When my husband Rob died in a tragic hiking accident at age 41, I didn’t ask, “Why?” Despite my deep grief, I knew the world is a broken place, marred by sin’s curse. Rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Our days are measured without our knowledge of their end. Pain and sorrow run like dark threads through the stunning tapestry of all God created and called good.
I didn’t ask “Why, God?” or “Why, me?” But when Rob died, I frequently asked, “What now?” What was I to do with this suffering that had shadowed my path? How should I respond to a tragedy I couldn’t understand? What should my posture be toward the world and toward God in the face of such heartbreaking loss? As I watched the life we’d built for almost two decades crumble around my feet, I knew I must cling to Jesus if I were to survive and thrive again. I knew I’d need to, somehow, come to a place where I could say with that iconic sufferer Job, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21, NIV). But I wasn’t sure how to get there.
As someone who now regularly advocates for the bereaved, I’m grateful for Eric Ortlund’s new book, Suffering Wisely and Well: The Grief of Job and the Grace of God. Written with the incisiveness of an academic and the heart of a pastor, Suffering Wisely and Well invites readers to walk through losses—both their own and their loved ones’—with thoughtfulness, honesty, and hope. While the content may, at times, feel dense for a person experiencing fresh, acute grief, this book offers an indispensable biblical reference for those supporting the suffering and bereaved—a wise and necessary guide for those who find themselves cast in the role of Job’s friends and who want to offer something better.
Suffering Wisely and Well: The Grief of Job and the Grace of God
Why does God allow suffering? The pain of suffering can be overwhelmingly mysterious, but the Bible does provide answers. Throughout Scripture, God allows trials in order to accomplish specific purposes in the lives of his people. When faced with suffering they experience spiritual growth; repentance from sin; or, as in the Old Testament story of Job, the chance to demonstrate devotion to God in the face of inexplicable agony.
In Suffering Wisely and Well, Eric Ortlund explores different types of trials throughout Scripture, revealing the spiritual purpose for each and reassuring readers with God’s promise of restoration. The majority of the book focuses on Job, one of the most well-known yet misunderstood stories of suffering. Ortlund thoughtfully analyzes the text chapter by chapter, including the doubt of Job’s friends, God’s response to Job’s questions, and the meaning behind important imagery including references to Leviathan and Behemoth. Suffering Wisely and Well shows readers how to deepen their relationship with God during painful experiences in their own lives and how to comfort others who are hurting.
What (Not) to Say
As it walks chapter by chapter through the book of Job, Suffering Wisely and Well charts a trustworthy course for sufferers and supporters alike. After a brief overview of different kinds of suffering, Ortlund launches into what will be for most readers the most valuable content—an expository exploration of the conversations between Job and his friends and Job and his God.
Asserting that “how we speak to each other matters deeply to God” (169), Ortlund spends considerable time parsing the difficulties Job’s three friends face when they engage in conversations around suffering and its causes and purposes. Readers may grimace as they hear their own voices in the pat answers and easy platitudes of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. The truth is that we’ve all tried wrongly to parse the details of another’s suffering. Taking us, often verse by verse, through their speeches, Ortlund reveals our sinful tendencies toward victim-blaming and judgment. He cautions us not to step inside someone else’s suffering or loss and claim to discern clearly its cause and purpose. “May God save us from such cold comforts, such hideous gentleness” (79).
Ortlund cautions us not to step inside someone else’s suffering or loss and claim to discern clearly its cause and purpose.
However, if you’re like so many of the well-meaning friends and family members I talk to, you want more than “don’ts” when it comes to caring for a hurting person in your life. You need the right words to say, the helpful actions to perform. Thankfully, Ortlund and the writer of Job understand this well. Using Job’s friends as a foil, Ortlund offers us a picture of a divine Friend who quietly joins Job in his ash heap, listens to his raging and frustration, and offers him a spectacular view of his power and love.
If you’ve longed to know what it takes to be a good friend to a hurting person, Suffering Wisely and Well paints a beautiful picture.
Best Friend of All
In a fascinating discussion of Behemoth and Leviathan, Ortlund offers a kernel of wisdom that every supportive friend—and every suffering saint—should carry in his pocket. “The one person who most clearly sees what is wrong with his world is the one person who promises he will not let it stay this way forever” (157). If you want to be a good friend, if you want to suffer wisely and well, this wisdom must guide your words and your steps.
Despite our best intentions, our theological correctness, or our biblical proof texts, we cannot—and should not (here Ortlund and I diverge)—attempt to discern God’s purposes in another’s suffering. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to offer.
God is not sarcastic, demeaning, or judgmental. He commits to staying beside Job until his anger, sorrow, doubts, and frustration are utterly exhausted.
Instead, Ortlund commends God as the ideal friend who offers Job exactly what he needs in his deepest pain. God listens without anger or interruption as Job rails against him. God receives Job’s misguided and misinformed complaints with kindness. He is not sarcastic, demeaning, or judgmental. He commits to staying beside Job until his anger, sorrow, doubts, and frustration are utterly exhausted. These are qualities we all must emulate. We do these things not as surface-level comforts but out of a deep belief that our sovereign God will make all things right in his good time.
Where God Is When It Hurts
Helplessness and hopelessness often accompany trials. We cannot change or alleviate another’s sorrow, nor can we do much to ease our own. But when we endure trials of various kinds, we can bring our whole selves to God in honesty, waiting on him in hope. This is not lemons-into-lemonade Christian living. As C. S. Lewis writes, “We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.” Job teaches us that we can speak chapter upon chapter of lament if we need to. Furthermore, we need not submit ourselves to harsh and invasive self-examination for sin when suffering befalls us. We need not tie our sorrows up with a bow and force a lesson to be derived from our pain.
Instead, when unexplainable suffering crosses our path, when we must ask, “What now?” God simply asks us to remain faithful. Keep connecting with others, sifting their consolations through God’s truth when necessary, clinging to what is gold and disposing of the rest. Keep praying, even when your words are angry and despairing. Keep returning to the One who both sees evil’s terrible scope and will never flinch to save us from it.