“Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). Job’s famous words summarize the posture we should have toward God when we suffer. Further instruction on how to maintain this posture comes from a surprising source: Elihu.
In Job 32, Job’s “comforters” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have exited stage left, and a brand new, younger man enters stage right, burning with anger because Job “justified himself” and Job’s friends “found no answer” for him (vv. 1–3).
Commentators have been deeply divided about Elihu and his four speeches in Job 32–37. Some have dismissed him altogether as repeating the same point of view of Job’s friends: suffering is reaping what you have sown—no more and no less. Other commentators believe Elihu is adding something new to the conversation. John Calvin saw the answer to the problem of suffering in Elihu. I hold a kind of middle position. Elihu begins well and ends badly. He begins by teaching us something new about the purpose of suffering, but he ends by repeating the same old story. Yet along the way, what he teaches us about trials can help us trust God when we suffer.
Here’s the first thing Elihu teaches us:
1. Trials Are Not a Reason to Question God’s Character
If I were to single out one particular verse from Elihu’s speeches, it would “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice” (Job 34:12). Whatever the answer to the problem of pain and suffering is, it cannot be an answer at the expense of the character of God. It cannot be at the expense of the justice of God, the integrity of God, the righteousness of God. God’s character does not change, so our suffering must fit with what we know about God’s character. It’s an uncompromising truth. It’s a truth that cannot in any shape, way, or form be altered in order to understand our suffering.
“Of a truth, God will not do wickedly.” This statement deals with the character of God, but it also has to do with the love of God within His character. The answer to the problem of suffering is not merely that God is sovereign. God cannot sin. Everything that God does, He does out of a principle of the character of His goodness. When we suffer, we can’t question that.
I would suggest that Elihu does two more things to helps us understand the problem of suffering. Both of them are subsumed under a principle: Elihu sees suffering as instructive. Part of the reason why God permits suffering in our lives is because He wants to teach us something.
2. Trials Teach Us Something about Who We Are
In the prologue of the book of Job, we have God’s assessment of Job’s character. He was a godly man. He shunned evil. He was, in every way, a model believer. But that doesn’t mean to say that Job is sinless throughout the course of the book. In the course of his suffering, something of Job’s sinful character emerges in a way that isn’t flattering to him.
Suffering can lead us to see something of ourselves. Elihu captures this when he says, “[God] delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity” (Job 36:15). Suffering can open your ears and can teach you things about yourself. It reveals what you’re capable of. In the course of a trial, in your response to suffering, it can manifest things about you that you wouldn’t have believed was possible. Sin can manifest itself in the course of the trial, even if it isn’t the cause of the trial.
When difficulty comes our way, our response isn’t always a good one. We respond with unjust anger and accusations. We question God’s goodness. We question God’s right to treat us this way. We forget that we are His creatures to mold and shape as pleases Him. When this happens, we are to take up a cross and follow the Lord Jesus. Isn’t that what He said at Caesarea Philippi? Take up your cross and follow Him. Deny yourself. Deny yourself your rights, privileges, and status, whatever is God’s will, and follow Christ.
3. Trials Teach Us Something about Who God Is
While it is true that trials can bring to light lessons that you otherwise would not have learned about your sin, even this can be considered a sign of God’s mercy and grace. The author of Hebrews talks about the discipline aspect of trials:
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Heb. 12:5–7)
God isn’t punishing you as though you were an unbeliever, as though you were mere pawns in a vast machine of the cosmos where there’s no rhyme nor reason. God is treating you like sons. Yes, it is painful. It hurts. But God is disciplining you, because you are His children. He loves you, and through discipline, He is conforming you more and more into the image of His Son Jesus Christ. Through trials, God is leading us to appreciate something of His mercy.
Resting in God
Elihu stresses the sovereignty of God. Job, too, believed in God’s sovereignty. But what are the implications of God’s sovereignty? It means that we don’t have a right to have all the answers for our suffering. I think Elihu begins well and identifies an area of difficulty in Job’s struggle for answers. But over the course of his speeches, he’s blustering and brash. He does teach us, however, something about suffering as a way God instructs us, as a way to bring about a fresh realization of who we are, who God is, and what life is about.
In Job 28, Job asks the question, “Where shall wisdom be found?” (v. 12). Wisdom is found in God, in submitting to God, in submitting to His ways. Trials help remind us that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts, so when we suffer, let us rest in Him.