Answering Tough Questions When We Do Not Know the Answers
Pamela, a 27 year old college graduate, is facing a hopeful future as a budding graphic artist. The firm for whom she works quickly recognized her talent and has consistently entrusted her with more important accounts. Her creativity and precision in design, her eye for color and composition, and her astute insights into the clients’ needs have made her a favorite for many. Likewise, her personal accomplishments match her professional skills. Her friendliness and joyful spirit endear her to the church’s senior citizens, while her playfulness and child-like enthusiasm capture the affections of boys and girls alike in children’s church. Along with her early successes, she has a new expectation in her life—she is engaged to be married to an equally impressive young man who shares many of the same passions and goals, including a heart for serving. The expectation is “they will live happily ever after.”
Just 56 days (and 15 hours) before her wedding, however, tragedy struck. Pamela’s fairy tale dreams turned to a nightmare when a drunk driver “T-boned” her car from the driver’s side. Pamela’s initial life-threatening injuries eventually gave way to paralysis. The grim realities began to register with her and her fiancé as the aftermath of the accident began to fade—Pamela is a quadriplegic! What once were bright hopes, confident expectations, and cheerful challenges, are now painful reminders of unfulfilled dreams. Confusion, chaos, crisis, pain, doubts, and fears are just a few of the renegade intruders that lay siege to her spirit. The physical, emotional, and spiritual pain often floods her soul with deep darkness and maddening hopelessness. Pamela finds herself plagued by these questions: “Why me? Why now? Why this? Why?”
Introduction and Context
Virtually every crisis has at least one common denominator with all others—the suddenness and ferocity of the crisis can leave the sufferer feeling shocked and overwhelmed. It is the shock of the situation that often creates persistently grievous doubts. For example, when the trauma of the World Trade Center collapse occurred, a witness was left with that nagging question: “Is this really happening?” Once the person recognizes reality, that initial question, however, usually merges into a second question: “Why is this awful event happening?” The former question passes more quickly but is characterized by an almost incessant “shaking of the head” in disbelief. Such a denial in most cases is more a problem of perception than reality. In other words, the person usually knows the truth but is having difficulty absorbing the truth in one short segment of time.
The latter question, however, is the one that persists long-term, from the moment the crisis activates to an indefinite time in which the person has some understanding of God’s providence in the crisis. Unfortunately, there are some crises for which no answers exist concerning the purpose. It is this scenario that a counselee longing for some answers often presents to the counselor. In Pamela’s case, why would the Lord allow such a terrible tragedy in her life? What does a counselor tell her about God’s providential workings? How can she find comfort in all of these questions? The frustration, fury, and futility a person feels in such uncertainty can rapidly poison the individual’s belief system in such circumstances.
In these circumstances, the sufferer often has questions about God’s justice,power, or love. The book of Job provides a vivid case study that allows readers to personally enter into the suffering and frustration of another. In spite of Job’s efforts to coerce both an explanation and vindication from God, he never responded with specific answers for Job’s questions concerning the purpose of his suffering. God does, however, provide general assessments concerning man’s suffering that will satisfy any who walk with him. A sufferer, therefore, does have answers from God, perhaps just not the one for which he is looking.
Tension in the book begins with the prologue (chaps. 1–2), builds during the debates between Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job (3:1–31:40),and culminates in both Elihu’s responses (chaps. 32–37) and God’s final corrective interviews (chaps. 38–41).The abrupt ending to the three cycles of debate, evident in Bildad’s shorter third speech and the absence of Zophar’s final speech, demonstrates the failure of counsel that endeavors to find human explanations where none exist. The book begins to provide genuine solutions for Job through Elihu’s speech, counsel that ultimately points toward God’s admonitions.The tension unwinds as the reader witnesses Job’s repentance from his presumptuous demands to God (42:1–6) and God’s resulting restoration of Job (42:7–17).
With Elihu’s counsel (chaps. 32–37), God begins to correct the inaccurate views Job held, namely that Job was just all the while he was having doubts about God’s justice (32:3). Elihu dispels the notion that suffering occurs only as a result of sin. He upholds both God’s justice (34:10–12) and love while pointing Job to an accurate explanation for his suffering. Elihu argues that God, in his sovereignty and grace, uses suffering to draw men to himself (33:19–30).Suffering, therefore, becomes a catalyst for drawing men into greater intimacy with God. Sufferers must find God sufficient in their suffering, even when he offers no explanations for their suffering.
From all indications Job was not wrong to question God about his suffering, but he certainly was wrong to demand answers from the Sovereign. Starting with 38:1, God presents his message to Job in a series of questions, many of which elicit the conclusion from Job that there are events occurring in his life for which he does not have answers. God presents himself in this section as the sovereign creator. Like Job, who knew nothing of the battle between God and the accuser, modern-day people of faith usually are not privy to God’s plans and often fall prey to the heresy of retribution theology—the belief that all suffering is the result of a particular sin. God’s message to Job in his first interrogation, however, was “If you cannot understand the complexities of creation, how can you question the intricacies of God’s plan for His creation?”
God advances his instruction to Job with a number of examples from the animal kingdom. In this section God presents himself as the all-wise manager of creation—he alone is Lord. God asks Job to explain the peculiarities of each animal, highlighting Job’s inability to either understand or manage these wild creatures.God ends this section with a question and a challenge (40:1–2). The counsel God offers here indicates to Job and successive believers man’s own weakness in explaining or managing his own life, especially crisis circumstances. Zuck states, “Since Job could not conquer the symbols of chaos, mere animals, he could not possibly assume God’s role and bring order into the moral realm.”Job’s response provides the corrective for the counselee who believes his own will should prevail over God’s. If humans are so “small” that they can neither explain nor control the functions of creation, how can those same humans presume to understand or control a crisis without God?
Furthermore, God singles out two animals for additional discussion concerning the ferocity of a crisis—behemoth and leviathan. While scholars have presented satisfactory arguments concerning the identification of both of these animals,the truth portrayed in these animals is more significant than their exact identification.In the ancient world, these animals were emblematic of that which is chaotic, inexplicable, uncontrollable, and threatening.Therefore, God’s purpose in recording his conversation with Job is to redirect the sufferer away from trusting his own man-centered explanations and solutions to walking in faith with the sovereign God who understands and controls even the most terrifying of circumstances. His illustration about leviathan provides the point of discussion for this essay, since this creature is the climax to God’s corrective arguments with Job.
· Like leviathan, crisis circumstances represent unalterable ferocity (41:1–11). Therefore, a person cannot change them.
· Like leviathan, crisis circumstances represent overwhelming ferocity (41:12–34). Therefore, a person cannot stand before them.
Leviathan, therefore, stands as an example of the futility of man’s attempts to either control or understand his crisis experience, for the only one who can is the sovereign God.
Like Leviathan, Crisis Circumstances represent
Unalterable Ferocity (41:1–11)
In this first section, God interrogates Job rhetorically concerning his inability to subdue leviathan (vv. 1–7). In a series of questions, many containing strong statements of irony, God teaches that leviathan resists capture or control (1–2), resists domestication (3–5), provides no useful commodity (6), and repels human attempts to destroy him (7). Each of these descriptions advances either the argument that man is limited in his understanding or that man can neither vanquish nor alter his circumstances.
The overall message is that these are God’s creations. They are under his control. He is the sovereign. The complementary lesson for Job was that he had no authority in these spheres. He too was a creature made by God to be submissive to his dominion. Job had more in common with leviathan, an angry creature stirring up his world, than he did with God, who effortlessly created and continues to control both Job’s world and the entire cosmos.
People in crisis often presume that a chaotic crisis has no purpose for them. On the contrary, even if a particular purpose remains enigmatic, God can and will use even the worst of crises to demonstrate his own power and glory (cf. John 9:1ff). The counselor should remind the counselee that any crisis he experiences is an opportunity to display God’s abundant glory and power, just as chaotic leviathan does. A problem often emerges with counselees, however, when they attempt to alter their circumstances through their own efforts. After demonstrating the inability of man in destroying leviathan, God summarizes the dangers in a somewhat humorous explanation in verse 8. The person who reaches out his hand to touch leviathan will never do it again and will never forget the experience. The end result of such a personal confrontation is the realization that any contrived hope the person has is false, particularly when he becomes detached from God’s sovereign presence (v. 9).
Furthermore, the absence of understanding concerning the purpose for a crisis does not mean there is no purpose. There are many aspects of God’s creation that man in general does not understand—asking this author about nuclear physics, for example, will result in a rather inane stare. The problem is that a crisis becomes such a personalized experience for the counselee; the person reasons that “since this suffering is happening to me, I should know why I am suffering.” Such a response makes two false assumptions. First, the person has an unbiblical view of his own life. He assesses his own authority, existence, and understanding to be supreme. He has elevated his own personal rights above the prerogatives of the sovereign God. Such a distorted assessment leads to the second flaw: the individual has an unbiblical view of God. Where Job was mistaken was in thinking that since there was no revealed purpose in his suffering, God must be capricious and arbitrary in his dealings with mankind. God had an unseen purpose, however, a purpose that he revealed only to the readers of the book. God’s people today benefit from this revelation when they realize that, like Job, the ultimate purpose in their suffering may remain hidden from them indefinitely.
Since God is independent of his creation, he is neither obligated to nor dependent upon mankind, except when he chooses to be. God has never obligated himself to man in providing specific revelation concerning every point of suffering. On the contrary, God has only obligated himself to his children in providing himself in the midst of suffering. In other words, God does promise that he will never leave nor forsake, but he has not promised an explanation. He has promised that his grace will be sufficient in suffering (2 Cor 12:9) and that his wisdom and revelation will guide the individual through the trouble (Jas 1:5). Man should recognize that a relationship with the Divine is certainly more comforting than any ultimate explanation. God emphasizes these points in his concluding verses (41:10–11) when he asks Job “who can stand before him” and “to whom does God owe anything?” The point here is that if a person cannot stand against a created animal like leviathan, how can that person stand against God the creator in a challenge of wit and power? Furthermore, because God does not owe anything to man, he does not owe the sufferer an explanation either. The sufferer is left to conclude that he merely needs to trust the Almighty, for in doing so he will find real meaning for his suffering in God.
Like Leviathan, Crisis Circumstances represent Overwhelming Ferocity (41:12–34)
God has now demonstrated to Job that no sufferer can change or destroy leviathan. Leviathan represents unchangeable ferocity. His argument does not end there, however, but persists in demonstrating how fierce leviathan really is. His ferocity is overwhelming, causing any to cower in fear. To prove his point, God describes the physical features of leviathan (vv. 12–24), describing an animal that is so powerfully fierce that he instills nothing but fear in even the mightiest of men (v. 25).There is no quality to leviathan that elicits praise for his aesthetic or practical value. Because of leviathan’s ferocity, there is no weapon that affects him (vv. 26–29). His powerful features and actions make him both fearless before man and fearsome to man (vv. 30–34). The implication here is that rather than standing in awe (fear) of leviathan, man should stand in awe of the God who made and sustains him. God’s argument to Job looks like this:
- There are created systems that are too fierce for man to control.
- I created them, understand them, and control them.
- Since I am sovereign over these systems, you can trust me to walk with you when suffering under these systems (42:2).
God’s arguments lead to an important conclusion. Since Job is not able to stand against leviathan, he is likewise not able to stand against a sovereign God. Therefore, since Job cannot contend with God, he must instead trust him. Only an omnipotent and loving God can shelter the person in crisis from both the real danger and his extreme fears, whether externally or internally generated. Alden explains: “As a mortal who could be killed by a crocodile, Job’s only choice was to trust and obey Yahweh.”Rather than fighting God, therefore, the person in crisis must submit to God in humble trust and worship, even if he never understands God’s purposes in the trial. Andersen comments,
Job has never challenged God to a trial of sheer strength, as a man would who hunted a crocodile. The argument to the superior strength of God is made, not to discourage men from trying to have dealings with God, but to enhance God’s capability of managing the affairs of the universe so that men will trust Him.
Crisis Answers for Comforting Pamela
With all the theology of this text, how does the biblical counselor answer Pamela in a truthful and compassionate way? The biblical mandate for the counselor is not simply to teach her truth, although truth is essential, but to do so in a way that leads her towards biblical growth. Job’s counselors were missing both precise theology and the compassionate care that Job needed. In contrast, however, God serves as the prototypical caregiver, providing both authoritative counsel and compassionate restorative care. When God is finished instructing Job, he possesses a proper understanding of both God and his suffering (42:1–6). The goal, therefore, is to lead the counselee into a more intimate relationship with God in the midst of suffering.In light of God’s instruction, the counselor is able to present key principles from this text.
First, there are some events in life that are just too complicated for humans to comprehend. Even with today’s technological advancements, there are some problems that evade human understanding. Invisible, but real, battles are occurring at any given time (Eph 6:10–17). Instead of wasting valuable resources on comprehending the incomprehensible, Pamela should focus her attention upon knowing the self-revealing God. Pamela can experience an intimate knowledge of God only as she walks with him in daily fellowship.
Second, God is the only one who knows the reason this tragedy has happened to Pamela at this time. If the purpose is not readily apparent, then Pamela’s task is to simply trust that God’s purposes are just and loving. God’s providential plan may become evident in time, but even if it does not, God still knows the plan, is working the plan, and will fulfill his purposes in that plan. Although the “secret” purpose (cf. Deut 29:29) may remain elusive, Pamela needs to hear that God is accomplishing purposes through her life that are evident: God is making her holy, he is equipping her for ministry towards others, he is displaying his glory through her infirmities, he can use her testimony to touch the hearts of the lost, and he is drawing her to himself for a more intimate relationship. This trust is an active dependence upon God that acknowledges God’s inherent trustworthiness. Such knowledge is based on the character of God rather than repetitious clichés and hollow platitudes. The counselor, therefore, must lovingly and deliberately identify specific ways that Pamela should trust God rather than simply telling her to trust—a truth that she probably already knows.
The personal crisis Job faced tested his faith in profoundly painful ways. Today’s believers often face personal tests that are equally painful and challenging, although perhaps different in nature. In the midst of painful, chaotic, and confusing circumstances, sufferers often have questions that mere humans cannot answer with their finite knowledge. Sadly, like Job and his friends, wrong theology and “one-size-fits-all” answers often add to the uncertainty and pain. Even in such situations, there is one solution that answers all uncertainty—God. Whenever the person in crisis redirects his attention away from his own man-centered explanations and solutions, turning rather to God in faith, he will find God sufficient in providing comfort, meaning, and solutions in his suffering. Although a crisis may be both unchangeable and overwhelming, the sufferer, like Job, can walk with God and experience God himself. Likewise, sufferers today, like Pamela, need only to walk with him to find genuine meaning, purpose, and even joy in suffering.
For instance, the disciples had trouble understanding and accepting the Lord’s impending death, even though Jesus plainly prepared them for the loss (Mark 8:31–33; Luke 18:31–34; 24:25).
By “the purpose,” this author means the way in which God will use this specific trial to providentially accomplish his plan in the life of the individual. Although the purpose may not be clear (and perhaps never will be), the scriptures provide a multiplicity of sufficient purposes God has for allowing suffering, any one of which may be part of the purpose. A sampling of these purposes include: to display God’s glory (John 9:1ff), to fulfill the curse on sin (Rom 8:18–20), to produce holiness in his children (Rom 8:28–30), and to provide compassion in ministry toward others (2 Cor 1:3–7). Admittedly, all suffering ultimately is traceable to the fall and resulting curse, but individual points of suffering are not necessarily the result of specific sin as evidenced in John 9.
Counselors often offer texts like Rom 8:28 hastily. Such an abrupt response with this text usually creates more pain than relief when offered too early in the crisis experience. Initially, the counselee needs reminders of God’s presence. One indicator that a counselee is ready for teaching on God’s providence is the acceptance of God’s plan without knowing the end of the plan. For more on this topic, see Michael Bobick, “The Difference Christ Makes in a Crisis,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 15 (Winter 2001): 14–19.
One of the most difficult theological questions a counselor encounters in such situations relates to the justice of God in suffering and injustice (theodicy). In other words, is it God’s will that a person sins (drunkenness) if he allows that person to strike another driver, either maiming or killing the other? Scriptures do provide answers in at least two examples. Although it is never God’s will for people to sin, he may permit their sin to accomplish his ultimate will. For instance, it was God’s will for his people to go into captivity, and yet he held Assyria and Babylon responsible for attacking Israel and Judah. It was God’s will for Jesus to die as a substitute, but he held Israel responsible for crucifying the Lord (Acts 2:23; 4:25–27). These two examples demonstrate the balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. These two axioms must remain in tension with one another. Kidner explains well: “Where we might wish to argue that omnipotence ought to have stamped out evil at its first appearance, God’s chosen way was not to crush it out of hand but to wrestle with it; and to do so in weakness rather than in strength, through men more often than through miracles, and through costly permissions rather than through flat refusals. Putting the matter in our own terms we might say that he is resolved to overcome it in fair combat, not by veto but by hard-won victory.” Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes (Downers Grove: IVP, 1985), 59. (Emphasis added)
While much of the three friends’ theology was correct, their application to Job was faulty in insisting his plight was due to specific sin when all the evidence was contrary to such a notion. See Kidner, 61, for further discussion. Additionally, Kidner connects the contemporary error of Prosperity Theology with this same faulty application (62).
For literary analysis of Job, see Greg Parsons, “Job, Theology of,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Walter Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 415–19 or Lindsay Wilson, “Job, Book of,” in Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Kevin Vanhoozer, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 384–89.
Liberal scholars often debate the effectiveness or accuracy of Elihu’s counsel. To the contrary, God does not correct Elihu’s instruction as he does the other friends (42:7). As useful and accurate as Elihu’s instruction was, his counsel fell short in restoring Job—only an encounter with God would restore him. Job desired such an encounter but also lamented that God seemed so distant (23:3–4, 8).
John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 430.
Hartley, 491, states, “[Job’s] perception has been darkest when he has accused God of acting arbitrarily without regard for justice and when he has assumed that he himself could dispute with God as an equal.”
To these questions Job wisely refrains from offering explanations before God (40:3–5). It appears that God’s intent is to help Job comprehend that understanding is not found within his own wisdom, but in relationship to God Himself. In other words, God desires to prevent Job from sinning in arrogant responses to his suffering.
The author of Job consistently refers to Satan as hasatan (the article attached to the proper name), a literary device that likely points out the character of Satan (“The Accuser”) rather than just his identity.
God frames his questions around “Where were you . . . ?” “Have you . . . ?” “Do you know . . . ?” and “Are you able . . . ?” These questions direct the readers to God’s omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternality, and sovereignty.
God discusses these animals: lion, 38:39; raven, 38:41; mountain goat and doe, 39:1; wild donkey, 39:5; wild ox, 39:9; ostrich, 39:13; horse, 39:19; hawk and eagle, 39:26.
Roy B. Zuck, “A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, Roy Zuck, ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 225.
See Hartley, 521–22 and 530 for a scholarly discussion on identification of these animals.
Many of these animals’ characteristics argue for the hippopotamus and the crocodile respectively. Those characteristics that do not fit such identifications may be attributed to either the poetic nature of the literature and hyperbole or may be indicative of animals that are now extinct. Since the identification of the animals is of lesser importance for the arguments of the book, this author will refrain from debate concerning them.
Elmer B. Smick, Job, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [CD-ROM], Zondervan Reference Software 2.6, 1989–98.
With each successive cycle of argumentation (nature, animals, behemoth, and leviathan), God crescendos to his climax in leviathan.
Robert Alden, Job, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 407.
Here scholars translate the Hebrew, elohim, either as [mythical] “gods” or as “mighty” [men]. Most choose the latter since a description of mythical gods does not fit God’s intent to describe the natural world. Furthermore, the ancients often referred to “mighty men” as elohim (cf. Gen 6:2). The author accepts the latter explanation as both contextually and exegetically superior.
Francis Andersen, Job, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP, 1976), 290.
See John Piper and David Powlison, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Spring 2006): 2–8. Also available in John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds., Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 207–17.