This week we wrapped up a study of the Book of Job where I preach. Toward the end of the book there is a passage that presents a bracing view of God’s role in Job’s suffering:
Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. (Job 42:11)
“All the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.”
Wait – I thought Job’s suffering was caused by the nebulous figure described in the opening chapters as The Accuser. Why does this text claim that it was the LORD who caused Job’s disasters?
This is not the only time in the book that responsibility for Job’s adversity is ascribed to God. In the second chapter, after Job’s initial set of catastrophic losses, the LORD asks The Accuser:
“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (Job 2:3)
Here, God says that he is the one who destroyed Job.
What are we to make of this language? After all, the straightforward reading of the text indicates that the immediate and direct cause of Job’s suffering was The Accuser. Notice the interplay that takes place in these exchanges between God and the evil one:
“But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (1:11-12)
“But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (Job 2:5-6)
In each case, The Accuser challenges God to stretch his hand against Job, and the LORD replies by telling The Accuser that Job is in his hand – within certain parameters.
This interaction between God and The Accuser gives us a glimpse into the interplay between two profound truths in Scripture: the sovereignty of God and the freedom of creatures. On the one hand, God permits The Accuser to do harm to Job, even as he sets out clear boundaries that constrain what The Accuser can do. On the other hand, The Accuser has the freedom to do harm to Job, within the limits carefully defined by God.
So, who is responsible for Job’s suffering – God or The Accuser? The answer is…both, but in different senses. The Accuser is immediately and directly responsible for Job’s catastrophes, but God is ultimately and finally responsible since The Accuser could only do what he did by God’s permission.
This is true not only of The Accuser’s actions, but of all evil choices made by creatures. The Bible teaches that all of us live, move, and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). Every moment of every creature’s existence is dependent on God. But obviously, what we as his creatures actually do with this gift of existence is not always in keeping with God’s expressed preferences. Just as God permitted The Accuser to do evil, God also permits us to do evil as well.
Really, then, the questions raised about God, The Accuser, and Job are merely reflective of the deeper questions that believers have pondered since time immemorial – why did God make the sovereign decision to grant human beings (and angels) freedom, even when we could do evil things with that freedom? Why does God permit us to rebel against him and do harm to others?
So far as I’m aware, Scripture never systematically answers this question in the way that we’d probably like, but I do think there are some basic points we can set forth that help us grapple with the question.
First, the decision to grant creatures the gift of freedom was God’s sovereign choice. No one made him do this. God freely chose to create human beings and angels with free will.
Second, the freedom that God has given to creatures is not absolute. God remains sovereign, and in that sovereignty maintains control over his creatures. Just as The Accuser could do only so much to Job and no more, all of God’s creatures remain “on the leash” of his permissive will.
Third, since we know that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that the greatest commands are to love God and man (Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-40), we can surmise that an important reason – maybe the reason – God gave his creatures free will is so that they can love him and others. It is difficult to imagine any meaningful definition of “love” that does not involve freedom of the will, after all.
Fourth, because God is sovereign, even though he permits his creatures to make evil choices, he also has the power to make good things happen in the face of that evil. Job is one of the paramount examples of this in all of Scripture. Through Job’s suffering God brought Job to a clearer vision of God (and discredited the baseless slander of The Accuser in the process).
Fifth, since God is sovereign, he has the power to bring all evil and all suffering to an end. We get a glimpse of this at the end of the Book of Job, when the LORD restores Job’s health, prosperity, and family. We get an even grander vision of this at the end of the Bible, with its promise of a new creation.
God is willing to “take responsibility” for Job’s suffering, and for ours, for all of these reasons. It is not always easy to work out the dynamic give and take of divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom. But God doesn’t expect us to do that, anyway. What he does call us to do is to trust him, to look forward to the day he makes all things new, and to care for each other in the meantime.
In other words, God calls us to faith, hope, and love.