A recent online poll shows interesting data on what Americans believe about God and suffering. Most Americans, roughly 80%, say that suffering in the world comes from people, not from God. Another 44% (indicating you could choose more than one answer) say that Satan is responsible for most of the suffering in the world.
This data is good to know. My question (as always) is what does the Bible say about God and suffering?
Arguably, no one in the Bible suffered more (besides Jesus) than Job. The first two chapters of the book that bears his name detail the suffering Job experienced. The question is: who was responsible for Job’s suffering? The answer is not so straightforward.
According to the narrative, people (Job 1:15, 17), nature (Job 1:16, 18), Satan (Job 2:7), and God himself were responsible for the suffering. God initiated the conversation with Satan in the first place (Job 1:7; 2:2). God invited the suffering (Job 1:8; 2:3). God permitted the suffering to be carried out (Job 1:12; 2:6). Even Job recognized God was responsible (Job 1:21; 2:10). Though all parties had their plans, motives, and goals, God is ultimately responsible for Job’s suffering.
In theology, we classify God’s role in suffering under the doctrine of providence, particularly, what we call the doctrine of concurrence. Concurrence is the biblical teaching that God is the primary cause for every action and event performed by every creature, which includes human suffering.
God is the primary cause for every action and event. True. But there are also secondary causes. In the case of Job, God was the primary cause of the suffering. But people, nature, and Satan were secondary causes of the suffering. In other words, God used people, nature, and Satan in his plan to bring about the suffering of Job.
Genesis 50:20 is a great illustration of concurrence: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” The verse is clear there are two actors: Joseph’s brothers and God. But each actor had different purposes in what they did: Joseph’s brothers meant evil in the suffering; God meant good in the suffering.
What all this means is that there is no suffering in your life that is random, contrary to the polling that suggests that a majority of Americans believe “sometimes things in your life just happen.” Job did not have this understanding of divine providence. For Job, “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). Job’s suffering was not random. God decrees (or ordains) all the suffering in a Christian’s life, always for good and for His glory (Romans 8:28).