Encountering Evil: The Problem of Pain and Suffering – Part 4

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Pain and suffering is the consequence of sin, and should be understood as the just recompense for humanity’s rebellion. Nevertheless, when great tragedies occur (especially when numerous people suffer and die), the existence of pain and suffering becomes an apologetic problem, because people assume it to be impossible that God is both omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-loving).

Consider, for example, the following philosophical argumentation: “The intelligibility of the Universe is prima facie evidence that God cares for us. Human suffering is prima facie evidence that God does not.”1 Unbelievers object to a good and almighty God, yet even believers sometimes think and speak accusations negatively against the Lord. Is it possible to affirm the omnibenevolence of God, in the midst of pain and suffering?

The reality of pain and suffering, in a world created by an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, is a fundamental theological dilemma, and is perhaps the most common objection to Christianity. The problem is aggravated when insisting “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), yet admitting that one cannot answer all questions regarding suffering. The conclusive discussion of suffering is the book of Job. God typically repaid obedience with blessing and cursing with disobedience elsewhere throughout the Old Testament, yet the description of Job as “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” results in many questions concerning the cause of his calamities. When the wicked suffer, it is not difficult to accept human suffering; however, when afflictions upon extant suffering befall the righteous person, the reasons are perplexing.

Job, of course, was entirely unaware concerning the dialogue between God and Satan, and the fact that the Lord allowed the devil to test Job. God is always sovereign, even when He appears not to be. The Lord is able to transform all pain and suffering into great blessing for His people. Regardless of how difficult and humiliating a situation may be, it is never an obstacle to God’s provision. The omnibenevolence of God includes suffering. Difficult and painful circumstances occur to God’s people, because the Lord sometimes permits Satan to test believers so they will mature—not because God tempts anyone to do evil (James 1:13).

God is sovereign, despite appearances to the contrary. Whatever the Lord accomplishes is right, because He works all things according to His holy purposes (cf. Rom 8:28). Consequently, the believer is able to worship God even in the midst of pain and suffering. Life is such that only God knows the ultimate outcome; thus, the best response of the believer when experiencing unexplainable circumstances is humility, realizing that the just Lord of the earth always will accomplish what is right in the fullness of time. Believers can trust God even when there is no explanation for what is occurring, while recognizing the foolishness and futility in challenging or criticizing the Lord. Problems are exasperated when people limit the goodness, power, and wisdom of God. When anxieties result from life’s difficulties, the believer should yearn to know God better by consulting His holy and inspired Word, the Bible.

Job probably never knew the reason he suffered, and seldom does anyone. Therefore, the fundamental issue is whether the believer will persevere in life and prayer, regardless of what occurs. The reality of faith in God is the manner in which a person lives in the midst of pain and suffering. God’s people should be able to confess, as Job did: “‘But He knows the way I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). In similar manner, Peter referred to the reality of a believer’s faith, which is “more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire” (1 Pet 1:7).

Pain and Suffering as Penal Judgment
Scripture reveals various reasons for the experience of pain and suffering. For instance, Job’s three friends considered the reasons for his afflictions. Seeking to prove that the innocent do not suffer, Eliphaz asserted, “‘According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His anger they come to an end” (Job 4:8-9). Eliphaz’s contention was that people reap what they sow. His assertion is based upon the theological principle that the world is a moral and orderly universe. God is holy and just, and will thus reward the righteous, and the wicked are certain to perish.

Eliphaz’s theology was not erroneous; rather, he erred in applying such principles to Job’s circumstances. He accused Job of plowing iniquity, which then would have sown trouble for him (v. 8; cf. Gal 6:7-9). Bildad argued that God rewards the righteous. He blamed Job for talking too much (in an attempt to justify himself, 8:2), in order to neglect some private sin (vv. 11-22). Bildad’s appeal to Job for his restoration was to seek God through purity and uprightness (vv. 5-6).

Zophar regarded Job as irreverent, and was so incensed by what he perceived as Job’s lack of repentance, that he immediately accused him of iniquity (11:6). He believed that Job was not suffering enough! The problem with Zophar’s analysis is that he conjectured that Job’s suffering was not equal to his sin, which is faulty reasoning, for then Job’s sin would be lesser than his suffering. Zophar’s situational ethics is evident in how truth affirmed to be absolute was then given an exception. Zophar concluded that Job was speaking boastfully and endlessly in his attempt to plead innocence (vv. 1-4).

Job’s friends were correct that God does judge the sin of unbelievers in penal judgment. Sicknesses (or some other tragedies) do occur frequently among those opposed to God, and the suffering is as great as the sin. The theological principles of Job’s friends were correct; however, the application of those tenets to Job was erroneous, for he was not an unbeliever to be judged penally. Eliphaz, for instance, erred in assuming the role of God, who alone is the Judge of punishments and rewards. Moreover, he failed to recognize some other principle than punishments and rewards as the reason for Job’s suffering. Psalm 73 reveals that God’s actions and providences do not necessarily correspond to humanity’s immediate experiences. Current expressions of Eliphaz’s error are found among those who argue that God’s blessing of the righteous means that material prosperity is an indication of divine favor (and thus something to pursue). Sadly, many seek material prosperity as opposed to a life of godliness and righteousness.

Pain and Suffering as Discipline
Discipline is another reason for pain and suffering. God is holy and loving, and thus must occasionally discipline a disobedient believer. Elihu was not among the three friends mentioned at the end of the narrative prologue (Job 2:11-13), nor was he included in God’s condemnation (42:7-9). Elihu appears suddenly as a fourth, younger individual. Apparently, he waited until Job’s three friends exhausted their accusations. Elihu censured them severely for their failure to refute Job or answer his arguments (32:12). Elihu insisted that pain and suffering might be God’s means of chastening the believer, and thus it often has a pedagogical value.

The angel who is a mediator is gracious toward believers, for his responsibility is to restore God’s wayward children (33:23-28). Elihu applied his instruction to Job by encouraging him to respond in faith to the grace of God, confess his sin, and be restored to fellowship with the Lord. The problem is that Job was not suffering because of some unconfessed or unrepentant sin.

The theological principle that Elihu stated does have a New Testament equivalence. At the Lord’s Supper, believers are instructed to examine themselves, so they do not partake “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor 11:27-28), which is conducting oneself without consideration of the significance of Christ’s death. Similar to Job’s friends, the Corinthians had become experts in examining someone else, yet were not considering themselves. Consequently, many were judged with sickness, and some with death (v. 30). God judgment is discipline (cf. Heb 12:5-11), intending to motivate believers to live a life that glorifies the Lord.

Pain and Suffering for the Glory of God
God allowed Satan to have power over Job (Job 1:12-22), and even to increase his suffering (2:1-10). Throughout the entire ordeal, Job learned “the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom,” and departing “from evil is understanding” (28:28). God responded to Job’s questions by emphasizing His power and wisdom. God revealed His character to Job, who then realized that the Lord was not obliged to provide an explanation. God is powerful enough to have created the universe and to rule it supremely; thus, He is certainly wise enough to care for Job. The book of Job teaches that God can be served faithfully, regardless of whether circumstances are desolate and dismal or pleasant and promising, because the believer is assured that God always seeks his/her ultimate good (Rom 8:28).

Job’s experience finds correspondence in the New Testament, with the healing of the man born blind (John 9). Jesus’ disciples applied the reasoning of Job’s three friends, asking the Lord whether the “man or his parents” sinned so “that he would be born blind” (v. 2). “Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (v. 3). When the man was healed, God used the miracle as a testimony to many, including the religious authorities. The man’s healing resulted in his salvation (vv. 35-39), and many others believed in Jesus (10:42). While it is difficult to endure prolonged suffering, those challenges are greatly alleviated with the Messiah explaining the case of the man born blind, whom God had suffer many years for the glory of the Lord Jesus. Whenever believers suffer, they must trust in the power and wisdom of God, because the Lord works in and through the pain and suffering of His people for His glory and for their good.

• Tim Mulgan, “The Ethics of ET” [article online] (Aeon, 5 December 2017, accessed 22 December 2017) available from https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-discovery-of-extraterrestrial-life-would-change-morality.

Midnight Call - 03/2018

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