Does the book of Job offer an explanation for why people suffer?

Chris —  May 15, 2014

Haddon Robinson's Lake Geneva Study Group with John WaltonI am preparing to preach this coming fall on the book of Job. This week, I am studying with a group with Dr. John Walton of Wheaton College. One of the first questions that comes up when studying Job is whether or not the book of Job offers an explanation of why bad things happen to good people.

Theologians use the term “theodicy” to refer to explanations of why evil exists.  A theodicy speaks to the question, “If God is good and all-powerful, how do we explain the existence of evil?”

In preaching Job this fall, I will stress  that the purpose of the book of Job is not to explain suffering (D.V.)  In fact, the purpose of Job on some level is to show that suffering cannot be understood. God’s ways are completely beyond ours (38-39). So Walton contends, “The role of the book of Job is to perform the radical surgery that separates theology from theodicy, contending that in the end Yahweh’s justice must be accepted on faith rather than worked out philosophically (Walton, 41).”

To be sure, Job’s suffering is front and center. His pain cannot be missed. But Longman contends that wisdom, not suffering, is the subject of Job (462). “Job’s suffering is the occasion for discussing wisdom (Longman, 462).” Walton identifies the purpose of the book as an evaluation of God’s policies – – more on the purpose of Job later. The point in this post is that the purpose of the book of Job is not to provide a tidy answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

While it is true that Job does not offer an explanation of why suffering takes place, the book of Job does help us understand suffering more. Longman writes:

That does not mean that the book of Job makes no contribution to our understanding of suffering, but it does so predominantly in a negative sense. In particular, it loudly and clearly denies that suffering is the result of sin or that all suffering has the purpose of discipline. The cause of suffering is much too complex to be reduced to a single explanation that can be applied to every case. The book of Job serves as a warning to those who want to judge others based on the quality of their life (Longman, 462).

Estes adds:

Although the book of Job does not formally address the problem of evil, which asks why innocent people suffer in a world governed by a God who is all-good and all-powerful, it does provide several insights that relate to the issue. The book teaches that suffering is not always attributable to personal sin. It also indicates that factors beyond human control can intrude, such as the suffering that Job experienced at the instigation of the adversary. Job’s final response reveals that suffering can result in instruction and growth, as God brings good out of evil. Ultimately, the book of Job brings the reader to realize that the explanation for why good people suffer must be left in the realm of divine mystery, but that Yahweh can be trusted, even when humans cannot comprehend his ways (Estes, 5).

I’m not preaching on Job to the fall . . . my understanding is still very much a work in progress! And my understanding will be a work in progress even after I preach it! But by the fall, I will be much further.

See Christians need not be intellectually troubled that they can’t exhaustively explain why God allows evil and Why is There Evil and Suffering?

See also Christopher Ansberry’s comparison of Walton and Longman’s commentaries.



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3 responses to Does the book of Job offer an explanation for why people suffer?

  1. Job is the ultimate Biblical statement of the most radical of all Christian truths: it’s not about us. It’s all about God, and we really do exist for the demonstration of his glory – His power, His wisdom, His justice, His mercy, and His grace.

    Obviously our existing for His purposes is repulsive to all modernity and post-modernity. We are always prone to judge God based on His efficacy in our service. The notion that we exist solely for His good pleasure – well, that’s the height of humanistic heresy, isn’t it?

    I also love “Making Sense of Suffering” by Peter Kreeft, because it focuses not on proofs or theodicies, but on the ways that suffering actually point us to Jesus. Indeed, far from disproving the gospel like the unsaved imagine it does, only the Christian gospel has the explanatory power to make sense of the existence of human suffering.

  2. Tom, thanks so much for that comment. I haven’t read Kreeft’s book and I need to do that. Those are very helpful thoughts!


    Best sermon and poem explaining the Book of Job, by Robert Winkler Burke of In That Day Teachings