Last summer, I had lung surgery (again), and my last post on that subject was in fact before surgery. So how did it go? Well, I’m obviously still alive, so I have that going for me. High five?
A common question I’ve been asked about the ordeal is, “So what did you learn?” The assumption seems to be that there was something very specific God was teaching me or there was some overarching reason that I could find that explains why my lung collapsed yet again. In that regard, I can honestly say, “Nothing.” Such an answer eludes me, if there is one. However, when it comes to the affirmations of God’s faithfulness and goodness as I struggled (and continue to struggle) through this ordeal, I can also honestly say, “A whole bunch.” Or at least, God proved once again that whatever may happen in this world, it is not enough to defeat his love that is found in Christ, nor does anything catch him with his pants down.
Job: Does it give an answer?
I read quite a bit of Scripture when I was in the hospital, and one story I turned to was the Book of Job (cliche, I know). Job has a lot to say about the problem of evil and suffering, or at least it seems to. However, I happen to think Job is one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible and is almost impossible to preach or teach in sections; it’s definitely a work that needs to be read in its entirety to be understood. I think the mistake of many teachers of this book is that they oversimplify it: In essence, they point at Job and say, “Look how awesome of a job Job did in handling suffering!” and then exhort everyone to be just like Job and to not be like his friends. While there is some general truth to this, the work is quite a bit more complicated than that. For example, we like this verse and turn it into praise songs:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 21b)
But we tend not to quote these in church:
“I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.
You turn on me ruthlessly;
with the might of your hand you attack me.
You snatch me up and drive me before the wind;
you toss me about in the storm.
I know you will bring me down to death,
to the place appointed for all the living. (Job 30:20-23)
(“Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.
I would give him an account of my every step;
like a prince I would approach him.) (Job 31:35-37)
Yeah, let’s turn these into praise songs! It’ll sure brighten the mood on Sunday morning. The first sounds like almost an indictment that God is ruthless, and then the second is basically Job calling out God to come at him, because Job is confident in his defense. “Come at me, bro!” Yeah… while Job was indeed affirmed to be righteous by God (at least, undeserving of what happened to him), he wasn’t totally right, or else God wouldn’t have come and given Job a verbal beatdown:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me. (Job 38:2-3)
Ouch. When Job heard this, he probably peed in his pants because he knew he was about to get owned.
What is increasingly confusing about this is that it is clear that God is very displeased with Job’s friends (Job 42:7-10)… even though his friends say things that sound quite true:
“God is exalted in his power.
Who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed his ways for him,
or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’?
Remember to extol his work,
which men have praised in song.
All mankind has seen it;
men gaze on it from afar.
How great is God—beyond our understanding!
The number of his years is past finding out. (Job 36:22-26)
The book is full of statements like this from Job’s friends that praise and affirm God’s justice, goodness, and power. Doesn’t sound like a bunch of unorthodox idiots, does it? So what was the problem, exactly? Job clearly said some things that were wrong and his friends clearly said some things that were right, but why was Job vindicated and his friends not?
I think the answer is not going to satisfy people who want to find in the book a complete, universal answer to the problem of suffering: God was displeased with Job’s friends basically because they were presumptuous about him and Job in this particular instance. Job’s friend’s logic was essentially that because God is good and just, Job must have sinned greatly to deserve what had happened to him. Job’s response to them was basically, if I may paraphrase, “Screw you, I didn’t do nothing,” and in that, Job was actually correct. The suffering he received was not punishment. Thus, while Job was wrong to accuse God in some ways, he was mostly right that he had not sinned and that God has the right to do as he pleases; in contrast, while Job’s friends were generally correct about God’s justice and goodness, they improperly believed this guaranteed that righteous people would not suffer and made an assumption about Job. God was therefore not pleased that they were arrogant enough to think they had the wisdom to defend God.
Here’s the thing: All of this is true only of this situation. There are tons of examples in Scripture where people are punished for sin. There are general statements that, if people follow God’s statutes, they will prosper, and if they do not, they will face punishment. Of course, there are also plenty of examples in Scripture of people going through suffering and trials despite walking with God. Is it punishment? Is it a test? Is it something else?
The most intriguing part of the book of Job is that God does not bother to give Job a specific explanation. He merely rehashes to Job that he is the Creator and Sustainer of everything and that Job has no business accusing him of anything. In other words, Job finds out absolutely nothing about the involvement of Satan. Yet, humbled by God, he realizes that God is still God and that the world isn’t falling apart, so he says,
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)
So… what exactly does this book teach on the problem of suffering? Well, based on the book as well as the rest of Scripture, here are some possible explanations as to why something bad happens:
1. It is punishment for sin.
2. It is God testing or refining the person.
3. It is the activity of Satan or similar evil forces.
4. It is the result of the fallenness of the world due to sin, though not necessarily direct punishment.
5. It is the result of evil humans.
6. It is God allowing suffering to bring about a greater good, either generally or specifically.
7. Some combination of above. And maybe, for those who like the bumper sticker, we can also shrug and add, “S*** happens.”
Can we figure out which one in each instance of suffering? Uh… most likely not. In fact, as both Job and his friends found out, it can be perilous to assume too much. Just because someone who annoys you goes through suffering doesn’t mean that you should assume that God is punishing him/her. Then again, if you do go through suffering, it would probably be wise to reflect on the sin in your life, for if God did punish you for those, he isn’t exactly wrong for doing so. It is also good to be generally aware of the activity of Satan although it is unwise to be paranoid of demonic activity.
How comforting is this answer? Not very. Basically, you aren’t going to figure out a whole lot. Christians love throwing out catch-phrases such as, “Providence writes straight with crooked lines,” when crap goes down, but that often doesn’t actually tell us anything. If you’re looking for a universal explanation for suffering, the book of Job isn’t going to give you one. Believe me, as someone who is more philosophically minded and wants to fit everything in nice systematic boxes, this is kind of frustrating.
The character of God and the revelation of Christ
So where should a Christian find his comfort and answer? I think Philippians 4:13 has the answer: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Now, most Christians are very familiar with this verse because it is one of the most quoted in Scripture… and like most quoted verses, it is often misquoted. Athletes love it, and I am particular amused when I see it tattooed on MMA fighters, as if to say, “Jesus gives me strength… to knock you out in a few minutes.” The problem is that the verse is not talking about things that we would consider feats of macho strength, but rather about contentment and endurance. The passage talks about how Paul has learned to be content in all situations, whether in plenty or in need. Why? Because Christ, whom through Paul has attained righteousness and new life (Phil. 3:7-11), gives him strength and enables him to rejoice. Thus, Paul looks back and sees the salvation brought by Jesus and looks forward to that promise of glorious resurrection, and he is content.
Similarly for Job, Job does not realize his error because God gave him a complete explanation. I’m sure God has one, but even if he did give us one, we probably wouldn’t understand it. What Job is reminded of is that God is God and he is in control. The world may look like Hell sometimes and we should not diminish the evil we see, but we can nonetheless be confident that God knows what he is doing. We are confident that whatever horrific things that circumstances, humans, or even demons can throw at us, God is working for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
So in my situation, what did I learn? Well, I can’t give an explanation as to why my lung collapsed again… not even a medical one, because the exact cause is unknown. I know that if in fact God was punishing me, I deserve it, as I am certainly not as righteous as Job was. I know that if it was a test, then it is also justified because I need a lot of refining. I have been and should be reflective of these things. I don’t diminish the importance of this at all.
More so than all that, though, I have experienced peace because God has proven to be faithful in all things. This was the most clear the morning after surgery, when I lied down alone in the ICU. The week before had been very painful and all sorts of things had gone wrong, but the surgery went well and I was going to be fine. As I reflected by myself, I wept by myself because I experienced such gratitude (I will never admit that I cried again, so don’t even ask): For my family, for my friends, and for my church. Most of all, I was thankful to God that I had a hope through Christ that could never be taken away. In reality, what I went through is nothing compared to the suffering others have gone through, but it is comforting to know that even if I went through something way worse, Christ would never abandon me and give me the strength to endure.
Is it easy? No. I’ve had my downs after surgery and after I have been released. I still experience frustration and anger that I had to go to the hospital again for something that, at least physically, was not my fault. I thought I had learned enough the first time around. It’s still hard to trust God when I feel physically weak or when I receive a phone call about a bill that I cannot pay, or when I wonder how I’m going to get married or pursue more studies with all of this debt (much less get a car or buy OU tickets). But then God affirms that he is still here, through the generosity and prayers of others as well as through my own readings and prayers as I try to move on from this. All such material things are, indeed, crap (literally, look up the Greek word), as Paul says, compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord (Phil. 3:8).
So what did I learn? In some ways, nothing. In others, everything that matters.