Jacob’s favorite son was dead. Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jacob did, and now his son was no more. He was killed by a wild animal while searching for his brothers. All that remained was a tattered, blood-stained coat. Jacob would never see his son again, he was sure of it. However, in an odd turn of events, his son’s “death” was actually a cover up by his brothers. They wanted to kill him out of jealous rage, but in the end they decided to sell him into slavery. Years later when all this would come to light, Jacob would be reunited with his son Joseph, saying, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also” (Genesis 48:11).
In the midst of his grief, Jacob was unaware of so much of God’s activity. He didn’t know his son was alive. He didn’t know his son had children. He didn’t know that he would get to see his grandchildren. Beyond the immediate circumstances, Jacob didn’t know that God was going to use Joseph to bring Israel, a nation in its infancy, into the powerful Egyptian empire. He didn’t know that God would demonstrate his glory to the nations by freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of Egypt. He didn’t know that a prostitute living in a distant land would hear about this glorious God and submit herself to the sovereign Lord. Indeed, Rahab would proclaim, “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt… for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:10-11). He didn’t know that this exodus of Israel would point forward to a greater deliverance found in Jesus Christ. He didn’t know.
Jacob was right to marvel that God was good in ways he could have never anticipated. He was also right to grieve deeply at the apparent loss of his child. That is the point, that in the middle of suffering we are called to simultaneously grieve and exercise humility in the way we view God. A stoic response to suffering denies the honest outpouring of grief and complaint that we find in the Psalms. There is nothing spiritual about pretending like suffering doesn’t shake us to the core. On the other hand, we are not then justified in our anger towards God or free to attack his goodness. We are commanded to suffer in humility.
The book of Job illustrates the necessity of humility in suffering. Job had the worst day anyone has ever experienced. He lost nearly everything precious to him in a few minutes’ time. All but his wife and his own life perished in a moment (Job 1). Initially, Job responded quite well, even rebuffing his wife’s counsel to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). However, as the story unfolds Job demanded an audience with God. He summoned God to trial where Job will serve as the prosecutor and God as the defendant. The Lord arrived and quickly took over the court proceedings. God quickly offered his opening defense, a shotgun blast of questions for Job that drove home the point that God is God and Job is not. His defense was loud and clear, even if it wasn’t what Job was expecting: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:3). And, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2). Job had no rebuttal and would eventually forfeit his case. Job received the message: when life doesn’t make sense, trust God’s nature and character. Or, as I heard a sister in Christ put it recently, “God answers our ‘why’ questions with ‘who’ answers.”
Whether it is our personal suffering or we are observing the suffering of someone we love, we should resolve to walk in humility before God and others–acknowledging life doesn’t always make sense, while relentlessly clinging to the character of God. After all, he is up to good that we may not be privy to on this side of eternity.
Admittedly, this article is preparatory in nature. By that I mean that this may not be the place to send someone in the middle of heart-wrenching grief. Begin by weeping with them. Michael Horton helps us here: “Even comforting truths can be an irritation when our nerves are raw. Understanding who God is, who we are, and God’s ways in creation, providence, and redemption–at least as much as Scripture reveals to us–is to the trials of life what preparing for the LSAT is to the practice of law.” Like a lawyer who prepares for his or her practice by intense study and training, so we study theology, at least in part, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable day when suffering arrives. We are wise to consider the goodness, sovereignty, wisdom, and plan of God before suffering beats down our door and overwhelms us. Only then will we be prepared to walk through suffering with a humble trust in God.
Michael Horton, A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering (Gran Rapids, Zondervan, 2006) P. 19.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Genesis 48:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.