Why do good people suffer? Is it a punishment? Or, is there something terribly wrong with this idea?
An ancient text called The Book of Job has a worthwhile take on your suffering. Its message is modern, brilliant and on the money.
Job's story may help you a lot.
Suffering is not necessarily punishment: “You get what you deserve” is a universal belief that stands the test of time. Many hold that those who suffer trauma, trials and tribulation are being punished for some wrongdoing. It's a basic equation—and a powerful teaching.
Guilt = suffering. But, does God have a position on this?
The story of a good man named Job challenges the guilt/suffering paradigm by illustrating that even the most righteous suffer. If suffering is a punishment of sorts, then why should the righteous, who by definition are without (much) sin, be afflicted with trauma?
The overarching theme of The Book of Job examines the injustice of traumatic suffering; and the aridity of simplistic explanations.
In short, it asks two important questions:
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Is there a religious response to suffering that doesn't blame the victim?
The Book of Job: When we’re first introduced to Job, we see a good man who’s blessed with prosperity. It seems that Job has it all—he’s wealthy, wise and has a great family.
A good person is hurt: The author of The Book of Job opens with a literary device. He presumes a relationship of sorts between God and Satan.
This dialogue sets up the drama of suffering undeserved. This is our experience of trauma; and the subject of this important book.
So, Satan wants (God) to test Job’s faith, because according to Satan, Job’s piety can be attributed only to the fact that Job's been blessed with prosperity. According to Satan, Job's a good servant of God because his faith has never been tested.
Ergo, Satan challenges God.
Satan doubts that Job’s piety will endure if Job loses everything. Eventually, God grants Satan permission to test Job’s righteousness.
And so, Job experiences a series of tragic hardships. Job is now a man who suffers terribly at the capriciousness of life. He loses his wife, beloved children and fortune. He’s also afflicted with painful skin ailments. Proving Satan wrong, Job refuses to forsake his belief in God, and never once curses God.
Trite answers to the greatest of questions: Job is then visited by his “friends” who attempt to "console" him with worn theological explanations for his suffering. To my ears, they sound pretty harsh. Among other things, they tell Job:
- You must have done something wrong (sinned) and deserve punishment.
- There is a master plan; you just don’t know it. Stop whining.
- You're just upset with God because you lost everything.
- The bigger the calamity, the greater the sin. You must have really been bad.
(If Job were alive today, his "friends" might say; small sins are really big sins for a righteous man, or that Job needs to suffer in order to be cleansed for the next world. Also, harsh arguments.)
But, Job rejects them all, not knowing what he could have possibly done to warrant such incredible suffering. He's in desperate despair. But, Job's also determined—maintaining a belief in his innocence and the justice of his complaints. He demands answers from God Himself.
Job wants to know why bad things happen to good people. He knows it’s not right, and will not accept the saccharine answers of his friends. In fact, Job finds his friends oppressive, if not offensive.
The modern reader identifies with Job. His friends stand for many of the arguments found in contemporary religion. They just don’t hold water in the face of real suffering.
Sadly, little has changed.
God's response - what it teaches us: Job calls upon God—and The Almighty in fact responds!
God comes down from the heavens and rebukes Job's friends and dismisses the underlying sentiment of their consolations. God explains to Job that to us mere mortals sometimes there are no words—no rationalizations—that can make sense of the unhappiness we endure.
God finds such easy answers abhorrent.
God’s response serves as a message that Job (like every other human being) cannot begin to understand the mystery of life and death. We are simply not permitted to understand the way the world (God) works. In this lifetime, none of us will never know why terrible things happen to people.
Yet, something of importance has happened. God respects Job.
God actually comes down and responds to a mortal man. Job counts in God’s eyes; and that’s a lot. Job realizes that even if we don’t understand God’s motivations for what happens, we are not alone.
Trauma happens and we have to accept it. Explanations may make us feel better, but they mislead. Ultimately, Job, like all of us, must endure suffering not knowing why ... or if the question even counts.
Once Job accepts this, he somehow manages to live with his trauma without becoming its victim.
A fairytale ending: The Book of Job starts with a literary device by inventing a dialogue between Satan and God. It then ends with another literary device, rewarding Job with health, a new wife, children, twice as much wealth. Between these two fairytale-like bookends, we just witnessed a great drama about the meaning of suffering. It is a giant piece of literature and a spiritual masterpiece.
So, what’s the moral of the story?
- Life isn’t a meritocracy. We don’t always get what we deserve. Suffering at the hand of traumatic experiences isn’t necessarily an indication of punishment for a sin that’s been committed. Sometimes bad things happen to good undeserving people.
- The Book of Job asks “why good people suffer,” but never actually answers the question. What it does do, is correct misconceptions about why we suffer. The truth of this wonderful tale is that man can't know everything.
- Human beings often want easy answers to hard questions. But, these answers may be more about making us feel better than actually helping us understand the world in which we live. Job's friends didn't mean badly, but they misled him. They represent common religious thinking as well as the universal need to have things makes sense. It gives us an illusion of control.
- Trauma occurs to people; it just does. If you ruminate on your sins, you are engaging in victim mind. It is faulty theology and its bad therapy. Our measure is not in what happens to us, but rather what we do with what happens to us.
- Although therapy didn’t exist in the time of Job, he wanted to talk. His friends served the purpose of clarifying Job’s own thoughts. In good trauma therapy, people learn to accept the unfairness of their hardship. From this place, you can build back up.
- Lastly, like Job, recognize that you still have a life to live. Don’t be a victim of your victimhood. Own your whole story, faulty foundation and all. You won’t benefit from shallow pity or sermons. Life sometimes makes no sense. You may have lost your innocence, but with good fortune and hard work, you may gain some real wisdom and strength of character.
God himself may not come down out of the heavens to respond to you. But, you can bet that you’re not the first and not the last to deal with the kind of trauma you’ve had to endure. Get good treatment. And, make the best life you can.
In my book, Job's worth reading because he stayed honest with himself.
It’s a good policy. And, it makes for the best therapy.