Job's Unsettling Question

“Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” This stunning question was offered up by Job in the aftermath of that dark day when his children, his wealth, and his good name were taken from him. Later, even his health would be shattered and his mind tortured. Job’s question reflects an understanding that God is sovereign in all things including human suffering and the actions of Satan. Sadly, this robust and thoroughly biblical doctrine is often rejected by many evangelicals. Indeed, the thing that disturbs so many of the readers of Job is the realization that what lies behind the suffering of Job is the hand of God. This is the unsettling truth that boils below the surface of the entire book: Job’s suffering is ultimately God’s doing.

Going back to the beginning of the book of Job we observe a mysterious exchange between God and Satan. The ancient serpent comes before the courts of heaven to report on his comings and goings. How it must gall Satan that God requires him to give a report, as it were, on what he has been up to (1:6-7). By the time verse eight rolls around things get really strange. God actually initiates the trials of Job: “Have you considered my servant Job?” says God to Satan. There is something in us that wants to cry out, “God, what are you doing? Job doesn’t deserve this!”

So, back to Job’s question: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10). Job understands that even things that are “evil” and calamitous come ultimately from the hand of God. Take a deep breath. This is the clear testimony of Scripture. In I Samuel 16:14-15 we are told that God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul. Another example of this unsettling truth is when David took a census in order to number the people of Israel. This was a sin against God that Joab warned David not to commit. But David persisted in his plans and took the census. Afterward, “David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly’” (I Sam. 24:10). So far so good, except for the fact that it was God who incited David to take the census. “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’” (I Sam. 24:1). God used David’s prideful census taking as the occasion to judge Israel. And the inspired text affirms God’s sovereignty over David’s decision while at the same time not excusing David from responsibility.

The most supreme example of this seeming contradiction is the cross of Christ. Jesus’ death upon the cross as our substitute was preordained by God (Acts 2:23a; 4:27-28). Yet this particular moment in history which went exactly according to God’s sovereign design required that certain men commit particular evil acts (Acts 2:23b; 4:10). The texts which proclaim God as ultimately sovereign over all things are unfamiliar to many Christians because pastors won’t touch them with a ten foot pole. But in so doing they rob God’s people of a faith that is strong enough to sustain them in the most troubling times.

We must not ignore the “hard truths” of Scripture. However, we certainly must be careful. We know that God does not do evil. He is not wicked in even the remotest sense of the word. He in no way ever sins. God is pure righteousness and always acts righteously. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). And yet, there is a way in which God can send evil and calamity our way and still be completely free of evil and wrongdoing. It almost makes one’s head spin. But we must surrender some of our logical categories to the revelation of Scripture. And what Scripture reveals is that God is completely sinless and good but is ultimately sovereign even over the evil that comes our way. If we try to fully reconcile this reality we risk falling into error either by calling into question God’s goodness on the one hand or denying His sovereignty on the other. Our inability to fully comprehend the mystery of God’s total sovereignty should not result in our dismissing it. The Westminster Confession of Faith wisely states the truth without trying to figure it out completely:
“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin…”

In his classic work The Providence of God, Dutch theologian G.C. Berkouwer writes:
“In the confession of God’s almighty power, the personal, living God is confessed. Responsibility is not crowded out by His power; neither is the meaning of guilt and punishment. We are deeply conscious of the impossibility of our discerning the relation between the Divine activity and ours, but we are able to see in Scripture that the incomparable enterprise of God is in its Divine character so great and majestic that it can embrace human freedom and responsibility within itself without being thereby assaulted or even limited…
“Even in his most apostate acts man cannot break out of the sovereign concern of God. Divine revelation does not let us penetrate the mystery of this consonance, this harmony. The living God rules here!...The Scriptures show us God’s work. Then, in history, we are shown how unparalleled that work is. It is striking, for example, that Scripture does not speak of God as being at work in leading Judas down the road to the act of betrayal. It says that Satan filled Judas’ heart. He who sees this well will not look on this work of Satan and Judas’ betrayal as one side of a dualism, independent and detached from God’s work, but will bow before the power of God which is present even in the acts of extremist sin, and will stand speechless at the wisdom and mystery of His ways.”

It is his grasp of this very truth that allows Job to worship God in the midst of his loss. “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped. 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). It simply will not do for Job to say that God passively “allowed” these calamities to befall him. We often resort to this in an effort to get God “off the hook” for human suffering. But God does not want to be let off the hook. Job rightly understands God to be the One who took away from him just as surely as He gave to him in the first place. The writer is careful to point out twice that in attributing his suffering to the hand of God “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22; 2:10).

What are we to do with a God who gives and takes away? How are we to respond to a God who sends his people both blessing and calamity? What is more, what happens if this God chooses to offer us no answers? In those unsettling and confounding moments may we say with our tutor Job:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”