We briefly considered hitting ‘pause’ on our preaching series in Romans this past summer. We were approaching chapters 9–11, where Paul explores some of the most difficult questions in the Bible, including providence. In the end, we pressed on—and we were glad we did. Read in the flow of the letter, Romans 9–11 doesn’t preach like an abstract, heady philosophical treatise on predestination and free will.
Instead, it’s revealed to be a deeply heartfelt meditation by the apostle, yearning for the salvation of his brothers and sisters, with a hope fueled by his certain assurance that in Christ there can be neither condemnation (Rom. 8:1) nor separation (8:39) from the surpassing love of God. It seemed clear that Paul could only have written Romans 9–11 after writing Romans 8—suggesting that, perhaps, Christian contemplation dare not dive into the depths of God’s sovereign providence without first being absolutely assured of his steadfast, indefatigable love.
Job and the Why Question
I thought of that link often while reading Hans S. Reinders’s thought-provoking and deeply compassionate book Disability, Providence, and Ethics, a book which wrestles with the question of “what, if anything, has divine providence to do with disability?” (p. 1) The middle section of the book, where I will focus my attention, is taken up with an examination of the book of Job, and a consideration of what we are to make of the fact that in the end, Job receives no answer to the question of why he has suffered—and yet, seems satisfied with God’s response. What I want to argue here is that Job teaches us that Christians, without rejecting the traditional view that God’s providence is hidden from view, can nevertheless find comfort in the midst of affliction because his faithfulness has been revealed.
Reinders’s reading of Job is full of rich insight, particularly his consideration of Job’s responses to the ‘miserable comforters’ he has for friends. One of the first arguments placed before Job is that the creature cannot comprehend the Creator: God is inscrutable (Job 4:17). Job does not dispute this, but he refuses to let it be the end of the matter (pp. 107–108). Job will not accept that the divine will operates like blind, anonymous chance or fortune; God may be inscrutable, but he is not capricious. Job demands an audience before God, insisting that God can be held to the standard of his own law—what Reinders calls “the case of God against God.” Yes, Job admits, he is mortal and God is not, and so on one level there can be no “umpire between us” (Job 9:33), but he insists that there must be one who can intercede on his behalf (Job 16:18–21), even one to vindicate him before God beyond death: “For I know that my redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side” (Job 19:25–27).
In the end, of course, Job gets his response, as God shows up to deliver the final word. “Job is answered entirely in terms of the incomprehensible God,” Reinders asserts (p. 119). “He receives no substantial answer at all, other than to be reminded that the Creator of the universe cannot be held accountable by the Creator’s creatures” (p. 123). In response, Job repents—but in the same breath he declares that his hope has been fulfilled. He longed, he said, to see his Redeemer; now he says: “I had heard of you . . . but now with my eyes I see you” (Job 42:5–6). Job, then, is vindicated not by receiving an answer to why he suffers—he receives none—but simply by God’s presence, by the mere fact that he shows up and speaks. “The one thing that breaks his heart is that God does not answer him, regardless of what God would have to say if he did. Finally, God speaks from the whirlwind, and Job bows his head, not because he is humiliated, but because he is vindicated in his belief that his redeemer lives!” (p. 124).
I would like to suggest, however, that Job’s vindication—and the gift of his repentance—is predicated on more than God’s presence alone. God may not reveal to Job the intrigue of the wager lying behind his suffering, but he reveals something else: himself, the Creator, who delights in his creation. “Where were you when IIn bringing his claim of “God against God,” as Reinders puts it, Job asserts God’s faithfulness, grounded in God’s identity as his Creator. This has even been a source of Job’s anguish: his confidence and his confusion simultaneously stem from his assurance that God will be faithful to his creation. laid the foundation of the earth,” he asks, “ . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7). While God’s identity as Creator implies that no mortal could bring a charge against him (Job 40:2), it also satisfies Job’s deepest hope: that God will not finally reject the work of his hands.
In bringing his claim of “God against God,” as Reinders puts it, Job asserts God’s faithfulness, grounded in God’s identity as his Creator. This has even been a source of Job’s anguish: his confidence and his confusion simultaneously stem from his assurance that God will be faithful to his creation. “Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me. Remember that you fashioned me like clay, and will you turn me to dust again?” (Job 10:8-9). Job audaciously boasts that he knows God’s purpose (Job 10:12–13): God has granted him life and preserved his spirit, and he cannot believe that God would simply turn aside from what he has made. In perhaps the most poignant verses of Job’s lament, he grasps for hope that the love of God for his creation will extend even beyond the grave: “If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands” (Job 14:14–15).
For God to reveal himself to Job as the Creator is not merely to highlight the ontological gulf that exists between himself and his creatures, putting an end to Job’s questions. It is to affirm the very hope that Job has been clinging to all along. Reinders later takes his discussion in exactly this direction: “In many ways, Scripture testifies that God will not forsake ‘the work that his hand has begun,’ so why not ask what it means . . . that he remains faithful to his creation?” (p. 160). He rightly suggests that Christians understand providence as God’s purposes sovereignly working in Christ to fulfill his promises. But even this does not erase the inscrutability of his ways; rather, it transforms the impact of that inscrutability for the believer.
God Our Creator and Redeemer
Laudably, a significant portion of Reinders’s book is taken up in simply listening to the stories of those who have suffered disability in their own lives and those of their loved ones. These stories remind us that faithful Christians will experience the silence of God, sometimes for prolonged periods of time. In this, they share in the suffering of Christ, who also experienced that silence on the cross. But that is precisely the key—precisely that which, for Paul, turns the inscrutability of God’s providence into a mystery to be worshiped, rather than a puzzle to be solved. This is how Romans 9–11 are grounded in Romans 8: it is because Paul knows that “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) thatWith Job we can wait patiently for that day when faith is made sight. He will call, and we will answer; he will long for the work of his hands. he can later confess, quoting Job, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36).
Reinders tells us early on that he intends to present an understanding of providence that rejects theodicy in favor of lament (p. 17). He quotes John Swinton: “Theodicies often end up silencing the lamenting voice of the sufferer” (p. 48) by offering “cheap” justifications of God’s actions in ways that simply will not bear the weight of the actual lived experience of disability. When Hannah Arendt remarked that “When men could no longer praise, they turned their greatest conceptual efforts to justifying God and His Creation in theodicies,” she put her finger on the great divide between theodicy and lament, which is that the latter is a form of praise. Lament lays its questions of how long? and what does this mean? before the one that it confesses to be the incomparable God, beside whom there is no other, full of power and steadfast love (Ps. 62:11-12).
Reinders worries that an insistence on the hiddenness of God’s will (such as he finds in the theology of John Calvin) leaves no practical difference between divine providence and arbitrary fate (pp. 124–126). But there is a difference, and the difference is God himself. His thoughts and ways are far above our own, but, in the cross, he has not left his character in doubt. He is the Creator who will not abandon the work of his hands; he is the Redeemer “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). In our crucified and risen Savior, we who walk in the shadow of death have seen the first fruits of a new creation, and so with Job we can wait patiently for that day when faith is made sight. He will call, and we will answer; he will long for the work of his hands.