September 2, 2019

Innocent Sufferers: Why?

Understood: bad things happen to good people. Now what?

Mario Oliveira

Through many years of work with ADRA, I have often witnessed situations of extreme human suffering.

For Example

About 20 years ago in Angola I met an 8-year-old girl who had stepped on an anti-personnel mine. We evacuated her by plane to Luanda to amputate her leg. She was one more innocent, painful civilian casualty in the devastation of civil war.

Countless stories from refugees in their paths of exile tell the horrors of their struggles on the road, stories of fear, shipwrecks, robberies, rapes, hunger, torture, slavery. In France I met a young man from Mali. When I asked about the origin of scars on his arms and face he answered simply: “Libya.” If he had known what he would have had to suffer to reach France, he would never have left home.

A Famous Tragedy

There aren’t enough pages in the world to describe all the injustices and suffering you and I have seen. We invariably wonder: Why? The biblical drama of Job, apocalyptic in its dimensions and implications, casts light on a struggle involving our world that unfolds on the supernatural level. Through it God shares with us more insight than the naked eye can provide. The struggle illustrated by the story of Job may be hidden from common view, but the war it depicts between God and Satan is completely real.

In Job 1 God questions Satan, whose name means “adversary,” about God’s servant Job, an upright, God-fearing man who “shuns evil” (Job 1:8).

Satan answers with a challenge: “Does Job fear God for nothing? . . . Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands” (verses 9, 10). Here Satan himself acknowledges that God is our protector. But this does not dull his daring. In fact, he makes it the inspiration for his challenge: “Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (verse 11).

What should God do now? The adversary demands that He stop protecting Job, to prove that Job will stop pretending to respect and obey Him if he is not pampered. God allows Satan to test Job’s sincerity, and the troubles begin. Job loses wealth, health, social position, reputation, children, everything. But what is his reaction? He falls to the ground in worship (verse 20). Job is lucid and disturbed by what is happening to him. Tearing his clothes and shaving his head (verse 20) are expressions of his utter desolation. Nevertheless, he’s able to worship God in the midst of turmoil.

Famous Friends

Job’s friends arrive. But their behavior only increases his moral torture. The best support that they provide is when, during the first seven days, they sit together with him in silent astonishment at his plight (Job 2:11-13).

When they eventually speak, it is devastating to Job: they accuse him of hidden sin, arguing that the innocent do not perish (Job 4:7); that it must be the sins of his sons that earned their sudden destruction (Job 8:3, 4); that if he turned from iniquity his lot would improve (Job 11:14, 15).

Job retorts that God’s hand against him is harsh, overwhelming, humiliating, and unfair (Job 9:17, 18, 20, 22-24). Still, Job longs for the chance to speak to God directly (Job 23:3-7).

The book is structured as a chiasm, presenting a sequence of ideas, then repeating them in reverse order, with its climax occurring at the middle of the book, the center of the chiasm. It is a climax that transcends the height of natural human reason as Job declares, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth” (Job 19:25).

Job’s faith sees further than human eyesight and speaks with authority about things beyond all earthly human capacity. Job becomes a prophet of the Resurrection, and author of one of the Bible’s most wonderful statements. Job suffers; there is much that he doesn’t understand; his treatment is unfair. But whatever he may not grasp of the full explanation of his circumstance, he can still say, “I know that my redeemer lives,” and “I myself will see him with my own eyes” (verses 25, 27).

Asking Again: Why?

Why does God allow Job’s undeserved misfortune? He does offer answers in Job 38-41. But at first they seem to dodge Job’s questions. God speaks to Job, who chafes at his suffering, about lightning and thunder, rain and clouds, goats and lions; carrying on about creative power when the issue is Job’s pain and abuse.

Nevertheless, God gets through to Job. Job sees his inability to explain simple questions about nature. And though science today knows a lot more than Job did about ice and rain, humanity still struggles to understand innocent suffering. Explaining innocent suffering is a lot harder than explaining ice and rain. Understanding suffering takes special revelation.

But if we listen as Job did, we can understand too. Job hears his answer in God’s rhetorical questions. God says that one encounter with the mythic, fire-breathing leviathan (Job 41:18-21) will teach you never to dare engage him again (verse 8). And if you can’t handle Leviathan, “who then is able to stand against me?” (verse 10).

God’s astonishing answer to suffering is oblique, subjective, and incarnational: resolving the evil of suffering is too much for us; God and God alone can master it. And He does in Immanuel, God with us (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23), Jesus living among us, becoming the curse to conquer blight forever, sharing our humanity “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death” (Heb. 2:14).

All of this is not explicit for Job, and things don’t end perfectly for him. God restores his health, wealth, and family, but he ends up dead. Any story that ends in death is a sad story. But what Job hears from God is enough for him, as his answer implies: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). Job is satisfied because his faith is satisfied. For faith, the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4) is not a resolution of all questions, but trusting, in spite of questions, that enables us to share the climax of Job and the book: “I know that my redeemer lives. . . . I myself will see him with my own eyes” (Job 19:25-27).


Mario Oliveira directs emergency management for ADRA International, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s global development and disaster relief organization.

Mario Oliveira
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