Shall we argue that God, although perfectly loving, lacks the power to prevent or relieve human suffering? If we are to take the conclusion of the book of Job seriously, the answer must be, ‘No’.
Philip Yancey writes:
Much has been made about God’s magnificent speech in Job 38– 41. In a passage that could be addressed to the Sierra Club or Audubon Society, God took Job on a verbal tour of all the wonders of nature. I, too, marvel at the splendid imagery, but along with my marvel comes a nagging sense of bewilderment. Why this speech, at this moment?
Readers who quote admiringly from God’s speech, or needlepoint its beautiful poetry into slogans for wall plaques, may have lost sight of the context in which Job heard those majestic words: he was home less, friendless, naked, ulcerous, in despair. What a time for a nature-appreciation course! Why did God sidestep the very questions that had been tormenting poor Job?
Before a thoroughly dejected audience, God sang out with peals of divine glee. He called to mind:
sunrise. “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place . . . ?”
rain and snow. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail? . . . From whose womb comes the ice? . . . Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?”
thunderstorms. “Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm? . . . Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?”
lions. “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?”
mountain goats. “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?”
wild donkeys. “Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied his ropes? I gave him the wasteland as his home, the salt flats as his habitat. He laughs at the commotion in the town; he does not hear a driver’s shout.”
the ostrich. “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, but they cannot compare with the pinions and feathers of the stork. . . . God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense. Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.”
the horse. “Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting?”
birds of prey.“Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings toward the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high?” (from Job 38–39)
Stalking lionesses, soaring eagles, streaks of lightning, crocodiles, wild oxen—God summoned up these and other images for Job with the satisfaction and delight of a proud artist. After each description, he either stated or implied, “Job, are you powerful enough to duplicate these feats? Are you wise enough to run the world? . . . Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?” God even employed sarcasm in 38:21: “Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!”
God’s words hit Job with devastating power, prompting an overwhelmed, repentant surrender. “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. . . . Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:2–3).
Did God answer Job’s questions about suffering and unfairness? Not really. He seemed deliberately to avoid a logical, point-by-point explanation. (I find it ironic that so many people have written books attempting to defend God’s reputation as it regards this messy problem of pain when God himself saw no need for self-defense.) Why, then, the combative tone? What did God want from Job?
[…]God’s speech at the end of Job is one of the central reasons I cannot agree with the conclusions of a well-written popular book on the problem of pain, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote it after watching his son battle the cruel disease progeria, which bizarrely speeds up the aging process so that the young boy grew bald, wrinkled, and weak, then finally died.
In the book, which became a surprise bestseller, Kushner explains that he learned to accept God’s love but question God’s power. He came to believe that God is good, and hates to see us suffer, but simply is not powerful enough to straighten out the problems of this world—problems such as children with progeria. Suffering exists on this planet because “even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check,” and God is “a God of justice and not of power.” In other words, God is as outraged by the suffering on this planet as anyone, but his hands are tied.
Kushner’s book became a bestseller because people found it comforting. The rabbi had voiced for them what they had wanted to believe all along: that God desires to help, but cannot. When we call on him to solve our problems, we are simply expecting too much of God. Kushner’s ideas sound like something we may want to be true. But are they true?
If Kushner has discovered hidden truths about God, why didn’t God reveal these same truths in his speech to Job? That biblical book could conveniently be subtitled “When the Worst Things Happened to One of the Best People.” The final climactic scene offered God a perfect platform from which to discuss his lack of power, if that indeed was the problem. Surely Job would have welcomed these words from God: “Job, I’m sorry about what’s happening. I hope you realize I had nothing to do with the way things have turned out. I wish I could help, Job, but I really can’t.”
Instead, Job 38–41 contains as impressive a description of God’s power as you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. God never once apologized to Job for his lack of power; rather his verbal fugues about ostriches, wild oxen, snowstorms, and constellations all served to underscore it.
If God is less-than-powerful, why did he choose the worst possible situation, when his power was most called into question, to boast about his power? Elie Wiesel might have had the most perceptive comment on the God portrayed by Rabbi Kushner: If that’s who God is, I think he ought to resign and let someone more competent take his place.
Yancey, Philip. Where Is God When It Hurts? Zondervan, 1990.