Why did the just man Job—who followed the law, worked hard, and was prosperous and happy—find himself in terrible suffering and destitution? This is precisely the question that the vast majority of us who are trying to be good and faithful people ask when deep suffering afflicts us.
To answer this question, it may be helpful to examine the four strands of the Old Testament view of suffering, all of which are found within the book of Job. By examining God’s motives in allowing us to suffer, we might begin to understand why good people suffer.
In this article, we will look at each of the Old Testament strands of suffering, and then separate what Jesus rejects and what he modifies. Plus, to help you stay close to God in times of darkness and suffering, we’ve included a free prayer sheet, “Fr. Spitzer’s Spontaneous Prayers for Times of Suffering.” Download below.
The Old Testament on Why Good People Suffer
Before we list the four strands of theodicy (theology of suffering and evil) in the Old Testament, it is important to note that the reader will see a shift between strands 1-2 and 3-4. This is because the third and fourth strands come from the Elihu discourses (Elihu was a comforter of Job and appears in chapters 32-37). The Elihu discourses were probably written by a different author than the first part of the Book of Job, and most likely they were composed at a later date to correct and add to the original version.
Job and His Comforters / By Luca Giordano
Views of Suffering in the Old Testament: 4 Strands
Strand #1: Suffering is caused by the devil to test a good person as a challenge to God. Therefore it’s not God who causes suffering, rather Satan is a sort of prosecutor/accuser given the charge to test the genuineness of people’s faith.
Strand #2: Suffering is a punishment for offenses committed by individuals or their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. In the Old Testament, we see God as a strict judge who rewards the righteous (see Psalms 92:12, 72:7, 5:12, and 34:19) and punishes the impius down to the fourth generation (see Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 5:9-10; Psalm 58).
Strand #3: Suffering is a challenging condition produced by God to help people learn wisdom and abandon folly. Elihu suggests that affliction can be medicinal and a teacher. It can help us to be humble, to open our hearts to God, and through this, it can lead us to deeper wisdom. This interpretation of suffering is retained by the Christian Church—particularly by Saints Peter and Paul.
Strand #4: Suffering is a great mystery known to God alone. According to Elihu, there are two ideas of which we can be certain: (1) that God is just—more just than human beings can fathom—and (2) that God is so wise and powerful, he cannot be fully understood by human beings. In this view, the suffering of the innocent does not contradict the justice of God, because God is perfectly just. Therefore, suffering of the seemingly innocent person must be just in the infinite wisdom and power of God.
Jesus Modifies the Old Testament View of Why Good People Suffer
Now that we’ve seen the 4 strands of theodicy in the Old Testament, we can begin to separate what Jesus keeps from what he leaves behind. For if we are to turn to God for help in times of suffering, then we must be confident of how he views our suffering, helps to alleviate it, and enables us to grow through it.
Jesus Rejects the First Two Strands of the Old Testament Interpretation of Suffering
Jesus makes a radical turn from the Old Testament view of suffering by rejecting the first strand of the Old Testament interpretation of suffering. Rather than seeing Satan as a prosecutor charged with the task of testing people’s faith, Jesus knows Satan is an evil fallen angel. He is a demonic spirit who is a tempter, liar, and destroyer of human beings and their capacity for love. If Satan were merely an accuser, then God would not have had to send his only Son to defeat Satan and exorcise him from the world.
Jesus also abandons the second strand of the Old Testament interpretation of suffering that suffering is a punishment for sin. Good people do not suffer to pay for others sins—or even their own. This interpretation is incompatible with three fundamental theological viewpoints:
- His view of God (the Father) as unconditional love. Jesus identifies God with the Father of the Prodigal Son, who loves the worst of sinners and is overjoyed by their return.
- His view that the highest interior virtue is compassion (care for sinners as well as the needy).
- His view of the perfection of love—agapē—as “love of enemies.”
Furthermore, Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies 70x7 times—a virtually endless number of times (Mt. 18:22)! In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus states outright, “love your enemies… then you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Lk. 6:35).
Jesus Modifies the Third Strand of the Old Testament Interpretation of Suffering
Jesus retains much of the third strand of the Old Testament view of suffering—the medicinal and pedagogical value of suffering. St. Paul, St. Peter, and the early Church employed this view and saw suffering as a way to prevent a person from leading themselves and others to destruction. Some examples of this are:
- St. Paul is struck blind, causing him to stop persecuting the Church (Acts 9:8, Acts 13:11, Acts 22:11).
- Jesus rebukes Peter with the words “Get behind me Satan” so that he would not be tempted to resist an essential part of his mission, the cross. (Mt.16:23)
- Jesus insults and publicly repudiates the Pharisees to show them the way out of self-righteousness, who he believes misguides their followers and places their salvation in jeopardy (Mt. 23).
- St. Paul says he was given “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me to keep me from becoming proud” (2 Cor 12:7).
Jesus Modifies the Fourth Strand of the Old Testament Interpretation of Suffering
The fourth strand of the Old Testament interpretation of suffering sees suffering (and its alleviation) as a mystery that we cannot understand. We are to trust that God’s wisdom—and compassion—goes far beyond ours, and therefore, even in suffering, he has a plan that is ultimately leading to our and others’ salvation.
Jesus makes this “calculus” even more unknowable by reinterpreting God’s will for us and the world. He declares that God is interested in justice only insofar as it advances the cause of perfect forgiveness, compassion, and love. Though God seeks justice for all, He goes far beyond this by unendingly forgiving us for our sins, unceasingly loving us in our weakness, and unquantifiably helping us when we least deserve it—like the Father of the Prodigal Son.
How can we possibly understand God’s will and plan for us without having a perfectly compassionate heart like his? Obviously, we cannot… The unknowability of God’s will and plan requires, as Elihu teaches, a fundamental act of humility before God. More than this, it requires, as Jesus says, a radical act of trust in God’s perfectly compassionate and loving providential care.
The Return of the Prodigal Son / By Ary Scheffer
Why Good People Suffer: There Actually Are Some Benefits
Now that we’ve looked at what Jesus kept and what he left behind from the Old Testament view of suffering, we can begin to see some benefits of the two strands he kept/modified. Jesus and the Christian Church teach three major benefits of suffering:
- Suffering helps us to reach for higher meaning, deeper love, and eternal salvation.
- Our choices in the midst of suffering and death help us to define our eternal identity.
- Suffering can be turned into self-sacrificial love for the redemption of the world in imitation of Jesus.
(For a more detailed summary of the benefits and opportunities of suffering, click here.)
When in the thick of suffering, we must remain humble, recall these benefits, and remember that God is all love and compassion like the Father of the Prodigal Son.
Though we may be justified in feeling abandoned, hurt, bewildered, angry, and depressed when confronted with seemingly undeserved suffering (by comparison with others), we must not cross the self-destructive line of doubting God’s compassionate, wise, and salvific will for us. Even when we feel ourselves entering into a dark place of resentment and despair, we can always return to him, confident in his acceptance and compassion.
Indeed Jesus told us that we will weep and mourn while the world rejoices, but our grief will turn to joy (John 16:20). Likewise, he promised that in this world we will have trouble, but to take heart, because he has overcome the world (John 16:3)!
For more on suffering, see our comprehensive article, Why Does God Allow Suffering? Also, be sure to download our free pdf, “Fr. Spitzer’s Prayers in Times of Suffering.” Each of these prayers are short and concise and perfect petitions in times of suffering, depression, and anxiety.