First Sunday in Lent (Year B - LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, March 8, and Sunday, March 9, 2003
OK, so Job didn’t sin, but what’s God doing? Job didn’t sin and cause God’s judgment and punishment. I mean, God Himself says, “There is no one on earth like Job; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” But despite God’s glowing report about Job, despite the fact that Job seems to be an innocent man, God still allows Satan to take away his family members, to take away his wealth, and eventually to torment Job with a hideous disease. If Job didn’t sin, if Job didn’t do something to deserve God’s wrath, then what is God doing? Why does God cause Job to suffer?
We can’t say that Job deserved this. Read the rest of the book of Job and Job’s friends try that theory. They figure that if Job is suffering this much, he must have some sin that he needed to repent of. But that’s not case. God Himself rejects that. Job didn’t do something to cause God to punish him with this suffering.
Now, Job is no different from you and me. Job was born a sinner, he wasn’t completely innocent in God’s eyes, Job needed God’s forgiveness, love, and mercy. However, in this instance, you can’t say that Job did something to directly cause his own suffering. This suffering isn’t about forcing Job to repent, to confess some sin. That’s not what this is about, and that’s what makes it so hard to understand. If Job didn’t sin, if Job didn’t do something to directly deserve this suffering, then what is God doing?
Believe me, I wrestled a long time with that question this week. I read books about Job. I read books about suffering. I spent a good part of the week with Michael Johnson, the speaker who was in our area schools to talk about AIDS and sex. Michael was brought here by the Manitowoc County Abstinence Coalition, of which I am part representing this congregation. I spent time with Michael driving from school to school. I saw him suffering from AIDS. He couldn’t speak on Wednesday because he couldn’t get out of bed. He had to cancel his presentations on Friday because his doctor wanted him to immediately come back to Madison to go through tests. The disease is advancing. Michael is so close to death from AIDS that it is amazing that he is even alive anymore.
I read about suffering this week. I saw suffering this week. And still I was struggling to accept what I was learning from the book of Job. The scholars say that God was testing Job’s faith, that God brought on suffering to strengthen Job’s faith. I didn’t like that answer. I’ve been clinging to other passages in Scripture that say that God’s heart is a heart of love, that He doesn’t want us to experience the pains of this life. I didn’t like to think that God causes suffering in order to test us. I didn’t like that answer, and then I heard Michael Johnson himself say the same thing about his suffering.
He wakes up in the morning with different pains, with different weaknesses, and it’s another test. Michael says God’s testing his faith. God’s testing his resolve to use every bit of his life that he’s got left, use that life to tell people the truth about AIDS. I heard Michael say that his difficult struggles were a test from God. I didn’t want to agree. I didn’t want to think that God was doing something like that. But there was Michael saying it about himself. And there was God saying it in His Word, in the book of Job. And that’s when a phrase clicked in my head: “It’s just God’s way.”
It’s a phrase from a song by Wes Cunningham. Wes isn’t a Christian, but he’s got a song that to me really captures the reason behind why God allows us to suffer. So I decided to share a bit of Wes Cunningham’s song with you. You’ve got the lyrics on your sermon note sheet. Take a listen to a little bit of this song.
“Letter to McKay (God’s Way)” by Wes Cunningham
from the album, 12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking
I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and you’re feeling alive
Me, I’ve had some better days but I’m still trying to get by
And I would like to join the club
And lose myself in love
But just now I’m not doing so well
I can’t tell you if I’m seeing clearly when I’m in this state
Or if my perspective filter is too muddy to relate
And I’m embarrassed to say that my love has gone away
And just now I’m not doing so well
But it’s just God’s way,
Of breaking me down and tearing me out of the world
It’s just God’s way, God’s way
Of breaking me down and tearing me out of the world
Wes says, “It’s just God’s way of tearing me out of the world.” In other words, God uses suffering to help us realize that there is something more to this life. God uses suffering to test our faith. I remembered this song by Wes Cunningham; I remembered that I had even used this song on our radio devotions on WOMT, used the song to teach that very idea, that God disrupts our life so that we’ll see that we need Him. I remembered that song, and I started to hear what God is trying to teach us through His Word in Job.
The song spoke to me, because in it, I heard God’s Word, I heard the truth. God did say that he’d use suffering in order to test us, to strengthen our faith. He puts bumps in the road, he derails us from the path of life, so that we’ll realize that there’s more than this life, that we need Him.
That’s what happened for Job. God takes Satan’s evil plan, and God uses it for His own purpose. God turns Satan’s plan on its head, and God ends up using that suffering in order to make Job even stronger in his faith.
Every morning Michael Johnson wakes up weak from AIDS, an evil disease running rampant in Michael’s body, running rampant in the world. Yet, every morning Michael trusts that God still has a mission for him. Michael still needs to share his message with more teens, more parents, more adults. And so, through the suffering, Michael’s faith is strengthened.
I’m convinced of this message in Job now. I’m convinced that suffering in our lives will test our faith, will be used by God to strengthen our trust in Him. I’m convinced of this, but shouldn’t we cry out to God against suffering that has no direct cause? As I said, I’ve been mainly holding onto the portions of God’s Word where I see the writers complaining to God about suffering, clinging to God’s promises of love and mercy. I’ve been holding onto the psalms and other places where the writer says, “Why are you doing this? How long will I have to suffer?” I’ve been emphasizing those sections of Scripture in Bible class and in sermons. I’ve been holding onto those sections of God’s Word ever since my Grandpa died 2 years ago, and even more since Susan and I found out we can’t have biological children. I’ve been asking God why; I’ve been telling God that I’m holding Him to His promises of love and mercy. And I’ve been doing that according to Scripture. It’s OK to complain to God about suffering; it’s OK to cry out in pain; we should stand like Moses on Sinai and cry out to God to stop His judgment, to have mercy. There’s been nothing wrong about my reaction to suffering, but this week I’m finally listening to another portion of Scripture, I’m finally ready to hear that God uses suffering for good.
But before I speak about what we can accept about suffering, there are two things that we should reject about suffering. Sorting out these two things made it a lot easier for me to accept that God causes suffering to test us. First of all, while we can agree that God uses suffering for good, we shouldn’t accept suffering to the point of never trying to stop it. We are not fatalists. Even though we might learn something from suffering, we don’t just act like there’s nothing to do; that it’s fate; that it’s already been decided. No, we still rally against suffering. We still look for ways to relieve suffering in the world.
Secondly, another idea that we should reject about suffering is the idea that every pain in life has a specific message from God. I’ve seen too many Christians come to the conclusion that every pain, every trouble that they go through has a specific message from God. It’s not that direct. Yes, God uses suffering to bring us closer to Him, but just because you have a sore foot today doesn’t mean that God is trying to tell you something about what color of shoe to wear. If we start looking for specific messages behind every ache and pain, we’ll be looking for God to speak where He hasn’t promised to speak. God has told us to find His message in the Scriptures. That’s where we find life and salvation. That’s where we find comfort. That’s where we find direction.
So don’t look for a specific message in each pain, and don’t become fatalistic about suffering. Now that we’ve separated those two misconceptions, we’re ready to talk about what we can accept about suffering.
First of all, it’s as I’ve been saying, God uses suffering to draw us closer to Him. In those moments of suffering, the Spirit strengthens our faith. When the world seems dark, we recall that God has promised to rescue us from this veil of tears, that He has promised us life after death. The suffering itself isn’t good! Suffering and pain are evil, products of evil, plans of Satan to trip us up. Suffering itself isn’t good. But we find the good in suffering, and the good is God, the One who brings us through the trials. We look to the gracious God, we trust all the more in Jesus Christ to bring us to life everlasting.
Secondly, we should also remember that God will never give us more than we can bear. It is much easier to read Job’s story if we remember that God put limits on Satan. God didn’t let Satan do whatever he wanted. The first round, God told him that he could do anything to Job’s family and possessions, but Satan couldn’t touch Job. The second round, Satan could torment Job’s body but could not kill him. God puts limits on how much suffering He allows. God will not give us more than we can bear. It’s hard to remember this when you’re in the midst of some difficulty, I know, but it helps us remember that God’s not some sadistic freak up there. God allows suffering to continue, using it to draws us closer to Him, but He puts limits on it. And He walks with us through every dark valley.
Finally, how do we speak this message to others? How do we tell people that suffering is God’s way of testing our faith? First of all, it’s all about timing. I think I’ve been hammering away in Bible studies and sermons about how God doesn’t want us to suffer, that we should cling to God’s promises, that we should cry out with those who are suffering, I’ve been hammering away at this, because a lot of times we can speak the truth but speak it at the worst times. When someone has just learned about the death of a loved one, when someone is overwhelmed with despair or depression, when someone is experiencing extreme pain, that might not be the best time to say, “Well, God uses suffering to test our faith.” That’s not a conclusion we can normally come to grips with when we’re in the middle of pain and suffering. It’s all about timing. Later, when someone is really ready to talk about why there is suffering, what does that mean, then yes, we should talk about this. But right when they found out that they’re dying from AIDS? No, then you cry out with them, you yell at God with them, you say “why” and “how long.” So watch you’re timing. It’s true that God uses suffering to test us, but that might not be the first thing to tell someone in the midst of suffering.
The other thing to remember when speaking this message to other people is to show, don’t tell. Don’t just tell someone that God is using suffering for their good, to strengthen them. Don’t just tell them about God. Show them God’s heart. Show them God’s heart through your actions. Through your actions, through your love and care, you can show someone God’s love. You can walk with them through the difficult days. You can listen as they tell you about their pain. That’s what totally took me by surprise the other night while driving Michael Johnson back to his hotel. He said that I was enacting the Gospel, that by my actions I was showing Him the love of Christ. What was I doing? Listening. Supporting. Asking questions. Telling him that I cared. What was I doing? Walking with him. By those simple actions, by being with him, I was showing God’s love. When someone is suffering, don’t tell them about God’s love; show them God’s love.
There you have it, my journey with Job, my journey with Michael Johnson, my journey with Wes Cunningham. There you have it, my journey with God through the difficulty of suffering in this world. I still will cry out to God, I will still tell Him that He needs to remember His promise of love and mercy, but now I am also ready to accept the fact that God uses suffering in our lives to test our faith, to strengthen our faith, to bring us closer to Him, to build our trust in Him. He breaks us down, tears us out of this world, in order to help us to see that there’s more to this life, that there’s life after death, that we need a Savior, and Jesus Christ came to save us.