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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Suffering as Rescue not Rejection


"He may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings,

to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride."

Job 33:16-17

Last time, in Job, we heard the final words from Job’s three friends. But it was Job who completed the round of speeches. And since the friends have no further argument to bring against his final remarks, Job probably thinks that he has won the argument right now.

That argument has been focussed on the justice of God. The friends have been saying that Job must be guilty of sin because, how else could you account for the sudden and severe suffering of Job.

Job thinks there is another explanation. The explanation that Job believes is true, is that God has lost sight of his righteousness and that God has dealt him unjust blows.

Both sides have been arguing for a correspondence between righteousness and blessing. Or, to put it negatively, between wickedness and suffering. Both sides think they should go hand in glove with each other.

Now, I think I’ve been saying, and trying to show, that both sides are wrong in their conclusions. But there are a few things I haven’t said very often, which would be good to point out now, I feel.

The first is that there is a substantial difference between the friends and Job which can’t go unmentioned. The obvious difference is that Job is the one on whom all the calamity and travail has come – not the friends. So, if anybody has a reason to have a skewed perspective, then Job is that person.

So, what I’m saying is that when you encounter a person who is in the throes of suffering, be aware that what they are going through could – it may not, but it could – be skewing their perspective on God. Their perspective on the reason for their suffering; on justice and on their relationship to God. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing to point out is that, when the Apostle James says in chapter 5 of his letter that ‘we count blessed those who have persevered’ and then proceeds to point up Job as an example of perseverance in suffering, we are to understand that, in spite of Job’s skewed perspective, we are observing something beneficial here in Job’s response.

What we are observing is a man who is perhaps more afflicted than any person we have ever met. Who has a skewed and distorted perspective on the suffering he’s experiencing. Who is attributing to God injustice. But who is not walking away from God. Actually, he’s pressing into God. He is not heeding the advice of his wife and cursing God – saying, ‘I’m done with you God’. He’s seeking God out. He wants to go to him.

When we were in the final chapter of Colossians recently we reflected on the kind of trouble that comes with the gospel and how Demas – in love with this world, Paul says – had deserted the faith.

Job isn’t a Demas. He’s suffering. He can’t make sense of his suffering, and is resorting to indicting God which is not good. But he’s not walking away from God. He’s pressing into God. James isn’t endorsing Job’s conclusions, but he is endorsing Job’s perseverance.

Even when everything seems upside down and the wrong way round, the fight is a fight for faith – maybe mustard-seed type faith – but faith nonetheless. And we’re going to see Job’s perseverance – his fight for faith – result in rectification of his perspective, repentance for his remarks, and restoration of his relationship.

Now, what we’ve been witnessing with the friends is a situation something akin to this: Here we have Job weighed down in a quagmire of suffering, sadness, pain, disorientation and fading hope. He’s waist deep in this sinking sand, and he needs help.

The approach the friends have taken is a bit like standing on the firm ground at the edge of this pond of sinking sand and throwing rocks for Job to catch. Everything they say is only making his predicament worse. In many ways, the friends serve to skew Job’s perspective even further, not straighten it out. I don’t think the friends have been helping Job at all, I think they’ve caused him to sink lower.

However, when we meet a Job-type situation, there is a danger that in our desire to help our friend – well intentioned and fully committed – we wade into the quagmire and find ourselves floundering with them.

What that usually looks like in reality, is an attempt to immerse ourselves in the physical or emotional suffering of the individual. To the extent that we can relate as closely as possible to the turmoil of their souls. This approach looks very wise, very caring and very laudable. But it has a dark side that is not beneficial.

The place that this approach falls down at, is that the depth of immersion in the grief of this individual makes it almost impossible to detect error; or unbelief; or sin.

In an attempt to comfort the suffering person, we can fail to spot the very things they will need to hear to help them out of the quagmire.

We are in the quagmire with them. But we have so empathised with their plight that we cannot see any other perspective than their perspective. And if that perspective is skewed, it is very difficult to help correct it.

So, what we need is an approach to this suffering saint which plants one foot in the quagmire with them to support them and help them – to share with them in their plight. But which keeps the other foot firmly planted on the solid bank. From that position, we can exercise leverage, to pull them up out of the mire.

What that looks like in real terms, is a listening ear combined with a discerning mind. With one foot planted in the Word of God, we listen carefully to the agonising remarks of this grieving soul and we are constantly passing those remarks through the sieve of God’s word. That is the only way we can know where they are at, spiritually.

So, we are slow to speak, but not slow to evaluate – not slow to detect. We know that the suffering person is the person most likely to have a skewed perspective on God. We know that’s Satan’s plan is to devour their faith. And so, we are on high-alert for the sake of our friend. We want to know exactly what we must say when the right time comes in order to preserve their faith in God.

Now, I’ve just used one third of the message to say what it is that I think Elihu – this new character – gets so right. Elihu is going to sound cold and insensitive and harsh at times, but he’s getting to grips with a man who he wants to rescue from the mire.

He’s waited a long time to speak, so he knows all about the situation. He knows all about the calamity. He knows all about Job’s defence of his own righteousness. And he knows all about how the friends have heaped condemnation on him.

And now he thinks that he can help Job see the real reason for his suffering and thus correct his perspective. And he thinks he can show the friends how wrong they have been. And, perhaps most of all, he thinks he can show God to be just – like he really is.

According to chapter 32, verse 2, he’s angry with Job for justifying himself at the expense of God. And, according to verse 3, he’s angry with the friends for failing to correct Job’s perspective.

So, Elihu won’t flatter one side or the other (verse 21), but he is confident that his words will ultimately vindicate Job (chapter 33, verse 32). And he wants the friends and Job to come with him in his exploration. Chapter 34, verse 3, ‘The ear tests words as the tongue tastes food. Let us discern what is right. Let us learn together what is good’. At the start of chapter 36, he shows that he is keen to vindicate God also, ‘I will ascribe justice to my maker’ he says.

Now, why should we listen to anything this man has to say? I think there are three good reasons to take Elihu’s counsel as a significant improvement on that of the three friends, and a correction of Job’s perspective, and a vindication of God’s justice – even if he does sound tactless at times.

The three reasons are these. One: That Job – who up until now has been very keen to defend himself and very ready to argue his case – has nocome back on Elihu.

That seems out of step with Job over the course of the book so far. Unless that is, Elihu’s argument is arresting. I think it is arresting for Job, and that’s why he can’t muster a response.

Second, God is bent out of shape with the three friends – so much so that Job has to intercede for them later on at God’s instruction. So that God’s wrath doesn’t fall on them. However, God has to make no suchprovision for this man Elihu. We must therefore conclude that broadly speaking the remarks that Elihu makes are in step with God, not at odds with him.

And, just in case you’re thinking that Elihu doesn’t speak as much as the other friends, and maybe that accounts for why God doesn’t hold him accountable – well I counted, and Eliphaz who speaks the most of the 3 friends has 113 verses to his name, whilst Elihu has 165 verses to his. Elihu has more room to get it wrong, but God isn’t after his hide at the end of all this, he’s after those of the friends.

And thirdly, the argument that Elihu brings introduces a new category of thinking to the situation. That category is the one that sounds most like new testament teaching. It says that a person can be righteous in God’s sight and still have indwelling sin that needs dealing with. And that is truly the case. Up until now, no one has said that in this book.

I accept that Elihu can come across angry and overbearing in these chapters. I think that true biblical sympathy walks a very narrow line between the truth and compassion. Often people who try to do what Elihu is trying to do here, get heat for being simplistic, or uncaring, or even harsh.

But the sympathetic approach is the approach God seems to endorse. The approach that seeks to help the suffering with wisdom from on high; that seeks to preserve the character of God, and show his purposes in the suffering.

The psalmist puts it like this: ‘Let a righteous man strike me [that’s a strong word] – that is kindness; let him rebuke me – that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it’.

Proverbs like this: ‘better is open rebuke than hidden love’. And this: ‘A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool’. And this: Wounds [strong word again] from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’.

The Apostle Paul encourages the brothers and sisters in Galatia to ‘restore, gently, a brother or sister caught in sin, but to be careful not to fall into the same temptation’.

Elihu speaks with strong words here, but also with helpful words and constructive words. And his aim is undeniably the good of Job which, even if our words sometimes sound over the top or muddle-headed, the motive behind them and the truth in them, is almost always apparent.

So, let’s try to get a handle on what Elihu’s main message is.

His first point seems to be that Job is making the case that God won’t come and speak with him, but in fact, if he had ears to hear, he would find that God has been speaking to him all along.

Chapter 33, verse 13, Elihu reminds Job that he’s been complaining that God doesn’t respond to his words. But he wants Job to know that God speaks in more than one way.

For example, verse 16, he may speak through terror. But to what end? To bring people under judgment? No. Elihu sees another purpose in God’s terrifying dealings with his people: to warn them, verse 16. To turn them from wrongdoing, verse 17. And to keep them from pride, verse 17. To preserve them from going down to the pit, verse 18 – not to take them down to the pit.

Indeed, ‘the kind of calamity Job, that you are facing (verses 19 to 22) may be a chastening work on God’s part (verse 19)’. He even supposes that an angel of God – one in a thousand - may be sent to tell them how to be upright. This is an agent of grace who intercedes with God for them, saying, ‘Spare them from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom for them’.

I wouldn’t want to stake everything on it, but I think this is a strong contender for an allusion to Jesus. I think ‘angel’ here is used not to describe the kind of person, but the nature of the person.

That person can pray to God and receive God’s favour, and see God’s face, and shout with joy, Elihu says.

He also says that God does this to a person multiple times in their lives so that the light of life may shine on them (verse 30). He’s saying, ‘there’s residual sin in the heart of people which has to be dealt with, and suffering is often the way God speaks to it’.

Pride needs to be sifted out. Arrogance needs to be purged. We’re not talking about the kind of in-your-face, outward arrogance which we can see in each other. We’re talking about the inner pride which lurks quietly in the depths of our souls and which is deadly. The kind that makes us gods in our own minds and hearts. The kind that takes us down to the pit.

Dr Martin Lloyd Jones points out that, Joseph’s chief concern wasn’t sinning against Potiphar’s wife – though that would have been heinous. And David’s chief concern was not that he had sinned against Bathsheba and her husband – though they were heinous sins. But both were chiefly concerned about sinning against God. David says, ‘you only have I sinned against’.

His point is, that all our outward sins are the fruit of inward sin against God. If we did not sin against God we would not sin against our neighbour. If we did not harbour sin in our hearts we would not cast-off sin in our actions and words.

Therefore, the residual and residing sin in the soul is the sin that God wants to get to grips with. And suffering is a mechanism he uses often in the lives of his people to get to grips with it.

Because, suffering humbles us and exposes our pride. That’s what’s happened to Job. He didn’t know it before, but he was getting mighty proud of his good deeds and when suffering comes, he wants to know how that is fair for such a good man as he. But God is now showing him, and will show him first hand, that that kind of pride is deadly in the face of the holy and powerful God.

Elihu moves to make another point in chapter 34. Verse 5, “Job says, ‘I am innocent, but God denies me justice. Although I am right, I am considered a liar; although I am guiltless, his arrow inflicts an incurable wound’”. Elihu’s aim is to straighten out Job’s faulty perspective: ‘In saying these things Job, do you not realise that you are making God your equal?’

God is not like you. He is able to bring calamity and have a just cause for it. He is able to humble his children and be right in that measure. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, verse 12. If he withdrew his spirit, the breath of all humanity would perish – would he be wrong to do it? No. He doesn’t have to explain himself to his creatures.

And it’s not as if God needs to test human beings either – as Job suspects - to see if they are for him or not. He knows all that anyway. There’s no need for further examination – make no mistake, God’s eye is on people’s every step. Without any further enquiry, he shatters the mighty. Like Belshazzar – gone in a night. Both individual and nation. He knows the fulness of their ways.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, suppose someone confesses their sins before God. And suppose they heed correction. Will God then reward them on their terms? Are they then deserving of God’s favour?

Elihu says, ‘no’. For where is their repentance. You can take pride in confession and pride in correction. But to repent, is the definition of humility. A person can tell God all they have done wrong and listen to all they must do that is right. But to say sorry for the offences they have committed against God by acting like god in their own hearts, that is really humbling.

You know, before Nebuchadnezzar was humbled to the dust, he had already declared that Daniel’s God was the God of gods, the Lord of kings and the revealer of mysteries. And he had already praised the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. But there was still pride to be dealt with, and that called for affliction.

‘Job, God is not unjust. He loves justice. He finds ways to satisfy his justice. This calamity may look like injustice, but this is really God’s preserving love for you’.

Any true believer will eventually hear him whispering that to them in the midst of their affliction. Chapter 36, verse 10, ‘he makes his people listen to correction’.

They may see their pride in a way they had not before. They may feeltheir smallness and realise that their arrogance was an offence to God. They may learn that they had been secretly depending on themselves and not on him, and repent of their foolishness.

Verse 16, ‘Job, He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food’. But right now, Job, ‘you are laden with judgment; judgment and justice have taken hold of you’.

This is his now his main argument: ‘God is being gracious to you, but you can only see injustice’.

So now, Elihu gives warning to his friend. This is instructive for us. He’s not only going to point out Job’s skewed perspective, he’s going to warnhim too.

Verse 21 sums up the three preceding verses. ‘Beware of turning to evil which you seem to prefer to affliction’.

The skewed perspective is seriously dangerous for the Christian. Left to run its course it will result in disaster. Notice the friends were accusing Job of having turned to evil. Elihu isn’t doing that, he’s warning of it. He’s saying ‘the evil resentment you’re harbouring in your heart towards God’ – he calls it ‘scorn’ – ‘if left unchecked will lead to the outworking of evil in your life’. It is from within, out of the heart, that evil thoughts come, Jesus said. ‘So, beware Job’.

After diagnosis, and after warning comes advice. In chapter 36, verse 25, Elihu reminds Job to ‘extol God’s work’. Between verse 26 and chapter 37, verse 13, he gives Job a catalogue of God’s ways and deeds, designed to inspire awe in Job.

Here’s a sample. Chapter 37, verse 10, ‘The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen. He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightening through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the earth to do whatever he commands them.’

He has really meditated on the ways of God. And he’s using the truth of those meditations to correct Job, and to help Job understand why he’s experiencing such trauma in his life.

Notice how these words of Elihu are so similar to God’s words about himself in chapter 38 following. It feels like God is using Elihu to prepare Job for what’s coming next.

The lessons here are: pride is a problem - God must get to grips with it in our lives. He uses trouble, hardship, calamity, storm, to stir it up in us so we become aware of it.

Thus, his ways in calamity are good and gracious; wise and winsome. He’s not rejecting us in them, he’s rescuing us in them.

And we’re learning that sometimes it takes a godly, wise and caring friend who has one foot on the bank of truth and one foot in the swamp of trouble with us, to help us find the God-perspective in it all and to revitalise, what maybe, waning faith.

Thanks be to God that he doesn’t leave us either to our perilous pride or in our crumbling faith, but makes provision for us in both!


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