Week of January 26, 2020
The Point: Don’t assume your suffering is the direct result of sin in your life.
Zophar’s Advice: Job 11:13-15.
 “If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him.  If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents.  Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. [ESV]
Job Replies: Job 23:8-12
 “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him;  on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.  But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.  My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside.  I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food. [ESV]
Man Born Blind: John 9:1-3.
 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.  And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. [ESV]
“The Problem of Pain [9:2-3]. All Suffer. At some time or other every human being must experience suffering. A person causes pain by being born. Many live by inflicting pain. Most suffer pain. Eventually all experience death. It is true that believers who are alive at the time of Christ’s return to this earth will be transformed in a moment and will not die. But with this exception, it is the lot of all to suffer and die. Eliphaz spoke truthfully to Job when he told the suffering patriarch, For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward [Job 5:6-7]. There is a distinction to be made even at this point, however. For while it is true that all suffer, Christians as well as non-Christians, it is nevertheless not true that all suffering is alike. Seen from the outside, a Christian suffering from an incurable disease and a non-Christian suffering from the same disease may be supposed to be undergoing the same experience. But, according to the plain teachings of the Word of God, the two are not equal. From God’s point of view the non-Christian is suffering without purpose. Or, which may sometimes be the case, he is suffering at the whim of Satan, who is merely doing as he pleases with a member of his own kingdom. In the case of the Christian, an all-wise heavenly Father is permitting suffering in a carefully controlled situation in order that He might accomplish a desirable purpose. The Book of Job alone teaches us about the latter. But if suffering – that endured by a Christian – has purpose, surely we are not out of line in asking what that purpose is. If we are to learn from it, we must ask what it is we are to learn; if we are to profit, we must ask how. The answers to these questions are suggested to us by some of Christ’s words uttered on the occasion of His healing of the blind man, recorded in John 9.
False Assumptions. We are told by the author that as Jesus passed by the gate of the temple, having placed himself out of reach of those leaders of the nation who were attempting to kill him, he saw a man blind from birth. This man had begged at the temple gate for many years, and he was apparently known to the disciples. They would have walked on. But when Jesus stopped to look at this man, they stopped too and began to ask him a philosophical question: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? The question they asked was the age-old question of the problem of pain. Their question took a form that immediately reveals two basic (and erroneous) assumptions. In the first place, the question revealed the pagan assumption that suffering in this life often is retribution for sin committed in some previous life, conceived in the categories of a system of reincarnation. Such views were common in the first century, even in Judaism. Many religions and cults in our own day still hold to them. The Scriptures do not support this, however. Instead they teach that the issues of eternity are settled for each individual during his own, single lifetime. The second erroneous assumption made by the disciples was that the suffering of the blind man had been caused by the sin of his parents. This, of course, was possible. Sins of parents can be visited upon children. Blindness can result from venereal disease, for instance. In this case, however, Jesus replied that the man had been born blind, neither because of his own sin nor for the sin of his parents, but rather that the glory of God might be revealed in him. Verse 3 says that God had allowed the man to be born blind so that at this particular moment in his earthly life Jesus might come upon him and cure him and that, as a result, God might receive glory. Having said that, Jesus then performed a miracle and restored the man’s sight. Here is our first great lesson from the story. There are no pat answers to the question of human suffering. There are answers, of course, but there are no pat answers. Consequently, we cannot say, as some do, that it is the right of every believer to be healthy. This is nonsense. Or that suffering is always the direct result of personal sin. In some cases, suffering is corrective. It is given in order to get us back on the path that God has chosen for us. In other cases, it is constructive. It is given to build character. In still other cases, as here, it is given solely that God might receive glory. We must not make the mistake of some people who imagine that if someone suffers some great natural catastrophe, it is because God has struck him or her down for some sin. These people imagine God to be a stern, implacable judge, who spends His time watching over people in order to catch them sinning. This is not true. What is more, it is a scandal on the name of God. Do not ever imagine that this is God’s way. For if you do, you immediately make yourself into a nasty little judge, trying to find out what another Christian has done instead of recognizing that in God’s providence all things come to God’s people, and that in many cases God simply sends suffering that He might be glorified. In these cases suffering is a great honor, and we should be humbled before it.
God’s Purpose in Suffering. There are, then, many false views of suffering, and they must be avoided. But, when that is said, we still want to know the correct views. We still want to know why Christians especially suffer. And, to make it very personal, we want to know why God permits us to suffer in any specific instance. Here only the Word of God gives guidance. To begin with, we are told that some sufferings are corrective, that is, that God sends some pain in order to get us back on the path He has set before us. Some suffering is given to teach Christians that sin is wrong and to teach them obedience [cf. Heb. 12:5-7,11]. The first thing we should do when we are confronted with suffering is to ask God whether or not it is intended for our correction. If it is, then, we need to confess our sin or waywardness and return once more to the path set before us. Second, God sends the believer some sufferings that are constructive. It is by means of these sufferings that God is able to whittle away that which is unpleasing in our lives and form the character of the Lord Jesus Christ within us. In David’s great psalm about the importance of knowing the Bible, the great king tells us that before he was afflicted he went astray, but that after his affliction he obeyed the word of God [Ps. 119:67]. Affliction was a factor in his growth. So it is in the lives of many of God’s children. Finally, as in the case of the man who had been born blind, some suffering is merely that the grace of God might be revealed in the life of the Christian. Job was such a person. Lazarus was another. Beyond any doubt, both of these men were sinners and both suffered corrective and constructive sufferings at many different times in their lives. Nevertheless, in the cases of their suffering that are recorded for us in the pages of God’s Word, neither constructive nor corrective sufferings are in view but rather that kind of suffering that brings glory to God. In Job’s case glory was given in the demonstration, observed by Satan and all the angels, that Job did not love the Lord for what he could get out of Him but because the Lord was worthy to be loved and obeyed. This was true regardless of what happened to Job personally. Ultimately Job was vindicated and received his reward. Would God Almighty permit a man to be stripped of his family and all his possessions, to be struck with such illness that he would find himself sitting in ashes bemoaning that he had ever been born, just so that God Himself might be vindicated? Would God permit a man to be struck with total blindness throughout the better part of his life so that in God’s own time he might become the object of a miracle performed by the Lord Jesus Christ? Would God permit a child of His to die, bringing suffering not only upon himself but also upon his sisters who mourned for him, just so God could be glorified? In the light of the Word of God we answer not only that God would do such things but that He has done them and, indeed, continues to do them in order that He might bring victory for Himself and all believers in that great and invisible war between the powers of good and of evil. Moreover, those who know God well know this and (in part) understand it. They know that God is both perfect and loving and that He does all things well. When suffering comes we must therefore check out these three possibilities. One, is it corrective, sent by God to return us to the proper path? Two, is it constructive? If so, we should ask Him to use it in making us more like Jesus Christ. And three, is it for His glory? If the latter is the case, we must ask God to keep us faithful so that Satan and his hosts may be discomfited and others may learn that we at least are delighted to have God do with us whatsoever He pleases.” [Boice, pp. 687-692].
“Are Sin and Suffering Connected? The story of Job is a case study in human suffering. It chronicles the drama of a righteous man who underwent extreme misery in this world. His misery was compounded by his friends’ insensitivity toward him. They made an assumption that the Bible forbids. They assumed that Job’s degree of suffering was in direct proportion to his sin. They assumed that there is a ratio in our lives between suffering and guilt. Since Job’s suffering was great, it must have been a sign that his sin was equally great. God does not allow this equation. We remember the question put to Jesus about the man who was born blind in John 9:2. In the science of logic, there is an informal fallacy called the fallacy of the false dilemma. Sometimes it is called the either/or fallacy. This error of reasoning occurs when a problem is presented as if there are only two possible explanations, when in reality there are three or more options. Some issues are indeed of an either/or character. For example, either there is a God or there is not. There is no third option. But because some questions may be reduced to only two alternatives does not mean that all questions may be so reduced. This is the error the disciples made concerning the man born blind. When the disciples considered the plight of the blind man, they assumed there were only two possible explanations for it. Either the blindness was the result of the man’s sin or the result of his parents’ sin. Their thinking was wrong, but it was not utterly groundless. They were correct in one assumption. They knew enough about Scripture to realize that there is a connection between suffering and sin. They understood that suffering and death entered the world because of sin. Before sin entered the world, there was no suffering or death. Death is unnatural. It may be natural to fallen man, but it was not natural to man as he was created. Man was not created to die. He was created with the possibility of death, but not with the necessity of death. Death was introduced as a consequence of sin. If there had been no sin, there would be no death. But when sin entered, the curse of the fall was added. All suffering and death flow out of the complex of sin. The disciples were partially correct at another point. They were aware that sometimes there is a direct link between a person’s sin and his suffering. For instance, God afflicted Miriam with leprosy as a judgment for her sin against Moses [Num. 12:9-10]. The error of the disciples was in their assumption that there is always a direct correlation, a fixed ratio, between a person’s sin and a person’s suffering. In this world, some people suffer far less than what they deserve for their sins, while others endure a greater proportion of suffering. This disparity is seen in David’s cry, “Lord, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked triumph?” [Ps. 94:3]. There are times when we suffer innocently at other people’s hands. When that occurs, we are victims of injustice. But that injustice happens on a horizontal plane. No one ever suffers injustice on the vertical plane. That is, no one ever suffers unjustly in terms of his or her relationship with God. As long as we bear the guilt of sin, we cannot protest that God is unjust in allowing us to suffer. If someone wrongfully causes me to suffer, I have every right to plead with God for vindication, even as Job did. Yet at the same time, I must not complain to God that He is at fault in allowing this suffering to befall me. In terms of my relationship to other people, I may be innocent, but in terms of my relationship to God, I am not an innocent victim. It is one thing for me to ask God for justice in my dealings with men. It is another thing for me to demand justice in my relationship with God. No more perilous demand could be uttered than for a sinner to demand justice from God. The worst thing that could possibly befall me is to receive pure justice from God.
God Meant It For Good. All these considerations aside, the fact remains that the disciples still committed the fallacy of the false dilemma. They limited the reason for the man’s blindness to two possible explanations (the man’s sin or his parents’ sin) when there was at least one other explanation that they failed to consider. Jesus punctured the false dilemma by saying, “Neither!” The reason why the man had been born blind was not because of his sin. Neither was it because of his parents’ sin. Jesus declared that the man had been born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. The man born blind had been afflicted with blindness for the glory of God. This startling truth is a crucial teaching for us. It serves as a warning for us not to jump to conclusions about the “why” of our suffering. God used the man’s blindness for His greater glory. In this case, the “evil” of disease and suffering was made serviceable to God. He triumphed over it and brought His glorious plan to pass through it. Likewise, we remember the dreadful suffering of Joseph at the hands of his brothers. Yet because of their treachery, the plan of God for all of history was brought to pass. At the moment of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers, he exclaimed, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” [Gen. 50:20]. Here we see God working through evil to accomplish salvation. God’s working did not make the evil of Joseph’s brothers any less evil. In just the same way, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was a wicked act. It brought unjust suffering upon Jesus, even as Joseph was a victim of his brothers’ injustice. But over all injustice, all pain, and all suffering stands a sovereign God who works His plan of salvation over, against, and through evil.
Trusting No Matter What. What Jesus declared to His disciples about the blind man is clearly displayed in the book of Job. Had the disciples mastered this Old Testament book, perhaps they would not have fallen into the either/or fallacy. They made the same mistake committed by Job’s friends. Job protested the words of his friends. His reply is poignant: “I have heard many such things: Miserable comforters are you all! Shall words of wind have an end? Or what provokes you that you answer? I also could speak as you do, if your soul were in my soul’s place. I could heap up words against you, and shake my head at you; but I would strengthen you with my mouth, and the comfort of my lips would relieve your grief” [Job 16:2-5]. One of the most difficult challenges a person faces in the midst of suffering is to receive well-intentioned counsel to give up the struggle. This counsel usually comes from those who are closest to us and who love us the most. Jesus’ best friends tried to talk Him out of going to Jerusalem. Likewise, Job’s wife told him, “Curse God and die!” She encouraged him to compromise his integrity in order to alleviate his pain. She meant well. She obviously had compassion for her husband. She encouraged him to take the easy way out. But her words only served to increase Job’s frustration. Job did not understand why God had called him to suffer, but he did understand that God had called him to suffer. It was hard enough for him to be faithful to his vocation without his loved ones trying to talk him out of it. Yet he held on to this truth: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” [Job. 13:15].
God Himself As The Answer to “WHY?” Job’s trust wavered, but it never died. He mourned. He cried. He protested. He questioned. He even cursed the day of his birth. But he clutched tightly to his only possible hope, his trust in God. At times Job was hanging on by his fingernails. But he hung on. He cursed himself. He rebuked his wife. But he never cursed God. Job cried out to God for answers to his questions. He desperately wanted to know why he was called to endure so much suffering. Finally God answered him out of the whirlwind. But the answer was not what Job had expected. God refused to grant Job a detailed explanation of His reasons for the affliction. God did not disclose His secret counsel to Job. Ultimately the only answer God gave to Job was a revelation of Himself. It was as if God said to him, “Job, I am your answer.” Job was not asked to trust a plan but a person, a personal God who is sovereign, wise, and good. It was as if God said to Job: “Learn who I am. When you know me, you know enough to handle anything.” God was asking Job to exercise an implicit faith. An implicit faith is not blind faith. It is a faith with vision, a vision enlightened by a knowledge of the character of God. When Job declared, “Through He slay me, yet will I trust Him,” he was revealing to us that though his knowledge of God was limited, it was still profound. He knew enough about the character of God to know that God was (and always would be) trustworthy. God deserves to be trusted. He merits our trust in Him. The more we understand of His perfections, the more we understand how trustworthy He is. That is why the Christian pilgrimage moves from faith to faith, from strength to strength, and from grace to grace. It moves toward a crescendo. Ironically, the progress passes through suffering and tribulation [cf. Rom. 5:3-5]. It is the hope of Christ that makes it possible for us to persevere in times of tribulation and distress. We have an anchor for our souls that rests in the One who has gone before us and conquered.” [Sproul, pp. 29-35].
Questions for Discussion:
- According to Boice, why is Christian suffering different from non-Christian suffering. What false assumptions concerning suffering did the disciples make in John 9:2? When a Christian suffers, what three possible reasons are there for the suffering? How should the Christian respond in each of these possibilities?
- According to Sproul, what is the relationship between suffering and sin? How is God the answer to our question: “Why am I suffering?”
- Sproul writes: “But over all injustice, all pain, and all suffering stands a sovereign God who works His plan of salvation over, against, and through evil.” Our goal should be to hold firmly onto this truth even in the midst of all the pain that we may be experiencing in our suffering. Ultimately, this truth is our greatest source of comfort and hope that will sustain us in all of our “bitter providences.”
Surprised by Suffering, R. C. Sproul, Reformation Trust.
The Gospel of John, vol. 3, James Boice, Baker.