On Thursday, November 15, a ferocious ice storm hit southern West Virginia, downing trees, knocking out power, and causing major property damage across several counties. Our family lost power for over 30 hours, and six large trees came down in our yard. The children were cross, sitting in a cold, dark house and unable to get on the internet. More importantly, they were unsettled. To them, electrical power is a fundamental fact of life. It is always there – you flip a switch and…shazam! When you need power, it is suddenly there. They could not imagine living like my grandmother, raised in rural southern Arkansas, whose only power was fire in candles, oil lamps, and stoves… or sunlight.
America has been riveted by the trial of George Zimmerman for the 26 Feb 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Race, Zimmerman is a white Hispanic and Martin was black, has played a major role. The all female jury rendered a final verdict of “not guilty” on all charges, which ranged from second degree murder to manslaughter. Some people are elated and others are furious, as is inevitable in such a highly charged case.
One thing is certain, however, everyone involved is suffering. Martin suffered on the night of his death. His mother Sybrina Fulton has suffered every night since then, and now is left to wonder if justice was done, or ever will be. Many African Americans are suffering through what some consider persistent persecution of their race. The jury is suffering. They cannot help but revisit their verdict time and again, hoping that they decided rightly. When their identities are revealed, as is inevitable, these women will have reason to worry about their own safety. The judge, the prosecutors, and defense, and everyone in the process will have the same anxieties, and they may be threatened by those who believe that justice was denied.
George Zimmerman, the putative winner, will revisit the night of the killing, and the trial, until his final breath. His life is in danger, whether from a self-proclaimed avenger or from his own weaknesses, amplified by the glare of public scrutiny. Even those of us who are far removed from the case will be affected, often for ill, by the results. Everyone lost on 26 Feb 2012, and everyone has suffered, and will continue to suffer, as a result.
Whether in deaths, in natural disasters, in wars, in diseases, and in countless areas every day, the life of man is a life of suffering. Thomas Hobbes said that life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Christians and non Christians alike are affected, but followers of Jesus Christ receive the care of Almighty God during their suffering. This article will discuss how God ministers to His people when they are suffering.
God meets us where we are
First, God speaks to His people in their sufferings. He does not remain silent during their pain and misery. Rather our Lord makes His presence known and communicates with those He loves. Jehovah seeks us out; He does not sit by and wait for us to call on Him (Job 38:1, 40:1, 6).
Second, Jehovah comes to His people in different ways depending upon their mental state and their relationship to Him at the time.
1. Job had been protesting his innocence so vigorously that he was impugning the justice of God (Job 31:35-37), and the Lord spoke to him forcefully in a whirlwind (Job 38:1) and in a storm (Job 40:6). With irony He rebuked Job, while still blessing him and meeting his needs.
2. Elijah came to God in weakness and fear (1 Kings 19:4, 10), and the Lord came to him in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12). No reprimands here, just the tender mercy of a father comforting and teaching His son.
3. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego had obeyed God at pain of death under the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:14-18). He came instantly at their moment of need and left immediately when they left the fire.
Third, the Lord comes to His people; he does not watch from afar. God was within earshot of Job. He was in the cave with Elijah (1 Kings 19:9). Jehovah was in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego (Daniel 3:24-25). He sent an angel, possibly a preincarnate appearance of Christ, to be in the lion’s den with Daniel (Daniel 6:22-23). The resurrected Jesus Christ was with Stephen when he was stoned to death by Jewish religious leaders (Acts 7:55-56).
Fourth, God restores His people according to their need.
1. Job’s ordeal beginning to end probably consumed several weeks. Assuming that Job’s boils were skin carbuncles and that he used the potsherd to scrape the scabs away (Job 2:7-8), thus continually allowing them to drain pus and heal from the inside out as they should, Job’s recovery must have been far along by the time that God spoke. We have no evidence that Job was hungry, tired or even in pain. God, therefore, didn’t need to let him rest or feed him before beginning to teach him.
2. Elijah was exhausted and hungry, and the Lord gave him food, water and rest (1 Kings 19:5-8), meeting Elijah’s physical needs before drawing his attention to spiritual truths and further commands (1 Kings 19:15-17).
When I taught this lesson in my Bible fellowship class, a women whose son has a learning disability said “But I prayed constantly, and at first the Lord never seemed to hear me or talk to me.” There are several things to consider about God’s timing when He speaks to us.
1. God does not speak in our time, but in His. He waits until the perfect time for us. The Almighty did not speak to Job quickly, and certainly not as early as Job wanted Him to.
2. Our relationship with God may be poor, and if so we may not be able to hear Him.
3. If we regard sin in our hearts, the Lord will not hear (Psalm 66:18). I once had a patient who was suffering depression and anxiety related to past sexual abuse from her stepfather. She was responding well to medication and counseling, but refused to forgive him for his sin against her decades before. As a result, she could not achieve peace in that area of her life. His health was declining fast and her opportunity to reconcile was slipping away. He died a short time later, and for as long as I knew her, this woman’s refusal to forgive prolonged her suffering, hindered her relationships with others, and even with God.
4. We can be so busy and distracted with things in our lives that we cannot hear Him (Matthew 13:18-23).
God is Lord over the natural realm
God’s presence, His words, and His provision would confer little comfort if He did not have the power to deliver us from our disaster. In Job 38-39, the Lord overwhelmed Job with the evidence of His power.
One of the greatest dangers of having a purely mechanistic understanding of creation is that it excludes the possibility of God manifesting Himself in His creation. Part of Job’s agony had been caused by fire from heaven (Job 1:16) the desert winds (Job 1:19), and disease (Job 2:7). God’s first speech to Job (and his friends, who probably heard the whole thing) discussed His absolute sovereignty over the natural world. The Lord created the natural world (Job 38:4-15), both the inanimate (38:16-38) and the animate (38:39-30). As such He had absolute control. The Lord used natural phenomena to take away from Job and He had the power to give back to him.
Job, so sure of his own righteousness, had no power by comparison. God proved His love for Job by speaking to him, but then used irony to hammer home his limited ability to understand anything, much less the work of God. The Lord was not mocking Job; why should He, for He is God and can be threatened by no one. Neither was He answering Job’s questions, as if Job could understand the justice and glory in God’s works. Rather He was teaching His faithful servant, and the confused friends around him, in a powerful and memorable way.
The book of Job is Job’s personal story, but God used it to teach His truths to the whole world throughout most of history. If Job had been told the reasons for his suffering, or even that he had been blameless, this book’s value for teaching about why the just suffer would be nil. From Baghdad to Auschwitz, millions who have been comforted in their suffering by Job’s example would have been left cold.
God is Lord over the moral realm
A God who came to His people, who talked to them, and who had absolute power over nature would still be a cold comfort to them if He cared nothing for right and wrong. Our souls cry out for justice when we have been wronged and for mercy when we have wronged others, and we need a God who will ensure that both are established.
Job had not only suffered at the whims of nature but also from the hands of men. The wickedness of the Sabeans (Job 1:15) and the Chaldeans (Job 1:17) caused him terrible pain. A God who was the Creator but not Lord of the moral universe could do nothing but disappoint a man stricken by evil. Job 40:8-14 demonstrates a God who is not only physically great but also one who is morally good. Jehovah is not blind and unfeeling, detached from the clockwork universe that He has made and ambivalent towards questions of morality. Rather He is the Defender of the Righteous and the Oppressor of the Wicked.
Subsequent verses about the Behemoth (beast, Job 40:15-23) and the Leviathan (dragon, Job 40:24-41:34) likely refer not to natural creatures but to evil powers in the world (cf. Revelation 12 and 13). Thus Job is using the metaphor of powerful beasts to illustrate powerful forces of evil in the world.
The teaching point for Job in this speech is that God will ultimately reward the righteous and punish the wicked. He is the source of justice, and without Him our sense of right and wrong would not exist. He is also the source of mercy, and exercises both in exactly the right balance. Man can no more impugn God’s righteousness than he can deny the light of the sun. As light is inherent in the nature of the sun, so righteousness is inherent in the character of God.
The Lord will not restore someone who is holding on to sin in their lives. Confronted with the unmistakable wisdom and power of God, Job repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). After Jeremiah went through a time of self-pity and doubt (Jeremiah 15:10, 17, 18), the Lord commanded him to repent so that he could be restored (Jeremiah 15:19-21). It is a bitter pill to think that man in the depth of suffering needs to repent of his sin before he is forgiven, for in modern times we use suffering to justify all sorts of bad behavior. God, however, expects obedience regardless of our circumstances. Suffering never excuses sin, and iniquity can never be condoned because the sinner is in pain or want.
Sometimes repentance is not necessary. There is no indication that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego needed to repent of anything in their situations.
If repentance is needed and completed, God will restore His child. It may be materially as the Lord did with Job. It may be with a trusted successor as He did for Elijah. It may be not in this life at all, but in the next, as probably happened to Jeremiah. It may be through a gradual and natural process as He did with Daniel and his Hebrew friends. Regardless of the Lord’s timing, He guarantees that He will restore His people to Himself, and will wipe away all tears from their eyes (Revelation 21:4).
Our world is one of suffering, and none can escape. The most dedicated believers in Jesus Christ sometimes suffer the most of all. However, the Lord ministers to His people in their hour of need. He comes to them where they are, speaks to them, reminds them of His power, justice and mercy, and restores them. The bitterest suffering cannot overcome the comfort and healing of our All Powerful Lord.
Trayvon’s bereaved mother, Sybrina Fulton, expressed this hope. “Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control. Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!”