A Unique Pain
OCTOBER 9, 2021
By Christopher Ash
There is a pain for the believer that gives suffering a unique sharpness. Suffering is the common experience of the human race. All sorts of people get ill; all kinds of people are touched by war, famine, and earthquake. And yet suffering touches the believer with a sharper and uniquely piercing pain. How so? Believers do not necessarily and always suffer more or worse. They do not get more illnesses or suffer worse from natural disasters. So in what way is the pain of a believer sharper?
It is what is sometimes called the problem of pain. The worshiper truly believes that God is sovereign. He or she really believes that the living God is in control of his world. And so, when suffering comes, it must be God who ultimately sends it—after all, he is in control, is he not? It is not just that it hurts—although Job’s suffering hurts abominably. It is more than this: it is the conviction that it is God who is in some sense doing the hurting. We see this in Job’s first reply (Job 6–7). In Job 6:2–4 Job laments that God is like an archer firing poison arrows at him. He returns to this image in Job 7:17–21, where in a strange variation of Psalm 8 he asks, “What is man, that you make so much of him?”
While Psalm 8 marvels at the dignity entrusted to human beings, of caring for God’s world, Job cannot see it. For him, God simply will not leave him alone, but insists on choosing Job to be his target for archery target practice (7:20). God is an accuser who picks legalistically over his past (7:21a), a God with no grace and no forgiveness. And it’s so unfair. “Because,” he says in effect, “I have confessed my sin, I am a real believer, I am living a new life. So why, oh why, does God persist in finding fault with me?” (see 13:26). I do not deserve it. We find similar complaints in the Psalms (e.g., Ps. 44).
And it is not just Job; the injustice Job experiences is targeted at others as well. In 9:21–24 he says he is past caring about himself. But this kind of thing is happening all over the place, so much so that he casts in God’s face a terrible accusation: “He destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (9:22). That is a very serious accusation; no wonder Job’s friends see red. For if that kind of accusation can be proved against a judge or government official, then he or she must resign, if there is to be any justice. “I really think,” implies Job, “that God ought to resign. It’s a true accusation, for when an epidemic brings sudden death, God mocks the despair of the innocent. When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges—so that there is no justice” (9:23–24). Job reasons, “If it is not he, who then is it?” (9:24). That last question is deeper than Job maybe realized, as we who have read Job 1 and 2 know. Whose hand is doing this? This is a question to which we shall return.
In 16:7–14 Job experiences God as some kind of “cosmic sadist” (using C. S. Lewis’s memorable phrase). (We shall see when we come to the monster Leviathan, in Job 41, that what Job perceives as “God” attacking him is not quite so simple.) It all seems to Job to be deeply unfair. And yet surely God is just, isn’t he? This is the added pain for the believer living in a world of undeserved suffering. For undeserved suffering is a threat to the moral foundations of the universe. Either God is not in control, or he is not fair. And that causes the believer deep and sharp perplexity.
Job’s comforters get around this problem by dogmatic denial. Undeserved suffering never happens. How do we know? Well, if someone suffers, it proves he deserves it. This is a circular argument, clung to at the price of honesty. Their worldview can be believed only if we close our eyes to the reality of the world we are supposed to be viewing, where there are believers with a clear conscience, no hidden sin, trusting in God for forgiveness and walking in the light with him, and yet who suffer terribly.
It is a problem. But it is important for us to notice that it is a problem only for the believer. When unbelievers say to us they are troubled by the problem of pain and the unfairness of suffering in the world, we may say to them, “Why are you troubled? I as a believer am troubled, but why should you be? For you do not believe in a living God who is in control and who is good. So why should you expect there to be any logic or any fairness? And yet you do, don’t you? I wonder if that is because we are deeply hardwired to know there is a living God who is in control and who is just.” The irony is that the moment we begin to feel this perplexity, we must admit we ought to believe in a living God.
And if you and I don’t feel this pain, it must be questioned whether we really believe. Just to accept it may indicate fatalism more than it does faith. For the true believer will follow Job and rail passionately against the injustice of it all, calling on the sovereign God to do something. The believer takes seriously the “godness” of God.
The first mark of a real believer is to feel keenly the pain of an unfair world. The unbeliever says to us, “Have you ever wondered why the world is so unfair?”
“Oh, yes,” we say. “We wonder all the time.”
Content taken from Trusting God in the Darkness by Christopher Ash, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.