April 21, 1996
“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” Job 2:10
Wilma has asked that question so many times that she’s finally given up. Wilma has multiple sclerosis–M.S. A friend of hers describes the situation this way: “Wilma is a lovely wife and a terrific mother. She has been in the hospital 14 years and has lost faith. She knows God and Jesus are alive but cannot understand why she has M.S., while drunkards, prostitutes, and thieves enjoy good health. Why does God allow this?”
Gerald Sittser is another person who has asked that question. His wife, his four-year-old daughter, and his mother were all killed in a car accident that was caused by a drunk driver. Until then Gerald Sittser’s life had been going well. He was a history professor. He had a wonderful family. But in one hideous moment he lost three people who were dear to him. No wonder he found himself asking, “Why me?”
Eight months after the accident, the alleged driver of the other car was tried in federal court on charges of vehicular manslaughter. Professor Sittser writes, “I was issued a subpoena to be a witness for the prosecution, which meant that once again I had to face the man whom I had met on the road shortly after the accident. I was so nervous I actually got sick. I did not want revenge, but I did want justice so that the man whom I considered responsible for the deaths of four people–his wife and three people in my family–would pay the just penalty for his wrongdoing.”
“The case seemed so obvious,” he writes. “But the defense attorney argued that no one could actually prove that the accused had been driving the car, since both he and his wife had been thrown from the vehicle. A witness saw the accused get into the driver’s seat only ten minutes before the accident occurred. Other witnesses heard the accused admit after the accident that he had been the driver of the car. But the defense attorney was able to cast enough suspicion on the testimony of the witnesses to gain an acquittal for his client.”
Gerald Sittser tells about all this in his recent book A Grace Disguised (Zondervan, 1996). “I was enraged after the trial,” he writes. “The driver did not get what he deserved any more than the victims, whether living or dead, had gotten what they deserved.”
But in spite of his rage and his bewilderment, Professor Sittser did not turn his back on God. Instead, he says, “I began to be bothered by this assumption that I had a complete right to fairness. Granted, I did not deserve to lose three members of my family. But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. [My wife] Lynda was a woman of superior qualities, and she loved me through some very hard times. My mother lived well and served people to her life’s end, and she showed rare sensitivity to me during my rebellious teenage years. [My daughter] Diana Jane sparkled with enthusiasm for life and helped to fill our home with noise and excitement. Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths; but I did not deserve their presence in my life either.”
Gerald Sittser makes me think of the biblical story of Job. Everything Job owned was stolen or destroyed, the people who worked for him were murdered, and his children were all killed. After all these things, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). Job was in terrible grief, but at the same time, he knew that he hadn’t lost anything which God hadn’t first given to him.
A bit later, things got even worse for Job, and he came down with a disease that caused horrible suffering for him. At that point Job’s wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10).
Now, Job didn’t just grit his teeth and pretend to be happy with everything that happened. He did a lot of crying and questioning. But he did all this in the context of his basic belief that the God who gives freely can also take away, and that we must learn to deal with hard times as well as good times.
Nobody has a trouble-free life. Whether it’s a dreadful disease, or a tragic loss, or a horrid injustice, or something else that invades our happiness and makes us miserable, we can’t help asking “Why me?” And even as we ask that question, we run up against Job’s question: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
For some the answer is to curse God for not keeping trouble away, but for Job and Gerald Sittser and many others, the answer is to hold on to the Lord more than ever and to take refuge in him.
David Feddes here again. When something bad happens, we tend to ask the question, “Why me?” Many of us get into a comfortable way of life and seem to have things under control. We feel secure. We assume things are going to go well for us, and we assume we somehow have a right for everything to go well.
Job thought that way. He was rich. He was comfortable. He had a nice family. He was very successful and highly moral. Job said that he had generally thought of his life as a nice, comfortable nest. He thought he’d keep enjoying one blessing after another till he died peacefully in his old age (Job 29:18-20). But that’s not what happened. Job’s nest fell apart. He lost his wealth. He lost his children. He lost his health.
The same sort of thing can happen to us. We’ve got a secure nest, we feel like nothing can go wrong, and then, suddenly, trouble comes crashing in and our nest falls apart. Then what?
Our first reaction is often to say, “Why me?” We can’t understand why such a rotten thing has happened to us.
Gerald Sittser, the man who lost his wife and mother and daughter to a drunk driver who got off scot-free, tells how hard it was for him to deal with all that. “Why me?” he wondered. But, he goes on,
I once heard someone ask the opposite question, “Why not me?” It was not a fatalistic question because he is not a fatalistic person. He asked it after his wife died of cancer. He said that suffering is simply a part of life. They had been married for 30 years, raised their children, served their community, and enjoyed many happy moments together. Then the time came to experience another side of life, the darker and more painful side.
He could no more explain why his life had turned bad than he could explain why his life had been so good up to that point. Did he choose to grow up with a stable family? Did he have control over where he was born, when he was born, or to whom he was born? Did he determine his height, weight, intelligence and appearance? Was he a better person than some baby born to a poor family in Bangladesh?… “Why not me?” is as good a question to ask as any.
Why should I be exempt from suffering? Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, people have been subject to suffering and death. People get sick and die every day. People get treated unjustly every day. In some war-torn parts of the world, nearly everybody has lost a friend or family member to violence. Many people spend their entire lives in poverty. Why should I expect my own life to be trouble-free?
If your belief in God depends on everything always going right and on everything always being fair, then I hate to say it, but you might as well forget about God right now. We live in a world that’s full of pain; everything doesn’t always go right. We live in a world that’s full of injustice; everything isn’t always fair. You may happen to be sheltered the pain and injustice for awhile, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Many of us believe in God for as long as our lives go the way we want, and then turn against God when things don’t go our way. We have no problem believing in God as long as we’re secure and it’s other people who are suffering the pain and injustice. But if something terrible happens to us personally, then suddenly we find that we can’t trust God. We may even hate him.
Now, if you believe in God so long as others in the world suffer unfair pain but you’re okay, it shows that your real concern isn’t with fairness but with yourself. And if you give up on God because of something unpleasant, it simply means that you never loved God in the first place. You loved what he was doing for you, but you didn’t love him. Your loyalty to God was based on the fact that he was paying you pretty well.
That’s what Satan accused Job of doing–sticking with God only because it made him prosperous. God loved Job and blessed him and took great delight in Job’s integrity, but Satan said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? You protect him and his household and everything he has, and you keep blessing him more all the time. Of course Job is going to worship you if it pays so well. But take away everything you’ve given him, and see how he reacts. He’ll curse you to your face.”
But even when Job lost everything, he didn’t curse God. Job understood that he had no right to claim any of God’s gifts. He knew that he had come into this world with nothing, and that he would leave it with nothing. He knew that it was the Lord’s right to give, and his right to take away, as he saw fit. Either way, Job wanted to praise God. Later Job went so far as to say, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). Job knew the meaning of grace: that everything we have is an undeserved gift, that we can’t claim anything for ourselves. We have no right to curse God if he withholds something we want or takes away someone we love.
Our first reaction to trouble is often to ask, “Why me?” But somewhere along the line, we also need to ask, “Why not me?”
When we think about what’s fair and what’s not, we tend to think of some particular sin that is now being punished with some particular suffering. Sometimes it’s easy to see. For example, a man locked up in prison for killing someone doesn’t have to ask “Why me?” He knows exactly what he did to put himself there.
But much of our suffering isn’t a direct or obvious punishment for any one sinful action. It’s something that “just happens” to us, and it wasn’t directly caused by some particular thing we did. How can that be?
Well, we need to understand the situation in which we find ourselves. Ever since Adam and Eve, all people–every last one of us–have fallen under the influence of sin, and all of us have fallen under the power of suffering and death. So although it’s not true to say that every type of suffering is a direct punishment for some particular sinful act, it is true to say that we are all vulnerable to suffering because we are all part of a fallen and sinful humanity. God still sends good things and loving relationships into our lives, but he also lets his fallen creatures experience the hurts of this broken world.
What all of this means is that we are in no position to claim our rights before God. We don’t have rights before God. We’re part of a world and part of a human race that has rebelled against God. We may wonder why God allows so much undeserved suffering, but we should also wonder why he sends so much undeserved happiness.
In fact, to take this a step further, much of the grief we feel wouldn’t even be possible if God hadn’t been so good to us in the first place. Why does it hurt so much to lose a loved one? Because that loved one was such a precious gift from God. The size of our grief is closely related to the size of the gift. The greater the gift that God gave and then took away, the greater our grief will be.
When we lose a dear person, or a fine job, or our precious health, we can resent God for allowing us to lose what we valued so much. But perhaps we should instead thank God even in our tears for having given us someone or something that meant so much to us. As Job put it, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” Or, as Gerald Sittser put it, “I did not deserve to lose three members of my family. But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place.”
So, then, we need to enjoy every gift of God and give him thanks, and we also need to trust God when those gifts are taken from us. It’s not just a matter of saying that God can give and take away. It’s also a matter simply of letting God be God, of trusting him and recognizing him as the very center of my life. Whether my circumstances are good or bad, God is still God.
When Job’s wife was ready to give up on God, Job urged her not to be silly, and he said, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” That question is one of the deepest tests of faith. What it really means is, shall we accept God? Shall we accept him, even if it doesn’t seem to pay off in other things that we care about? Do we care more about God than about anything else? Do we entrust ourselves to God and his grace, or would we rather insist on having everything go exactly according to our plans and getting exactly what we deserve?
Job agonized over his terrible losses, and God never really gave him a direct explanation for why it had all happened. But God did something much better: he revealed his greatness and wisdom to Job in such a way that Job knew the Lord better than he ever had before. Job didn’t understand his suffering any better, but he knew God better. He said to God, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). Job had heard about God and believed in him before, but now he had a deeper, more direct knowledge of the Lord. And that was worth more to Job than anything else. Suddenly he didn’t feel the need to have all the answers to the question, “Why me?” At that point, Job had nothing but God. But having God was more than enough.
Like Job, Gerald Sittser has found that even after his terrible loss, life can be good–because God is good. Sittser is glad simply to take everything as a gift of God’s grace, rather than go on insisting that everything be fair. He says,
I would prefer to take my chances living in a universe in which I get what I do not deserve–again, either way. That means that I will suffer loss, as I already have, but it also means I will receive mercy. I will have to endure the bad I do not deserve; I will also get the good I do not deserve. I dread experiencing undeserved pain, but it is worth it to me if I can also experience undeserved grace.
If I have learned anything over the past three years [writes Gerald Sittser] it is that I desperately need and desire the grace of God. Grace had come to me in ways I did not expect.
Sittser tells of loving friends and productive work and a quiet contentment at the center of his soul, and of the great joy that he has with his children who are still alive. And then he speaks of his relationship to God. He says,
Despite the fact that I had been a Christian for many years before the accident, since then God has become a living reality to me as never before. My confidence in God is somehow quieter but stronger. I feel little pressure to impress God or to prove myself to him; yet I want to serve him with all my heart and strength. My life is full of bounty, even as I continue to feel the pain of loss. Grace is transforming me, and it is wonderful. I have slowly learned where God belongs and have allowed him to assume that place–at the center of my life rather than at the periphery.
So [he concludes] God spare us a life of fairness! To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world might make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would be really satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering.
There you have it: the testimony of a modern believer named Gerald Sittser, echoing the testimony of an ancient believer named Job. They say from personal experience that no matter how bad life gets, God is still good. It is better to lose everything and have God, than to have everything and lose God. It is better to trust a God who gives us what we don’t deserve than to insist on getting exactly what we do deserve.
If you’re going through terrible trouble and you’re wondering “Why me?” a short, blunt answer would be, “Because you’re a sinner living in a sinful, broken world.” But given that fact, are you going to go further down the path of sin and rebellion and use your pain as an excuse to reject God? Or will you recognize that, even as a sinful person in a sinful world, every good thing you’ve ever enjoyed was a gift from God? And when you lose any of God’s gifts, will you love God more than you loved his gifts? Will you simply surrender yourself to God, even if he doesn’t always give you what you think you deserve?
I’m glad life isn’t always fair. I’m glad God doesn’t always give us what we deserve. Do we deserve a God who lays aside the splendor of heaven to become one of us? Is it fair that the sinless Son of God should be hated and mocked and nailed to a cross? Can any of us claim the right to live forever in a heavenly home where all tears will be wiped away?
If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his miraculous birth, his horrible death, and his glorious resurrection, then by all means, go ahead and ask, “Why me?” The Son of God took on my human nature–why me? Jesus became a brother to me–why me? Jesus loves me-why me? Jesus died and suffered hell for me–why me? Jesus walks beside me and lives inside me through his Holy Spirit–why me? Jesus gives me everlasting life–why me? Jesus makes me a child of God, a ruler of angels–why me?
Job once said, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” But in light of the cross, we can also say, “Though we slay him, yet will he love us.” Job once said, “I know that my Redeemer lives… And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26). In light of Easter, we know even more clearly than Job did that our Redeemer has conquered death and that he will raise us too.
For the time being, we still need to face Job’s question, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” But it’s a temporary question. For the time being, we live in a world that is still broken, a world that includes both good and trouble. But in the world to come, where God will be all in all, there will be only good. For God is good. When God is all in all, I will spend all eternity enjoying God and reigning with him, and my grateful, awestruck question will forever be, “Why me?”
Why me, Lord? What have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I’ve known? Why me, Lord? What did I ever do that was worthy of you and the kindness you’ve shown? Thank you, Lord, for every good thing you’ve showered on me.
Father, you know how it hurts when we go through a terrible loss or when we suffer from the cruelty and injustice of this sinful world. Help us, Lord, to accept not only good from your hand, but also trouble.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for taking the sin and unfairness and pain of this world upon yourself. Thank you for opening the way to a future of perfect justice and eternal joy.
Thank you for walking with me each day through your Spirit. With the writer of Psalm 73, I say, “I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward, you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.