When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.

The book of Job

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The Lord pointed out Job to Satan, noting these qualities of Job, and Satan replied that Job was faithful only because God had blessed him with wealth and worldly comforts. God permitted Satan to afflict Job, while placing limits upon the harm Satan could do. Job lost all his wealth in one catastrophic day, and his ten adult children died the same day. Afterward, Job was afflicted with a painful rash, something like chicken pox or shingles, that covered him from head to toe. Despite all these problems, Job remained faithful to God.

Three friends came to comfort Job. While they sat silently with him, they did well. When Job started to speak out of his pain and depression, they fell short. Job wished aloud for a hearing with the Lord so Job could protest his innocence and learn why God was causing such problems in his life. The friends responded, essentially, that God does not make mistakes. The losses of wealth and family and health were, they said, a wake-up call for Job, a warning to fix his life so God would be pleased with him again.

At the end of the book, God says that Job’s friends are wrong. God did not afflict Job to correct Job’s behavior. Before God speaks, though, the four men are addressed by a younger man named Elihu. Elihu is disappointed in Job’s friends because they failed to set Job straight. Although Elihu does not join them in saying Job deserves to suffer, Elihu suggests that Job is in the wrong for demanding an explanation from God. His language, becoming increasingly vivid as he speaks of stormy weather approaching, anticipates God addressing Job from a whirlwind.

God does not say that Elihu was wrong. Instead, he reminds Job of their relative positions, asking Job where Job was when God created the world. Mockers and critics have said that they do not approve of God’s word to Job. They think that God should have confessed his part in what they call a “cosmic bet.” Their sympathy is with Job, and they do not accept this book’s solution to the problem of why good people suffer while the wicked seem to flourish.

Whenever Christians read any portion of the Bible, we should look for portrayals of Jesus. Job has a particularly memorable confession of faith in Christ: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). Job himself is a Christ-like figure, an Old Testament picture of Jesus, suffering though he does not deserve to suffer. Recognizing Job as a picture of Christ helps us to see more clearly the full message of the book of Job.

God does not want his people to sin. He guides us by his commandments, not through our problems as his response to our sins. His Holy Spirit, using the Bible, teaches us why we were created and what we are on earth to do. We sin every day, failing to live up to our Creator’s standards, but every day we confess our sins and every day we are forgiven. God does not treat us as our sins deserve. We live under a new covenant, one in which God takes away our sins and remembers them no more.

Because we live in an evil and sin-polluted world, we suffer. Evil is not fair; it is random and unjust, striking the good and bad alike. When we see a random act of evil, we remember how desperately we need a Savior. When we suffer, God permits the pain and the loss to remind us of the cross, the pain and the loss Jesus endured for us. As Job was a picture of Jesus before Jesus was born, so we are pictures of Jesus today, not only by our efforts to obey God’s commandments, but also by our endurance and patience when we suffer, looking to God in faith and not failing to trust in him.

Like Job, we are blameless and upright in the sight of God. Like Job, we have no right to question God’s decisions or second-guess the burdens he allows us to bear. Like Job, when we do question the Lord, we are forgiven. We may not receive the answers we demand during this lifetime. Then again, perhaps we do.

God leads Job through a lesson in biology, pointing to the variety of living creatures God has made, and asking if Job could do anything remotely comparable. The list concludes with two monsters. The first is Behemoth, which some people think is an elephant, others a hippopotamus, and others a dinosaur. The second is Leviathan, which some people think is a crocodile, others a legendary sea monster. Could, however, Leviathan be Satan? Consider these descriptions: “Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you with soft words?… Lay your hands on him: remember the battle—you will not do it again! Behold, the hope of a man is false; he is laid low even at the sight of him. … His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a flaming pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth…. He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride” (Job 41: 3, 8-9, 18-21, 34). What other created being so resembles the dragon of Revelation 12?

If Leviathan is a picture of Satan, then Job is told (in a round-about way) the source of all his problems and the reason for his suffering. He is warned that on his own he cannot defeat Satan; but, like us, Job is not alone. Jesus has battled Satan, and Jesus has won. When our sufferings remind us of the cross, we can look beyond the cross to the victory—and to the eternal victory celebration that awaits us in the new creation.

At the end of the book, Job has twice as much money and twice as many animals as he had at the beginning of the book. At the beginning Job lost ten children; by the end of the book he again has ten children. Why was the number of children not doubled? Because on the Last Day, when Job sees his Redeemer with his own eyes, he will be reunited again with all twenty of his children. The first ten were not lost as the animals and other worldly wealth were lost. They died, but they were in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. Because Job feared God and turned away from evil, his faith was able to sustain him during his suffering, and his hope in the resurrection for himself and for his children was not crushed. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part one

Some years ago, I attended a conference for church workers with the theme of “Holy Health and Wholeness,” or something along those lines. The featured speaker was a pastor/theologian who was considered an expert on the topic of health and how to be healthy according to spiritual principles. Much of his message centered around maintaining a positive attitude, dealing with stress instead of succumbing to stress, and being good stewards of our physical health.

On the one hand, I agree that each Christian is responsible for being a good steward of his or her body. We all should make good decisions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hygiene. We should avoid harmful substances and bad habits. Negative thoughts and poor stress management can lead to physical symptoms. On the other hand, I am skeptical regarding claims that we can be in charge of our own health, that we can be healthy and happy simply by replacing bad choices with good choices. Whether those claims are made by a Christian, a New Age practitioner, or a secular source, I believe that things are more complicated than those speakers picture them. The Bible says more about life than how to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable in this world. In fact, the Bible more often deals with the problem that, in this sin-polluted world, often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

To provide full disclosure: the week of that conference I was suffering from an ear infection. Symptoms included pain, lightheadedness, and distortion of sounds. In that condition, I was hostile toward any suggestion that I was responsible for my discomfort—that if I made better choices, I would not have been battling an infection and needing to take painkillers and antibiotics to make the problem go away. In fact, I was seriously considering questioning the speaker about blaming the victim and making things worse instead of better.

Instead, I began searching the Bible to see if I could find verses that would support the speaker’s point of view. Here are some of the verses I found: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same…. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause…. Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty…. If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation…. If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning…. Agree with God and be at peace; thereby gold will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty you will be built up; if you remove injustice far from your tents, if you lay gold in the dust and gold of Ophir among the stones of the torrent bed, then the Almighty will be your gold and our precious silver. For then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows.”

Before anyone rushes for a concordance to find these verses, I will reveal where I discovered them. They are written in the book of Job—namely 4:7-8; 5:6-8; 5:17; 8:5-6; 11:13-17; 22:21-27. These are the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, friends of Job who came to comfort him in his suffering but ended up accusing him. Confident that God makes no mistakes, these three friends told Job that he needed to return to God; if he was being chastened by the Almighty, then surely the purpose was to wake Job from his spiritual slumber and restore him to a right relationship with God. The Lord responded to Eliphaz saying, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God called for a sacrifice to atone for their sin and promised to hear Job when he prayed for their forgiveness (Job 42:7-9).

To be continued…. J.