Category Archives: Bible Study

12 Purposes for Affliction

 

Throughout the course of the monologues and dialogues in the book of Job there are at times points of wisdom and clarity and at other times less than helpful opinions and poorly applied theology.  Utilizing one of our interpretive keys of holding onto the good and leaving bad, as it pertains to the speeches, allows the reader to comb through them gleaning truths that are rightly applied in the case of Job’s affliction and similarly may be applied to situations of affliction in our lives.

One such example are the references to God’s purposes in bringing about affliction.  Sometimes these occur as a passing reference intermingled in the midst of rambling speeches, which may be largely unhelpful, while other times they are the focal point as part of a larger discourse on God’s good designs.  Below is a list of these occurrences with a brief discussion providing context of the speaker and their implied purpose

1.Job 5:17-18.

“Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty.  For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”

Ironically, the first clear explanation of God’s designs in affliction comes from the mouth of Eliphaz, Job 5:8-16, in the first response to Job.  Here, Eliphaz offers advice for Job to seek the face of God, which is followed by an excellent discourse on the wisdom and supremacy of God.  In verses 17-18, cited above, the direction shifts towards the circumstances of the afflicted as a result of the discipline of God.

Here, as in Proverbs 3:11-12 as well as Hebrews 12:5, God has designed affliction to serve as a disciplinary action for His children.  Remember that this discipline is not punitive, but corrective.

2. Job 17:9

Yet the righteous holds to his way,
    and he who has clean hands grows stronger and stronger.

Though perhaps more obscure than the previous purpose, we find in the midst of Job’s lament from Chapter 17 that his affliction is being observed by others, the righteous, who see him as an encouraging example of perseverance in the midst of affliction.  God’s design for affliction among His children is to be exemplary, either as a model for how to suffer or to serve as a warning to others.

3. Job 23:10

But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.”

Here we see the refining purpose for affliction, to purify the child of God, burning off the dross of sin resulting in a purer gold.

4.  Job 30:11

Because God has loosed my cord and humbled me,
    they have cast off restraint in my presence.”

In this next example, we find the words of Job concluding that his case of affliction has served to humble him.

5.  Job 33:17-18

17 that he may turn man aside from his deed
    and conceal pride from a man;
18 he keeps back his soul from the pit,
    his life from perishing by the sword.

In this passage, God’s mouthpiece for declaring His purposes in affliction shifts from those brief mentions in the speeches of Job and Eliphaz to Elihu.  This begins a string of declarative purposes for affliction by him, perhaps providing us another clue as to the helpfulness of his speeches.

In this first purpose for affliction from Elihu we find that it serves as a corrective to turn a child of God from wickedness, pride, and ultimately death (as a result of sin).

6. Job 33:27-30

29Behold, God does all these things,
    twice, three times, with a man,
30 to bring back his soul from the pit,
    that he may be lighted with the light of life.

Again, a word from Elihu, he now states the purpose of God in affliction is preventative, specifically from total destruction of the soul.  Not only that, but to set the soul on the path of life.

7. Job 34:26-27.

He strikes them for their wickedness
    in a place for all to see,

because they turned aside from following him
    and had no regard for any of his ways

Our third purpose from the mouth of Elihu provides for us, in context, a focus now upon the wicked, or more clearly, the apostate whom God afflicts because they have turned aside from following Him.  As we know, affliction is not limited to the righteous, nor is it exclusive of the wicked, but God applies it to both according to His own plan and purpose.

8. Job 36:10-11 

10He opens their ears to instruction
    and commands that they return from iniquity.
11 If they listen and serve him,
    they complete their days in prosperity,
    and their years in pleasantness.
12 But if they do not listen, they perish by the sword
    and die without knowledge.

Here our context, again in a speech from Elihu, shows God’s purpose in elevating the righteous to the status of kings, yet then by necessity afflicting them to expose pride.  In essence, when God pours out blessings on the righteous and they in turn become arrogant and prideful, God is pleased to afflict them in order to instruct them and turn them from their sins.  Interestingly, with this particular application of affliction we find that it has a tendency to bring one to a crossroad.  On the left, the response of the righteous to God’s affliction by listening and serving Him resulting in a complete, full life.  On the right, the response of ignoring God, resulting in death (here by the sword) and dying without knowledge, perhaps affirming their false confession of faith.

9. Job 36:15-16

15He delivers the afflicted by their affliction
    and opens their ear by adversity.
16 He also allured you out of distress
    into a broad place where there was no cramping,
    and what was set on your table was full of fatness.”

Again we read the words of Elihu and find now God’s purposes in affliction described as discipline and educative.

10. Job 36:22

21Take care; do not turn to iniquity,
    for this you have chosen rather than affliction.
22 Behold, God is exalted in his power;
    who is a teacher like him?

As this speech from Elihu concludes, we enter into three less direct descriptions of God’s purposes in affliction beginning here with its use as a teaching tool.  In our cases of affliction, as with Job, God uses it to teach us about Himself first, and then subsequently about ourselves.

11. Job 37:7

He seals up the hand of every man,
    that all men whom he made may know it.

The second implied purpose from Elihu’s latter speech is to hedge in man.  Sometimes God may use affliction as a form of restraint, in a sense to protect us from ourselves.

12. Job 37:13

Whether for correction or for his land
    or for love, he causes it to happen.

Finally, the context for this last purpose places us in the midst of a section describing God’s superintendence of nature.  We find here the whirlwind, cold, ice, clouds with moisture, and lightning.  God’s usage of these may be for correction, for (maintenance) of the land, or simply for love.  In short, nature is at his beckoning call to do His will as He sees fit.

Certainly we may search the Scriptures and find further examples of God’s purposes in afflicting either His saints or the wicked.  But suffice to say, those who have walked away from Job unsatisfied with answers to why God afflicts the righteous, have simply not seen clearly both the explicit and implicit purposes described throughout the book.  Drawing our minds to these will provide comfort and wisdom for those occasions when we are faced with our own afflictions.

Preparing for Affliction

 

In his treatise exhorting believers to the duty of meditation, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) sets forth the following proposition on the benefit of meditating on eternity,

“There is nothing more necessary unto believers at this season than to have their minds furnished with provision of such things as may prepare them for the cross and sufferings.  Various intimations of the mind of God, circumstances of providence, the present state of things in the world, with the instant peril of the latter days, do all call them hereunto.  If it be otherwise with them, they will at one time or another be woefully surprised, and think strange of their trials, as if some strange thing did befall them.  Nothing is more useful unto this end than constant thoughts and contemplations of eternal things and future glory.”

What he is saying here, in a way that only Owen does, is that for believers, key to preparing for the coming sufferings, afflictions, and trials of this world is continual meditations on eternity.

Similarly, note the words of God through the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

Here we see the relationship between affliction and eternity, namely that the former is preparatory for the latter.  How so?

  1. Affliction is preparatory because, as we have seen with Job, it is a refining, purifying act of God to further cleanse the believer of defilement, strengthen faith, and develop perseverance (see Romans 5:1-5).
  2. Affliction is preparatory because due to its temporary nature, we anticipate its conclusion, knowing that it will not last forever.  Therefore by their very nature afflictions cause us to look forward to a day when they will end and eternity will begin.  This is sometimes called having an eternal perspective.

Similarly, in this passage we see that our focus should not be on the temporary, earthly, and visible things of this world, instead our focus should be on the eternal, heavenly, and invisible (at present) things of the world to come.  Having this focus constantly and consistently, as Owen states, prepares us for the arrival of affliction. It therefore does not take us by surprise, nor does it sink us into depths of despair, though we certainly may have “fear of and aversation* from great, distressing sufferings, that are above the power of nature to bear.” Nevertheless we persevere knowing that the suffering and sorrow is only temporary.

Finally, moving from a general statement on the positive benefits of meditating on eternity to a more specific look at what exactly that entails, we may note at least three objects upon which to set our minds

  1. The Restoration of All Things
  2. The Renewal of our Earthly Bodies
  3. The Christ of Eternity

For our first point we note that we must allow our minds to fix upon the restoration of all things, namely that this world, which is fading away, will one day be restored such that it will no longer be subject to the fall.  20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:21-22 

Second, we must allow our minds to fix upon the renewal of our earthly bodies.  “50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”” 1 Cor. 15:50-55

Finally, and most importantly, we must allow our minds to fix upon the Christ of eternity, for we shall finally see Him as He is.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2

Our best preparation for affliction is to meditate on our eternal state in glory, as such it is also the best object of our meditations during affliction. Turning to Owen for the final word, we read,

“Eternal glory is set before us also; it is the design of God’s wisdom and grace that by the contemplation of it we should relieve ourselves in all our sufferings, yea, and rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

 

*turning away in dislike

For additional study and meditation, read Revelation 21.

Stop Asking Why

 

Why is it when tragedy strikes the first question asked is Why? Why is it when personal affliction hits the first question asked is Why? Why is it when a gunman enters a church, the first question we want answered is why?  Why is it when storms hit, the question we want answered is why?  Why is it when a child has cancer, we want to ask why?  Why do we keep asking why?

One theologian has posited that we keep asking why because

“Our minds crave an answer.

Why do we ask why?

We cannot help but ask why because, made in God’s image, we are moral creatures who cannot grasp or understand the world around us without moral categories. We are moral creatures inhabiting a moral universe and our moral sense of meaning is the faculty most perplexed when overwhelmed by horror and grief.”

While quite frankly I have difficulty digesting such grandiose statements, for him at least, he is summarizing what he sees as the innate desire in humans to ask why in the midst of grief.  Another has offered his own opinion on the matter by beginning his best selling book with the following, “There is only one question  which really matters: Why do bad things happen to good people?”  He then spends 8 chapters attempting to answer this question.

In the book of Job, two parties wrestle with the “why” question in the case of Job’s affliction.  Because of this, the book has often been viewed as having the answer to why suffering exists in the world and more broadly why evil exists, sometimes called theodicy. These two parties, Job and his friends, wrestle with the question of why and reach their own conclusions.  The latter, as has been stated before, concluded that the answer to why God afflicts must be directly related to sin.  Broadly this is true.  As a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden, sin entered the world and in this way all affliction is the product of sin.

However, specifically, as in the case of Job, this is not true, at least not necessarily.  Job was afflicted, but there was no direct correlation with sin, either hidden or open, that was the direct cause.  In the case of Job, his wrestling with the why of his own affliction left him questioning the justice, wisdom, and ultimately the goodness of God.  Job’s conclusion, or answer to the why question, was that God arbitrarily afflicts both the righteous and the unrighteous for no apparent reason.  Conversely, He also blesses the unrighteous.

With the arrival of Elihu into the verbal fray at chapter 32, we have yet a third party arriving to address the question why.  For the first time, the knot of this tangled difficulty begins to be loosened somewhat as he provides at least some reasons, unmentioned previously, for why God afflicts.

However, as Yahweh appears on the scene in chapter 38, the question, or rather the answer, to “why” never even remotely comes up.  For essentially 37 chapters, and in reality who knows how much actual time had elapsed, we have been waiting for an answer to the question of why Job was allowed to be afflicted, if he was righteous.  Extrapolating this question from the context to our present reading of the book, and we may say that we too, along with Job, often find ourselves waiting for an answer to the question “why?”.  Why does God afflict?  Why does suffering happen?  Why are there disasters, disease, and death?  Surely God must answer our interrogations because of our perplexity, grief, and moral creatureliness, as the theologian cited above stated.  Right?

Absolutely not!  In fact, God’s first address to Job is, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? “  God’s answer to the why question begins with a who question, specifically, who are you to ask why.  The answer to Job ‘s inquisition in simple terms is also the answer that the Apostle Paul gives in Romans 9 for those who like to question the Almighty, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?'” Romans 9:20  Contrary to the two views from the theologian and author above in our introduction, we don’t ask why because we are moral agents looking for moral categories in a moral universe.  We demand answers to why because we are immoral creatures living in a fallen world who have failed to come to terms with the WHO.  In order for Job, and by necessary consequence us, to answer rightly this question of “who” we must see ourselves in light of Who God is.

This is precisely how God answers Job in His four chapter long rebuke.  God, fully aware of the questions that have been levied against His character responds, not by self-justifying His wisdom for why He has chosen to act in a particular way, but answers by reestablishing in the minds of His hearers WHO it is that is acting.  The why matters very little, contrary to the author cited above.  In fact, as finite, sinful creatures we would rarely be satisfied with the why even if God should condescend to answer it.  Instead, as God in His majestic wisdom knows, most often our question of why is due to our failure to properly recognize the WHO.  This WHO in the book of Job begins with God as Creator.

Building upon this, God establishes Himself as Sustainer of all that He has created.  Far from being a cosmic clock-winder that simply starts up creation and is hands off the daily operation, God informs Job that it is He that sustains creation.  In doing so, God also highlights several of His attributes, namely His sovereignty, wisdom, goodness, justice, and most certainly His freedom. Perhaps it is this last attribute that causes the most consternation among those who experience affliction or witness calamity in general because it firmly asserts that God is God and we are not, therefore He is free to do as He pleases and answers to no one.

The answer to the why question begins with a “who”, namely who are we to ask such a question. This who necessarily drives us to ask WHO God is and provides clarity for us to view ourselves as finite creatures and God as infinite Creator.  When affliction strikes, and it will, or when calamity happens again, and it will, may we be less prone to ask why and more prone to seek the WHO falling on our faces before the Almighty in recognition of His supreme wisdom to order the creation as He sees fit.  Let us then rest in His justice and goodness knowing well that He has divine freedom to do as He pleases.  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?  Most Assuredly this is so.