Finding Joy in God through Suffering

Stephen Montgomery-Smith
April 30, 2005

Lessons from the Bible

As I read the Bible, especially Psalms and Job, I find people who are very real with God about their emotions.  I feel that many people today who go through rough times, feel a certain guilt about it, perhaps because they don't feel the joy they think they should have, or perhaps because Christians simply shouldn't go through these kinds of difficulties.  But I find that no one in the Bible ever experiences this kind of guilt.  If they are happy they express happiness, if they are sad they express sadness, if they are angry they express anger, if they are depressed they express depression.

If we read Philippians, we get a sense that Paul has found some source of irrepressible joy.  We know that we should have this joy, but how do we find it?

My approach, from Ecclesiastes 7:3, that sorrow is better than laughter because a sad face leads to a happy heart, is not theory.  This is my personal experience.  Not only for myself, but when I meet a person who is experiencing great, ongoing hardship, and share with them from Job 14:18-19

But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
and as a rock is moved from its place,
as water wears away stones
and torrents wash away the soil,
so you [God] destroy man's hope.

that far from pushing these people further into despair, that actually these words bring great freedom and release.  As if to say - yes, there is someone else who knows what I am experiencing.  There is someone else, even a righteous man, who knows the deep despair and hopelessness that fills my heart.

There is yet more hope in Job.  While he is in this place of great pain, he has three comforters who speak to him about how he should handle his problems.  Their advice sounds so correct, just like all the good sounding advice that our own friends are giving us.  But in the end we discover that God is mighty displeased with these comforters.

We all know the beginning of the book of Job, and we all know the end.  In particular, we see that after meeting with God, that Job confesses that his words were unwise, and he covers his mouth.  So does this mean that we don't need to read the forty chapters in between?  And if it does, why did the Holy Spirit bother to write it for posterity?

Before Paul was saved, he knew the Old Testament back to front, inside and outside.  I speculate that he must have found a great deal of it mysterious.  For example, what was he to make of the totally depressing Psalm 44?  Then he had his amazing experience of truly meeting with God, and as the years followed, so much of the Old Testament must have fallen into place.  He quotes this psalm in Romans 8:35-37

35.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
36.  As it is written: For your sake we face death all day long;  we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
37.  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

We all know verses 35 and 37.  But how does verse 36 fit in?  Are we more than conquerors because we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered?  Is it possible that his "facing death all day long" is part of what caused his overwhelming joy that is expressed in Philippians?

What I can say is that I have found a deep meaning in Job's suffering.  It all fits together, what Paul says about joy in suffering, and the deep anguish expressed by Job.  I cannot understand one without the other.

Short Circuiting Grief and Anger

At the end of the book, we see Job repenting of his words.  There are similar sentiments in Psalm 73.  At its beginning, we see a David who is very frustrated because he sees so much wickedness in the world, and the wicked seem to just get away with it (see also Job 21).  David says, "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence," (see also Job 35:3).  David presents his case to God, and suddenly sees the answers - "when my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You."

What do we make of David's and Job's response?  Should we refrain from speaking to God about the pain and suffering we experience, because then we will only later be covering our mouth with shame, and realizing that we were acting like a brute animal?  Should we consider Job's and David's responses as lessons in what not to do?

When we experience grief, anger, unforgiveness, depression, or other negative emotions, we want these emotions to end, right now.  When we teach about how to react to pain and anguish, we give the impression that to wallow in them is wrong.  This sense of hurry (or possibly guilt laid upon us by our well meaning friends) leads us to try to short circuit the whole process, start at Job 1, and go straight to Job 42.

So we might come to church, feeling like Job, or feeling like David in one of his worse days, and when we get there we sing songs like "I feel so full of joy that I just cannot help dancing, even though I know its silly."  Its great if you really feel like this, but I don't think that Job himself would have got a lot out of that worship song.  Indeed our worship songs come from the Psalms, but somehow we seem to miss part of them out?  What songs are based upon Psalm 137, or upon Psalm 139:19-22, or upon the middle forty chapters of Job?  It is as if we ignore the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness."  Do we only select those scriptures that we understand, make us feel comfortable or fit in with our theological preconceptions?

How then should we deal with grief and anger?

The joy Paul has at the end of his life, that is expressed in Philippians, is not joy he found because he sought joy.  It is joy that he found because he sought God.  So it is with Job - when he experiences great pain in his life, he might question God's wisdom and integrity, and ask the question "why," but he never abandons God.  Similarly with David - he might feel depressed, angry, lacking forgiveness, or other negative emotions, but he knows to whom to take his complaints.

We say that Paul's emotions do not depend upon his circumstances.  But that is not true.  Certainly his emotions do not depend upon the outward circumstances.  But he cannot find true joy unless God himself actually turns up and comforts him.  He is not engaged in some kind of self help mind exercise.  If God had not met Job at the end, Job would have remained depressed and sad.  I doubt that even the words of the "fourth comforter," Elihu, could have brought him comfort, true as they were.  In Philippians, Paul is full of joy, not because he had convinced himself that his sufferings are for some good cause, but rather because God himself had told Paul these truths.

In Philippians 4:6-7 Paul says, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  This I can tell you - if you do truly present all your requests to God, then this peace really does come, and this peace is genuinely beyond comprehension.  This peace cannot be gained by any intellectual speculation, or by working it up within yourself - this incomprehensible peace can only come from God himself.

In the end, I believe that God allowed Satan to torture Job, not because he wished to test Job, nor as some kind of punishment.  Ultimately, it was because he loved Job.  He showed his love to Job by bringing him great sufferings, because God knew that this was the best and most beautiful way to find real truth and joy.  Paul also knew this lesson.  Perhaps he received it in part from the book of Job, or perhaps from Lamentations (not just Lamentations 3:22ff, but also the rest of it, which we moderns don't like to read), and certainly he knew this from experience.

If we are going through a season of joy, enjoy it and thank God for it.  But if we are going through a season of suffering, thank God for these days as well.  For these difficulties will, in time, yield great fruit.  But do not deny the pain and anguish, rather experience it to its fullness, and bring it to God.  For in Psalm 126:5 we are promised that "Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy."

Background

I have always had a tendency towards depression since my early childhood.  Not only did I have a melancholy disposition, and given to thinking about everything a lot (what some people call "over analyzing"), I was also drawn to sad stories and sad music.  Any activity that expressed exuberant joy felt to me like vinegar on an open wound - very painful.

When I was saved , I joined a charismatic church which, more or less, held that to be not super full of joy was sinful.  I took on this teaching, and so when two years later I came to Christian Fellowship in Columbia, I was surprised and shocked by Joe Tosini's preaching from the beatitudes - blessed are the poor in spirit - blessed are those who mourn.  But to my great surprise, I found his lessons actually freed me.  Much of my joy up until then was not true joy, but actually a feeble attempt to con myself.

At this time, the general theme of much of the preaching was of the importance of suffering, and finding God through difficult circumstances.  I felt that I was not suffering at all, and wondered if this meant that I would be denied this wisdom.  But when I prayed about it, I felt God tell me that my time of suffering was not yet to be.  But God loved me so much, that he would not deny me this experience, yet when I did experience it, it would be a much more gentle experience than I was anticipating.

Well a few years later, suffering did indeed start to come my way.  My wife showed signs of schizophrenia, I broke my neck in an accident, my daughter displayed symptoms of autism, and there was bad politics at work.  Thus I decided to seek God through the book of Job.

My sense of God's love for me is so much greater and fresher than it was before.  Having experienced some of the more difficult times, I now know that God is for me, no matter what the external circumstances reveal.  He is always ready and pleased to hear my heart's innermost desires, both the praises and the complaints.  In turn, God is pleased when I seek him with my whole heart, and when I desire to know what he is really like.  God has truly become my friend and my father.