The Experience of Job: Why Do Good People Suffer?

By Tom McGovern


The experience of the patriarch Job as recorded in the Bible book bearing his name presents a philosophical question that has plagued humanity through all of its history: why do good people suffer? Job, we are told in Scripture, "was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil." (Job 1:1) Yet God allowed him to experience a series of personal trials that raise questions as to why such things happen, often to the people who seem to deserve it least.

The concept behind these questions has, in fact, been formulated into a logical argument, which has been used to argue against the veracity of the Bible and even the existence of God. This argument is commonly referred to as "the problem of evil". The logic behind the argument goes like this: the God of the Bible is presented as being both entirely good and all-powerful. His being entirely good implies that He does not desire for evil to exist. His being all-powerful means that He has the ability to eradicate evil if He so desires. Nonetheless, evil unquestionably exists. Therefore, concludes the skeptic, one of two situations must obtain: God is either less than completely good, in that He tolerates the existence of evil, or He is less than all-powerful, and lacks the ability to prevent evil. Either way, the skeptic argues, the omnipotent, completely good God described in the Bible does not exist.

Does this argument have validity? Does the existence of real evil and suffering in the world preclude the possibility of the existence of a good and loving God, Who is also all-powerful? Examining the experience of Job and the lessons he learned will shed a great deal of light on this question.

The Essential Facts of the Case

As previously stated, Job was a righteous man who was afflicted with many personal tragedies within a very short span of time. His sons were in the habit of having large family gatherings, possibly birthday celebrations, at which all ten of the children of Job would be present with their families (1:4, 5) [1]. 

One particular day when such a feast was being held, tragedy struck. One messenger after another came to Job and reported to him the terrible calamities that had unfolded. First, Job's beasts of burden were stolen by Sabean raiders and the servants who had been tending the animals were killed (1:15). Next, Job's sheep and the servants who watched over them were burned up by apparently miraculous fire (1:16). After that, Job's camels were plundered by Chaldean marauders, and again, the servants were murdered. (1:17) Finally, word came that all of Job's children had died as the result of a great windstorm that came up while they were feasting (1:18, 19).

Remarkably, despite such an overwhelming loss, Job maintained his faith and integrity before God: "Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.' Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God." (1:20-22)

Some time later, the affliction upon Job became even more personal. The Bible tells us that he was smitten "with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." (2:7) At this point, a subtle shift in Job's attitude appears to have occurred. Though he still maintained his integrity before God, we see that he has begun to blame God for his difficulties. Job 2:9, 10 tell us: "Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!' But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips." While Job did not "sin" by cursing God as his wife urged, it is apparent that he now considered his adversities as originating with God.

What Job Did Not Know

As Job experienced wave after wave of adversity, he was unaware of a drama that was playing out in Heaven. Satan had come in among the angels before God and challenged God as to the righteousness of Job. Satan's claim was that Job did not serve God out of love, but because God had provided so well for him. In order to demonstrate the falsity of Satan's claim, God allowed Satan to inflict Job with various trials. Initially Satan was subject to the restriction that Job's own person not be harmed. Later, when the initial wave of persecutions failed to break Job's integrity, God allowed Satan to go even further, bringing painful, pestilent boils upon Job's own flesh.

Job was not in a position to know that his sufferings were the focal point of this controversy between God and Satan. He did not understand that by maintaining his integrity even in the face of his trials, he was passing a test of his faithfulness which God was allowing and was demonstrating God's worthiness of his loyalty.

Job did know, however, who God was. He knew of God's love and care for him in the past and he was determined to maintain his faithfulness even to death. All the same, his difficulties caused him to waver somewhat in his faith, if not to the point of disloyalty to God, at least as far as implicitly blaming God for his misfortunes.

Advice from the Comforters

Upon hearing of Job's situation, three of his friends came together to visit Job in order "to sympathize with him and comfort him." (2:11) Their names were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite. The "comfort" they offered was questionable at best. The book of Job records three rounds of conversation among the three comforters and Job. Each friend took a turn at speaking, followed by a reply from Job. These conversations are recorded in elegant Hebrew poetry, a departure from the straightforward prose narrative that tells the basic story and acts as a framing sequence for the book.

The essence of the "comforting" advice given by the three was that Job was somehow responsible for his own plight. Eliphaz argued that God does not bring calamity upon the innocent (4:7-9). By this reasoning, Job must have somehow sinned and thus provoked God to anger against him, and his present circumstances were the evidence of Job's sin. Eliphaz advised Job to repent of his sins and to seek God, accepting His discipline: "Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves, so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For He inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds, and His hands also heal. From six troubles He will deliver you, even in seven evil will not touch you." (5:17-19) Job recognizes the accusations made by Eliphaz as being of little comfort indeed. He protests that he has maintained his righteousness before God and defies Eliphaz to show him where he has sinned (6:24, 25, 29).

The next friend to speak is Bildad and he advances an argument similar to that of Eliphaz. Bildad points out that God is just. He speculates that the sin being punished by God may have been committed by Job's children. Like Eliphaz, Bildad encouraged Job to repent in order to gain restoration from God (8:7-9).

Job begins his response by saying, "how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to dispute with Him, He could not answer Him once in a thousand times." (9:2, 3) These remarks are almost prophetic of the lesson that Job was to learn later directly from the hand of God. Job goes on to bemoan the hopelessness of his situation and he also demonstrates that he has come to blame God for his afflictions, even implying that God has punished him unfairly: "According to Your knowledge I am indeed not guilty, yet there is no deliverance from Your hand." (10:7)

Zophar is the final speaker among the three friends of Job and he accuses Job of trying to justify himself before God. He claims that Job's protestations of innocence would be refuted if God Himself were to speak, and, like the other two comforters, urged Job to repent of his duplicity, which would result in a restoration to God's favor. Job responds that he knows the ways of God as well as his friends do, calls them liars and "worthless physicians" (13:4) and protests again that he has maintained his integrity before God and will continue to do so: "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him. This also will be my salvation, for a godless man may not come before His presence. Listen carefully to my speech, and let my declaration fill your ears. Behold now, I have prepared my case; I know that I will be vindicated." (13:15-18) He expresses a wish that God would simply let him die and remember him at a future time, illustrating the despondency to which his afflictions had brought him.

The subsequent two rounds of conversation between Job and his comforters proceeded along the same lines. Each of the comforters made the case that Job had brought calamity upon himself from the hand of God by somehow sinning. Job protested in turn that he had been faithful to God and did not deserve the things that were happening to him.

Nuggets of Truth

Despite the uninformed reasoning that was evidenced by the arguments of the comforters, there were some nuggets of truth in what they said. It is true that sin does bring negative results, whether these results represent the judgment of God against the sinner or simply the natural outworking of sin's consequences. In arguing that God is just and does not bring calamity upon the innocent, Job's friends were correct. However, they missed the point that God may sometimes allow suffering in order to achieve a greater good. We may not enjoy the dentist's drilling of our teeth, but by accepting that discomfort, we avoid a greater pain that would result from untreated decay. Similarly, God may allow trials to come upon us in order to build our character, in order to discipline us, or to bring glory to Himself through our faithful endurance.

In Job's case, all of these reasons applied. By Job's maintaining integrity in the face of all his sufferings, he thwarted Satan's accusations and glorified God. In doing so, Job himself learned valuable lessons and grew in his relationship with God.

Job's friends correctly pointed out that God will ultimately punish the unrighteous and that He faithfully restores those who repent of sin to a good relationship with Him. However, it was also true that Job's sufferings had not been brought upon him because of any sin he had committed. Indeed, it was really because of Job's integrity that Satan had focused upon him and God had allowed him to be tested in such a way.

Rather than glorifying God, though, Job became self-righteous and effectively accused God of being unfair in punishing him unjustly. Job was certainly a righteous man in human terms, but he was still a sinner before God. His righteousness, while greater than that of most men, was still well below God's holy standard. We are told at Isa. 64:6, "For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment." It is ourrighteous deeds, not our sins that God sees as a "filthy garment". Even the best things we do are tainted by our sinful inclinations. None of us can meet His standard; we all need to trust in Christ in order to approach God and have a standing before Him.

But Job relied upon his own righteousness, and, worse, implied that God was guilty of injustice. Zophar was very correct when he noted that Job was trying to justify himself before God. Job should have humbled himself and thrown himself upon God's mercy, rather than becoming indignant before God.

Elihu Speaks

Finally, three rounds of conversation between Job and his comforters concluded. Elihu, a young man who had been observing the proceedings, had been listening silently out of respect for his elders. At this point, however, he became angry to the point where he could contain his words no longer. Though he was the youngest man present, Elihu expressed the most wisdom of all those who spoke. He was angry with Job because he recognized the self-righteousness that had grown in Job's attitude and because of Job's repeated attempts to justify himself by his own righteousness. Elihu was also angry with Job's friends, because of their quickness to accuse and condemn Job, even though they had no actual knowledge of any wrongdoing on his part and could offer no realistic solutions to his problem (32:1-5).

Elihu took the position that God is completely just in all that He does. Man, on the other hand is limited in his perception and cannot comprehend what God does or why He does it. Ultimately, everything God does works out for the benefit of the righteous, but we, as humans, may not be able to see the "big picture". 

Certainly this was true in Job's case; though he glorified God by his integrity, he was completely unaware of the heavenly controversy that was ensuing. Elihu concludes his argument by asserting God's ultimate wisdom and justice: "The Almighty -- we cannot find Him; He is exalted in power and He will not do violence to justice and abundant righteousness. Therefore men fear Him; He does not regard any who are wise of heart." (37:23, 24)

The Lord States His Case

It is at this point that the Lord Himself enters the conversation. He speaks to Job and his companions from a whirlwind. It is of note that God never actually answers Job as to why He has allowed Job's trials. Rather, He rebukes Job for his self-righteousness and for his ascribing blame to God for his misfortunes. The Lord asks a series of questions designed to illustrate the littleness of man in comparison to God. 

Man is insignificant in the universe and knows nothing of the mind of God. Job could not even explain simple matters of nature, how the world came to be or why the things in the world are as they are. He could not answer questions about various forms of animal life, how they came to exist and why they behave as they do. How could Job ever presume to understand the reasons God might have that would cause Him to allow such difficulties to come upon Job? How could a mere human, who could not explain the simplest matters of creation, ever understand the purposes of God?

Despite Job's self-righteousness, the Lord still recognized that Job had maintained his faithfulness in not denying God. He still acknowledged Job as "my servant" (42:7) and rebuked Job's three supposed comforters because they had not spoken truly about God as had Job.

Job's Reaction

In the face of this reproof from the Lord, Job completely repented of his self-righteous attitude. At Job 42:2-6, he said: "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 'Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask you, and you instruct me.' I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes."

The Lord accepted Job's repentance and rewarded his integrity by restoring all of the material things that had been taken from him. Job was instructed to offer sacrifices on behalf of his friends, which he did. This seems to indicate that they, too, had repented of their foolish thinking. Additionally, Job was blessed with more sons and daughters, to replace the ones who had died. He lived long enough to see four generations of his family. Finally, we are told, "Job died, an old man and full of days."

The Lesson from Job

What do we learn from Job's experiences about human suffering? First, we learn that when bad things happen to good people, there may be reasons for God to allow those trials which are beyond the knowledge or understanding of finite humans. God is loving and entirely good; anything that He allows will ultimately work out for the best.

At Rom. 8:28, we are told: "we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Whatever God, in His sovereignty, allows will prove ultimately to be for the best. As mentioned earlier, sufferings can test us and build our character and our endurance under them brings glory to God.

Job's trials also illustrate the answer to the problem of evil as postulated at the beginning of this paper. It may be that God chooses to allow suffering for a period of time in order to fulfill a greater purpose. The fact that God has not yet eradicated all evil does not mean that He lacks either the desire or the ability to do so; only that temporary suffering by humanity somehow contributes to the accomplishment of His purposes, the understanding of which may well be beyond human comprehension.

We are assured by Scripture that God will in the future bring a final end to all evil and suffering and that those who have a relationship with Him will be rewarded for their integrity. Under the blessings of His Kingdom, all memory of past suffering will fade into meaninglessness. It will be as the words of Rev. 21:3-5 describe: 

"And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.' And He who sits on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.'"

This will be in fulfillment also of the words spoken through Isaiah at Isa. 65:17: "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind." What glory and happiness God has prepared for those who love Him! How thankful we can be for the perspective on life's difficulties that we gain through a consideration of the trials of Job and the trust that he had in his Maker!

[1] Scriptural citations in this paper in which the book is not cited are taken from the book of Job.