The Secrets of God in Our Suffering

Trusting Him with Unanswered Questions

Stephen Bowler (flickr)

We, the Google generation, don’t wait for answers. Why should we? Our smartphones and desktops anticipate and complete our questions for us, and with one more tap, ranked answers return to us at the speed of light.

Hyperspeed results in the digital world shape our expectations for all of life. When the check engine light appears, we take our car to a mechanic to diagnose. When our bodies get sick, doctors analyze us and even look into our blood for answers. When it comes to retirement planning, we meet with a strategist who can give us answers on the state of the investment markets. We expect answers everywhere we turn.

How far am I from my next appointment? The GPS app on my phone listens to pinging satellites in order to place me on the planet and predict my arrival time. Will I need a coat tomorrow? The weatherman connects with satellites in space and gets back with a prediction of his own.

We’re increasingly conditioned to expect that every question, problem, or perplexity in this world can be met with answers, or at least intelligent predictions. We have very few unanswered mysteries anymore, and a wealth of mechanisms for finding quick answers and predictable solutions.

Suffering’s Why

But when suffering hits, and the wounds open, so do the unanswered questions, and in those moments, when the pain is freshest, our closest and wisest friends restrain their interpretations.

Perhaps they’ve learned such self-restraint from those foolish friends of Job. When his life was dismantled piece by piece under God’s sovereign direction, Job’s friends offered all sorts of hypotheses for what brought it on. Now, let’s hope, biblically informed Christians know better. Answers to the mystery of why we suffer, and why now, are questions not answered with human dialog and debate, and then settled in a nicely packaged conclusion to salve the hurting heart.

With all the questions from Job and his friends about his suffering, God graciously breaks in at the end, in Job 38–42. The Lord himself shows up to answer Job’s questions from a whirlwind. And the answer: “I will question you” (Job 38:1–3).

Compounding Riddles

It’s all so loud and confrontational and abrasive — the question of Job steamrolled by God’s questions, and the voices of Job’s friends overwhelmed now by a hit-list of created wonders in the natural world and animal kingdom. It is a marvelous display of God’s power and sovereignty and an exposé of Job’s ignorance and presumption (Job 42:1–6).

“Job’s friends attempt to comfort him with philosophical optimism, like the intellectuals of the eighteenth century,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his summary of Job. He continues,

Job tries to comfort himself with philosophical pessimism like the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. But God comforts Job with indecipherable mystery, and for the first time Job is comforted. . . . Job flings at God one riddle, God flings back at Job a hundred riddles, and Job is at peace. He is comforted with conundrums.

God responds to the pain of Job’s life by laying out a metaphorical and word-picture feast of his natural wonders, culminating in the much-debated mystery duo of Behemoth and Leviathan. “Whatever they are,” Chesterton writes, “they are evidently embodiments of the enormous absurdity of nature.”

Yes, and this is the dramatic moment in Job’s life for God to introduce his special delight in the absurdities of his creation.

The Riddles of God

Further, “Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins, or a part of any plan for his improvement. But in the prologue we see Job tormented not because he was the worst of men but because he was the best. It is the lesson of the whole work that man is most comforted by paradoxes. Here is the very darkest and strangest of the paradoxes; and it is by all human testimony the most reassuring.”

The book of Job is a prolonged documentation of the human folly of trying to decrypt the riddle of suffering under God’s sovereign care. Those stabs in the dark are vain attempts at decoding eternal mysteries, and after a while God steps into the drama in dramatic fashion to stop the nonsense and speak in a torrent of images to flood Job’s imagination.

“Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing [of why he suffers], but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain his design is itself a burning hint of his design.”

Chesterton punctuates the point in one unforgettable line: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of men.”

Satisfied by God

In August 2011, Ted Olsen, senior editor at Christianity Today, memorably summarized Job in a tweet:

Does that seem too trivial, too trite, too superficial? It is none of those. It is the incredible way our Creator grabs our attention and soothes our sorrows.

The God who dried Job’s tears with a tornado answers us with a hundred riddles and with a litany of indecipherable mysteries and a catalogue of natural absurdities and animal wonders to fill our imaginations with awe and wonder that cannot answer our questions, but somehow work together to quiet and humble and satisfy our hearts. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29) — and the riddles he reveals are more than enough to inspire our trust in his sovereign goodness in governing all things, even when the specific why of our suffering remains a mystery.

We can trust as we wait for those answers, for the timeless riddles of God are always more satisfying than the microwaved answers of man.