In a single week in Chicago, a porch collapsed in Lincoln Park leaving eighteen dead, and another porch in that great city became the target of a car careening out of control, killing five young children. Two high school graduates died just down the road when their car hit a tree. In my own life at that time, my friend Willis Jones breathed his last.
Storms do come. Are we ready for them? How should we think about such times of affliction — about God’s role in them, and our response to them? How do you make sense of life when you are in the midst of an especially difficult trial? In the following pages we will explore God’s role over the storms, his presence in them, his purposes for the storms, his provisions in the storm, and finally his grace through the storms.
Job was a man whose whole world was devastated by such storms. The beauty of this book of the Bible is that it tells us as much about God and his sovereignty as it does about Job’s suffering. Unlike the storms we go through, the book of Job gives us the behind-the-scenes look. We see what Job never saw and what we don’t see in our own trials. We know things about Job’s story that he never knew. We see the “wager” drafted in the throne room of heaven when God presented Job as his righteous man. We see how it all ends as well. Job never had the information given to us in the prologue (chapters 1 — 2). Job didn’t have a clue how it would end; chapter 42 had yet to be written.
Job’s experience is like ours. The storms cloud our vision, leaving us groping for answers. Why is this happening? Who is responsible? When will it end? Why me?
The biblical account gives a much-needed perspective on our suffering. We are reminded that not all suffering is linked to our sin. We learn that God sometimes brings calamity even to his righteous followers. We learn that those who try to get God “off the hook” so to speak end up misrepresenting God and needing his forgiveness.
But lest we expect that the advantage we are given in seeing Job’s storm from the end to the beginning will remove all our questions, we must remind ourselves up front that God’s Word, with its truth about suffering and sovereignty, will not tell us everything we want to know. Questions are dealt with, but the fact is, mystery remains.
A quick review of Job 1 makes it clear that Job is a righteous man (vv. 1-5), our God is a sovereign God (vv. 6-12), even the righteous will suffer (vv. 13-19) and finally, even in suffering we can worship God (vv. 20-22).
The chapter begins by telling us that Job was “blameless,” “upright,” a God-fearer, and one who “turned away from evil.” This fourfold description of righteous Job is repeated by God again (v. 8), making it clear to all of us that Job was more than a good man. He was a righteous man who lived a godly life.
Job’s godly character was matched by his wealth (God does not always reward his faithful followers in this way — it is his sovereign choice). The first sign of his wealth was his ten children — seven sons and three daughters. In addition to that, he had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred female donkeys. Verse 3 ends with the phrase, “this man was the greatest of all the people of the east”— greatest in his position, greatest in his possessions, greatest in his righteousness toward God and others.
His righteous character is even more amazing when we understand that in the face of great prosperity he did not succumb to selfsufficiency, to an attitude that says, “I don’t need you, God.” He was a righteous man who knew God and feared God. He understood who God was and responded accordingly. His relationship with God was marked by a reverent, affectionate, humble obedience.
Not only that, but verses 4-5 tell us that righteous Job was concerned for his whole family. Like a priest he offered sacrifices for his children, just in case they had sinned and cursed God, and we are told this was Job’s regular practice. Job was a righteous man.
As the text moves from Job to God, it also takes us from earth up to heaven. We see here that God is King over everything and everyone. Even Satan needs God’s permission to test his theory (vv. 9-11). Satan was convinced that the only reason Job worshiped God was because God had blessed him and put a hedge around him.
“Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
Satan concluded that Job’s prosperity came from God. That was true. God was sovereign over Job’s life and possessions. But Satan was wrong in thinking that Job (or any follower of God) would only worship him during good times. “Take away the good times, the good things, and he will curse you to your face.” That is what Satan thought; so he asked God to stretch out his hand and touch all that Job had.
And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (v. 12)
God is sovereign — he is King over all things, in heaven above and here on earth. He not only allowed Satan to “touch” Job (2:5-6), but in 2:3b God said something to Satan that is shocking: “you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.”
The shocking thing here is the proximity of our good and perfect God to the evil and trials that Job suffered. The same juxtaposition shows up in the life of Joseph. Joseph says to his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). This is the verse that Lisa Beamer (the widow of Todd Beamer, killed on 9/11 by terrorists) often writes under her signature. Behind the wicked scheming of his scoundrel brothers, Joseph saw a sovereign God who is good — and so must we! More on this point later.
I remember well the night my family was camping at Peninsula State Park in northern Wisconsin. My wife Lori and I had our tent, the boys had another, and the girls a third (why did it take us so long to figure out the beauty of multiple tents?). I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of distant thunder, echoing over the waters of Green Bay. Lori and I were both awake and wondered how soon it would roll through our campsite. Would the storm last long? Would it be one of those storms that has you packing it all in, in the middle of the night? The booming thunder was ominous, but it was still a ways off, leaving us plenty of time to prepare. And prepare we did. I ran through our campsite tossing things into the car. I woke the kids and told them to move their sleeping bags and anything else off the edges. We were ready for the storm!
But often that is not how the storms of life work. Most storms leave us no time to prepare. I think of two phone calls that rocked my world. The first came on Wednesday morning, December 11, 2002. I was preparing a message in my study at home when Dr. Hawkins called — I assumed to give the results of my wife’s mammogram. “Hello. Maillefers. Marc speaking.” “Yes, this is Dr. Hawkins. Is Lori there?” “No, she’s out for a bit — do you have any information on her mammogram?” “Just have her call me.” In that moment I was sure that Lori had breast cancer.
I wasn’t ready for this storm, and a paralyzing fear was driven deep into my heart. The dread was suffocating, and it all happened in a moment. For the next hour I sat in my chair gripped with fear, wondering how it was all going to play out. There was no warning. Lightning struck out of a clear blue sky.
The second call came on May 9, 2003. It was Lori, and she asked me if I had heard. Her trembling voice let me know that the news I was about to hear was not good. She told me she had just checked the messages on our phone and that my dad had called to say that my healthy mom had died that morning. Once again there was no warning, no time to prepare. To be sure not every storm begins with a violent lightning strike. Some roll in slowly, like that storm over the lake. But storms often catch us completely by surprise. I have long used the phrase, “You never know what a day will hold.” Little did I know how true that is until my own storms came.
Job was not prepared for the four servants who staggered in with tragic news. Everything he had — from his oxen to his sheep, from his servants to his ten children and their families — had been destroyed. One after the other, Job’s servants pummeled him with the news, like a series of tidal waves, each one bigger than the next, and each sufficient to put him under. Job later said, speaking of God, “you toss me about in the roar of the storm” (Job 30:22).
The story of Job teaches us that as God’s followers we should be prepared to suffer. Those who love him, who even live exemplary lives by his grace, are not exempt from the storms. Righteous, innocent Job suffered. Does your theology have room for suffering, or do you think Satan’s right — that God lets us live in little bubbles to hedge us in from all pain, experiencing only blessing? Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Paul said it as well in Acts 14:22: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when [not if] you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2,).
Job himself understood that suffering was a possibility for a righteous God-fearer like himself. In Job 3:25 he said that the thing he feared and dreaded had come to pass — I assume he meant the loss of his children.
The interesting thing about the book of Job is that chapters 4 —31 contain the speeches of Job’s three “friends” who didn’t believe that the righteous suffer innocently. They were convinced and tried to convince Job that the reason he was in that storm was because of sin somewhere in his life.
Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. (Job 4:7-9)
Suffering because of our transgressions is definitely a possibility. Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, we have each suffered the consequences of sin — theirs and our own. But Job reminds us that within God’s sovereign purposes the righteous may suffer innocently.
Our worship to God suffers when sufferers don’t worship. Have you met a suffering worshiper? If you have, you have been encouraged. It happened again to me on a recent high school mission trip to Chicago. What a beautiful thing to see Karen Chong, a high school senior, stand before thirty senior adults testifying about God’s grace in her father’s life and in her family’s life. A few months earlier, Karen’s dad had died of pancreatic cancer after a short six-month battle. She shared the hope of the gospel with these new friends, many of whom were approaching the valley of the shadow of death. For over twenty minutes Karen eloquently and powerfully shared her testimony. I was completely taken aback by this young woman’s faith. She sent me a follow-up letter that ended with these words:
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isa 55:9 Although I don’t know why my dad was taken from me, I do know that I can trust in his [God’s] will and plan. This past week has confirmed that even more. Because he works for his glory, I desire God’s will more than to have my dad here with me. This trip really served to reaffirm my faith, to encourage my heart, to reveal what it means to worship through grief, and to give me a greater burden for the lost.
How do we worship in the midst of suffering?
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (1:20-21)
Notice three things about Job’s worship. First, he fell before God weeping and mourning over his great loss. Everything he felt, all the pain, all his tears, all the heartache — he brought it all to God. Second, he submitted to God, acknowledging that he was nothing and God was everything. He said in essence, “I came into this world with nothing, and I am leaving with nothing.” He acknowledged that all he had was from God. All he had belonged to God, and God had the right to take it away. Job submitted and worshiped by surrendering to God’s sovereignty over every inch of his life — over every precious possession, even his ten beloved children.
Third, he blessed God. Although tempted to put God on trial, Job chose to praise God for his holy character and to bless his name. Throughout the book we find Job asking for an audience with God: “Give me a mediator to talk to you, God” (see 9:33; 31:35). Unable to put the pieces together, Job longed to hear from God; he longed for God to explain it all to him. But God was silent (but be sure of this — Job’s feelings weren’t). Job didn’t respond on the basis of how he felt. Rather, from the depths of his heart he blessed God for who he was, even when his pain blurred his view of the character of God. And in so doing Job did not sin — he did not charge God with wrongdoing (1:21).
Are you in a storm today? Then fall before God weeping and mourning — he will not cast you out. This is part of your worship, to bring your brokenness to him. “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18). Many sufferers are overwhelmed at how strong their emotions are when they come to church. After Lori’s first surgery (lumpectomy), I went to church and slipped into a side gallery, hoping no one would notice me. My heart was breaking. We had just heard that the surgeon did not get clear margins and that the cancer had spread to two lymph nodes. The opening hymn began, but I couldn’t sing. All I could do was cry. My heart was aching so deeply, all that would come out was groans and tears. I had heard many say, “Pastor, it’s too hard to go to church.” I had never understood before, but I did then.
We cry, we ache, we feel embarrassed or overwhelmed at our inability to keep our emotions in check, and mistakenly we conclude, “I can’t go back to church until I get it together.” No, a thousand times no! We go to church to get put back together. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Stay with God’s people in your suffering — you need them, and they need you. Pour out your broken heart in worship! Allow your brothers and sisters in Christ to share the burden that will crush you if you carry it alone.
Are you in a storm today? Then fall on your face and acknowledge God as sovereign King. You may not be able to put it all together. I can’t either. The great minds of the faith can’t tie up every loose thread. There is much mystery.
James 5:11 gives us the “CliffsNotes” on the book of Job.
Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
James is telling us that the book of Job is not just about Job’s steadfast faith; it is about God’s sovereignty, which is always accompanied by his compassion and mercy. Everything that happened to Job, including the most difficult and painful circumstances, was part of God’s sovereign, loving plan. So when the book ends (42:11) we read from the pen of the author, not one of his misguided friends, these words:
Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.
Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form light and create darkness, I make wellbeing and bring calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” The Lord is all-powerful and always good. He tempts no one. He is just, and his character is pure — he is altogether holy. As sovereign he reigns over all things, and all things that come to us come from him. Even suffering and pain come from him. This is the conclusion of Job, his wife, his family, the author of the book of Job, Satan, and God himself (see 2:3). This picture of God shakes us to the core.
What we do with this mysterious doctrine is critical. Some will play man’s free choice against God’s sovereignty. Others will set God’s goodness against his power, as did Rabbi Harold Kushner, who in a recent interview said:
For my part, if I must choose between an all-powerful God who is not kind and fair, who could have prevented the Holocaust or the birth of the deformed child and chose not to, or else a kind and fair God who is awesomely powerful but not omnipotent, I choose to affirm God’s goodness even at the expense of his power.1
On the other side is Lisa Beamer, whose husband Todd was tragically killed on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 in the fields of Pennsylvania. She writes, “He [God] knew my children would be left without a father and me without a husband. Yet in his sovereignty and in his perspective on the big picture, he knew it was better to allow the events to unfold as they did rather than redirect Todd’s plans to avoid death. I can’t see all the reasons he might have allowed this when I know he could have stopped it. . . . I don’t like how his plan looks from my perspective right now, but knowing that he loves me and can see the world from start to finish helps me say, ‘It’s OK.’”2
Dr. Mark Talbot recently spoke on this very thing to the students at Wheaton College as he talked about his injury thirty-five years ago that left him profoundly disabled. From the beginning he was convinced that nothing good and nothing bad happens to us that does not ultimately come from God’s hand. He says, “Yet my accident’s enduring effect has been that although I doubted God’s existence before it happened, ever since, my physical condition has assured me that God loves me, especially when new physiological complications arise.”3
The implications regarding God’s character and free choice are huge — too big to get into in a few short pages. The mystery cannot, should not be removed, lest like Job’s three friends we say things that we will need to repent of because we tried to get God “off the hook.” There is no wickedness or evil in him even though he ordains the storms of life. Submit to his rule in your life, and trust his goodness.
Early in my family’s storm I concluded: God is sovereign, and God is good. As severe as it is, Lori’s cancer is God’s good hand in our life. I want to say to my five children, now ages six to eighteen, that no matter what happens, God means to use it for good. Believing this was God’s loving hand in our life we began to look for God’s goodness. I started a journal, and for the better part of four months I kept a record of God’s favor toward us. There was never a day when I didn’t have something to write. Bless the Lord for who he is and what he is doing.
Job’s wife said, “Curse God and die” (2:9). In other words, “Get it over with, Job. Do yourself and all of us a favor.” But instead Job blessed the name of the Lord and did not sin with his mouth or charge God with wrong. Many today, as they reflect on suffering and go through painful trials, sin with their mouths. Let us not throw God’s sovereignty overboard. In the introduction to his book The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God, John Piper writes: “The very thing the tilting ship needs in the storm is the ballast of God’s good sovereignty, not the unburdening of deep and precious truth. What makes the crush of calamity sufferable is not that God shares our shock, but that his bitter providences are laden with the bounty of love.”4
Looking at the cross we will see this even more clearly. Jesus was delivered up “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Herod and Pontius Pilate did whatever God had predestined to take place (Acts 4:28); yet they did it of their free accord. They, along with the Jews, were guilty of his blood, and so are we. God used Christ’s death and resurrection as the two greatest events in all of history. If God ordained the cross for his only Son, is it possible that he ordained the storm you are in? Of course it is. And if God could accomplish his best when mankind did their worst, do you believe he can bring good out of your trials? Of course he can. God is still looking for sufferers who worship him. May God help us to bless his name at all times through all the storms of life.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted. . . . O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear. (PSALM 10:12, 17)
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (ISAIAH 48:10)
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. . . . So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 CORINTHIANS 4:7-12, 16-18)