If only our pain were proportional to the bad that we do, we think most of the time, life would not be as bad. Yet it seems that life is not that way. It seems that whatever good we do, we suffer unjustly. “If God lived on earth,” says a Yiddish proverb, “he would have broken windows.” And why not? Do we not protest every little injustice we experience from those in positions of power? If God were on earth, we would burn effigies in front of his door like people from the olden days burnt sacrifices.
Last Friday, however, I learned a very important lesson in suffering through our discussion about the Book of Job in our World Literature class.
For so long have I viewed suffering as either punishment or a test. But I found that this was an error and perhaps, veiled by self-righteousness. It was only then did I observe that when the people I hate and disdain are suffering, too easily can I say that it is probably deserved by some form of sinful act they have done. But when it is the people I love, I am so contented in explaining it to be a mere test of faith. What is wrong with this attitude is the double standard by which I judge whether it is punishment or testing. This leads me to judge which people to comfort and which ones to stay away from.
“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
at the blast of his anger they are no more.“
– Eliphaz the Temanite, Job 4:7-9
This is the same thinking employed by Job’s friends and thus leads to condemn Job for having committed a great transgression, although it has been prior established that no one is as righteous as him. But I have also learned that Job is not exempted from having such a standard. It is through this idea of suffering being punitive that Job accuses God of being unjust.
“Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
How often does calamity come upon them,
the fate God allots in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
like chaff swept away by a gale?
It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!
Let their own eyes see their destruction;
let them drink the cup of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care about the families they leave behind
when their allotted months come to an end?”
– Job, Job 21:17-21
The problem in the Book of Job is the system by which we limit God’s justice and goodness by putting our standard of goodness above Him and judging Him based on that like we judge other people. And when somehow we are afflicted by pain we claim to be undeserving of, we accuse God of not being good or just or loving. Worse, we even doubt His existence. These are all because He failed to pass our standard of goodness.
“If only I knew where to find him;
if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
and consider what he would say to me.
Would he vigorously oppose me?
No, he would not press charges against me.
There the upright can establish their innocence before him,
and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.
“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”
– Job, Job 23:1-9
What we fail to understand is that God cannot be judged by our standards of good and justice and love. Because He is Goodness and Justice and Love. What He does is purely good and just and loving, though it may be ugly and undesirable, and shockingly, even though when other people do it, it is to be considered evil. When you think about it, evil acts done by people are only evil because they are playing God. But surely God can play God.
In all this seemingly arbitrary characteristics of pain, we should not fear that God might be exercising His power upon us like objects of experimentation or toys. Because He loves us. He told us so. We can be sure that whatever pain we are given, undeserved it may be, is necessary. We may not know His nature and decision-making process, but we know His plan. He made it clear.
It is a hard idea to accept, especially for the hurt and suffering and oppressed: that all this somehow makes sense in the grandest scale of things. But like Job, we are permitted to mourn and weep and beat our chests at God and ask Him questions. He is real and He will answer. But I am inclined to think that we don’t. For we are so quick to lecture God about how justice should really be like.
What we should be doing is not judge God by our standards of goodness, but judge ourselves on whether we are perfectly submitting to His standards. Because whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, God knows what He is doing. There will be times when this idea would be so hard to accept as sufficient, but it’s okay. We can always come to Him and ask Him about things, for we will find Him when we seek Him. Didn’t He promise that?
When in pain, talk to God. Be angry at Him, show Him how much you are hurting. But talk to Him. If you do, out of the storm He will come and will reveal Himself to you. You will know Him and you will know you. And then, there will be peace.
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.”
– Job 42:2-3