Bad advice? Most of us today would agree Job's friends gave very unhelpful and inaccurate advice.
Last year we felt as if we, like Job, had become the recipients of questionable advice. Our son was, tragically, born still. Thereafter, we were repeatedly told 'God has reason for this' or 'God knew what would be best'. And we don't think we are the only ones that have to face such comments. The more suffering people we talk to, the more it seems to us that there is currently a trend to give comfort to the suffering by claiming that the tragedy that befalls them is God's will (although we are thankful for their sincere care).
In the months that have followed we have come to fear that to many ears this advice seems to be declaring that it is God's doing or purpose for bad things to happen. Surely this type of advice would cause more pain to the sufferer. It fails to adequately offer compassion and hope. It makes God seem more like a tyrant, rather than a loving God. It may even result in the hardening of one's heart towards God.
So, we wondered, does God really cause newborn babies to die? Would He cause a terrible sickness to teach a family to lean on one another? Does God cause our pain and suffering? We even began to explore the deeper question, how is God interfering in our world?
These are some things we discovered in our reading.
God's will for the world is for a perfect place with full health and pure relationships with each other and with God. God's purpose wasn't for bad things to happen. Rather, His purpose was for good to happen. The Book of Genesis tells us that the Garden of Eden was a place of tranquility where we can glimpse the good purpose and will of God. But, as we know, humans choose to give into sin and the world has been decaying ever since. This includes and involves all of life, including us (so we know God would not want, or even order, our son's early death. Rather, the disaster is a consequence of living in a fallen world).
So how is God continuing his relationship with the world since the Fall?
Theologians seem to have divided the ways God now relates to his creation into two categories. The first one, explained by Millard Erickson in his book "Christian Theology", is termed "preservation". He defines this as referring to God maintaining His creation. It is God's will and energy that makes everything work in the world. He is the One holding all of it together; gravity, seasons, rain, life. Jesus himself said, 'are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care' (Matthew 10:29).
The second category, also defined by Erickson, is "governance". He explains that this is God actively engaging in all the events that occur here in the world to fulfil the plan He has for His creation (Matthew 5:45). In this book, he cites the theologian Karl Barth as saying 'it is God's guiding and steering history towards his purposes'.
And what are God's purposes? In our opinion, they are unquestionably restoring His creation to shalom (life as it was in that peaceful, marvellous Garden of Eden). Of course, as Christians, we believe that the highlight of God's governance is viewed with Jesus coming to defeat evil and create a way for our relationship with God to be restored.
These philosophical ideas of God's preservation and governance gives so much hope to the suffering person. His current will for creation is to be a perfect place with no suffering, with full health and pure relationships with each other and with God. This was the purpose of creation, and God is interacting closely with the world now to bring this reality back; a reality which will be ultimately experienced in heaven. This is great news for all of us who suffer. In the end there is victory, the dead will rise and the blind will see. Our suffering will be no more.
Therefore, God is shattered when suffering is inflicted on one of His wonderfully created beings. He isn't a cold hearted God. God's will for creation is shalom, so he is saddened by the pain in our world. In fact, it is quoted by Peter Lewis in his lecture series "The Message of the Living God", that our suffering causes God to groan. He is a God who loves His world and is saddened with those who are sad; and is grieving alongside us over our lost son.
Oh how much more comfort would the sufferer gain when they hear that God is identifying with their pain and heartache.
Christian Theology by Erickson, Millard (1988) and The Message of the Living God by Lewis, Peter (2000).
Daniel and Danielle Stott are Bible College graduates from Melbourne and now doing teacher training on the southern Gold Coast. They have a baby daughter. Daniel is originally from New Zealand and Danielle from Brisbane.