Article by Christopher Ash
When suffering comes to us, we naturally — instinctively — want to know what or who has caused it. The answer to that question often affects how we respond to the pain. We focus immediately on the obvious causes. For an illness, we think about what has gone wrong with our body biochemistry. After an accident, we visit and revisit what happened, how it happened and whose fault it was.
When a so-called “natural” disaster strikes, we may think about why people were living where they lived, why the early warnings didn’t work, why the flood defenses were inadequate, and so on. We want to blame somebody or something. And, whether or not we can blame a human agent, behind all that we want to blame God. For God — if there is a God — must have something to do with it all.
After that, we may react with bitterness, recriminations, or resentment. Perhaps these are specific, or maybe we are just left with a residual sense that we have been unfairly treated. At the beginning of the book of Job, Job suffers four terrible tragedies (Job 1:13–19) before losing his health (Job 2:7–8). Two of the four tragedies we might today call “natural disasters” (although the Bible never uses this expression); the other two would perhaps come under the label of “terrorism.”
God’s Job or Satan’s?
One of the deepest questions in the book of Job is this: who caused Job’s terrible sufferings? There is one clear answer, given or assumed by Job, by his three so-called “comforters,” and by the divinely-inspired storyteller. This answer is expressed crisply at the end of the book, where the narrator describes how Job’s family and friends “comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).
The Lord, the covenant God, is the one who brought these sufferings upon Job. He did not simply allow them; he caused them to come upon Job (the Hebrew verb here indicates active causality). Job shows that he knows this is true when he says, “. . . the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). He reiterates this conviction when he says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). In saying this, the inspired narrator indicates that “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. . . . Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10). Job believes God has done it; and Job is right to believe this.
In both Job 2:10 and Job 42:11, the word translated “evil” indicates not moral evil, but disaster — things that are terrible to experience. The three friends share this conviction. The most common title for God in the book is “the Almighty” (e.g. Job 5:17).
God’s Strange Servant
But under and alongside this shared conviction of the active sovereignty of God, there is an important subsidiary conviction: Satan causes Job’s sufferings. Satan (or, more properly, “the Satan” – this is more of a title than a name, and means something like “the adversary”) is a supernatural creature who has a strange place in the council or cabinet of the “sons of God” (ESV) or “angels” (NIV). He is utterly evil and malicious; and yet he has a job to do. It is his “hand” that actively strikes Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). So, in a sense, he causes them. But as we see if we read the book carefully, he is not the ultimate cause.
Older liberal commentators take the easy way out of splitting Job into a part in which God causes Job’s sufferings and a part in which Satan causes them. So, for example, H.H. Rowley takes the words “that the Lord had brought upon him” in Job 42:11 as simply indicating the (erroneous) assumptions shared by Job and his friends. But these words are spoken by the inspired narrator of the story, so we must not take this erroneous, albeit easy, way out.
But more responsible commentators recognize that the Bible holds these together. The parallel accounts of David’s census demonstrate this same parallelism of views. Who motivated David to call this census? The Lord did (2 Samuel 24:1); and Satan did (1 Chronicles 21:1). The Bible — and the book of Job — hold these together. Satan is God’s strange servant to do the will of God by afflicting Job with suffering. Satan does this out of malice; the Lord out of a loving concern for his glory. Satan is — as Luther so vividly put it — “God’s Satan.”
Those who reject the sovereignty of God will either ignore clear verses on God’s sovereignty over our suffering (like Job 1:21; 2:10; 42:11) or assign it (as Rowley does) to the possibly mistaken view of the human characters. Nevertheless, when referring to the “evil” that came upon Job, it is clear “that the Lord had brought [it] upon him” (Job 42:11). This is clear throughout the book and it is written for our instruction.
Evil for Our Ultimate Good
It is of great pastoral importance that we grasp what the Bible teaches about the causality of disaster when it comes to believers. There are two common mistakes. On the one hand, we may neglect Satan altogether and just assume that God rules the world in a simple and direct way. This is, I am told, close to the view of Islam. Some Christians tacitly assume this, but it is not the teaching of the Bible. On the other hand, we may think of Satan as a second, independent, autonomous power of evil, in which case the universe becomes a terrifyingly uncertain place, since we may never be sure whether God or Satan will win any particular round of their contest.
The Bible, however, teaches that God has chosen to exercise his absolute, direct, and intentional sovereign government of the world through the agency of his chosen council or cabinet of intermediate powers (the “sons of God” or “angels”), some of whom are evil. These powers have no autonomy whatsoever. And yet, in the purposes of God, they are significant and do exert influence, as God has chosen that they will.
To grasp this deep truth about the government of the universe will give Christian believers great confidence — for the sovereignty of God is unchallenged — and yet also great realism, for we will take seriously the role of supernatural evil in the infinite wisdom of God, who is himself utterly untouched by evil, and yet who chooses to weave evil into his purposes of ultimate good.
Christopher Ash is Writer-in-Residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. He is married to Carolyn. Christopher has written a number of books, including the commentary Job: The Wisdom of the Cross. This article appeared in DesiringGod.org, April 7, 2018.