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Who or what causes suffering?

Joni Eareckson Tada became a Christian at a Young Life camp in Virginia in November 1964. She became a quadriplegic after a diving accident on 30th July 1967 in the Chesapeake Bay.

Steven Estes holds Masters of Divinity and Masters of Theology degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Columbia Bible College. He is the senior pastor of Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania.

…You remember righteous Job. He had it all—money, land, status, family. One day in God’s throne room, Satan broached his disgust over Job’s pious reputation. “The man loves you because you bribe him,” he argued. “But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

“He’s yours,” God answered, “only don’t lay a finger on his person.” Soon came Job’s blackest day. A servant ran up with bad news: Sabean brigands had plundered the donkeys and oxen and massacred the servants. The words were scarcely from his mouth when a second runner burst in. “The fire of God”—a Hebrew idiom for lightning— had killed all the sheep and shepherds (possibly by igniting brush fires).

More footsteps, another messenger, breathless: Chaldean raiding parties …camels taken …herdsmen slaughtered. But the worst was still to come, and the courier who brought word no doubt hesitated. “It’s about your children.” The details were almost secondary. All ten, said the courier, were to dinner at the eldest brother’s when “a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them, and they are dead?”

Job’s reaction is moving—he tore his robe, shaved his head in sorrow, fell to his face, and worshiped. But Job’s piety isn’t our focus. We’re asking about God—how does he relate to Satan when it comes to our trials? How does his role differ from that of evil people and of life’s sad accidents that seem to happen naturally? What does Job’s saga teach?

It teaches in a nutshell almost everything we need to know. Ask yourself who or what caused Job’s trials?

At the most basic level, natural forces did. Desert winds blew and lightning struck. These phenomena weren’t directly miraculous or surreal, as if God hurled thunderbolts straight from heaven or Satan puffed tempests right out of hell. Nature’s laws weren’t suspended—lightning and strong winds aren’t unheard-of in that area of the world. In the hours preceding the tragedies meteorologists from Channel 6 News could have studied atmospheric conditions, predicted the storms, and explained them in scientific terms. According to the Bible, bad weather killed these people.

On this same basic level, evil people caused Job’s trials. Greedy men willing to murder hatched a plan and carried it out. In a court of law, prosecuting attorneys would eat those Sabeans and Chaldeans for lunch. The defendants had motive: loot and plunder. They had opportunity: a deserted place. Nobody was coerced—this was greed pure and simple, perhaps with a dose of thrill-seeking thrown in. The verdict would be clear: guilty as sin. These desert-dwellers will one day answer to God for their crimes. According to the Bible, evil people slew Job’s herdsmen.

Who or what caused Job’s trials? At a deeper level, Satan caused them. “Everything he has is in your hands:’ God told him. Satan turns around, leaves God’s presence, we scarcely blink, and carnage is everywhere…
Scripture doesn’t say if Satan routinely has his finger on nature’s trigger, but clearly he sponsored these storms…
…Clearly Satan prompted these roaming cutthroats. Although the storms were natural phenomena, and the pillagers acted in a way natural to violent men—yet according to the Bible, Satan engineered it all: the fire, the wind, the sword. He will pay for this in hell.

Who or what caused Job’s trials? On the deepest level, the decree of God did. Satan asked permission to stir things up, but God signed the authorization papers. Job recognized this when he cried, “The Lord has taken away” and “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” The book ends with the famous sufferer receiving comfort after “all the trouble the Lord had brought upon him” Gob 1:21; 2:10; 42:11)—this is not merely Job speaking; this is the biblical narrator. For his own good reasons, none of which God explains in the book, God decreed Job’s trials. He was ultimately behind the suffering.

From one angle then, everything in Job’s story was God, God, God. Nothing happened that God didn’t decree. But see how this played out. Satan acted freely; no one forced his hand. His motive was raw mischief—he wanted to wreck Job’s life and humiliate God. God’s reaction to the devil was merely to lengthen his leash…
…Satan contrived the scheme of his own accord, from the sewage in his own heart. It was similar with the Sabeans and Chaldeans. They didn’t start their day with private devotions, seeking God’s guidance, learning that he wanted Job’s herds stolen and servants butchered, and riding off on a holy crusade. They were just a bunch of good ol’ boys enjoying a drunken looting spree, savoring life’s simple pleasures. No divine arm-twisting there. As for nature, it got up on the wrong side of the bed as it often does, helped along by Satan in a manner we aren’t privy to. It got to howling and blustering—tossing some fire crackers, crumbling some buildings, flying man and beast. It didn’t know the difference. As far as science is concerned, nature didn’t color outside the lines that day. Following the laws of high-and-low pressure systems, electrical charges, and other scientific principles that nature itself didn’t understand, nature just - shall we say it? - acted naturally.

So let’s get our finger out of God’s face. His decree made room for it, but he didn’t do it. He became a stowaway on Satan’s bus, erecting invisible fences around Satan’s fury and bringing ultimate good out of Lucifer’s very wickedness. He exploited the deliberate evil of some very bad characters and the impersonal evil of some very bad storms without smothering anyone or anything. He forced no one’s hand, bypassed no one’s will, and (to our knowledge) suspended no natural laws…

© Zondervan 1997

Excerpts from ch6 ‘Heaven’s Dirty Laundry’ pp77-80 from J. Eareckson Tada & S. Estes, When God Weeps, Zondervan (1997).