Human beings suffer. There is no way to get around this truth, as the evidence of suffering is all around us. Human beings experience catastrophic loss, devastating and debilitating diseases, oppression, hurt, and pain, among other kinds of suffering. As pastors and preachers, we speak every week to congregants in the midst of various kinds of suffering, trying to help them make sense of what seems, at least on its face, to be nonsensible.
But our task is not a hopeless one, given that the Lord has spoken into the reality of suffering in his Word. Our job as preachers is simply to speak what God has already spoken about suffering, allowing His words to offer the answers that our people need in their despair.
The book of Job is one example of God speaking into the reality of suffering. In fact, there may be no other writing in the history of the world, secular or sacred, that so beautifully and profoundly offers insight into why human beings suffer. For the preacher, then, proclaiming the truth of this book is necessary for us to be able to speak into the pain and suffering that our people see and experience almost on a daily basis. It’s further necessary to remind all people that God is not silent in the midst of human suffering. Rather, he is very present and offers hope to us as a result.
What I would like to offer in this article are some guidelines that I try to uphold when I preach a text like Job, full of difficult but necessary theological truths. These 5 guidelines help me faithfully navigate the story of Job, while also bridging the gap between Job’s specific context and our own. I will list them collectively and then offer some explanation of them individually.
5 Guidelines for Preaching the Book of Job:
- Resist the urge to oversimplify.
- Respond to non-biblical answers to suffering.
- Rest in the glory of God.
- Reveal the beauty of Christ’s suffering.
- Redeem the suffering of faithful saints through testimony.
Let’s look at each of these one by one.
First, “Resist the urge to oversimplify.” Human suffering is a complicated matter. The story of the book of Job is told in a manner to reflect that. While we do have answers as to why suffering happens in the book of Job, they come very late in the book, at least from Job’s perspective. This is by design. The answers to suffering are not meant to be easy. To offer pat answers or oversimplified explanations is to offer truth without empathy, or truth without gravity. In our preaching, as in the text of Job itself, we must journey through the suffering in order to understand how the Lord wants to use it for his glory. We have to navigate the tension of offering insight in to the “why” of suffering without dismissing the reality of suffering. Identifying with the hurt in suffering is as much an aspect of our job as preachers as speaking the truth about that hurt. We are to embody the message we proclaim.
Secondly, we must do the work of apologetics and respond to non-biblical answers to the problem of suffering. Tim Keller, in his introductory sermon on the book of Job, “Questions of Suffering,” offers two general responses to suffering: religious/moralistic and secular/cynical. The “religious” or moralistic response is the kind of response offered by Job’s friends in the text. This response asks the question, “What are you doing wrong?” Essentially, the religious response assumes that the person suffering has done something wrong and, therefore, deserves this suffering.
The second response that is not contained in the text itself but is certainly meant to be rejected by the truth of the text is the secular or cynical response. This response looks at suffering and concludes that everything happens randomly because there is no God. If there was a “God,” why would he allow suffering? If he was good, wouldn’t he remove suffering?
The book of Job, though, challenges us to rise above our human ability to understand and trust that there may be more to the story than we realize. God may be seeking to achieve something that we, as limited beings, cannot fully understand. We simply have to decide if we love him enough to trust him. Our people have already flirted with other responses to suffering. We must challenge those conclusions in order to show how the Scripture offers a better answer.
The third guideline is one that is useful for all preaching, but specifically for preaching Job, as the text itself bears out. God’s glory is the end of all things, and we are part of that “all things.” This means that our chief end as created beings is to glorify him. God’s glory is displayed through the story of Job; God’s glory is the point of the story of Job. Satan says that Job only worships the Lord because of how God has blessed him (Job 1:9-11). Satan contends that Job loves the blessing more than the One who blesses. The story of Job, though, reminds us all that God is enough. He gives blessings and he can take them away, but his name is still worthy to be praised.
When Job is questioning the justice of God, the Lord himself answers with affirmations of his glory meant to bring Job back to a right perspective. In chapters 38-41, God unveils his majesty, and he challenges his servant in light of this picture of God’s glory to remember who he is and who his God is. These chapters contain some of the most glorious words ever written down, and they force us all in our brokenness to ask, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (Job 40:2). Seeing God’s glory reminds Job that he is not God, and there may be powers at play that he does not fully understand. He needs to trust in his God, running to him in his moment of distress, rather than question his justice. God can and will use this suffering for his glory. Job simply needs to be willing to be used in that way.
Perhaps there is no greater display of suffering being used to bring about God’s glory than that of Jesus Christ. This leads us to our fourth guideline. Our God understands suffering. Our God has suffered. The second Person of the Trinity suffered in ways that you and I cannot even fathom, and God used that suffering to secure our redemption and display his glory.
In many ways, Job can be seen as a type of Christ. He is a righteous sufferer, who must trust the Lord through his own suffering. In the end, having trusted the Lord, he is restored, healed, and exalted all for the glory of God. There is a clear parallel here between the story of Job and the story of Christ that we must faithfully declare as Christian preachers.
Finally, when preaching through Job, I would encourage you to allow your people an opportunity to testify about God’s faithfulness in the midst of suffering. How many of our people can say because of suffering in their life, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you” (Job 42:5)? The Lord has placed testimonies of his faithfulness in the midst of suffering all around us to be redeemed as a means of encouragement for his people. Let your people consider the Lord’s servants among you for his glory and their good.
Job is a challenging book to preach. Its structure and its content are difficult to navigate, but we should do the work of preaching it nonetheless. Job is Hebrew epic poetry at its finest, and it deals with a universal human experience in the most incredible of ways. If you will preach this book faithfully through exposition and narrative, being mindful of these guidelines, the Lord will bless you and your people as he has promised he would. How can we know God is everything he has said he would be in the midst of our troubles, if we never experience a bit of trouble? He is everything he has promised and more: a very present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1)!
Recommended resources for preaching Job:
Alden, Robert. Job in The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.
Ash, Christopher. Job: The Wisdom of the Cross. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014.
Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Keller, Tim. “Questions of Suffering.” Online: http://www.gospelinlife.com/sermons/questions-of-suffering-5536.
Miller, Calvin. Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Piper, John. “Holding on to Your Faith in the Midst of Suffering: Job.” Online: http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/holding-on-to-your-faith-in-the-midst-of-suffering-job-part-1.
Walton, John H. Job in The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.