God has set up a universe where we have freewill to choose between good and evil.
Our actions have consequences – if we choose to do bad things, like lying, stealing or worse, we can expect bad consequences, like fractured relationships, prison, or even worse. On the other hand if God is good and there is justice in this life, then if we are honest, faithful and good, things should generally turn out better.
The problem comes when good people suffer terrible catastrophes: the godly couple who have prayed for years for a baby, only for the baby to die in childbirth; the missionaries whose plane fatally crashes into a mountain on the way back to the mission field; the faithful evangelist who loses his eyesight in a gang attack whilst sharing the gospel. Why do bad things happen to good people?
This is often called ‘the problem of suffering’ and theologians have wrestled with finding a solution to it. If God is meant to be all-powerful (in that he can do anything he likes) and and all-loving (in that he works for the good of others), why doesn’t he stop this sort of suffering? Either he is all-powerful and could stop the suffering but doesn’t (and so isn’t all-loving), or else he is all-loving and wants to stop the suffering but can’t (and so isn’t all-powerful). How can we resolve this?
The book of Job
The book of Job gives us a fascinating insight into this problem.
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1)
Job is a good person, and the Lord prospers him with a large family, lots of livestock, servants and a good reputation.
But as the story begins, we glimpse behind the scenes into the spiritual realm, where the ‘sons of God’ (angelic beings) are gathered for a heavenly council meeting with the Lord. Satan turns up, and God, who is really proud of his servant Job, can’t help pointing him out to Satan.
The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:8)
Satan immediately levels an accusation against God: Job only loves You because of all the good things you lavish upon him and the protection you give him; take these away and he’ll soon curse You.
God runs the universe by loving it along, and wants people in it who will love him in return and enter a relationship with him. But Satan doesn’t think much of this: he doesn’t think that love really exists. Rather, sheer power is all there is and people only serve God because of the benefits they receive. If there was no reward for serving the Lord, people would soon give up.
Now, the issue is that Satan’s point was valid: did Job really love God for who he was, or just for the benefits he got from him? So what could God do about it?
Well, the Lord could just tell Satan to shut up and then zap him out of existence. But the problem with that is that the Lord would cease to be good: he would just be acting like any other petty tyrant, rather than the just and good king of the universe.
So Satan’s accusation stands. How can it be answered?
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:12)
The only way to demonstrate that running the universe by self-giving love is better than self-serving power is through suffering. Will Job keep on choosing to love the Lord even if he only receives pain in return? Is love still worth it even if just brings heartache?
Job then starts to receive terrible messages about his family: marauding gangs have killed your servants, a firestorm has destroyed all your cattle and a whirlwind has killed all your children.
Job’s response is one of worship (Job 1:20), still choosing to love the Lord.
Satan then turns up again to the heavenly council. The Lord is vindicated by Job’s actions and so boasts in him again.
The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause. (Job 2:3)
Satan may have incited the Lord against Job, but it’s clear that Satan has caused the catastrophes: stirring up violent men and triggering ‘natural’ disasters. But Job is still standing with the Lord.
Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face.” (Job 2:4-5)
Again, Satan’s accusation stands, and so the Lord just states that Job is in Satan’s power, but his life must be spared. Satan then goes out and smites Job with terrible boils.
How does this answer the problem of suffering?
Firstly, it shows us a behind-the-scenes view of how the universe works, that there are all sorts of unseen spiritual powers at work that have reactions and effects in the natural world. Suffering comes from Satan and there are many demonic powers out there who take delight in sending disaster and evil.
Secondly, it reveals that God isn’t running the universe by brute force or absolute diktat, but rather invites free-willed agents to help rule and reign with him, both angelic and human. Out of love he has given out this power and freedom, and can’t just take it back as soon as decisions happen that he doesn’t like.
Thirdly, Satan’s accusation that love isn’t genuine still stands over every believer. Do people just follow the Lord just because of the blessings, or do they really love him? The only way for this to be demonstrated is through suffering, choosing to still love God even if we only receive pain because of it.
For a full study on the book of Job and these ideas, read ‘Suffering and the Love of God” by Roger Forster.