Some years back, my girls and some of their friends were being mistreated. The details aren’t important; it was just one of those things that happen all the time, caused by carelessness more than malice. I could have complained—I was in the right and can be eloquent when roused—but in so doing I would have damaged some relationships to a degree out of proportion to the problem. The girls weren’t being harmed, just annoyed. My best course of action was to swallow the pill and move on.
And that made me think of the book of Job. Not that my daughters’ suffering, or my vicarious suffering on their behalf, had anything on the trials of Job, but Job’s experience does shed a lot of light on unmerited suffering in general.
The book of Job is fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is that it shows Satan having access to heaven. We’re not given details of the arrangement, but there he is in verse 6 of chapter 1, presenting himself to God.
7 And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
Evidently Satan just cruises the planet, seeing what’s up.
Then God says something extraordinary.
8 Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?
The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “sinless” in this context, but rather “complete” or “mature”—like a perfect fifth in music or the “more perfect union” spoken of in the Constitution. God doesn’t claim absolute moral purity for Job. Still, the claim he does make is a big one. And he’s making it to Satan, the Accuser, who gets off on defying God and discrediting his followers.
I just can’t get out about that. Here is a man so praiseworthy that God himself holds him up as an example of upright character.
It’s easy to imagine a sneer in Satan’s reply.
9 Doth Job fear God for nought?
10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.
11 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
At this point you can almost hear a chorus of “Oooooooooo!” from any demons who may be in attendance. Then heavy silence. The court of Heaven awaits God’s reply.
For this is the sort of question which, once raised, cannot be dismissed. Do we follow God merely because he blesses us? Are we mercenary creatures, obeying God in order to reap the benefits of a godly life, without loving God himself? Is virtue a strict business relationship—sort of an I-stay-chaste-and-honest-and-you-bless-my-crops-and-protect-my-health-and-family thing?
Or is there more to it than that?
There’s only one way to answer the question: put it to an empirical test.
12 And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.
Once permission is granted, catastrophe falls swiftly on Job. In a stunning series of acts of war and freakish natural disasters, his blessings of wealth and comfort and children are wiped out in a single day.
We must remember that in Job’s culture, material blessing was considered the mark of God’s favor. The whole cause-and-effect, blessings-for-obedience thing was intrinsic to contemporaneous thought. It was just the way things were.
Job knew he hadn’t sinned in a way that could have merited such heavy retribution from God. He’d been faithful—unusually faithful—superlatively faithful. A chasm gaped before him, an apparent rift in the very order of the universe. How could he reconcile what he believed about God’s goodness with the evidence of his eyes?
20 Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
22 In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.
Imagine the exultation among God’s angels and, yes, God himself when Job spoke these beautiful words. A mortal man, prone to frailty and doubt and despair, and not privy to the counsels of angels, had risen above cultural assumptions and held firm to God when he had ample reason not to. When you continue to love and trust someone even when his behavior baffles you—when you say to yourself, “Well, I don’t know why he’d do that, but he must have a good reason,” and you are content to wait on the full explanation—it means you have faith in that person’s character. He is a friend of the highest order.
The thing that caught my attention that day four years ago is how God regarded Job. He had confidence in him; in some mysterious way he trusted him, if I may be allowed to use the word. He trusted him to such a degree that when Job’s integrity was questioned, God could say with assurance, Go ahead. Put him to the test. You’ll see. God allowed Job to be attacked because he thought Job could take it. And he was right.
Suddenly my vexing little social irritation took on a new significance. Could it be that God thought I could take it, too? That he trusted me to handle this small piece of unmerited suffering with grace and tact and self-control? If so, then it was a compliment for me to be experiencing it at all.
And suddenly I wanted to make good on that. I wanted to justify God’s confidence in me—to glorify him. I would take the blow on the chin, keep my feet under me, and smile.
Job’s trials didn’t end that first day. By the time Satan had finished, he’d lost wealth, health, family, and community standing; and the company of visiting friends only added to his misery. True to their culture, Job’s friends held stubbornly to the dictum that suffering is the direct result of sin. Actually, most people are quick to search for simple cause-and-effect relationships to explain suffering, even those who don’t consider God part of the process. You did X, and now Y is happening to you. The reaction is a defense mechanism. We want to distance ourselves from the possibility of future suffering of our own, and it makes us feel secure to believe we can avoid Y by not doing X.
To a degree, this is sound thinking. It’s prudent to take note of relationships between behavior and consequences and direct our paths accordingly. They say experience is the best teacher, but experience doesn’t always have to be direct and personal. The book of Proverbs is all about gaining wisdom vicariously.
But the truth is that people often suffer through absolutely no fault of their own. And that is a terrible thing to see.
This is not to say that unmerited suffering is without purpose. God does nothing by chance, and he puts limits on what the Enemy can do to us. But we don’t always learn in this lifetime what that purpose is. The point is that the suffering may not be our fault. It may even be our merit.
But I think we can safely say that undeserved suffering always has one particular purpose behind it. That purpose is the demonstration of character.
This works on earth as surely as in heaven. When adversity delivers an upper cut, some folks cave and others stand firm. I am a devoted student of human nature, and I watch these reactions and quietly file away my observations for future reference. I’m sorry if this sounds creepy, but I can’t not do it. I assess character all the time. I’ve seen some friends and acquaintances handle serious adversity with such cheerful patience and faith in God’s goodness that I feel humbly grateful just to know them. Others have lost my good opinion by pouting and making others miserable over small matters. Most of these folks would probably be surprised to learn that their integrity of character matters to me in the slightest, but it does.
Sara Crewe, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic story A Little Princess, is a pampered girl who has always been surrounded by luxury and affection. She is well-mannered and accomplished and treats others with kindness and consideration.
But she wonders how much of her reputation for goodness is deserved, and how much is owing to the environment in which she was raised.
‘Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? Perhaps I’m a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.’
Later in the book, Sara loses everything—family, wealth, position, and almost all physical comforts—in one Job-like swoop. This is her opportunity to show what she’s made of. Sara proves her quality, and it is sterling.
‘Whatever comes,’ she said, ‘cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.’
Being a princess is not the same as being rich or comfortable or happy. Being a princess is an identity. A princess is a king’s daughter. She might lose her fine clothes, her wealth, even the high regard of the multitudes, as many princesses throughout the history of the world have done. But she never stops being a princess inside. A princess is a princess, always—as surely as her father is a king.