How To View Suffering As A Gift: Reflections on the Book of Job

Fr. Mike Liledahl

How To View Suffering As A Gift: Reflections on the Book of Job

Noah and the Ark. David and Goliath. Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit. Samson and Delilah. Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. Apart from being the way that God has revealed Himself and his plan of salvation for his people through the Scriptures, these Old Testament happenings are also just great stories. They capture the imagination. That’s part of the reason that children’s books about bible stories are read over and over again to small children whose eyes light up at hearing these stories, whether for the first or fiftieth time. But there is another great story in the Old Testament that often gets overlooked, and it may possibly be because the subject matter is a little too intense for a book aimed at toddlers and young children.

The entire Book of Job is the telling of an incredible story that can capture the imagination of an adult much in the same way as the other stories capture the imagination of a child. Job is often one of the skipped over books of the Old Testament, or if we do read it we often simply read passages, which really does this book a disservice, precisely because it is an entire story. I want to look at this story and see what kind of lessons we can draw for ourselves from this captivating story contained in the Book of Job.

As good as some of the quotes in the book are, they are even better when put into the context of the entire story.  So before looking at the quotes themselves, we really need to provide a brief background of the story contained in the Book of Job. There are three main characters in this book: Job himself, God and Satan. There are some minor characters of Job’s family and Job’s friends but Job, God and Satan form the basis of the story. Job is a righteous man, with a good family, good friends, good crops, and a good life who continually praises God for the blessing in his life. So Satan approaches God with a wager. He argues to God that the only reason Job is such a righteous man is because his life is so good. He bets God that Job would curse God if his life weren’t so good. Agreeing to the wager God allows Satan to have control of the surroundings of Job’s life to see if Satan is correct. The one provision from God is that Satan is not allowed to kill Job. Once Satan takes control of the surroundings of Job’s life, things aren’t so good anymore. Job’s crops fail. Job’s house falls down. Job’s family is killed. Job gets struck with horrible boils all over his skin. Where before everything that was good in Job’s life is now absolutely terrible. You can see why it may not be the best story to include in books for small children. Yet, much to Satan’s chagrin, Job continues to praise God even though his life is falling apart, he has lost everything he had, and is in deep emotional and physical suffering.

For this reason, Job is often looked at for inspiration when we have suffering in our lives. How Job was able to maintain his praise of God throughout his suffering can help us when suffering will inevitably occur in our lives, because none of us are immune from suffering. So, let’s take a look at some of the best quotes from the Book of Job and see what lessons we might be able to draw.

My favorite quote from the entire book comes fairly early on in Job’s sufferings. Job and his wife are sitting among the ashes of their former life and are witnessing the evils that are befalling Job. She tempts Job with cursing God for what is happening to him:

She questions why he maintains his attitude of praise and worship towards God saying “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die.” To which Job responds “you speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”  

God gives us good. Are we really to expect that God would not give us evil as well? He did not spare his only son from the effects of evil, why would he spare us? This exchange between Job and his wife reminds me of an interview a few years ago in which Anderson Cooper was interviewing Stephen Colbert. They were talking about suffering, and some of the very personal sufferings they both were undergoing. Anderson Cooper had just lost his mother and Stephen Colbert was talking about the suffering he first endured as a child when his father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash. Anderson Cooper asks Stephen Colbert a very honest question when he asks “[y]ou went on to say what punishments of God are not gifts? Do you really believe that?” After a pause pregnant with meaning Stephen Colbert simply and gently answers “yes”. Colbert’s ‘yes' in that moment, to that question mirrors Job’s pleading with his wife. Despite what has happened to him (be it Job or Colbert), he continues to see everything, even bad things, as gifts from God and something to praise God for.  Might we be able to do the same?

Can we really begin to see suffering as a gift? We know that through the suffering on the cross we have been given the gift of atonement and so it may be easy to see the suffering of Jesus Christ as a gift. But can we see suffering in our own life as a gift? This is where it takes some spiritual discipline. We need to be able to unite our suffering with the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Whatever shape our own cross may take, whatever the type of pain our individual nails cause as they fasten us to our cross, we must unite ourselves to Jesus Christ. For it is by uniting our sufferings to Jesus that we become united to him in his resurrection. We cannot get to the empty tomb except through the cross. This is the lesson of Job, that even suffering can be a gift from God as some work in his plan of salvation as well as his plan for sanctification in our own lives.