A guy named Pete gets a job as a switchman with the railroad, and undergoes weeks of training. The supervisor then takes him into the switch booth to test his readiness. The following exchange takes place:
Supervisor: “Imagine you were sitting here alone and you learned there was a train coming from the North on that track, and another coming from the South on the same track. What would you do?”
Pete: “I’d throw this switch right here and put one train on the other track.”
Supervisor: And what if that switch didn’t work?”
Pete: “I’d go down to the track and throw that big switchlever there, putting one train on the other track.”
Supervisor: “And what if that switchlever didn’t work?”
Pete: “Then I’d come back here and call the dispatcher to stop both trains.”
Supervisor: “And what if the phone didn’t work?”
Pete: “Then I’d go to that gas station across the street and use their phone.”
Supervisor: “And what if their phone didn’t work?”
Pete: “Then I’d go get Uncle Joe.”
Supervisor: “Uncle Joe??? What would he do?”
Pete: “Nothing, but he ain’t never seen a train wreck.”
Many of us, though, have seen a trainwreck in our lives or the lives of somebody close to us. Something terrible, something awful, that left us with a feeling of “why me?” When I was young, and I’m fortunate that I don’t remember this traumatic event, I’m was told that a man in a mask burst into my room, grabbed me by my ankles, lifted me up, and while I hung there naked, he smacked me on the bottom. They told me he was the doctor, I certainly hope so. As a newborn, I was already having a hard time maintaining my dignity. I mean, really, what did I do to deserve THAT? And it seems sometimes that some people have been trying to smack me around ever since.
Perhaps you’ve been smacked around, too. A marriage that failed, a mother or father that died. I have a friend up in Conroe who has a granddaughter that’s permanently brain damaged since the age of 8 months because of a tragic home accident. When calamity happens, we want to ask why, we want to question God. Some may want to step away from their faith in anger at God. Why do bad things happen to good people?
There are lots of possibilities. For the unbeliever, God will use pain and suffering to turn the unbeliever away from evil ways. Repent, turn from sin, and face God. For the unbeliever, God has only 1 instruction: Believe in Him.
For one who professes Christ but leans on men or perhaps lean on their own understanding, God sometimes uses calamity to strengthen faith. If a Christian leans on money, God sometimes takes that crutch away through a family emergency, perhaps loss of a job. If a Christian leans on his own works, God may allow health issues to make him dependent on God. For a strong, upright and faithful Christian, God uses calamity to sanctify him, to bring him closer to God.
And then sometimes, we don’t have any idea why we suffer. We look at ourselves for unrepentant sin, something we’re doing wrong, we think God’s trying to tell us something, and we just can’t figure it out. It’s undeserved. We’ve been smacked on the bottom and been through a trainwreck, and we don’t know why.
II. The Book of Job
The book of Job is an illustration of undeserved suffering. Job is a prominent and wealthy servant of God, and in a matter of minutes, Job loses everything. Financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, all took a beating. To Job, it might appear that God had deserted him and offered him no comfort or explanation. Yet through all of his suffering, Job remained faithful to God and even stopped to worship Him in the midst of suffering. That’s inspirational, a perfect example of how God wants us to respond in everything.
Let’s walk through Job’s life and see what happens. If you have your bibles, let’s turn to the chapter on Quality. You know, Quality. Quality is Job 1.
Job 1:1 –
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
Job was “blameless and upright.” He was morally sound, mature, full of integrity. The Hebrew word for “blameless” is “תָּם tâm” and also means “perfect.” Job walked the straight and narrow path.
Job “feared God and shunned evil.” This doesn’t mean he was a coward; a healthy fear and respect of the power of God is necessary for good spiritual discipline. Proverbs 1:7 says “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”
I think the phrase “feared God and shunned evil” together are interesting – “feared God” meant Job always did the right thing, but more than that he shunned evil, or also avoided the wrong thing. He was a complete man of God, not one who did good when people were watching and evil when people were not. Job was not a hypocrite who said one thing and did another, he was a man of perfect integrity, doing what was right and avoiding what was wrong.
He was also a very wealthy, prosperous man. Let’s look at his tax return –
- seven sons, 3 daughters. Excellent, so he had a lot of deductions for dependents
- 7000 sheep. Enough wool to make something good. Or at least something baaaad.
- 3000 camels (For the record, I don’t own *any* camels!)
- 500 oxen (I don’t own any cows, though I’ve eaten a few)
- 500 donkeys (I don’t own any donkeys either. True story: my brother once gave his wife a donkey for Mother’s Day. His life is very different than mine.)
- and a large number of servants.
Job was like sort of a cross between Billy Graham and Warren Buffett. In verse 4 through 5, we also learn that Job was blessed not only with material wealth and public prestige, but also a loving family. Seven sons and three daughters that regularly broke bread together and Job would pray for them and offer sacrifices on their behalf.
Now, in verse 6, we step away from the human world and into the spiritual world where there is some sort of conference going on in Heaven. The angels of the Lord are presenting themselves before the Almighty, and Satan also arrives in heaven.
“Where have you been?” says God.
“Checking things out, wandering around, looking for some mischief.”
God says, “Have you considered Job? He’s the best of the best, blameless and upright, fears God and shuns evil.”
This disturbs me. I’d like to avoid the devil and stay as far away from him as I can. Yet here God is saying to Satan, “Dude, are you bored? Check out my man Job.” Why would God do this?
The short answer is, we don’t really know. No one can truly know the mind of God. Here’s a few things we do know, however – we know that Romans 8:28 says
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
All things, including what’s about to happen to Job. How could calamity be considered good? Well, Job wouldn’t know this of course, but he turned out to be an example for thousands of years of God’s power and absolute control. That’s good for us to know, even if Job didn’t.
We also know that God promises not to give us more than we can handle. In 1 Corinthians 10:13,
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
God will not permit anything to come into our lives that we are not capable of withstanding. That doesn’t mean tragedy won’t come our way – only that when it does, we’ll either be able to stand up under it or provide a way out.
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
I’m not surprised Satan cops an attitude with God. Satan says that the only reason Job fears the Lord and is a man of perfect integrity is because God pays Job to be a great guy. God has built a hedge of protection around Job and blessed Job abundantly.
Have you ever prayed for a hedge of protection? It’s a good prayer, to protect ourselves from evil. But this verse shows that the hedge of protection is taken down as easily as it is put up, either by God or by a very aggressive landscaping company, but more importantly, if the hedge of protection is taken down, it may not have anything whatsoever to do with our morality.
Are we shallow Christians that believe that if we are doing God’s will, God will bless us? That’s what the heresy of the Prosperity Gospel teaches, a “name it and claim it” attitude. Are we making some sort of bartering agreement with God? OK God, I mowed my neighbor’s yard this week. I helped a little old lady across the street. I said, “God bless you” when somebody sneezed. Now listen God: you owe me. That is a shallow Christian that misunderstands the will of God. We do not do God’s will in order to receive blessings. We do God’s will so that God may do His will. We may or may not receive blessings on this earth. In my experience, we all receive an abundance of blessings that we take for granted, but earthly blessings are fleeting. God’s blessing to us is His son Jesus, sacrificed for our sins and shortcomings so that we may have life everlasting with our Savior. That’s our blessing.
And yet, on this earth, God *is* a God of blessings, but He is not *only* a God of blessings. He’s not some magician we produce at parties to pull a rabbit out of a hat for us. I’ve heard some people give an excuse for their behavior by saying, “God just wants me to be happy.” That is not God’s primary desire. The gift of joy comes from the Lord, but God’s primary goal is for us to bring glory Him, to worship He who created us and to point others to the good news. We cannot excuse your behavior by saying, “God wants me to be happy.” When you read about the disaster about to befall Job, can you still say God wants Job to be happy? No, God wants Job to glorify God.
We also know here that Satan badly misjudges Job, and God is perfectly right and accurate. Satan believes that if Satan is allowed to wreak havoc in Job’s life that Job will renounce God and curse God to His face. God knows Job, though, just as He knows you and me. God will be able to use Job’s calamities for God’s purposes.
“The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.”
What would happened if this exchange was about you? What if God and Satan were talking about you in heaven? “Have you considered my servant Michael? Have you considered my servant Gene? Have you considered my servant Elizabeth? Put your own name in the blank. God knows where you are spiritually, and He promises not to give us more than we can handle, but how would you feel about God talking about you with Satan?
God is sovereign, all powerful. We like to believe that God is all good and nothing evil comes from Him, but that’s an incomplete picture. God *is* all good, but He is also sovereign, in charge of everything. Notice Satan has to ask God’s permission before he is allowed to mess with Job.
The humans in us would like to say God’s answer should be, “Nope, don’t mess with Job, he’s mine.” We like to think of God and Satan as being the great generals of a massive battle between good and evil, battling it out in the heavens and on earth. Obi Wan Kanobe versus Darth Vader. Professor X versus Magneto. Captain America verses Thanos. Aslan versus the White Witch.
We think Satan is reeking his havoc on Earth from Hell, but that’s not quite right. From the book of Job and in 1 Peter 5:8, we know that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, and Revelation 20:10 tells us that Satan will not be cast into the Lake of Fire before Judgment Day. God isn’t battling Satan, God is sovereign. God is referred to as “The Almighty” in the book of Job 31 times. When Satan wants to do evil, he has to ask God’s permission. This is true in the New Testament, too, by the way. In Luke 22, the disciples are squabbling over which one of them will be considered the greatest in Heaven, and Jesus rebukes them and tells them to be more concerned about serving. Then he says in Luke 22:31:
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.”
Look, Satan is asking for permission again.
Does it bother you that God gives permission for suffering? A big mistake in our Christian walk is to misunderstand what “God is in control” means. We think that since God is in control, we have a right to expect Him to keep bad things from happening to us. We want to think that because we want to keep bad things from happening to our friends and family, and if we think that, God should think that. We are children of God, are we not? How could God let something bad happen to us or our loved ones if He is in control?
But let me ask you some blunt questions. Did God have a son? And did that son suffer? And did that suffering work for God’s glory? God does have a plan, God is in control, and it is human folly to think that God’s plan does not include suffering. As Christians, we know that our suffering will be used by God for His purposes. We know that it is our response to disappointments in life that makes us stronger in our faith to our almighty God. The sinner doesn’t have this comfort. To the sinner, suffering is pointless. Suffering makes a sinner bitter. Suffering makes a Christian better.
Let’s see what sort of things we’ve learned so far about God.
Lessons Learned about God:
– God is sovereign over all, good and evil.
– God provides hedges and removes them according to His will.
We’ve learned a few things about Satan during this exchange. I learned Satan has access to God in Heaven. I read this exchange and thought, Holy Smoke, how did Satan get in there? That’s not allowed! But it’s true, Satan has access to God, and must ask God for permission before he can do evil. We learn that Satan is evil, but not sovereign over evil. Satan has to ask God’s permission.
Lessons Learned About Satan
– Satan has access to God’s throne in Heaven.
– Satan has to ask God’s permission before he can touch God’s people
What happens to Job after this? Satan may not lay a finger on Job – God set that boundary and Satan must obey – but Satan sends destruction. Job 13-19, the Sabeans steal the ox and donkeys, then kill all the servants. Then lightning strikes and kills the sheep, then the Chaldeans steal all the camels, and then a mighty wind collapses his son’s house and kills all of his children. In a matter of minutes, Job loses everything. Everything.
Now I know that in this room, we all have tragedies in our lives. Death. Divorce. Pain. Unemployment. Why do we have to suffer? When we’re facing a calamity, the first thing as Christians that we must do is self-reflection. We must look inside ourselves for unrepentant sin. The Old Testament is replete with examples of God sending His perfect wrath in order to turn His people away from evil and toward Him. We’ll never be 100% righteous, but we know when we are sinning and it feels too good to stop. God will get our attention one way or another.
But what if we’ve examined ourselves for unrepentant sin and find none? God did not allow Satan to bring harm to Job just to say to Satan, See, I told you. God’s not trying to prove a point. God knew Job’s faith was real, and God knew this before he allowed Satan to do what he did. God’s purposes in allowing suffering are complex and it is not possible to reduce the purpose of suffering to some simple explanation. But our response to that suffering illustrates our faith.
I know how I have reacted to suffering in my life. Anger. Depression. A mix of both. Sometimes it’s been directed at God, how could you do this? How could you let something like this happen? But let’s see how a faithful man of God reacts, see what he does and does not do. Job 1:20,
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship.
Instead of tearing robes we wear black, but ancient signs of grief included tearing his robe and shaving his head. It is ok to grieve. It is ok to cry. We are commanded to love one another, and I’ve discovered that love means emotional risk. The loss of love is most certainly a time for grief. God gave us emotions, and it’s ok to have those emotions. But Job didn’t stop at the crying and wailing about his calamities. Job said,
Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.”
Job fell to the ground and worshipped God. An amazing response. A teachable lesson to me.
As Christians, we can recognize that everything in this life is a gift from God. Our possessions, sure, but our relationships, our children, our very breath of life. We came into this world naked, slapped on the bottom by a strange man in a mask. We come into this world with nothing. And when we leave, we take nothing with us. The Lord gives it all to us, and the Lord takes it all away again. “May the name of the Lord be praised.” It is easy to praise the name of the Lord when he gives. When he takes away, can we still praise the name of the Lord? Are we only thankful for things he gives? He may have many reasons for taking away, all according to His purpose. Can we give thanks to God for taking it away?
How do we remain thankful while suffering? Rather than blame God for what he doesn’t have, Job thanks God for what he does have. In 1 Thessalonians 16:18, Paul tells us,
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
We recognize that it is God’s will for us to be thankful in all circumstances. Job could thank God because Job realized that everything Job had didn’t belong to Job; it all belonged to God. God owns everything. Job had the privilege of managing it for a little while. And in Job’s careful stewardship and praise, we learn one more thing about God: When Satan attacks, God uses it for His own good and His glory. Job 1:22,
“In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be depressed. Our emotions are something God gives us. Job certainly had intense feelings of grief. But Job did not sin because he didn’t say God was wrong. He didn’t say God was neglectful. He didn’t say God has bad intentions. Through all Job’s grief, he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job stayed strong. He didn’t whine, “Why meeeee?” His character remained that which God approved, even in the midst of suffering. Job was strong, patient, even resigned. And Satan must have been disappointed. Here was a man who loved God more than money, more than his earthly possessions, more than his family. Job’s relationship with God was not dependent on his circumstances, his position in society, or his stuff.
In Chapter 2, Satan goes back to God and says, “well, ok, so that didn’t work, but you didn’t let me touch him. He’s still a healthy person. Let me take away his health.” I don’t know what this illness was, maybe he had more than one thing. In chapter 2, we know he has boils from the sole of his foot to the top of his head, and they itch. In Chapter 7 through 30, we learn that it also includes a haggard appearance, running sores, loss of sleep, depression, severe weight loss, acute pain, darkened and peeling skin, and fever. Oh, and bad breath. In verse 7, Job sits down in the ashes of his life and scrapes himself with a piece of broken pottery. Sort of symbolic, like his life had now become a piece of broken pottery.
His wife was less than helpful.
“Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die already.”
Before we pick on Job’s wife too harshly, let’s remember that she, too, was intensely affected by all of this. She, too, had lost all of her children, she’s lost any importance she thought she had in the eyes of the community, and her husband is some foul-smelling creature sitting in a garbage dump scraping sores with a piece of pottery. So Job’s wife was certainly under a lot of stress. It’s easy to pick on her, but she’s in pain. Perhaps she thought her own pain would end if Job would just die. Perhaps she just loved Job and wanted his suffering to end.
Job still didn’t sin; sometimes it’s easier to remain faithful to God when you’re alone, but remaining faithful to God when you’re with others is harder. Job tells her that she’s talking foolishly, that her faith is not wise enough.
“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
We do not always have a choice in our circumstances, but we do have a choice in how we respond. Job’s wife responded first with her emotions. Job responded with his faith.
Job’s closest friends were more helpful. What did they say when Job first lost everything? Nothing. When they came to visit, they were shocked, they cried with him, then sat on the ground with him for 7 days and said nothing. Nothing. Just sat and grieved. Sometimes there’s nothing you can say, so there’s no need to try. Just be there.
I want to close with a few examples. How many here saw the movie “United 93” about the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania because of the terrorist attack of 9/11? It’s a powerful movie, mostly for what it doesn’t say. There’s no commentary explaining people’s motives, just a real-time account of people’s actions. We see the confusion of the people at the FAA, the hysteria of the passengers, the evil of the terrorists bound on killing as many people as they can.
Many of us have heard of Todd Beamer, who uttered the famous, “Let’s roll” during the passenger’s revolt against the terrorists in an attempt to regain control of the airplane. What a lot of us may not know is Todd Beamer’s family were devoted followers of Christ. Can you identify with Todd’s wife, Lisa, the grief she must have suffered? She turned her faith in God into a powerful testimony and wrote a book that encourages people to build their lives on a firm foundation of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Here’s what she wrote about 9/11:
We all have the choice to look at the things we’ve lost or to look at the things we have, to become bitter or to become better, to live in fear or to live in hope. I’ve chosen to live in hope, not because I’m a strong person but because of the heavenly, eternal perspective that God has given me. Lately I’ve been trying to look at the bigger picture, to discover what I’m supposed to learn from all this. Probably the most important truth is that my security must be in God rather than in anything or anyone in this world.
Think about it: the World Trade Center represented economic power, success, and security; yet it was shaken and destroyed in less than an hour. The Pentagon is the symbol of our nation’s military might; yet it, too, proved vulnerable. Where can we find true security these days?
I have found safety and security in a loving heavenly Father, who cannot be shaken, who will never leave me or forsake me, and in whom I can trust completely. For those looking for hope, I recommend grabbing the hand of your heavenly Father as tightly as possible, like a little child does with his parent. God is a hero who will always be there when you need him.
And Joni Eareckson Tada who has founded a ministry on sharing the gospel and equipping churches with the tools to evangelize and disciple people affected by disabilities. Joni said that when she gets to heaven she is going to fold up her wheel chair hand it to Jesus and say, “thanks, I needed that.”
There’s our example. Thanks, Jesus. To truly worship you and bring you glory, I needed that.
To God be the Glory. Amen.