Tuesday, January 26, 2010


C. S. Lewis wrote two books on suffering. The first, The Problem of Pain was written when he was a younger man, a bachelor. “The purpose of the book,” he tells us, “is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering.” It is probably the best book ever written on this subject, and has been both an eye-opener and a comfort to many readers, myself included.

Twenty years later Lewis wrote a second book, A Grief Observed after the death of his wife of only four years, Joy Davidman. In this book, more like a journal, he pours forth his grief, his anger and his doubts.

I had been a C. S. Lewis fan for a long time before I picked this one up. It had been years since I’d read The Problem of Pain. I was shocked. No two books could be more different. Here was not a cool, clear, well-reasoned treatise, but a torrent of emotions. My first impression as I began reading was that this book could not have been written by the same C. S. Lewis I knew. But it was!

We have a similar situation in the book of Job. His outpouring of grief, even anger in chapter 3, does not seem to fit with his previous statements of faith (see preceding post). So much so that critics have used the apparent discrepancy as an argument against the unity of the book. But Job, like C. S. Lewis, like anyone who is suffering, has to be allowed to speak in his pain, things that may not seem to harmonize.

Job had apparently been sitting on his ash heap, scraping his sores for months (cf. 7:3), when his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar came to call. The text says that they came “to sympathize (the Hebrew word has the idea of “shake” or “be disturbed”) with him and to comfort him.” We’re told that when they saw him they displayed the signs of grief and sat with him silently for a week, day and night, “for they saw that his pain was great” (2:11-13). Good counselors: they didn’t open their mouths. They were “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Then Job opened his mouth, after his long silence. And the first thing out was a curse. He “cursed his day” – the day of his birth and the night of his conception in a tirade that takes up the first ten verses of the chapter.

Then came the “why” questions: four times the word “why” comes up (3:11, 12 (twice), 20). “Why didn’t I die at birth?” like a hidden stillbirth. Job sees the alternative as a sort of misty afterlife, where both wicked and good, both rich and poor are at rest, a sort of great equalizer (verses 11-19). (More on Job’s concept of the afterlife later.)

Essentially the question is “why be born only to suffer?” (20-23). He feels that death would be preferable to life. God has hedged him in. Interestingly this is very similar to Satan’s complaint that Job prospers because God has “fenced” Job in (1:10).

In 3:25 Job states, “What I feared has come upon me, and what I dreaded has befallen me.” Many have debated what Job’s fear was, but it appears to me that he was not speaking of his personal sufferings, his loss of his family or his loss of prosperity, as much as what these appeared to signify: a loss of the favor of God. He had lost his closest friend!

Perhaps that is what makes suffering so much worse for the person of faith. It is not only the physical pain and loss, even the loss of loved ones. It’s that feeling deep inside that somehow God has turned His back, that He, the great Lover, has ceased to love and is acting in a cruel sadistic fashion toward the former object of His love.

Is life then worth living? Probably Job, at least as we hear him in chapter 3, would say “no.” And why not? Because life isn’t fair. Because the God I had trusted has let me down. He’s dealt me a bad hand and I feel like folding.

But God didn’t make life the way it is. As the Bible teaches elsewhere, sin brought death and suffering into the world. And though God is in control of both death and suffering, He is not their originator.

Life isn’t fair. But Job didn’t have the whole picture. Even at the end of the book we still have questions. But though we – you and I -- still don’t have all of the details, we do have an answer. Life isn’t fair: evil and suffering and death – “the king of terrors,” strike seemingly at random. Yet Jesus has conquered death by suffering it on the cross and by His resurrection. God the Son has entered into this unfair life and borne its unfairness, borne suffering, not just the seemingly random, senseless sufferings of this life, but the sufferings of the next. He has felt, as Job did the anguish of being forsaken by God. From the cross He cried for all to hear: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

While you and I may as Job still long at times for death, it’s not a vague somewhere that lies beyond that we expect, it’s eternal life forever with Jesus, where every tear will be wiped away.

Still more to come.

Bill Ball

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