Scripture: Job 1:8-22
We are in Week 2 of our church’s year-long “Journey Through the Bible,” and this past week we’ve been working our way through the Book of Job. And that’s why I’m preaching today’s scripture. I want to make three points about it. Point Number One: The mistake we often make about suffering. Point Number Two: The surprising good news about suffering. And Point Number Three: The good news about Jesus in today’s scripture.
But Point Number One… The mistake we often make about suffering.
Most of y’all don’t know this, but I had a really awful experience last Wednesday. I’ll describe it in a moment. But let me preface this by saying, I know this is just a small instance of suffering. But, after all, most of our suffering in life is a series of “small instances.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we only had to suffer when we experienced “the big things” of life—tragic deaths among family or friends… scary health problems… business failures… bankruptcies… violent crime… drug addiction… alcoholism…. natural disasters… and worst of all, maybe—at least for us parents—watching our children suffer. Those are big, non-trivial instances of often intense suffering, and by all means, every one of us will occasionally suffer from one of the “big things,” I’m sure.
But let’s face it: these “big things” don’t account for most of our suffering in life. Most of us suffer most of the time from little things. Including my small instance of suffering last Wednesday.
The problem I had last Wednesday actually began last spring, when the chaplain at Toccoa Falls College asked me to preach in their Wednesday chapel service. I have done this twice before. No big deal. The only difference this time is, he asked me to preach on one particular topic: money, finances… what we preachers usually call “stewardship.” Sounds like a boring topic for college students, but I think stewardship actually gets to the heart of what I mean when I talk about about vision statement: “treasuring Christ above all and helping others do the same.” So I planned on talking about “treasuring Christ.”
And I was not planning on phoning it in, either. I wanted to create a good sermon because—although you can’t tell from looking around our congregation—I really wouldn’t mind if we had college students and more young adults came to our church. I’m not against that at all. I certainly don’t try to keep them away. So maybe, just maybe, someone in the audience at TFC will hear something they like in my sermon, and—who knows?—maybe they’ll want to come visit us. It’s worth a shot!
So I was looking forward to preaching this sermon. It was a more personal sermon than I typically preach. After all, these kids at TFC don’t know me: so a part of the sermon was introducing myself, and introducing our church. The tone was a little lighter, more humorous—I hoped—than a typical sermon. And I was talking about a favorite theme of mine: “treasuring Christ above all.”
And I was told last spring that I had 25 to 30 minutes to preach. So I planned accordingly.
What could go wrong?
What could go wrong is, about 17 or 18 minutes into my sermon—the point at which I was really getting wound up, really working to the good part of the sermon—two-thirds of this auditorium filled with college students—I’m talking dozens and dozens of people—got up and headed toward the exits, in a rather noisy way.
I’m not saying that all my sermons are good, but even the bad ones I’ve preached have never gotten that kind of response!
I told the audience, “Uh-oh. I better finish up. Everyone’s leaving.” So I skipped over the really good part and quickly wrapped it up.
I felt about this big [hold up thumb and forefinger]. I felt ashamed. I felt like a complete failure. I felt like I had prepared a sermon for some imaginary audience that was not the people I was talking to in this auditorium. Because it did not land. It did not hit home.
Driving home, I was angry, thinking, “I spent all this time preparing this sermon… and this is the thanks I get?”And then I was depressed and filled with self-pity and thought, “Woe is me! So much for appealing to these students. They obviously hate me.” And then I blamed myself—like, “You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” Anger, self-pity, depression… blaming myself. Well, that’s par for the course when I suffer.
How about you?
When we suffer, we human beings tend to think that we’re to blame. It’s our fault.
And Job’s friends would heartily agree with that assessment. We don’t meet Job’s friends in today’s scripture, but if you’re following our “Journey through the Bible” this year, you’ve met Job’s friends already. Later on in this book, his friends keep insisting that Job is to blame for his trouble. Right? Job has sinned, it’s his fault, that’s why he is suffering.
But we know something Job’s friends don’t know. We are privy to a conversation in the heavenly realm between Satan and God. Satan, a name which means “The Accuser,” is wrongly accusing Job of not truly loving and fearing and serving God; Satan believes that Job only appears to love and fear and serve God… He’s really just serving himself, the devil says.See verses 9 and 10. Satan asks God,
“Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.
In other words, Satan says, God has essentially bribed Job into loving, fearing, and serving God. Because God has given Job so many good things. And God has protected Job and his family from so many bad things.
Maybe Job just loves God, not for God himself, but only for the the good things that God gives him.
When I preached recently on Genesis 22—where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac—I said that the nature of the test was this: “Will God alone be enough for Abraham, even if he loses this son whom he loves more than life itself—and in addition to losing Isaac, loses all of God’s promises of future blessing and prosperity? Will Abraham still love God even then?
Is God alone enough for Abraham, or does Abraham need more than God?
Is God alone enough for Job, or does he need more than God—does Job also need things like prosperity, health, family, a good reputation?
Is God alone enough for me, or do I need—as a pastor—outward and visible signs of “worldly success,” of the “love and “affection” and “praise” of people listening to me preach, do I need popularity, do I need large adoring crowds, not to mention many other worldly treasures?
If you haven’t noticed in your life already, God’s Word makes it abundantly clear: God is going to test you again and again on this very question: Is God enough for you? Or do you need more.
Sometimes when we suffer—like it or not—God is testing us in precisely this way.
The apostle Paul knows this test, as well. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes some of the many ways that he has suffered. He writes:
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 1
As if this suffering weren’t enough, Paul says in the next chapter of 2 Corinthians, that God also gave him a “thorn in the flesh”—whatever that was—which tormented him and he pleaded with the Lord to take it away. And the Lord said no.
But even after losing so much, sacrificing so much, enduring so much pain and suffering, Paul says, in Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
In other words, Paul says, if it takes all of that suffering, all of that loss, all of these trials in order for me to know Christ, to know him better, to love him more, then it is totally worth it.
It’s totally worth it. Christ is enough for me.
Do you believe that? Do I believe that? Or do I also need the love and adoration of 18 to 22 year olds at Toccoa Falls College?
What do you think you need… in addition to Christ?
If you don’t currently know what you need in addition to Christ to feel happy, satisfied, contented, joyful… to feel like a worthy person… just wait until God takes those things away or takes that person or those people away—or at least threatens to—then you’ll find out. That’s the way God often tests us.
And that’s Job’s test. And yes, this kind of testing often causes suffering. And it hurts.
And that’s Point Number One: suffering is a normal part of faithful Christian living. It’s not necessarily your fault. There’s no need to beat yourself up about it. God sometimes wants us to suffer, just as he wanted Job to suffer.
Point Number Two: All suffering ultimately comes from God.
In my quiet times recently, I’ve been reading through 2 Samuel, a book which mostly describes the trouble that King David gets into, first by his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, and later with his son Absalom, who rises up in rebellion against his father and nearly overthrows David’s kingdom. You’ll read about that tragic story later this year in our “Journey Through the Bible.”
But there’s a fascinating moment in 2 Samuel 16. Absalom is on the brink of capturing Jerusalem. David and what’s left of his army and advisers and family are fleeing Jerusalem before Absalom arrives in the city with his army. And listen to what happens as they’re fleeing:
As King David came to Bahurim, a man came out of the village cursing them. It was Shimei son of Gera, from the same clan as Saul’s family.
Remember: God earlier took the kingdom away from Saul and gave it to David. So it’s understandable that this relative of Saul would not like David, and would be rooting for his downfall. The Bible goes on…
He threw stones at the king and the king’s officers and all the mighty warriors who surrounded him. “Get out of here, you murderer, you scoundrel!” he shouted at David. “The Lord is paying you back for all the bloodshed in Saul’s clan. You stole his throne, and now the Lord has given it to your son Absalom. At last you will taste some of your own medicine, for you are a murderer!” 2
And guess what? One of King David’s entourage wants to execute this man on the spot! How dare he insult God’s anointed like this!
And David says, “No way. Don’t do it!” In verse 10, David says these amazing words: “If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?” After all, if my own son Absalom is trying to kill me, it’s understandable that someone from Saul’s family, of all people, would be acting like this! Then in verse 11, David says, “Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it.”
Is David suggesting that God approves of this man’s cursing and his sin? No. Later on, after David defeats Absalom, this same man falls at David’s feet and repents of his sins, apologizing profusely. Moreover, this relative of Saul isn’t saying anything that isn’t already in his sinful heart.
But David understands a profound truth: God obviously wants David to hear this man saying these awful things. And God wants David to experience this man throwing rocks and cursing. As painful as this episode is… David rightly understands that this man’s words and actions… are ultimately from God. God’s got a reason for David to be experiencing this. God’s got a reason to test David like this. And David, to his great credit, doesn’t get angry. Doesn’t lash out at this man—as I so often do when I feel attacked.
Instead, David understands that God’s got a reason for the suffering that this man is inflicting.
In today’s scripture, Job is a lot like David!
Verses 20 and 21:
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.
He worshiped, even in the wake of such great suffering and loss. That expresses profound trust in God.
And he [Job] 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.”
There are the key words: the Lord has taken away.
I remember years ago, there was a pretty good Christian movie called Soul Surfer. It tells the true story of a young woman, Bethany Hamilton, who’s a competitive surfer. Hamilton is also an outspoken Christian, and at the beginning of the movie we see her at her church in Hawaii, worshiping. And the praise band at the church is playing that song, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” whose title comes from today’s scripture. And so does the song’s bridge: “You give and take away. You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, ‘Lord, blessed be your name.’”
Why is that significant in the movie? Because, in case you don’t know, later on, when Bethany was out surfing one day, a giant shark comes along and bites off her arm. Putting an end to her career as a professional surfer!
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” The movie implies that the Lord is responsible for taking away her arm… and her career.
Whew! That’s tough! Is it true?
That’s what Job believes about his own tragic losses!
Is Job wrong?
Has Job misinterpreted what’s happened to him?
After all, you may say, “It’s not the Lord, it’s the devil who did this. Satan did this. Satan caused this.”
And on one level that would be perfectly true. God did not implant within the devil’s mind this terrible plan to rob Job, first of his wealth and prosperity, then of his family, and in Chapter 2, of his good health and his good name. God didn’t do that; the devil did.
And yet… God allowed it. God gave the devil permission to do it. That’s clear from today’s scripture. Not only that… Notice verse 22: “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”
If Job were wrongly attributing his suffering to God—well, surely that would be “charging God with wrong,” and Job, we’re told, isn’t doing that. Verse 22 assures us that Job is absolutely correct when he says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.”
And so it is when we suffer. God is in such complete control of every situation in our lives that he takes even the worst of what Satan can conceive and implement in our lives and uses it to accomplish exactly opposite of what the devil intends!
In other words, God will take the worst the devil can do to us and transform it into something that will be for our good.
It’s not that God is conspiring or cooperating or working in cahoots with the devil. Perish the thought: it’s just that even when the devil gives us his worst, even that cannot prevent Godfrom giving us his best.
Did you hear that, brothers and sisters?
The surprising good news of verse 21, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” is that even when the devil gives us his worst, even that will not prevent Godfrom giving us his best!
And far from “working with the devil,” God is constantly frustrating the devil’s very worst plans for us. The devil hates what God does!
Remember Genesis 50:20: Joseph says to his brothers, who caused him such great pain and misery for so many years, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” We can apply that verse to the devil: “As for you, Satan, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
Tell yourself something like that the next time you’re suffering. I promise, it helps!
Tara-Leigh Cobble, the author of The Bible Recap, that blue book that I’ve recommended that we use in this year ahead for our “Journey Through the Bible,” in her summary of today’s scripture, she says, quite correctly, that God has Satan on a leash: Yes, by all means, the devil can hurt us in the short run, but in the long run…? Forget it! God will transform the devil’s worst into God’s best for us… at least for those of us who are children of God through faith in Christ!
Now, let’s get back to my very small episode of suffering last week… What if, last Wednesday morning, when it felt as if so many young people were walking out on me, were treating me with disrespect, were treating God’s Word with disrespect, were rejecting me or my message—I don’t know to what extent that’s true… I’m not saying I was justified in feeling this way. I’m just telling you how it felt to me… Regardless, this experience hurt me. It caused me some small degree suffering.
But what if I were more like David in that situation? What if, instead of getting angry—angry at these students for their actions or angry at myself for so clearly failing to preach a relevant sermon—what if, instead, I thought, “They’re doing what God wants them to do”?
“This hurts me… I don’t like what’s happening at all… I am suffering because of this… But it’s from God. And as hard as it is to do so right now, I’m going to trust that God knows what he’s doing! I’m going to trust that God has a reason for putting me through this.”
That’s a heck of a lot better than anger, self-pity, depression, resentment, envy, covetousness, and playing the blame game… all of which we often do when we’re suffering.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I find this verse immensely comforting when I’m suffering.
And here’s some more good news: When you know who’s ultimately responsible for your suffering, you know exactly where to go for help and healing and comfort and encouragement and strength. And you know exactly where to go to complain… in prayer.
And I did complain in prayer… last Wednesday night… after Bible study… I was just fed up and angry… I went back to my office… I made sure no one was there. And I yelled at God. “Why did you do this to me? Why did you hurt me like this? Help me!”
And for all I know, one reason God let me experience this suffering last Wednesday was precisely so I could pray that kind of prayer.
That’s Point Number Two: God is responsible for suffering, and that’s surprisingly good news.
Point Number Three: Where do we see Jesus and the gospel in today’s scripture?
We see in today’s scripture that Satan goes to God and accuses Job of not being righteous. Of not being good enough… of not being worthy of God’s love and care.
And that’s what Satan loves to do to us: Accuse us.
But something amazing has happened because of what Christ did for us on the cross. We see this in Colossians 2:14 and 15. Paul says that God “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” We owed a debt to God because of our sins. Christ paid our debt by his death on the cross. That’s clear enough but listen to the next verse, verse 15: “He [Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities”—that’s another way of referring to Satan and his fellow demonic forces—“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him”—in Christ.
How does Christ’s death on the cross triumph over the devil? If we are “in Christ,” Paul says, this triumph happens because Christ has disarmed the devil.
By taking away the chief weapon in the devil’s arsenal… which is the devil’s ability to accuse us and condemn us and make us feel guilty because of our sins. He whispers in my spirit, “You don’t really love God. You’re only in it for yourself. You’re a phony. You’re a hypocrite. And God knows that. God is mad at you. God doesn’t love you. God wants to pour out his wrath on you. You know you’re a worthless sinner, after all!”
That’s what the devil tries to make us to believe…
But that argument can no longer work for those of us who are in Christ: Because all of the many ways I fail to truly love God, all of the many ways in which I am a phony, all of the many ways that I am a hypocrite, all of the many ways in which I fail to be a person of integrity—all of my many sins—were transferred to the cross of God’s Son Jesus. He suffered and died and paid the penalty for every single one of these sins!
As a result, if we’re in Christ, we no longer stand before God as sinners; we no longer stand condemned; we no longer deserve punishment, wrath, and hell.When God looks upon us, at this very moment, he doesn’t see our sin; he sees only the righteousness of his Son Jesus—which completely covers us… clothes us.
Through Christ’s suffering on the cross, the Lord has given… he’s given us his righteousness;and the Lord has taken away… he’s taken away all of our sins; blessed be the name of the Lord!