We All Want to See God Suffer

In the ancient view, the gods were capricious and lusty tyrants wholly responsible for the suffering of humans. The “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” sums it up nicely:

. . . All the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice,
hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men,
all that they endure at the hands of the deathless gods,
and how they live witless and helpless and cannot find
healing for death or defense against old age. (lines 189–192)

Taking this idea a step further, Gloucester’s lament in King Lear frames human suffering as the “sport” of the gods:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport. (IV: 1: 36–37)

Because of this perceived reality, one of the central themes of humanist mythology involves our vainglorious attempts to achieve victory over the gods—through craft, strength, or beauty. In this way, Greek mythology mixes the truths of human experience with fantasy wish fulfillment. Hercules, the strongest man, rescues “man’s friend” Prometheus from the vengeance of Zeus. Sisyphus, the craftiest man, receives his tragically interminable punishment for successfully deceiving and manipulating the gods.

But perhaps the greatest and most “satisfying” mythological story of human victory over the gods is Odysseus, who defies the sea god Poseidon after blinding, deceiving, and humiliating Poseidon’s son Polyphemus. And unlike most of the other humans whose hubris got the better of them, Odysseus comes to a happy end.

Odysseus Wants to See God Suffer

According to the Greeks, the gods couldn’t understand the human condition because they were “deathless” in paradise enjoying “unending gifts.” In order to understand all the harm that they had done to human beings, the gods needed to be knocked down a peg or two—into suffering, even into death.

This is an ancient idea, but it did not die with the ancients.

The Christian hope is that suffering has a purpose and meaning beyond what we can see in the short-term. But I must admit there are times I feel like God doesn’t understand what I’m going through. There are times I feel like God can’t understand, transcendent and everlastingly blissful as he is.

And I know, like the Greeks before me, that I cannot ultimately force God to understand my pain. Sometimes, as a surrogate for divine empathy, I attempt to force other humans (unfortunate souls) to understand and share in my suffering. In some ways, this explains the nearly cliché “victimization cycle”—the idea that “hurt people hurt people.” Victimization becomes an attempt at forced empathy: “I will hurt you as I have been hurt, and then perhaps you will understand me. Then perhaps you will love me. I cannot force God to understand my pain, but I can force you to understand.”

We all fall into this. We are hesitant to complain to God. We don’t think he will listen, or we think he will punish us for our impertinence. We don’t generally “vent” honestly and bitterly to God. Instead, in our hopelessness, we pour our anger, hurt, frustration, bitterness, and disappointment onto the heads of others. And instead of making things any better, we just add to the cycle of “man handing on misery to man.”

But to this hopelessness, God brings good news if we will receive it.

Consider for a moment the satisfaction of those who hated Jesus, seeing him hanging on the cross. Consider for a moment the satisfaction of the Roman soldiers as they mocked Jesus, as they whipped him, as they pushed the thorns down into his sweating brow. With every pound of the mallet on the nails that pierced his body, every witness felt the same satisfaction in their hearts. They felt the wild screaming satisfaction of Odysseus, safely out of distance of Polyphemus’ stones.

At the Cross, humans finally had God literally in their hands and at their mercy. This pageant of divine suffering was no mere fantasy wish fulfillment. Finally, the shoe was on the other foot. Finally, we could do to God all the things we thought he had been doing to us all this time. God would finally know how it feels.

And Jesus, stretching out his arms, received it all. He swallowed up all our suffering in himself, refusing even the smallest succor of human or divine empathy. His misery had no company. He was wholly forsaken.

At the Cross, we told God: “It would bring me joy to see you suffer as I have suffered.” And to our great astonishment, God responded: “I will gladly bear your suffering to bring you joy.”

7 responses

  1. 1 One there is, above all others,
    well deserves the name of Friend;
    his is love beyond a brother’s,
    costly, free, and knows no end.
    They who once his kindness prove
    find it everlasting love.
    2 Which of all our friends, to save us,
    could or would have shed his blood?
    But our Jesus died to have us
    reconciled in him to God.
    This was boundless love indeed;
    Jesus is a Friend in need. (i.e. in times of need)
    3 When he lived on earth abased,
    “Friend of sinners” was his name;
    Now above all glory raised,
    he rejoices in the same;
    still he calls them brethren, friends,
    and to all their wants attends.
    4 Could we bear from one another
    what he daily bears from us?
    Yet this glorious Friend and Brother
    loves us though we treat him thus:
    though for good we render ill,
    he accounts us brethren still.
    5 O for grace our hearts to soften!
    Teach us, Lord, at length to love,
    we, alas! forget too often
    what a Friend we have above:
    but when home our souls are brought,
    we will love you as we ought.

    John Newton

  2. I had written Michael about some of my concerns about his article titled “We All Want To See God Suffer.” I read his article twice, the last time very carefully so that I would not misunderstand his thesis. Michael wanted me to post the substance of my previous response on this comment section so that he could address my concerns and perhaps give a clarification.

    My purpose is for there to be iron sharpening iron. I am a supporter of the Nehemiah Foundation so I have nothing but a desire for the best for the Foundation.

    I am taking theological exceptions at various points because I think his thesis is misleading and misapplied. I had noticed that someone else has actually posted on his timeline that they had some theological problems with the article; hence, I am not the only one that was concerned.

    I will add a little more to the substance of my response to Michael’s article so that he can address these matters. I mentioned to Michael in my initial response that I welcomed his response and perhaps he could clarify himself on some points with which I was having difficulty.

    First, the title of the article would definitely catch one’s attention because we are not used to thinking about all of us wanting God to suffer. I did consider the use of “all” to be inclusive of all of us, even Christians. As I read the article, his conclusion did include Christians and our perspective of Jesus’ death on the cross.

    Michael does bring out the Greek worldview of their understanding of the Greek gods. The Greeks viewed the gods as those fraught with similar desires as mortals such as the desire for revenge and lust for beautiful women to name but a few.

    Michael makes the point that “humanist mythology involves our vainglorious attempts to achieve victory over the gods…” To demonstrate this, he mentions Odysseus’ victory over Poseidon’s son Polyphemus. He then mentions that the Greek gods could not understand the human condition of suffering (which they often brought upon mortals) because they were “deathless” in their paradise.

    I agreed with Michael’s assessment of the Greek worldview to an extent, but I had some theological problems with how he was tying this Greek mindset with the Christian worldview. I agreed with his comment that “the Christian hope is that suffering has a purpose and meaning beyond what we can see in the short term.” Though Michael didn’t mention this passage, one could mention Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” The Christian should take comfort that God is not like the Greek gods who take pleasure in our suffering. For the Christian, suffering is for our edification that we might be holy. James 1:2-4 exhorts Christians to actually have joy in their sufferings (trials) for it produces patience.

    Michael then expresses that at times he has felt that God doesn’t understand the pains he is enduring, that God can’t understand them because He is transcendent and everlastingly blissful. It is at this point that I began to have some theological concerns with the article. First, God does understand the pains we endure. With regard to the powerful force of temptations, Jesus does understand as Hebrews 4:15 states – “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”

    Second, it did concern me when Michael wrote, “We all fall into this. We are hesitant to complain to God. We don’t think he will listen, or we think he will punish us for our impertinence. We don’t generally “vent” honestly and bitterly to God.” It seemed to me that Michael was saying that there wasn’t anything wrong with Christians complaining to God, even if it is bitterly complaining at times. After all, he did say that we are hesitant to complain to God. The idea is that at least we are bringing our honest concerns to God rather than venting them on other people.

    There is a wonderful example in the Bible regarding how the Christian should view and accept suffering. It is Job. One of the major lessons of the Book of Job is to show that we never have the right to complain to God about anything. Job understood that he was a righteous man, even God stated that Job was righteous in the opening chapter of the book. Job’s friends did not help at all. In fact, they augmented his suffering. His friends assumed Job was being punished for unconfessed sins. Their theological error was that all suffering is directly correlated with our sins. They were wrong, and God rebukes them , and at the end of the Book of Job God exhorts them to ask Job to pray for them and for them to offer sacrifices (Job 42:7-9).

    The sin of Job that the Lord had to expose was that Job thought he ought not to suffer because he was righteous. Job demands a hearing with God. We read in Job 23:1-5 “Then Job answered and said, ‘Even today is my complaint bitter; my stroke is heavier than my groaning. Oh that I knew where I might find him! That I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.”

    We all may identify with Job, but when we do as Job did, then we are sinning. How does God respond to Job’s demands for a hearing with Him? God shows up in a whirlwind in Job 38:1-3 “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man: for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.” For four chapters (38-41), we have God devastating Job with His sovereignty. In short, God is saying to Job that he has no right whatsoever to argue before the Almighty. God is absolutely sovereign and owes nothing to Job to explain anything. In Job 42:6 we read about Job’s repentance – “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Job learned the lesson – God owes us no explanation for how He tests us in this life; we have no right at anytime to complain to God about anything. In fact, God never did tell Job why he was suffering.

    The lesson of Job again is that we must learn to joyfully submit to God’s sovereignty which means that we with humility bow before Him and not complain about these trials. There is no attitude whereby “we all want God to suffer so that God can understand how we feel.”

    I mentioned to Michael that Pastor Chris Strevel preached on Sunday evenings a wonderful exposition of the Book of Job. One of the great applications that Pastor Strevel brought out is that whenever we complain to God we are sinning by challenging our Sovereign Father in Heaven. This is a wonderful application, one which I have taken to heart even more so after listening to the series. Yes, I can pour out my hurt to God, but I must not complain. This brings me to Michael’s title- “We all want to see God suffer.” No, I should not want to see God suffer; I have no right to even think this.

    Michael concludes his article by saying that the Christian doesn’t have to have a feeling of hopelessness whereby we want to pour out our anger upon the heads of others but that God brings good news if we will receive it. Michael then gives an example where there was satisfaction of those who hated Jesus seeing Him hanging on the cross- the Romans mocking Him as they whipped Him, pushed the thorns down on His sweating brow. As Michael said, “With every pound of the mallet on the nails that pierced his body, every witness felt the same satisfaction in their hearts. They felt the wild screaming satisfaction of Odysseus, safely out of distance of Polyphemus’ stones.”

    Michael states, “At the cross, humans finally had God literally in their hands and at their mercy…Finally, the shoe was on the other foot. Finally, we could do to God all the things we thought he had been doing to us all this time. God would finally know how it feels.”

    Honestly, I have some significant theological misgivings about this analysis of Jesus’ crucifixion. First, when Michael refers to “humans” it appears he is referencing all of us without exception. We “all” supposedly want to see God suffer. I can say this for myself, and I think I am not alone in my thinking- As a Christian, I have never had the inclination to say to God that I am joyful that you, God, have felt the pain I have. Yes, Christians rejoice that Jesus paid the price for our sins rather than us having to pay it, but it is not an “attitude” that I am glad that Jesus as the Son of God suffered as I have suffered.

    Jesus’ death on the cross was fundamentally a legal death. In order for a holy God to be reconciled with sinful humanity, divine justice had to be poured out upon the Son of God in order for the atonement of our sins and our reconciliation to a holy God. Isaiah 53:10 states – “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief when thou shall make his soul and offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”

    The biblical doctrine of “propitiation” is this: It is the pouring out of divine wrath or justice by means of a bloody substitute. The Father had to forsake the Son of God in order for our sins to be forgiven. Our sins demanded our death, but praise God that I did not have to personally die for my sins. The Father provided a substitute, a perfect one at that in His Son Jesus. In Jesus’ death the penalty for my transgression is met. Divine justice has been met. Moreover, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed or credited to me as if it were my personal righteousness.

    Michael, it appears, is making the cross of Christ more of a subjective feeling on our part rather than on God’s objective work to reconcile us to Himself. Let me say this. I do believe that Michael believes everything I have just said about the atonement. It is just that I think his emphasis is incorrect, and there is no true parallel with the Greek misguided desire to see the gods suffer with the Christian’s view of the cross.

    When Michael says that “every witness” of Jesus’ death felt the satisfaction in their hearts that finally the shoe was on the other foot, that somehow God would finally know how it feels is not accurate. First, the unbelievers were just that- unbelievers. The reaction of the Jewish crowd and the Roman soldiers was not that they are glad that the Son of God is suffering. They were mocking Jesus. The truth is: They did not believe that He was truly God’s son. They kept mocking Him, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God” (Luke 23:35). The Roman soldiers mocked him saying, “If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself” (Luke 23:37). Notice also in Matthew’s account that the scribes and elders said “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will save him: for he said, “I am the Son of God” (Matt. 27:42-43). Neither the crowd, the Jewish authorities, or the Romans really believed Jesus was God’s son; therefore, there was no attitude of hoping God would suffer like us, that somehow God would feel our pain, that somehow the shoe was on the other foot.

    I am sure that neither Mary, the mother of Jesus, or the apostle John who were at the foot of the cross had this attitude that finally God was feeling our pain.

    Michael’s final sentences are – “At the cross, we told God: “It would bring me joy to see you suffer as I have suffered. And to our great astonishment, God responded : “I will gladly bear your suffering to bring you joy.”

    The comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion with the story of Odysseus’ triumph over Polyphemus is not an applicable parallel. I find no biblical basis for saying “It would bring me joy to see you suffer as I have suffered.” Whatever joy we feel is the byproduct of our atonement and Christ’s resurrection. The joy that the Christian experiences is the work of the Holy Spirit due to the risen savior who is praying for us and empowering us. Jesus told His disciples in John 16:22 – “And you now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man takes from you.” The great joy of the Christian is that in Jesus’ resurrection, He has triumphed over death and we too will triumph over death because of Him, and we have joy in a magnificent inheritance awaiting us.

    Jesus willingly went to the cross. It was His purpose in His incarnation to die for the sins of His people (Matthew 1:21). He did gladly bear our sufferings in order to bring us the ultimate joy, but it is not that we are rejoicing that finally God is suffering so He can feel our pain.

    In conclusion, my response is done out of respect for Michael and perhaps iron will sharpen iron. I just think the way he approached the topic is not the best and can be misleading. The fact that I and someone else had misgivings about the article ought to say something.

    • Hi, Pastor John. Thanks for this lengthy and thoughtful response.

      I’ll do my best to address some of your concerns in order, but I should begin by saying my posts are generally designed to stimulate thought and conversation. I’m not writing a theological treatise here, and I try to make my points limited. That should be clear enough by the fact that your comment is almost three times longer than my original article. I just can’t say everything, and I have no intention of trying.

      That said, I will respond as best as I can to your various points:

      1) I didn’t tie the Greek mindset in with the Christian worldview. I tied it to general human experience (which would include the Christian’s experience, but I’ll get to that in a bit). This article is descriptive more than it is prescriptive. I never and would never say, “We should all want to see God suffer.” Greek mythology has lasting significance because it very well describes how humans (in our corrupted flesh) see God and ourselves. Again, I’m not drawing a prescription here. I’m merely commenting that humans have a common experience in our desire to score a victory against God (outside a redeemed heart, of course—which is exactly what I am talking about there.)

      2) Christians still have a remnant of sin in them. That drive to sin is a lasting spirit of enmity with God. It’s known as the flesh in the Scriptures. The wording of Galatians 5:17 is tellingly reminiscent to the wording of Gen. 3:16 and it is still a reality even for the most holy Christians. The flesh doesn’t just oppose the spirit of God. The flesh wants to rule over the spirit of God. Since the deeds of the flesh are sin, it would follow that sin, at its root, involves a desire to gain an independence from and victory over God—a desire to gain a separate happiness even if that happiness causes God to suffer. No one, Christian or otherwise, no matter how they want to view themselves, can honestly say they do not have that same bitter fleshly resentment still in them to some extent (until glory). Thus the claim, that I stand by, that we all want to see God suffer. Are we all conscious of that desire? Apparently not.

      3) In some ways I am happy that you and one other commenter are not conscious of your fleshly desire to see God suffer. But, unless you have completely relinquished your fleshly spirits, how can you say you have never desired and do not sometimes still desire God’s suffering? I’m not saying we should. I’m saying we do. Again, it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. Were you never at enmity with God? Are you not still sinning? My main point is that a real part of who we all are (believer and unbeliever) certainly does desire to see God suffer (i.e., our flesh). It seems that consciously recognizing and rooting out this continuing indwelling enmity against God is a vital part of the process of confession and repentance. But there are numerous scriptural examples of believers who had a real lack of self-awareness concerning the traitorous malice of indwelling sin, and this lack of awareness did not serve them well: Peter and the disciples were sure that even if they had to die with Jesus, they would not deny him (Matt. 26:35). An ownership of our enmity toward God is vital to owning our part in the Cross’s guilt. Not one of us isn’t guilty of the Cross. This is not just an intellectual transactional reality. In each of our hearts, we have a real spirit that is bitter with God. As John Stott says, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we have to see it as something done by us.”

      4) I don’t agree entirely with your reading of Job. Job’s friends were certainly wrong. But Job never sinned in what he said. You mentioned that God had Job offer sacrifice for his friends. You didn’t mention why: Job had spoken what was right concerning God, unlike his friends (Job 42:7–8). Much of what Job said was bitter complaint. But don’t leave it there. The psalmists begin very many of their psalms with bitter complaint. This is the infallible word. Are we not to pray and sing the way the psalmists (and the prophets) did? Is it not right to complain to God: “How long, O Lord?” or “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus certainly thought this complaint was allowable. There may be a difference between grumbling and complaining, but I don’t think we can say without any question that pouring out our troubles to God and pleading with him for an answer, even “venting” concerning all that has troubled us, is necessarily sin. If it is sin always, then God inscripturated sin numerously and regularly. God desires a “sincere heart.” We are sinful. Sometimes we sin in our hearts even in prayer. But should we wait to pray to God until we aren’t sinning anymore? Should we calm ourselves first, deal with our bitter emotions, and order our hearts before we cry out to God? If we didn’t need him in order to deal with our bitterness and pain, why would we ever go to him? We shouldn’t just keep our feelings and bitternesses bottled up, or worse—take out our bitterness on others. The whole point of my original article was that God welcomes us. He loved us while we were yet sinners, and he won’t stop welcoming and loving us just because we continue to sin. We should recognize that sin grieves him. It hurts him. The fact that he won’t ultimately hold that against us (like we would if the roles were reversed) should fill our hearts with deep love and joy. He suffered to bring us joy even when our flesh cried out against him and nailed him to the Cross. His love is great. That was my focus.

      5) Some people respond to Jesus’ death with greater hardness of heart, for others, Jesus’s death completely obliterates their resentment. But all rebels in their rebellion (and even Christians in their remaining flesh) enjoy the pageant of divine suffering in their rebellious flesh. And though the Romans may not have known that Jesus was in fact God, they mocked him (in typically myth-deferential style) in reference to his purported deity. The atheist doesn’t believe in God, so he says. Yet he still enjoys making fun of him. He still relishes insulting him. Why? Because he can’t deny God’s existence in his heart, and he also can’t help but follow the enmity of his flesh. At the Cross, Jesus’ deity was very much at the center of the ungodly satisfaction in his suffering and humiliation. His purported deity was the butt of most of the mockery. You yourself mentioned the “you saved others, but you can’t save yourself.” There are others. They hit him and asked him, “Who hit you?” mocking his purported omniscience (Luke 22:64). We know that his deity featured rather prominently in his trial and crucifixion (Matt. 26:63–66; Matt. 27:39–43). But the clincher for me is the fact that at least some of the Roman soldiers guarding Jesus actually believed in him seeing the manner of his death: “Surely this is the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). Why would they say that unless the issue of Jesus’ deity was very much on all their minds? Like I wrote, Greek mythological victories over the gods were merely fantasy wish fulfillment. The Romans began their torment of Jesus with that same fantasy in mind. It was only after Jesus died that they realized that the fantasy was a reality (which may explain why Jesus asked for their forgiveness on the basis of their ignorance). The Jews probably knew they were crucifying their Messiah. They didn’t want him to rule over them. They wanted to rule over him.

      6) Regarding our “joy” concerning God’s suffering—again, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. When we sin, when we are bitter against God in our flesh, we say to him, “I want to see you suffer.” We shouldn’t. It’s sin to think that. Yet God bore that sin on the Cross. By sinning, we say to God, “I don’t care if this grieves you, I want to be happy. If you have to suffer to make me happy, so be it. I relish it.” Astonishingly, God responds by saying to us that he will bear all our suffering to bring us real joy—not just the counterfeit joy of sin.

      7) As for feeling like God doesn’t understand, I’m very aware of verses to the contrary. Most Christians are. We even say we believe them. It’s just that we don’t always live by them. Because we are sinners. That’s why I said, “sometimes I feel.” Because sometimes, that’s the way I feel. This is descriptive, again. Not prescriptive.

      Finally, I recognize you read it twice, but you regularly overlooked the primarily confessional/descriptive nature of the article. The feelings I was describing are sinful and fleshly, I totally get that. But we are all sinful and fleshly, sometimes more than others, both before and after conversion. We are being sanctified, but we are not perfect. We need to know what to do with our sin; how to approach God as sinners; how to deal with bitterness, pain, and suffering. I think the Bible gives us good news concerning that: God receives a sincere and contrite heart that boldly shares with the Father even when we don’t feel quite right—even when we have real anger and frustration with what God has done in our lives. We may need to repent of those feelings, but the process of repentance seems to start by confidently going to God—not by waiting until we have achieved some separate repentance outside of God’s presence. Practically speaking, I don’t really know what you’re suggesting a grieving and bitter person do actually. If complaining to God is sin, and we shouldn’t do it, what are we to do when we have bitter complaints in the midst of horrible circumstances? Should we appeal to God from within our distress like Job, Jesus, David, the prophets, etc.? Or should we wait until the feelings pass like Zeno the Stoic?

      I appreciate that you wrote this. My main point here was to stir up conversation about how truly culpable we all are in our flesh for the bitterness of the Cross, and how truly forgiving and gracious our God is. My article was unclear at many points, I’m sure. I had a long conversation with my wife about these things, and we cried together in gratitude. I wanted to convey that same experience here, but I think something probably got lost in translation. I’ll keep thinking about these things, but I don’t think anything I said above is great cause for theological concern. There were two who thought so, but there were a much greater number who didn’t. Neither of those things really matters much. Thinking about these things increased my love for Jesus. That ought to say something.

  3. Hi Michael,

    I think your response to me was indeed a clarification of your thoughts. I only wish you had said these things as clearly in your article. For example, you said, “The whole point of my original article was that God welcomes us. He loved us while we were yet sinners, and he won’t stop welcoming and loving us just because we continue to sin. We should recognize that sin grieves him.” It would have been very helpful for you to have made this exact point in your original article so that there would be no confusion.

    In your response, you mentioned that you were not intending to relate the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus with the Christian. Then, I am confused why you brought it up in the first place.

    In your response to me, you wrote, “The feelings I was describing are sinful and fleshly, I totally get that.” It would have been helpful and clear with no confusion if you had said this in your original article.

    I think we do have a difference of understanding about Job. You state in your response, “But Job never sinned in what he said.” I and other commentators do think Job sinned. If not, what was Job repenting of in dust and ashes? It is true that God said that Job was not in error in His understanding of the relationship of suffering to trials in the way that Job’s friends understood the relationship. Job was right, and his friends were wrong. However, Job’s sin was that he thought he ought not to suffer because he was a righteous man. This is why Job demanded a hearing with God so that he could argue his case. God’s rebuke of Job was due to his bitter complaint; he had no right to have thought this. God made Job realize that He can do whatever He pleases with His creatures. In Job 40:1-4 we read, “Moreover the Lord answered Job, and said, ‘Shall he that contends with the Almighty, instruct him? he that reproves God, let him answer it. Then Job answered the Lord, and said, ‘Behold, I am vile, what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.” It is very clear; Job did sin in his feelings and bitter complaints and he knew it once God reprimanded him for it.

    You asked me, “Practically speaking, I don’t really know what you’re suggesting a grieving and bitter person do actually. If complaining to God is sin, and we shouldn’t do it, what are we to do when we have bitter complaints in the midst of horrible circumstances?” This is what this person ought to do – confess his/her bitterness as a sin, ask the Lord to forgive us for feeling this way.

    You are emphasizing in your response that there is a difference between a prescriptive (a divine demand) and a descriptive response (how I feel). I agree, and there are times when the Psalmist is in his flesh expressing a complaint such as in Psalm 73. That mentality changes of course when the Psalmist goes into God’s presence and realizes the folly of the wicked in this world and God’s final destruction of the wicked.

    There is a difference as I pointed out in bitter complaint and expressing our hurt before God. I will still maintain that bitter complaint before God is a sinful mindset, and yes we should compose ourselves better when we come to the Lord in prayer. You asked me, “Should we calm ourselves first, deal with our bitter emotions, and order our hearts before we cry out to God?” I would say yes for the most part. This is why we should be in the word daily as a Christian. You stated, “God desires a “sincere heart.” We are sinful. Sometimes we sin in our hearts even in prayer. But should we wait to pray to God until we aren’t sinning anymore?” Some of the Puritans wrote, “I need to repent of my repenting,” meaning that in our prayer life there is often a sinful mindset. We should not justify this feeling but seek to come to the Lord with a purified heart as much as we can.

    When we are enduring trials, having difficulty understanding what God is doing, we shouldn’t complain to God. Rather, we need to humbly ask Him to give us patience. We can humbly request for God to give us some clarity to our suffering if it is His will. But, God may choose not to give us that clarity just as He never told Job why he was suffering.

    You mentioned in your response,”The whole point of my original article was that God welcomes us. He loved us while we were yet sinners, and he won’t stop welcoming and loving us just because we continue to sin.” It would have been clear with no confusion for any of us if you had simply stated this in your original article.

    Michael, you are a gifted Christian, and the Lord can use you mightily. I am sure you are a vastly better writer than me in many regards. But I will encourage you with something I was told years ago. As a preacher my greatest responsibility is to convey truth. And then I must endeavor to convey that truth plainly and clearly so that my audience will not be confused. For the most part, I agree with your response to me except for our understanding of Job. As a reader, I should not have to read something over and over to understand the point. The point should be clear. Some of us mortals are simple minded enough to just be told plainly.

    As I mentioned in my response to you, our discussions should be iron sharpening iron. As Christians, we all want to know the truth don’t we, and we all want to obey the Lord the best we can with a sincere and pure heart.

    Blessings to you and your family!

    • Thanks for responding again, and I’m glad my comment clarified some things for you.

      Concerning a few things:

      I didn’t say I wasn’t relating the Greek and Christian experience. Merely that I wasn’t tying in the Greek mindset to the Christian one (I wasn’t recommending that Christians think like Greeks—I was pointing out that we often do). In other words, the Greek fantasy of winning a victory over God (the gods) is not what the Christian should be aspiring to. But it is a fundamental flaw in the human fleshly spirit that all humans (Greeks, Christians, atheists, etc.) share. Thus, the Greek mythological longing can be helpful to uncover some basic issues of the human/divine relationship.

      As for the issue of clarity, I understand what you are saying, but I don’t think all forms of communication are or should be equally clear to everyone. It’s obvious that many of the “mortals” in Jesus’ original audience didn’t understand what Jesus meant by the parables (even the disciples themselves were often at a loss). Jesus could have easily delivered his points in propositions if he had wanted to be more clear, and I imagine many of the disciples hearing his later explanations could have said something like: “Well, why didn’t you just say that in the first place?” But his purpose was not merely to communicate information, but to engage the audience in the process of self-searching and re-evaluation. A similar criticism could be leveled at biblical poetry and literature—it’s not always clear, you have to enter into it on its own terms, and often you have to read it far more than twice to understand what it means. Revelation? There are as many opinions on that book as there are commentators. That doesn’t mean God should have delivered the information differently. I’m not saying my original article was perfect or even satisfactory. I’m merely pointing out that even God doesn’t universally strive for simply clear transmission of propositional information—because not all communication has or should have that purpose.

      My point in this particular article was not firstly to communicate information, but to stimulate soul-searching and confession that could lead to a greater consciousness of our inherent fleshly enmity toward God and a realization of his lovingkindness toward us. That’s not primarily a creedal/doctrinal intellectual process though. Many people can easily agree that “all are sinners, including me,” but then they brush off the existential realities of that truth. When I say “We all want to see God suffer,” this is not as explicitly clear or readily apparent as saying, “Everyone is a sinner and sin is rooted in a desire to rule over God—to gain a separate happiness that grieves God.” But the problem with the clarity of the latter is that intellectual assent to it doesn’t require the searching of one’s own heart and motives. A theologian could say, “Yes, this is technically true,” but never search out his own heart to see how it is true.

      Unfortunately in some cases, people have responded: “No, I certainly do not want to see God suffer.” And they leave it at that, perhaps, without pressing further as you have. But isn’t that precisely the point? At that juncture, the knee-jerk response reveals that an obvious theological reality (the enmity of the flesh) hasn’t really been understood in all of its personal and experiential ramifications. It’s not enough to ascribe to clear and systematic doctrine. Doctrine has to be worked out or it’s nothing more than a curse on the professor (Deut. 27:26). I can’t explain that “working out” into a person (Prov. 9:12). But I can use words to initiate and instigate that working out. If someone abandons that process before it’s even started, that’s unfortunate, but I can’t help them too much.

      At the same time and as I already said, this post could have been better written to accomplish my desire for initiating a confessional response. I’ll keep working on that, and I appreciate your desire to hold me to a high standard.

      Concerning the prescriptive and descriptive in the Psalms, I have some serious theological misgivings concerning your approach. If, as you say, “there are times when the Psalmist is in his flesh expressing a complaint such as in Psalm 73,” the most obvious question to me would be, “Are you saying we should not pray Psalm 73 or sing it in worship since the Psalmist was in his flesh?” If it is fleshly to complain like that, it doesn’t seem like we should be emulating the flesh in our prayers or worship. That is a real can of worms though, obviously. What about Jesus quoting Psalm 22 (an obvious complaint Psalm) from the Cross? Who is to determine which Psalms we should be praying and singing and which we are supposed to reference merely as descriptions of the fleshly spirit? I don’t think that hermeneutical approach to the Psalms is prudent. It makes applying the Psalms entirely arbitrary—left up to the subjective opinions of each interpreter. You could start saying anything in the Psalms that you didn’t like was written “in the Psalmist’s flesh” (like C. S. Lewis said concerning the imprecatory Psalms). We criticize Lewis for putting his own opinion over God’s in this matter, but how does what you’re positing fundamentally differ from his approach?

      My main reason for saying that Job did not sin with his lips is based on Job 2:10: “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” I recognize that was before he started talking with his friends, but God later confirms (in completely general terms) the truth of what Job said (even with his friends). God confirms that Job had spoken what was right about Him, whereas Job’s friends had spoken what was wrong (in Job 42:8–9). God doesn’t say, “Job spoke what was right here here and here. But he didn’t say what was right here.” Despite various commentators to the contrary, I really don’t see how you can pick and choose from within Job’s words when God gives such general approbation. Again, that seems dangerously like setting your opinion over God’s.

      And speaking of Job meeting with God, it’s really strange to me that you would recommend practically that “for the most part,” a person deal with his sinful feelings before he goes to God. Yet you also recommend repenting to God of sinful feelings. Which is it? If particular feelings are sinful, how do we deal with them without going to God while we’re still having those feelings? Can we really deal with them without meeting with God? Can we find repentance without meeting with God? I still don’t get it.

      What seems to be overlooked in the whole Job scenario is that God actually gave Job what he asked for: a divine face-to-face meeting that prefigured Job’s advocacy in Jesus. As Job says: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” That therefore is crucial, and we should of course ask what it’s there for. Job expresses that a mere hearing even of correct doctrine was not sufficient to make him a more righteous man. Does Job meet with God without first expressing his bitter complaint to God? No. Job repented in dust and ashes after he met with God. Not before. And it is not necessarily because of something he had said (with his friends) that he is caused to repent in dust and ashes. That is in fact based on the same lie that Job’s friends believed. You don’t need to be in active sin to repent in God’s presence. The fact is that Job, though God called him the most righteous man on earth, was a sinner, and he was vile compared to God even if he was righteous by any human measure. He was more righteous than his friends. What he realized (only upon seeing God) was that God’s righteousness made even Job’s commendable words and deeds look utterly deplorable in comparison. Job was the clean white lamb who always thought himself white until he walked in the snow and saw how dingy, yellow, and dirty he truly was. Meeting with God was what needed to happen to bring about that transformation for Job. I don’t think it could have happened otherwise—particularly because of how righteous Job was. In other words, nothing but standing in God’s presence could have made Job understand how sinful he was because nothing on this earth was holier than Job—by God’s own declaration.

      And that same meeting with God (expanded by the mediating work of Jesus) is still what is necessary to bring about that transformation in us. Are you telling me that Job could have repented before he met with God and just avoided that whole really unpleasant part where he got to stand in God’s glorious presence and hear God’s self-revelation in sublime splendor? Even if there is a Job scenario where meeting with God wouldn’t have been necessary for Job’s sanctification, why would Job have wanted that? If you love God, and you have a choice to meet with him (however terrifying that may be) or not meet with him, why would you choose the not-meeting option?

      I’m always a vile person in God’s presence, far worse than Job in every way, but in spite of my sin (and in some ways because of it) God meets with me. In other words, Job did receive an answer. God’s presence is the answer to Job’s bitter complaint. Job didn’t receive a full explanation perhaps, but Job obviously didn’t care about that in the end. God’s perfect and holy character—coupled with God’s willingness to speak to Job face-to-face—was all the answer Job had ever asked for throughout the entire book (particularly Job 9). That’s the process in the Psalms and prophets as well. Most of the psalms call in God’s presence with honest sincerity. God comes to that sincere heart in the midst of its complaint and suffering, and that heart is satisfied and hopeful and matured by seeing God. But how can we see Him if we don’t meet with him, even in (especially in) the midst of our sin? It is precisely by seeing God clearly, and not merely by hearing good doctrine, that we are sanctified. Only when I see him clearly (especially in Jesus) can I be transformed. “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Are you telling me that, on our own, we can repent “for the most part” of sinful feelings without calling on God to be in our presence? Isn’t the upshot of Job that we are never not in the midst of our sins—even Job, God’s most righteous man on earth, repented in the presence of God’s holiness. I thought the nature of sola gratia was that all our sanctification and repentance depended on a continual entering into the gracious presence of God, no matter how recently we have sinned (which is constant). Don’t we pour out our whole selves before God so that we can be sifted by His character? And it seems obvious that all of that entering would be in the midst of our sin, because we are always sinful. That’s why we call for meetings with God. We always need his grace and his presence. Like Paul says: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). Having been saved by Jesus, are you now finding repentance through the hearing of the ears and a private self-ordering without entering into and calling for a face-to-face with God in Jesus?

      Sorry this is so long, but honestly some of your last response really troubles me. Aside from seeming to place man’s arbitrary opinion over God’s in those places that I mentioned, much of what you’ve said also seems to lead directly into a mixed-sufficiency (false) Gospel. I’m sure that is not at all what you intend. Would you please clarify?

  4. Michael,
    Even though much could be said, I am going to allow you to have the last word. We could go on and on, but I do not see the edifying value of it. Perhaps one day we can discuss these matters in person. How this ended with the idea that I somehow may have elevated man’s arbitrary opinion over God in my comments is confusing to me at best, and the idea that you ended with the following comment to me -“much of what you’ve said also seems to lead directly into a mixed-sufficiency (false) Gospel” is startling to me. I don’t think I have ever had anyone in the past 30 years of my preaching and writing ever thought I may have advocated some kind of false gospel. That is a serious thing, and I am grieved over it.

    I think it is best that we leave matters where they are disappointing as it may be to both of us.

    • I would be happy to meet in person to talk about these things. I don’t think you intended or desired to advocate a false gospel or the autonomy of human opinion. That’s precisely why I said your comments “seemed” to me to “lead” in that direction and why I asked for clarification. I’ll seek for that clarification on these points in person, if you’re open to that. I’m sorry you are grieved and confused by my comments. I didn’t write them with either purpose in mind. We’ll talk soon I hope.

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