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Sermon text: Job 5:7–9

Yet man is born to trouble,
as the sparks fly upward.
“But as for me, I would seek God,
And to God I would commit my cause—
Who does great things, and unsearchable,
Marvelous things without number.”

Well, brothers and sisters, next week, if the Lord wills, we will continue our series on the Gospel of Mark. But this Lord’s Day I have been impressed with the particular burden to bring to you a message about suffering and the reality of God. Suffering, and the reality of God. I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit and I think I’ve gathered some biblical manna that should hopefully be nourishing to the graces that the Spirit of God has been pleased to make us partakers of by His mercy. As for our text, please turn with me to the book of Job, chapter 5, verses 7–9: “Yet man is born to trouble, As the sparks fly upward. ‘But as for me, I would seek God, And to God I would commit my cause— Who does great things, and unsearchable, Marvelous things without number.’”

Numerous members of this body are going through, or have recently gone through, a season of suffering. Suffering is the common experience of every child of God. It’s also the common experience of everybody who is not a child of God. Everybody who has been granted breath by the Almighty and who lives in the matrix of this fallen world is confronted by the reality of suffering at some point or another. And while the sufferings of the non-elect are premonitions of the eternal anguish that awaits them, the sufferings of believers are deeply meaningful as preparations for the glory to come.

Eliphaz was realistic when he said, “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” The Hebrew word for trouble at its root expresses the pains of strenuous labor, but more broadly it describes evil that befalls us in all the multi-variegated manifestations of adversity. It’s the pain that we experience, whether physical or psychological or spiritual (or often, some combination of these), on account of our embodied existence in a universe that reels under the burden of the curse. Eliphaz says this suffering is unavoidable. “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”

When you sit around a bonfire, you look at the flames, and as they flash and dance, they always shoot upward. And the tops of those tongues of fire emit an abundance of sparks. Those sparks are inseparable from the fire. You cannot have a fire without the sparks, and you cannot live in this world without suffering. Just as the sparks fly upward from the fire, emanated by the force generated by the flame and its heat, so the forces that are in motion in our world will inevitably accrue to trouble and suffering for us. We will not escape being confronted with this trouble.

And when the reality of this trouble comes upon us, it can seem like an all-pervasive reality to us that eclipses the reality of God in our minds. When it comes, we find ourselves bewildered, confounded, even consumed by it. Like Job, our natural response to adversity is to resent it. Suffering can produce a bitterness in our soul that sours not only the pleasures of life, but the pleasures of knowing and walking with God. It tempts us to fall into self-pity, overwhelms us with a sense of frustration, and brings us to complain of all that we must endure on its account, even as we struggle to avoid or escape it in vain.[i]

But we cannot, so the question is: How do we cope with it? How do we understand it? How do we fit this trouble into a biblical perspective and Christian worldview? How do we respond rightly to it? And how to do we bear up under our sufferings so that they would not be detrimental to our faith and growth in grace but rather conducive to these ends and beneficial for us as believers in Christ? In response to these questions, I have two main thoughts I’d like to share with you today: (1) Accept the reality of suffering without losing sight of the reality of God, and (2) Embrace the reality of God without losing sight of His sovereignty in your sufferings.

I. Accept the reality of suffering without losing sight of the reality of God.

This is in essence what Eliphaz is saying to Job. “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. ‘But as for me, I would seek God, And to God I would commit my cause.’” Suffering is a reality you have to accept. And you should accept it by reflecting deeply on its meaning and significance in view of the reality of God. You should come to grips with the purposes that lie behind it. Rather than allowing it to consume you, you should yield your will in submission to the God who ordained it, and seek Him for wisdom on how to cope with it and how to be made the better for it. Of course, it’s easier to give this advice than to practice it, so let’s try to unpack this a little.

Suffering befalls us as one of the most fundamental realities of life, yet it’s the one thing we have the most difficulty accepting. No one in their right mind denies its reality. But some have tried. Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) founded the cult of Christian Science (wrongly so-called because it’s not Christian nor is it science); and she taught that evil and suffering are mental misapprehensions that arise from misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. For her, sin and sickness have no true existence; they are just illusions that can be dispelled through spiritual enlightenment. Well, you can try and be as spiritual as you want, but when you stub your toe, you’re still going to say, “Ouch.” To say that suffering is an illusion is to entertain nothing but delusion.

The problem of evil and suffering has posed one of the greatest conundrums for even the world’s brightest thinkers. Philosophers have debated for centuries about what constitutes ultimate reality. Some have taught that reality is objectively inherent in the world and that we approximate it in our understanding when our mind subjectively apprehends what is objectively there. Others have suggested that truth, or reality, is a construction of the conscious mind only, and does not necessarily correspond with the material world at all. But some others of the existential school of thought have taught that suffering is actually the most certain, most fundamental reality for beings with a conscious mind. They view suffering as an integral aspect of the human condition that cannot be avoided. It is by accepting our suffering and engaging with it head on that we enter an existential struggle through which we can emerge to transcend our limitations and find ultimate meaning and purpose. Thus for them, suffering provides opportunity to gain wisdom for dealing with life’s complexities and apparent contradictions.

And that’s not far off from the wisdom presented in the book of Job. Suffering uniquely has a way of awakening us into existential reckoning with the reality of our finiteness. It leads us to contemplate our mortality, to question the meaning of life, and to prioritize what matters most. People always want to distract themselves from the harsh realities of existence, but suffering is like a splash of cold water in the face of those who are drowsy with such delusions. Job teaches us that suffering can lead to a more authenticate understanding of ourselves and the world, but only if we don’t lose sight of the reality of God in the midst of it.

But sadly, that’s what many people do. Suffering comes upon them like a thick cloud of dense smoke in which they can hardly breathe and through which they can hardly see, if at all. They lose sight of what’s in front of them, they give up hope on the future, and they become consumed with the miseries of self while bucking against the providence of God. Like Job said in chapter 3: “May the day perish on which I was born, and the night in which it was said, ‘A male child is conceived.’ May that day be darkness; may God above not seek it, nor the light shine upon it…. May the stars of its morning be dark; May it look for light, but have none, And not see the dawning of the day” (vv. 3–4, 9). Or as he said again in chapter 6, verse 11: “What strength do I have, that I should hope? And what is my end, that I should prolong my life?” Dreams are shattered, light becomes darkness, and optimism is swallowed up in despair. Like the moon when it eclipses the sun, their afflictions block their view of the bright rays of God’s goodness. They lose hope and they lose heart. And for many, they are tempted to even lose faith itself.

Hence the so-called problem of evil is recognized by many apologists as posing the greatest obstacle to faith in God. Surveys that probe atheists about why they don’t believe in God churn up a slew of responses that can be summarized under the problem of evil. And this tends to be the most common objection to the Christian faith. Just last week I was dealing with a family member who is going through a very distressing season of life. They professed belief in God in the past but now they were saying, “I don’t even know if God exists. I mean, if He does, then why does He allow so much pain and suffering in my life?” I’m sure you’ve heard this objection too, and you might have even entertained it in your mind at some point.

So what is the problem of evil? The problem of evil was initially raised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus and was popularized by the skeptic David Hume. Hume put it like this: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing: whence then is evil?” His question is meant to cast doubt on the existence of God.

But let’s set something straight. The first question Hume poses questions God’s omnipotence under the assumption that an Almighty God should and could prevent evil. But God’s omnipotence doesn’t mean He can do anything! It means God can do all His will, and His will is one with His holy nature. There are many things God cannot do, not least because it is not His will to do them. God cannot not be God; He can’t lie, cheat, blaspheme, change, unknow anything, or violate His promises. His inability to do these things is not a sign of weakness but a testimony to His perfection. His omnipotence is utterly harmonious with His manifold and infinite perfections. Omnipotence is not raw abstract power but the essence of the personal, good, and all-wise God who always acts in accord with His nature for the sake of His own glory. Daniel 4:34 says, “All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”

What then about the second question Hume raises: “Is [God] able [to prevent evil], but not willing?” If that’s the case, says Hume, “Then he is malevolent.” But the question is loaded with false assumptions. It presupposes God cannot have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil. Hume’s question commits a logical fallacy known as the “false dilemma.” He phrases his questions as if they were the only two possibilities. The truth is, God is able to prevent evil and desires to do so, but has wise reasons for allowing it to continue, and He will deal with it definitively only after it has served its purpose. And, seeing that God is God and we are not, He is under no obligation to reveal to us any exhaustive explanation as to what His wise and eternal purposes are. So Hume raises a thought-provoking question, but we should approach these questions in humility and not with antagonistic biases. So often man tries to stand in judgment over God, but God is not the one on trial—we are.

But doesn’t the presence of evil lend support to atheism?” Not at all, because objective evil cannot exist if objective Good does not exist. Good can exist without evil, but evil cannot exist without good.

You see, the atheist has an even bigger problem than the theist does. The theist must give an account as to why there is evil in the universe created by the good God. But at least the theist has a basis for accounting for an absolute standard by which we can differentiate between good and evil and call evil “evil.” Since God exists, absolute morals exist, by which we can call things truly ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Evil is thus defined in relation to God’s character and His unchanging moral law, which reflects His character. But the atheist has to account for how evil and good can exist when he acknowledges no absolute standard for either one. According to the atheist’s worldview, who’s to say that evil is actually evil? It’s just his opinion, which he claims is nothing more than the result of a physical, chemical process of cognitive function. When the atheist raises the issue of the “problem of evil,” he is tacitly acknowledging that evil is real and not just a notion in his mind, and this assumes an objective standard, and thus he is lending support to the truth of the moral argument for the existence of God! He is borrowing capital from the Christian worldview, and in so doing, he contradicts and refutes himself.

So I hope you can see that the first step to coping with suffering rightly is to accept its reality with a humble and submissive heart. Heed the wisdom of Eliphaz: “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Accept it. Submit to it. Learn to cope with it the right way. Don’t use the reality of your suffering as an excuse to re-define reality in the world, much less to question the reality of God’s existence. You can’t restructure and re-define reality based on the resentment and its biases that your suffering has elicited within you. That’s not a safe path and it’ll do you no good.

Job, of course, didn’t go that far, but he did question the goodness of God. In his suffering he lost sight of the reality of God’s kindness and benevolence toward him. This too is dangerous because doubting God’s goodness will rattle the very foundations of our faith. True faith, both in its initial converting exercise and in its ongoing expression through the Christian life, is contingent upon our apprehension of God’s goodness; it depends on our acknowledgment of our utter dependence on His undeserved kindness, and on the fact that God is benevolently inclined to bless us, to receive us, and to confer His riches and glory upon us—all owing entirely to the graciousness of His will toward us.

When John Calvin defines piety (which is the essence of vital godliness), he makes it dependent on faith in God’s goodness. Listen to his definition:

“I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces [God’s goodness expressed and manifested toward us]. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.”[ii]

Unless a person is convinced of God’s goodness, they will not be willing to turn to Him and believe in Him and serve Him and love Him and yield their entire lives to Him in willing obedience. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that in our sufferings, we not only do not lose sight of the reality of God in His existence, but also and especially of the reality of God in all that He is, especially in His goodness toward us.

But how can we do that? How can we trust in God’s goodness even when we in our present circumstances cannot see, taste, or feel any gesture of His goodness toward us? This brings us to our second major point.

II. Embrace the reality of God without losing sight of His sovereignty in your sufferings.

You can be assured of God’s goodness by resting in His sovereignty; by confiding in all that His sovereignty means for you in your sufferings. Look at verse 8 again: “‘But as for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause.’” “I would seek God,” says the sage, “because I know He is greater than me, and greater than all my problems and troubles. I might be shaken; I might be greatly moved, but God is the rock who is not moved by whatever I’m going through. He is ever the same, unchanging in His goodness, unthwarted in His sovereignty. He sits enthroned in the heavens; He does all His holy will. And if there is ever a time I desperately need to seek Him, it’s when my sufferings are shaking the foundations of my faith.”

And this shows us that God sends affliction to draw us closer to Himself. The Lord uses adversity to stir us up to seek Him, to bring us back into communion with Himself, and to keep us close by his side. Affliction hastens our seeking after God and makes it urgent. The Lord said of Israel in Hosea 5:15, “In their affliction they will seek me early.” It was affliction that drove the Syro-Phoenician woman to cry out for mercy to the Son of David, and as a result she received the desire of her heart (Mark 7). It was affliction that sent a dying thief to the mercies of the bleeding Savior (Luke 23:42). And in 2 Chronicles 33 we read that King Manasseh, “when he was in affliction, he implored the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication…. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (vv. 12–13). It wasn’t Manasseh’s crown but his sufferings that drove him to seek the Lord, and that brought him to the recognition that not his idols, but the Lord was His God, in whom He would trust. George Swinnock said, “Affliction… is the shepherd’s dog, which takes the lamb into its mouth when it goes astray; not to bite it, but to bring it home.”[iii]

But greater nearness to God isn’t always the happy effect of our sufferings. When you lose sight of God’s sovereign control over your sufferings, you might turn to other things, or pursue sinful courses, to bring relief, or to grasp for a way of escape. You might question God’s benevolence and blame Him, and so flee away from God instead of drawing nearer to Him. So suffering can have the tragic effect of driving us further from God in we fail to confide in His sovereignty in them.

So the Scriptures aptly use the word “trial” to describe our sufferings. Trials test the sincerity of our heart before the Lord. They put to test what’s deep within our hearts to expose whether what is there is genuine grace or inauthentic faith. That’s actually how Job’s trial was framed from the beginning of the book. Satan appears before the Lord and says, “Job only serves you because you bless him so much. Take his blessings away and he’ll curse you to your face!” But the Lord knew that Job’s faith was the real deal, but He permitted Satan to sift him like wheat so Job’s that faith would come out purified, confirmed, strengthened, and vindicated for the glory of God.

And what was the bedrock that Job’s faith was confiding in? He was trusting in the sovereignty of God. If we had to summarize the whole book of Job in a phrase, it would be this: “suffering and the sovereignty of God.” This is clear from the beginning. Back in chapter one we read in verses 6 and 8 that “there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them…. Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” Isn’t it shocking that the Lord is the one who brings up Job, as if to taunt Satan by him? Then after Job’s property and children are destroyed, the Lord brings him up again for further sifting in chapter 2, verse 3. God wasn’t rolling the cosmic dice or playing a game a chance. As one author put it:

“Ultimately, Job’s suffering is a result of the Satan that God created, and the heavenly conversation between God and Satan. One might say that God wills Satan’s buffeting of Job. One might say that God wills Job’s earthly torment. One might say that God is using Job as bait to humiliate Satan once more, and Satan [foolishly] takes the challenge.”[iv]

We observe in this that Satan can do nothing apart from the permission of God. The whole trial is authored by God’s hand, even as Satan executes the afflictions by his own wicked will. But overriding all the malevolence and malice of the devil is the benevolent hand of the sovereign God who is working out His eternal purpose for His own glory, for Job’s ultimate good, and for our continual edification as we read about it in the Scriptures. It is this very trust in divine sovereignty that led Paul to write, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” You can’t possibly, fully, and consistently believe Romans 8:28 unless you confide in God’s all-embracive sovereignty over every detail of your sufferings.

And Job confesses this abundantly. What’s astonishing is Job had no knowledge of the heavenly interchange that preceded his trials. He knew his suffering wasn’t because of wickedness or backsliding, for he was blameless and upright and devout. He had no idea what the purpose was in it, but he knew that God’s hand was behind it. Satan had afflicted him, storms of nature had befallen him, his own friends were accusing him, but he never lays blame on these secondary causes. Instead, he consistently confesses faith in the sovereign hand of God as the Author of his trials. Listen to what he says:

  • 1:21: The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.
  • 2:10: “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
  • 13:15: Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him.
  • 14:5: Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.
  • 23:13–14: But He is unique, and who can make Him change? And whatever His soul desires, that He does. For He performs what is appointed for me, And many such things are with Him.
  • 42:2: I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. (ESV says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.)

So do you see what it was that upheld him in his faith? It was his trust that God is in control. It was his submission to the painful course of providence, in which he did not curse but continued to bless the name of his Lord.

Eliphaz said in verses 8–9, “to God I would commit my cause, Who does great things, and unsearchable, marvelous things without number.” That was advice of truth and wisdom, revealing a God-centered worldview, a high esteem for divine sovereignty, and a profound reverence toward the being and ways of God. God does unsearchable things. Psalm 145:3 says, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; His greatness is unsearchable.” Isaiah 40:28 says, “His understanding is unsearchable.” And in Romans 11:33 Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” The mysteries of God’s providential dealings should lead us to humility, reverence, awe, and praise.

Eliphaz was right in pointing Job to God’s unsearchable sovereignty. Sadly, though, he misapplied his insightful words to Job by implying that Job had not committed his cause to God. But Job had, and he was continuing to commit his cause to God by trusting in the greatness, the unsearchableness, the incomprehensibility, the majesty, and the mystery of God in His glory.

And what was the lesson Job learned at the end of the book? He confesses, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). We don’t know exactly why we suffer the way we do; we know that God has His purposes in it, and by the Scriptures we know what those ultimate purposes are. But we don’t always get the answers we desire in this life. “Edward Payson (1783–1827) was asked if he understood the reason for the great pain and weakness that afflicted his body as he slowly died. He said, ‘No, but I am as well satisfied as if I could see ten thousand [reasons]. God’s will is the very perfection of all reasons.’”[v] Knowing we are in God’s will is enough.

The more specific reasons might linger as doubts in our minds until we, like Job, see God face to face in His glory. Until then, we should take advantage of what we can learn from our sufferings; to improve them so as to better our eternal estate. Job learned this very lesson, which he expresses in 42:6 where he says, “Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (v. 6). His trials had churned up his doubts, his grievances, and his complaints. They exposed his remaining, indwelling sin to his conscience, so that confessing it and abhorring it, he could further relinquish his will and his heart to God for further purging. He came out of the Refiner’s fire purer than when he went in. And that should be our prayer, that our Heavenly Father would use our sufferings to teach us to submit more fully to Him, to drive us closer to the cross of our Redeemer, and to confess our remaining heart sins as we trust in the blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Prayer: Father, we are so grateful that you use our afflictions to humble us, to show us that apart from your grace we are nothing but sin and corruption. Help us to accept the reality of suffering as a gift that comes from your hand. And help us to truly believe that the pains we experience are the chisel you use to sculpt us into the image of Christ. Amen.

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Notes:

[i] Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Revelation and God, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 1098.

[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 41 [1.2.1].

[iii] Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Man and Christ, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 488.

[iv] Joseph Franks, “Job 1-5: God is Great; God is Good; God is Sovereign; There is Sin; and I am Suffering,” https://www.monergism.com/job-1-5-god-great-god-good-god-sovereign-there-sin-and-i-am-suffering-joseph-franks (accessed 8/19/2023).

[v] Cited in Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Man and Christ, 2:485.