What Do We Do When Suffering Comes?

by Robert Jacobs

In 1999 the blockbuster hit The Matrix took theaters by storm. During its run at the box office, the movie grossed almost $500 million and its special effects became the stuff of legendary parody. However, the movie’s success came not from its special effects, but from its thought-provoking plot. According to the movie, the world in which we inhabit is nothing more than a computer simulation used to keep our minds alive while robots harvest the chemical energy created by our bodies. While a few saw this plot as merely a bad depiction of Cartesian philosophy, the movie—as a whole—engaged audiences.

Toward the end of the movie, one of the antagonists—agent Smith—tells the main character Neo that the robots had originally created a different world for us, a world without pain or suffering. However, the program was eventually scrapped because it was repeatedly rejected by the human mind. Agent Smith smugly claims, “as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.”

While I do not believe we are living in a large computer simulation, nor do I think that our existence is defined by suffering, Smith’s comment correctly indicates a connection between life and suffering. To live means that you will experience grief, heartache, and pain. There is no way to avoid it. Because of its unavoidable nature, we must prepare ourselves to correctly respond to suffering rather than trying to vainly attempt to run from it.

In the first chapter of Job, the suffering hero of the book loses all of his wealth and children in the span of a few moments. Rather than letting his grief drive him to sin, Job instead lets it motivate him to worship. The author puts it this way:

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. [Job] said,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20-21)

The words of Job are written as a quatrain (four lines of poetry) and, not incidentally, this passage depicts a four-part reaction to suffering.

  1. Acknowledgment of Pain: The narrator tells us that after Job heard the bad news, he got up, ripped his clothes, shaved his head, and fell to the ground. Often times we attempt to suppress the anguish we feel because we believe our expression of grief to be evidence of a lack of faith. In other words, we put on a smile and tell everyone that our life is wonderful because “that’s what a Christian does.” However, Job acknowledges and expresses the pain of his suffering, an action that enables him to move to the next step in suffering well.
  2. Acknowledgment of Who We Are: Job then utters one of the most famous lines in the whole book: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, / And naked I shall return there.” This is a healthy acknowledgment of Job’s reality. Like us, Job is mortal. Just as he was powerless to control his birth, so also is he powerless to control his death. We all enter into this world not under our own power and we will likewise exit.
  3. Acknowledgment of Who God Is: Next, Job acknowledges God in all his power, stating, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” Job calls God Eloah, a word that means he who is strong or he who should be respected or feared. Eloah (God) is the strongest and the most powerful, the opposite of our mortal status. While we have little to no control over the biggest events in our life (birth and death), he is undoubtedly in control.
  4. Worship and Trust: To conclude the quatrain, Job blesses God: “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In blessing the name of the Lord, Job praises and thanks Him for His very nature and essence. The name of the Lord is worthy of this praise not only because of what Job has already acknowledged but also because God is unwaveringly faithful and true. To paraphrase Paul, God remains true because He cannot deny His nature or name (2 Timothy 2:13).

Through his reaction to searing loss, Job offers us a healthy model for dealing with suffering. But are we willing to follow such an example? Are we willing to acknowledge our suffering honestly while not allowing ourselves to stay stuck there? Are we willing to admit our own mortality and lack of control? Are we willing to acknowledge God as all-powerful and in control, even when it feels like He has turned His back to us? And are we willing to bless the name of the Lord in the midst of our suffering, praising him for who he is even when our situation does not get better?

Suffering is unavoidable. Pain will come. But the name of the Lord is still worthy of praise. As you invariably encounter suffering in the coming weeks and months, may you reflect upon the example of Job, letting your pain drive you to worship.