperation, but we must put the question in context. Once we get past this philosophical hurdle, our answers will be felt with greater force.

Questioning the Question

Some years ago I was speaking at the University of Nottingham, England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God with this very question. C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is nothing so self-defeating as a question that is not fully understood when it is fully posed. This questioner was felled by his own question.

“There cannot possibly be a God,” he said, “with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!” I asked him if we could interact on this issue for just a few moments. He agreed.

“When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?” I asked.

“Of course,” he retorted.

“But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?”

“I suppose so,” came the hesitant and much softer reply.

This was an extremely important point to note as I made the argument. Most skeptics have never given this point a thought. I therefore reminded this questioner, in his initial hesitancy, of the debate between the agnostic Bertrand Russell and the Christian philosopher Frederick Copleston. During the debate, Copleston asked Russell if he believed in good and bad. Russell admitted that he did, and Copleston responded by asking him how he differentiated between the two. Russell said that he differentiated between good and bad in the same way that he distinguished between colors.

“But you distinguish between colors by seeing, don’t you?” Copleston reminded Russell. “How then, do you judge between good and bad?”

“On the basis of feeling, what else?” came Russell’s sharp reply.4

Somebody should have interrupted and told Russell that in some cultures they loved their neighbors while in other cultures they ate them–both on the basis of feeling. Did Mr. Russell have a personal preference?

How in the name of reason can we possibly justify differentiating between good and bad on the basis of feeling? Whose feeling? Hitler’s or Mother Teresa’s? In other words, there must be a moral law, a standard by which to determine good and bad. How else can one make the determination? My questioner finally granted that assumption without hesitation.

So let me retrace for a moment how far he had come. I had asked him if he believed in good; he answered yes. But if he believed in good, he had to grant a moral law by which to distinguish between the two. He agreed.

“If, then, there is no moral law,” I said, “you must posit a moral lawgiver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no moral lawgiver, there is no moral law. If there is no moral law, there is no good. If there is no good, there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!”

There was silence, and then he said, “What, then, am I asking you?”

The momentary humor was inescapable. He was visibly shaken that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his conclusion. This is exactly what I meant when I said that the skeptic not only had to give an answer to his or her own question, but also had to justify the question. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that I accepted the question, but that his question justified my assumptions that his was a moral universe, not his. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad is a meaningful term.

This constantly eludes the skeptic who seems to think that by raising the question of evil a trap has been sprung to destroy theism when, in fact, the very raising of the question ensnares the skeptic who raised the question. A hidden assumption comes into the open. In other words, can we really raise a problem with moral implications if this is not a moral universe? The moment we use the word better, said C.S. Lewis, we assume a point of reference.

In the same vein, are we positing a legitimate category when we ask why this universe seems immoral if the universe itself has no moral basis or reason for being? The disorienting reality to those who raise the problem of evil is that the Christian can be consistent when he or she talks about the problem of evil and gives a coherent response to it, while the skeptic is hard-pressed to respond to the question of good in an amoral universe. In short, the problem of evil is not solved by doing away with the existence of God in the face of evil; the problem of evil and suffering must be resolved while keeping God in the picture.

This was precisely Job’s conclusion. He never once lost sight of the fact that God was very much in control. But he could not reconcile this with his theological framework. He had always assumed that if you are good you will be blessed and if you are bad you will be cursed. Why, when he had been good, was he being cursed? His theology was tottering, not his belief in God.

The way Job worked through this problem makes for a fascinating study, and to that we will give our attention.

A Strange Beginning

In the first chapter of the book, we find Job facing one calamity after another. He lost his health, his wealth, and finally, his family. As he sat on his ash pile, covered from head to toe with boils, his wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”

But Job replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” The Bible adds, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:9-10).

One has to both understand and at the same time wonder what Job’s wife really meant by “curse God and die.” If God exists, does cursing Him accomplish anything? One may as well put on a pair of sneakers and kick a tank. If, however, God does not exist, who would Job really have been cursing? But let us give her the benefit of the doubt. She was reacting the way every human being is tempted to react when everything he or she has believed in seems to make absolutely no sense in the face of what appears to be the opposite.

On the other hand, Job made an assumption, too, that just as God is the source of comfort, so also was He the source of pain, and therefore, he just had to resign himself to it. Was Job correct? Let us bear in mind that we are given a glimpse of the prologue and what preceded this test, of which Job had no knowledge. But in the epilogue we see Job understanding the big picture, and the pattern that emerged brought much consolation and worship into his heart. Through the long process of his numerous conversations, the questions he asked became clearer and gained very sharp focus. That may have been one of Job’s greatest discoveries–how important it was to ask the right questions.

As we read on, we are told that Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, journeyed to see him in order to help him understand where God was in all of his devastation. (I have always insisted that they could not have possibly found their names from a baby book. I used to also say that I have never met anybody with those names, but that changed when I met a Bildad somewhere in some distant part of this globe.)

One can imagine their conversations as they traveled to see Job and laid their plans in place, determining who would play what role in their goal to bring him comfort. But one glimpse of his pitiful state left them speechless. They remained conspicuously silent for seven days and seven nights. Without doubt, they were at their wisest and best when they were silent. As much as one appreciates these men for their concern in coming to Job, one is mystified at their insensitivity in this, their friend’s most excruciating hour. They gave only what we would call “canned answers” and unthought-through theological pronouncements that on the surface seemed sound but were vacuous in the face of Job’s agony.

The first to open his mouth was Eliphaz. He was the oldest and the kindest. But of all the reasoning he could have brought to bear on his counsel, he narrated the strangest episode.

A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it. Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on men, fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end. It stopped, but I could not tell what it was. A form stood before my eyes, and I hear a hushed voice: “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a Man be more pure than his Maker? . . .” We have examined this, and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself (Job 4:12-17; 5:27).

One can only imagine what Job felt while Eliphaz waxed eloquent about this dreamy experience of his. But Job paid him the courtesy of listening to his speech before erupting in dismay. He painfully pleaded for understanding on the depth of his loss:

If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas. . . . The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison; God’s terrors are marshaled against me. . . . A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends (Job 6:1-4, 14).

There is no evident flaw to Eliphaz’s thoughts except for the questionable foundation on which he built them. He called to mind Job’s “creatureliness” and, hence, his sinfulness. He argued for the justice of God and the fairness with which He deals with people. There is no evident flaw to Eliphaz’s thoughts, except for the weird foundation on which he built it and his apparent callousness, which seemed to care more for the eloquence of the argument than for the misery of his friend.

I remember in the early years of my ministry when I was being asked by a couple why God allows suffering in our lives. I sat facing them as they remained in the last pew of the church after everyone had gone. As I leaned forward to respond to their question I suddenly noticed the baby lying beside them, obviously born with Down’s syndrome. I mentally stepped back for a moment. I knew then that their question struck deep into the heart. This was not an academic question. Their feelings were real, and so my answer needed to be.

Put yourself in Job’s predicament. With everything you cherished gone, what would you think of a friend who talked about a dream he had where a spirit glided past his face and stood still? His hair stood on end out of shock and then the spirit spoke to him with an answer to your pain, “Can a man be pure before his Maker?” Once could forgive Job if he exploded with sheer frustration and said, “What on earth are you talking about?”

Let me note that it is not important whether Eliphaz’s dream really took place. The real question is how someone else could determine if that whole episode was really true. And even if it were, it was at best a personal encounter for Eliphaz. Is it then wise to build an entire theological system on an aberrant experience that cannot be verified by anyone else? He still needed to tread softly around Job’s anguish, and evidently Eliphaz did not.

I am reminded of my days in graduate studies when I had the privilege of studying under a very brilliant scholar. He was short on patience and long on outbursts if any student dared to present any material that was deemed unworthy. In one major test he gave that was particularly difficult, every one of us students prayed for just a passing grade. One student, not having the faintest clue to what one of the questions meant, dared to pad his answers with weighty verbiage, hoping that somewhere in the volume of words he would hint in the direction of an appropriate answer. When he got his paper back, written across it was what I think to be one of the funniest one-liners I have ever read. The professor had simply written, “This is not right. . . . This is not even wrong!” It took a long moment, but the student got the point.

You see, there are at least three things one can say to the answer given to any question that is posed. One is to say that it is right. Another is to say that it is wrong. The third is to say that it has not even risen to the dignity of an error. For to say that something is wrong is to at least concede that something meaningful has been said.

How does one respond to a dream or vision when there is nothing to corroborate the assertion being made? At risk of being rude, how do we know that Eliphaz was not merely hallucinating or suffering from some kind of messianic complex?

How much the Christian faith has suffered at the hands of those for whom a highly charged emotional experience from the sidebar existence of life is made the sole interpreter of the main script of everyone else’s existence. There seems to be no way to “test the spirits” anymore, and all that is needed for a church or group to be formed is the acceptance or allowance of any kind of manifestation, with suspicion being the only inadmissible element. This is a dangerous way to claim devotion to God, because there is no way to differentiate between worshipping God and playing God.

As authentic as Eliphaz’s experience may have been, Job is well within his rights to dismiss it. “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends. . . . But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams, as the streams that overflow when darkened by thawing ice and swollen with melting snow, but that cease to flow in the dry season” (Job 6:14-15). They offered a drink when no one had need of it but denied that same drink to one who was dying of thirst. Eliphaz’s speech missed Job’s anguish. Job goes on to ask God:

Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I have been wrong. How painful are honest words! But what do your arguments prove? Do you mean to correct what I say, and treat the words of a despairing man as wind? You would even cast lots for the fatherless and barter away your friend. But now be so kind as to look at me (Job 6:24-28).

With unapologetic forthrightness, Job questions Eliphaz’s heartlessness. In effect, he calls him an unmoved storehouse of words. No feeling. No reason. Just a dispassionate spouter of platitudes.

A Prophet of the Wind

Their stalemate prepared the way for Job’s next friend, Bildad. He wasted no time and immediately said to Job:

Your words are a blustering wind. . . . Ask the former generations and find out what their fathers learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing. . . . Will they not instruct you and tell you? Will they not bring forth words from their understanding? (Job 8:2, 8-10)

No one can read Bildad’s response and question anything he said. Yet somehow there is something wrong that is not easily identifiable. The thoughts themselves seem very true–after all, what is wrong with saying that we are to give ear to the wisdom of the ages? Former generations have much to teach us with respect to suffering and pain. The wealth of poetry and prose that has been written over the centuries in the stormy moments of life has shed light for many when they have had to cross through such dark valleys.

I think, for example of the powerful testimony of a woman named Annie Johnston Flint. She was one who lived most of her life in pain. Orphaned early in life, her body was embarrassed by incontinence, weakened by cancer, and twisted and deformed by rheumatoid arthritis. She was incapacitated for so long that according to one eyewitness she needed seven or eight pillows around her body just to cushion the raw sores she suffered from being bedridden. Yet her autobiography is rightly called The Making of the Beautiful. Almost like a minstrel from heaven she penned words that touch the heart in its despairing moments. One of her best-known poems, put to music, reads:

He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength when the labors increase: To added affliction, He addeth His mercy, To multiplied trials His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance, When our strength has failed e’re the day is half done, When we reach the end of our hoarded resources Our Father’s full giving has only begun.

His love has no limit, His grace has no measure, His power has no boundary known unto men; For out of His infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!5

One is tempted to ascribe a sense of divine inspiration to words as soul-stirring and to sentiments as profound as these, uttered by a life as broken as hers. I have little doubt that over the years many have turned to this hymn time and again and drawn comfort from her words.

The question here, however, is whether these words provide an answer to the question of why pain occurs in our lives, or do they merely echo the sentiments of acceptance and triumph in the situation? Job pondered on the reason for his suffering more than he did on how to endure it. Beyond the poetry of triumph we can look back upon the exhortations of those who have thought this problem through, and once again we come away with a mixed response. From a voice in antiquity like that of Augustine to the more recent voice of C. S. Lewis, wisdom is offered on this gnawing subject. The words of Malcolm Muggeridge sustain this good news/bad news feeling. He said:

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo . . . the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal or trivial to be endurable. This of course is what the cross signifies, and it is the cross more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.6

There is a gold mine of truth in these thoughts Muggeridge has expressed. But to the one in despair, this too may seem a distant answer to the more proximate agony. Hence, the response from Job to Bildad revealed his exasperation. He asked, “How can a mortal be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2). God’s power seemed so arbitrary, Job charged. He makes mountains and then moves them at His own will. Once again, Job did not doubt God’s existence; he merely asked to know His purpose. Then he uttered with great longing a cry that began to open the door just a fraction: “If only there were someone to arbitrate between [God and me]” (Job 9:33).

A Voice of Anger

We begin, at this point, to see Job’s own journey crystallizing. In the first instance, he asked for instruction. Now he is asking for arbitration or a point of contact. Into his world that is broken on the outside comes a gradual rebuilding from within.

Then came the third voice–that of Zophar. The youngest and rudest of the three, he basically called Job an idiot and a windbag. “It is more likely that a donkey will give birth to a human being than for you to listen to wisdom,” said Zophar (see Job 11:12).

It is somewhat humorous to note how human nature expressed itself in a situation like this centuries ago and comforting to realize that those characters were no different than we are. Impatience and anger are predictable when you think you have the answer and the other person fails to see your point. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar saw themselves as God-sent emissaries with nuggets of wisdom in abundance. Job was mystified at their utter thoughtlessness.

In essence, Zophar’s answer was that God’s ways were not Job’s ways and Job just needed to understand that. But was that really an answer? The fact is that the devil’s ways were not Job’s ways, either, and that was already clear to him. His question concerned the what and why of the difference between God’s thinking and his, not just the fact of it.

Now the point of clarity begins. Earlier Job had begged for someone to teach him. Then he asked if there was a mediator to settle his dispute with God. Next he cried out in desperation, asking, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14). If nothing else, pain at least helps us clarify the question. From his hunger to know the reason why, to his question of life beyond the grave, Job had come a long way.

The Illusion of Omniscience

God began to answer Job’s question. He had, in effect, listened in silence, waiting for this conversation to unfold and giving the best of minds an opportunity to try to untangle the mystery. None of them seemed to feel what Job felt, and over a period of days their thoughts were bringing a deeper wedge between them and Job. As God began His discourse, He challenged Job to face up to the heart of the matter. Job had long waited for this.

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man: I will question you, and you shall answer me (Job 38:2-3).

This has to have been the most shocking response Job could have expected from God. Anyone I have ever known, when asked the question on the problem of pain, begins to philosophize in his or her own answer. We are all chronically bent toward offering our own solutions. God, in a most surprising move, began to question Job. In fact, He raised about sixty-four questions to Job, one after the other, and compelled Job to open up his modest stock of certainties.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! . . . 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? . . . What is the way to the abode of the light? And where does darkness reside? . . . Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons . . .? Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? . . . Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? (Job 38:4-5, 16-17, 19, 32, 36; 39:1)

So ran the myriad questions, leaving Job completely speechless. He had built his whole argument on the fact that he needed to know what was going on, because only on the basis of that knowledge could his confusion be dissipated. God reminded him, as a first step and only that, that there were a thousand and one things he did not fully understand but had just taken for granted.

Children learn this vital first step early. Have you ever noticed that in every fairy tale there is a condition? “If you do not come back by such and such, you will become a such and such.” But beyond that, notice that the person never asks the fairy godmother, “How come?” Because the fairy godmother could legitimately respond, “If that is the way you want it, then tell me, how come there is a fairy land?”7

The immensity and specificity of the universe must humble us in the best sense of the word. The more a person knows, the more humble he or she needs to be because the entailments of knowledge remind us constantly of the vastness and intricacy of ultimate reality: the birth of a baby, the nursing of that child at its mother’s breast, the boundlessness of a mother’s love, the wonder of growth to maturity, the fascinating intricacy of the brain, the enchantment of human sexuality.

A powerful story is told by G. K. Chesterton, called “The Magician.” It is the parable of a magician who visited a town and was performing a number of tricks to entertain the crowd. While everyone else was thoroughly enjoying his performance, a young scholar sitting near the front of the auditorium persisted in finding his own explanations for every trick. The magician was getting rather exasperated and finally came upon a trick that this intellectual would find unexplainable.

He called the analyst over and asked him, “What color was the light outside your home when you left?”

The scholar answered that it was a red light. “Run along home,” said the magician, “and even as you are running I will turn it into a green light.”

“You cannot do that!” retorted the young man.

“Oh, yes I can, and I will,” came the answer.

The young man began to run toward his house, and as he came within a few feet of it he saw the light change color. Completely astounded, he turned around and ran back to the magician. “All right, how did you do it?”

The magician looked at him and said, “I just sent a couple of angels to change the bulb.”

“That is nonsense,” came the answer. “Tell me how you did it.” No matter how belligerently the scholar protested, he received the same answer: “I sent a couple of angels to change the bulb.”

The young man retreated to his science laboratory, trying to figure out how a red light can be changed into a green light. He became so obsessed with his quest that he finally went insane. His sisters came to the magician and implored him to give his trick away just this once so that their brother would regain his sanity.

“But I have already told him the truth,” he said.

“All right, then, why don’t you tell him something that is not true but sounds reasonable? At least it will bring his sanity back.”

The magician reluctantly agreed and fabricated an explanation for his trick, which the young man readily accepted. Immediately he regained his sanity.

Chesterton made the chilling observation that in actuality the critic was more sane when he had no explanation for the red light turning into green. When he bought into the lie that he believed to be a suitable explanation, he was, in fact, truly insane. The application for our time should be evident.

Years ago when I was speaking in a village in Vietnam, the audience was principally comprised of poor people, many of them illiterate. I shared with them a story we often told in India; the story of a man who was sitting under a tree that was laden with nuts. He looked up into the tree and mockingly said to God, “Somehow I do not think You are very smart. You have made a huge tree to hold small nuts and a small plant to hold big watermelons. Big tree, small nuts; small plant, big watermelons.” Just then a small nut fell from the tree and hit him on his head. He paused and muttered, “Thank God that was not a watermelon!”

To hear the roar of laughter that erupted and to see the way they enthusiastically jostled one another, as if to congratulate themselves for being so right in their simplicity, was truly delightful. This is not intended to disparage or in any way to mock education and glorify ignorance; it is only intended to dent the inordinate pride that arrogates to itself a strident self-confidence based on the illusion of omniscience. Does this all mean that the intellect has no pursuit in understanding the greatness of the universe? Of course not. It only cautions us to retain the wonder and to remember our finitude. God says, in essence, “Do not assume that you only accept that which you comprehensively understand.” He clearly implies that He had given sufficient evidence of His power and design in creation. To seek comprehensive knowledge as the only grounds for belief is unreasonable. There is a world of difference between the words sufficient and comprehensive. Unless we know that difference, we will always wallow in a no-man’s land straddling between divinity and finitude.

Francis Schaeffer used to give a very fair illustration on this subject. Suppose you left your home in the morning with two glasses on your table, glass A with two ounces of water in it and glass B, empty. When you returned home at night you noticed that glass B now had water in it and glass A was empty. Further, when you measured the water in glass B, you noticed that there were four ounces of water in it, not two. You might deduce that someone took the water from A and put it into B. But you could also be sure that all of the water did not come from A, because A only had two ounces of water to start with. The two extra ounces would need a different explanation.

Science may explain “two ounces of this universe,” but there is much else that is not within the purview of science. Noted scholars such as Michael Polanyi, one of this century’s finest philosophers of science, has cautioned those in the sciences not to lose sight of their own unscientific presuppositions. God challenged Job to admit his limitation and to allow God to be God. God insists that those limitations do and must exist.

But God takes Job beyond just making him think it was all too vast for him. What God wanted him to realize was that this same God who brought such pattern and beauty into a world he had fashioned out of nothing could also bring a pattern and beauty out of Job’s brokeness. The universe is both complex and intelligible, and Job was reminded of that. There is intelligence behind the design, as there is also intelligence in helping us cope with suffering.

Think for a moment of the opposite scenario in a Godless universe. To strip this universe of an intelligent first cause leaves us with a mindless force behind everything. I cannot think of worse news for humanity. I am intrigued by the credulity of those who seem to think that proving the accidental arrival of life in this universe will spell victory for the skeptic. One may as well tell a young man, “You are really not the child we had intended to have, but now that you are here, let’s make the best of it.” I would not want to be on the receiving end of that little speech. That is why God’s first approach to Job was to remind him there was a mind and a power infinitely greater than his listening to him. He was not just speaking into a void.

Revealing the Comfort

After leaving Job to ponder the fact that God is both Creator and Designer, God came to Job as Revealer and Comforter. And Job’s humbled response was to say, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). The God to whom he had cried out comes to meet him as Revealer and Comforter.

There is a place for knowing and hearing and reading. But there has to come a moment of personal surrender. Our commitment to God has sufficient objective truth so that the truth claims can be verified. The Bible is not a fanciful book of spiritual speculation conjured up by dreamers. There are historical, geographical, and philosophical assertions that can be measured and confirmed by the historian, the archeologist, and the philosopher, respectively. But the point of real contact comes when that third person knowledge–that knowledge about God–becomes a first person trust in God and commitment to His will. Only then does the personal understanding bring a transformed attitude.

The early Israelites made a colossal blunder. Rather than accept spiritual responsibility and come to God directly, they wanted Moses to represent them before God. They asked for a king to deliver them from political responsibility when God had said He desired to be their king. In short, they wanted no direct contact with God.

Church history is littered with the debris of would-be mediators who robbed the common person of the privilege of coming to God directly. The damage inflicted upon humanity and upon Christendom has been incalculable. But it is not just the ebb and flow of history, it is also an assumption that many make that God is unknowable or too distant. The scriptures remind us that God has graciously invited us to come to Him on a personal level. He reaches out to every man, woman, and child and says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

I very seldom like to mention the turning point of my own life, for it is a very private matter and sometimes still hurts to think of it, to say nothing of the embarrassment it must bring my family. But I cannot resist thinking of that most poignant moment of my past. I was seventeen years old when, with neither great intensity or great anguish, I came to the recognition that life had very little meaning. The more I pondered its harsh implication, the closer I drew to a decision. That decision was to choose the way of suicide.

I found myself after that attempt lying in a hospital bed, having expelled all the poison that I had taken, but unsure if I would recover. There on that bed, with a dehydrated body, the scriptures were read to me. The flooding of my heart with the news that Jesus Christ could come into my life and that I could know God personally defies the depths to which the truth overwhelmed me. In that moment with a simple prayer of trust, the change from a desperate heart to one that found the fullness of meaning became a reality for me.

God reached down to a teenager in a hospital bed in the city of New Delhi, a mega-city of teeming millions. Imagine! God cared enough to hear my cry. How incredible, that He has a personal interest in the struggles of our lives. I can not express it better than to say that His self-sufficiency and greatness do not deny us the wonderful joy of being affirmed in our individuality and of knowing that we are of unique value to Him. That was the point of the parable Jesus told about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and went looking for the one.

The breadth of the gospel in its implications for history and for all of humanity ought never to diminish the application that is personal. It had to come as a revelation to Job that much of his knowledge of God had come through the thoughts of other people–thoughts never personally pursued. That is precisely the predicament his friends were in, rich in allusions to what others had said but impoverished in their own personal knowledge of God.

It was to that same glaring weakness in the apostle Peter’s life that Jesus directed His attention. Peter gladly quoted what others said of Jesus. But Jesus asked him, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29, emphasis added). This is why no one speaks with such authority of the devastation of sin as the one who has experienced it. No one knows the restoring power of God like the one who has walked that road. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” God is not just the God of power in creation; He is the God of presence in our affliction. He had not abandoned Job but was with him personally.

Until pain is seen in a personal context and its solution is personally felt, every other solution, however good, will seem academic. All the answers that one might offer to a hurting person will fall on deaf ears until that person has come to a personal recognition that God has spoken and revealed Himself in His Word first and then in his or her own experience.

A Counterperspective

Having reached that point, a new discovery came into focus for Job. He had earlier asked, “If a man dies, will he live again?” He was now able to answer his own question with firm assurance:

I know that my Redeemer lives, And that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, Yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him With my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27)

All suffering has to be dealt with personally but also with a real understanding that there is life beyond the grave. Just think of Job’s confidence: “After my skin has been destroyed, yet in flesh I will see God.” There is a perspective from God’s side that those of us locked in a temporal frame of reference can never see. Death was not going to break Job’s communion with God. The songwriter said it: “Let me see this world, dear Lord, as though I were looking through Your eyes.”

When the prophet Habakkuk was struggling with all the violence he saw around him, he asked God to explain it to him. He ended by saying, “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” For the first time he saw human suffering from a vantage point he had never seen before, from God’s perspective (Hab. 3:17-19).

Having suffered much in his own life, the eminent and afflicted poet William Cowper expressed it beautifully:

Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan his works in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.

Job was being taken one step at a time–from recognizing the Creator and Designer to meeting Him as Revealer and Comforter and finally to knowing Him as Mediator and Savior. This beautiful truth could only be understood by Job in a very limited fashion. Those of us who look back to the cross have a much fuller understanding of the grand connotation the word Savior has. Little would Job know that a day would come when the purest one of all, in whom there was no sin, would suffer and die that we who lived in sin might find His rest and purity. A very moving story is told about a renowned preacher who lost his young wife. In the confusion of her fresh grief, his little daughter came to him and asked why it was that if Jesus has died for our sins we still have to die. He waited for the appropriate illustration with which to help her young mind understand what God has done for us. On the way to the funeral, their car was behind a big truck. Drawing her attention to the truck, he looked at his daughter and asked if she had to be run over, would she rather be run over by a truck or by its shadow on the side of the road.

“Why of course,” she said, “the shadow would be better, because it would not hurt as much.”

He paused and answered her gently, “That is what Jesus has done for you. On His death upon the cross, He let the truck of God’s judgment pass over Him. Only the shadow of death goes over us now.”

By taking our place upon the cross and bridging the chasm between God, who offered life, and humanity, which deserved death, Christ spanned the greatest gulf. Our thirst for a mediator before God is a very genuine cry that has been expressed in virtually every theistic religion. But for most, the God who is out there is treated as still being out there. For others, the quest to bring God near without humanizing Him has been a particular struggle. Thus in Greek mythology, heroes and the personification of ideals proliferate. In pantheism, avatars, or incarnations, form the bulk of revelation. But in the Christian faith, the fact that God comes close while remaining transcendent is very unique. To what degree Job understood this will always remain moot, but that he cried out even in his primitive understanding of redemption that a Savior would understand his suffering, plead His cause, and vindicate him is remarkable.

In short, this discovery affirmed one of Job’s convictions but shattered one aspect of his theology. Job had repeatedly said that as far as he knew he had lived an honorable life. But he had assumed all along that if one walked the straight and narrow and lived a life of purity, prosperity and freedom from pain would naturally follow. This was a false conclusion.

Over the years of history we have seen this unfortunate deduction made time and time again. We may even recall that when John the Baptist was put into prison he wondered if Jesus was indeed who He claimed to be. The implication was, “If He is the Messiah, then why am I in prison?” The apostle Peter could not for a moment conceive of the Son of God going to a cross. As hard as it is to accept, suffering is not always because of one’s personal sin, but suffering will always have to be dealt with personally. Our Lord Himself bore the pain of that which was not His own doing, but the Captain of our salvation was made perfect, that is, complete, through suffering. Life must never be viewed from the isolated instances of one’s personal struggle. There is a big picture and a complete picture into which our personal struggle fits. That picture is in the mind of God. The closer we draw to Him, the clearer that picture becomes. And part of that picture is pain and desolation.

But if Job had his theology shattered and if the picture told him that even the righteous could suffer pain and hurt, what was the one thing he would need to know more than anything else? That is where we find the answer that Job needed most, as much as we do when walking through deep waters. I can best answer this by an illustration.

Some years ago when I had the privilege of speaking at Moody Bible Institute, we had the extraordinary blessing of listening to a talk by Professor Charles Cooper, who taught there. He sat in a chair as he told his story that was still so fresh in his memory and in the memory of those who knew him. He spoke of the thrill he’d felt of being newly married and of the delight of a young love. Yet only four months into his marriage, tragedy struck.

His wife was returning from a trip, and he and his mother-in-law went to the airport to pick her up. As the plane pulled up to the jetway, they saw ambulances and police cars closing in on the back of the aircraft and personnel from those vehicles running up the back stairway. But Charles’s focus was on the front of the plane from where his wife would disembark. All of a sudden, his mother-in-law clasped his arm and pointed to a stretcher that was being removed from the back door of the airplane. On the stretcher was obviously a body, covered by a white sheet. But that was not all. Hanging from the stretcher was a purse that they recognized as his wife’s.

A few moments later their names were called over the loud speaker and in shock, they were informed that shortly before landing, without any previous history of such a condition, his young wife had suffered a fatal heart attack. How does one respond to news so debilitating? Charles Cooper walked us through his own journey of pain. His closing comment will forever ring in my ears. He said that the cards, the letters, the phone calls, the embraces, and the love of friends all helped him to survive. “But what kept me going more than anything else was my confidence in the character of God.” That was the bottom line.

This is the adjustment Job needed. Constantly focusing on his own character and purity, he had lost sight of the character of God Himself. Those who have walked this path hold on to that truth with all the strength they have. God is not only all-powerful. He is perfect in goodness. We must trust Him even when the times are grim.

At the end, that this God who was his Creator and Designer, his Revealer and Comforter, his Mediator and Savior, was also his Strengthener and Restorer.

The Triumphal Moment

There is intrigue and experience beyond anything we might have expected as a closure to this book of Job. Job was now fully cognizant of the fact that the whole problem of suffering was indeed beyond his comprehension and that his knowledge of God as Creator, Revealer, Savior, and Restorer was sufficient to see him through what he did not know. Beyond that, however, was the greatest surprise of all.

Job’s friends were severely reprimanded by God for the part they had played, and they had to come to Job, not only for forgiveness, but to ask him to mediate on their behalf to receive God’s forgiveness. In other words, he who had pled for a mediator in his own quandary became a mediator himself to bridge the chasm between his erudite friends and God.

The Bible says of our Lord that having suffered himself, Jesus is now able to intercede on our behalf. In a small sense, Job was given a glimpse of the heart of God by representing his friends before God. Just as Jesus Himself, having been betrayed by His own, stood in a place of intercession for them, and just as Joseph, betrayed by his own brothers, stood in a position of forgiving and restoring them, so now Job interceded for his friends. Just as his own Redeemer had brought him close to God, so now he played that role for Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Talk about a higher perspective and about seeing it from God’s view!

The Truths That Transformed

We can draw numerous conclusions from this enormous struggle that Job went through. First and foremost, we must understand that suffering, death, disease, pain, and bereavement are all part of life, whether we be righteous or unrighteous.

Second, we see that the role of a friend is very pivotal in seeing people through their times of anguish. Let us never underestimate this point. God’s answer for burdened, hurting hearts may well be the shoulders of a friend as we bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Third, we know that most answers of this nature require a process. The questions must become more selfless before the answers become more personal. For Job, as for us, the process was as necessary as the answer. After I spoke recently at a lecture in Bombay, India, on the subject of God and the problem of pain, a gentleman came to me and spoke of a tragedy in his family. His daughter had been killed in a plane crash a few years ago. He said to me, “I used to think that time was a healer. I no longer believe that. I now believe that time is only the Revealer of how God does the healing.”

Fourth, we have learned, as Job did, that the answer to suffering is more relational than it is propositional. Those who know God personally and understand the cross are better able to find help in the dark night of the soul than those who merely tackle their problems philosophically. And the man or woman who has suffered much is often a redeemer-type figure to those whose lives are devoid of a close walk with God and whose answers may be only surface deep. A renowned Christian leader once told me, “When you are looking for wisdom, always look for one who has suffered much but whose faith has remained unshaken.”

I saw this principle in action a few years ago when I was visiting in Nanjing, China, with a friend. We had the great privilege of spending a couple of hours with one of China’s most renowned evangelists, Wang Ming Tau. His was a fascinating story of imprisonment under Mao Zedong’s brutal regime.

He had been incarcerated for his faith in Christ, and unable to face a life of permanent imprisonment, he had recanted his faith and been released. But as a free man he knew he had betrayed his Lord. Troubled at his failure, he decided that if life in prison was what God wanted for him, then that was what he would gladly accept. With a renewed commitment to his Lord, he walked the streets of Beijing, shouting, “My name is Peter, I have betrayed my Lord! My name is Peter, I have betrayed my Lord!”

As he had expected, he was immediately rearrested. For nineteen more years behind bars, he suffered for Christ. When he finished telling us his story, he asked if he could sing us a hymn that he sang in prison everyday. His body aged and his hands all gnarled, with his wife almost blind sitting next to him, he sang,

All the way my Savior leads me– What have I to ask besides? Can I doubt His tender mercy, Who through life has been my guide? Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, Here by faith in Him to dwell! For I know, whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.

As I sat in his small room listening to him sing, I glanced at the three young men who were seated on the floor, their faces lifted to him as he sang. They had come to visit him, and before they left, they asked him to pray for them. There is something so moving about able-bodied young people seeking the prayers of an old, fragile man or woman. But in the most biblical sense of the term, they knew the principal of redemptive suffering, wherein one whose own life has been touched by the Savior in his or her own suffering can pray more honestly and effectively on behalf of those who have not yet gone through the fire. I could picture Job smiling in approval.


1 David Hume, source unknown.

2 Source unknown.

3 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew (New York: Bantam, 1981), 296.

4 Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (London: Unwin Books, 1967), 146.

5 Annie Johnston Flint, “He Giveth More Grace.”

6 Malcolm Muggeridge, quoted in Donald McCullough, Waking from the American Dream (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1988), 145.

7 G. K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959).

(Chapter 3 of Cries of the Heart by Ravi Zacharias, Copyright 1999, Word Publishers, used with permission, pp. 63-90)


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