Podcast: Why Did God Let Job Suffer? (Christopher Ash)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Reconciling Undeserved Suffering with the Goodness of God

In this episode, Christopher Ash discusses the story of Job to answer the question “Where is God in the midst of suffering?” With honesty and compassion, he explores the roles Satan, the fall, and the cross of Jesus Christ play in human suffering, and how we can find assurance that God will be with us in Christ through every season and every trial.

Trusting God in the Darkness

Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash explores the nature of suffering in the book of Job with honesty and compassion as he answers the question Where is God in the midst of trials?

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:38 - More to the Story

Matt Tully
Christopher, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Christopher Ash
It’s very good to be with you, Matt.

Matt Tully
The book of Job—it’s pretty well known, but arguably a pretty misunderstood book of the Bible. The basic story is, obviously, very familiar. We have this righteous man, Job, and he’s a man whom Satan targets for destruction. It feels like he’s got this vendetta against him. God perplexingly allows Satan to torment this poor man and his family. But in the midst of all that, Job never sins against God, and eventually there’s this happy ending where God restores everything to him. I think you would argue that there’s a lot more to the story than that basic storyline might suggest. You’ve actually said that the book of Job is about more than just Job’s personal suffering. What do you mean by that?

Christopher Ash
I am sure that it points forward to the sufferings of Jesus, just like the sufferings of the psalmists point forward to the sufferings of Jesus. The sufferings of Jesus are worse than the sufferings of Job, but also it overflows just like the sufferings of Jesus overflow into the sufferings of Jesus’s people. There’s a sense in which Job goes through something which helps to prepare us for what we should expect in Christ. So, it’s not just an old story with all its puzzles. It really is, in one sense, Jesus’s story and our story.

Matt Tully
You said that you’re sure that it does point forward to Jesus—unpack that a little bit. What is it about the story itself, or perhaps how the story is referenced in the rest of Scripture, that leads you to believe that?

Christopher Ash
I think it’s really emphasized at the beginning three times that Job is a blameless man, he fears God, he turns from evil, he’s upright. We get that in the first verse, and God says it twice in the first two chapters. So it’s really strong, and it’s really, really strong that he’s not being punished for sins in what he suffers. When you see somebody suffering and it’s not a punishment for their own sins you’re thinking, Hey, that’s a story I’ve heard before. So it sort of points forward that way as far as Christians are concerned. At the end of the letter of James, James seems to imply that Job is a prophet whose patient and waits for the Lord to show him kindness and mercy at the end. I think there are all sorts of lines we can draw to Christ and then to us.

Matt Tully
Maybe related to that question of what’s the purpose of this book and how does it connect to future things, some people would contend that the story of Job isn’t really meant to be taken as history, but rather as some kind of allegory or parable meant to teach us spiritual truths. What do you say to that? Do you believe that’s the case?

Christopher Ash
I don’t. It could be. A parable can be true. The parable of The Good Samaritan isn’t history, but it’s true and it conveys truth. There wouldn’t be a problem if Job were a big parable, I just don’t think it is. There’s a reference to Job in Ezekiel which seems to suggest that he’s historical. And there’s no indication in it that it’s anything other than historical, although it’s lost in the midst of very old Old Testament history. It’s recorded in a very stylized way—these sequences of these speeches: Job and then Eliphaz; Job and then Zophar; Job and then Bildad and so on. We don’t normally have our conversations like that even over Zoom, so there’s something stylized about it. I can’t see any reason to think that it isn’t historical.

06:23 - A Shocking Beginning

Matt Tully
One of the things that you’ve already kind of referenced but is perhaps one of the most shocking things about this story is in the way that it begins. Job is living this blameless and upright life with his family, and the text literally says that “he feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). We see him offering sacrifices on behalf of his children, so he’s leading them as their spiritual head in the family. But in what almost feels like a cruel twist, God’s response to that faithfulness is to intentionally bring Job to Satan’s attention. Satan is roaming around and God actually says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and an upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” I think a question that probably many Christians have wrestled with is, Why does God do that?

Christopher Ash
It’s a really, really big question, and then it gets worse in the second round, of course. I think the answer is a little bit like the beginning of 1 Peter where Peter says that we’ve got trials so that the tested genuineness of our faith will be found to result in the glory of God (1 Pet. 1:7). I think what’s going on is not just a random conversation. I think that Satan is, in some strange sense, a member of God’s cabinet. He has a responsibility to try to see if people are genuine. He does it out of malice. He’s utterly evil. But nonetheless, in God’s purposes it needs to happen. So the conversation is really: Is Job genuine? God says he’s genuine, and Satan says, No, he’s not. He’s a prosperity gospel person. He just does it when you give him the good car or the private jet. That’s the only reason he does it. And God says, No, he’s genuine. The only way to be sure is for him to be tested and deprived of the blessings. It seems in some very deep way that the glory of God depends on there being a man walking the earth who worships him purely and simply because he is God.

Matt Tully
That’s so interesting. That idea of—and you even use the term “prosperity gospel”—I want to return to that in a minute because that is so foundational, but you said something earlier about Satan being, in some sense, part of God’s cabinet almost. That maybe connects to this phrase that’s in there: “the sons of God” that were appearing before him and presenting themselves to him (Job 1:6). What’s going on with that? Who were they? What’s Satan’s role there? I think the text says that he was “going to and fro on the earth, walking up and down on it” (Job 1:7). What should we understand about Satan and these other heavenly beings?

Christopher Ash
You meet these other beings—the “sons of God”, as they’re called literally. Some translations say “angels”, which is probably right, but sons of God is the literal translation. You meet them in 1 Kings 22 with Micaiah and the others, and I think the idea is that they are beings who are supernatural, super human, but sub-divine—what Paul will call “the powers of the air” (Eph. 2:2). They’re kind of up in the air above us, as it were, and more powerful than us, but they’re not in God’s heaven. They’re not gods. I think there’s this sense that we in Western cultures find so difficult to grasp that there are supernatural powers whom God uses, both good angels and bad angels, and Satan is the head of the bad angels, and God uses them in the governing of the world in some way. The Bible says a certain amount about that. We all nod and say we believe in angels, but we don’t really in our Western cultures. It’s hard to make sense of this without that. I think Satan is, as it were, one of those angels; an evil angel; he’s a being who is more powerful than us, but who is emphatically not God or a god.

Matt Tully
As you said before, God brings Job to Satan’s attention and it almost feels like he’s challenging Satan saying, Hey, here’s an example of someone who truly loves me for who I am and not just for the blessings I’ve given him. I know one thing I’ve often thought about that challenge, and even Satan’s response, is that there is a certain reasonableness to what Satan is saying. Like you said, he’s saying that Job just believes in a prosperity gospel. Obviously, Christians in our circles would be pretty quick to condemn the “prosperity gospel”, but even as we look at our own lives we can see how easy it can be to feel like we’re trusting God when life is good, but then when life gets hard we can quickly feel tempted to blame God or to turn away from trusting and obeying him. Speak to that broader theme. Is the book of Job really trying to address that particular issue?

Christopher Ash
I think that’s part of it. I think it is true that the only test of whether I am really following Jesus because I’m a real disciple and I love God and because God is God is when, in some measure, the blessings are taken away. That’s the test. Otherwise, I could be just outwardly Christian. It’s sobering. Glory comes to God when Christian people suffer and go on trusting Jesus. It’s a bit like how sometimes you hear stories—you hear people giving their testimonies—and sometimes you have lovely stories about how God has healed them or given them a child or lovely things, and you rejoice with them. But actually, when you hear a story of someone who says, Actually, it’s still awful. We still haven’t got a child, or I still haven’t got a job, but I’m trusting Jesus, there’s something even more powerful about that to the glory of God. So I think there’s something very, very relevant for us today.

Matt Tully
Do you think it’s the case that we can be deceived into thinking that we’re trusting God, especially if we haven’t suffered severely like this?

Christopher Ash
Possibly. We don’t want to be paranoid about it. I’ve suffered very little by comparison to millions and millions of Christian believers in Christian history. That would be true of many listening to this. There will be some who have suffered deeply and many of us who haven’t. We don’t want to be endlessly worrying that that means we’re not trusting God. Just because things are going well doesn’t mean we’re not genuine. But when the testing comes, it is that 1 Peter logic—that testing will redound to the glory of God when we’re seen to be genuine, and we pray and trust that we will be.

Matt Tully
After Satan essentially kills all of Job’s livestock, he kills his ten children, and Job remains faithful and doesn’t curse God in the midst of that terrible suffering. God then, again, brings him up with Satan in the same way that he did before. This time he gives Satan permission to torment Job’s own physical body with painful sores. What are we to make of the fact that there is this second stage? It’s almost as if God feels like he’s not done making his point.

Christopher Ash
It’s frightening. It’s really frightening. I think the sense is that while I’m healthy you can take stuff away from outside me, but while I’m healthy you’re still not sure. I guess the real conclusion is when everything is taken from the Lord Jesus. When you watch him on the cross, everything is taken from him, and then you know that he loves the Father and that he’ll drink the cup he’s been given. Then you know for sure. Up until then you think he’s genuine, but there’s always a possibility that he might not be. And then you see him on the cross and you think, Oh yes, he’s genuine.

16:01 - The Purposes of the Lord in Suffering

Matt Tully
You mentioned Jesus a couple of times now, and I think a dynamic that sometimes is at play—I know certainly for me, and I think for other Christians—is we talk about Jesus suffering this unimaginable suffering that is so far beyond even what Job suffered here. And yet, it can be easy and tempting to think, Yeah, but that was Jesus. That was God in the flesh. That was something that he planned and that he wanted to do. That was his mission and his desire in concert with the Father and the Spirit. Maybe in some ways it was easier for him than it would be for someone like Job. Speak to the person listening right now who would say that they are struggling with a story like the story of Job because it seems to imply something about God’s character—maybe that he’s cold or uncaring to the suffering of his people. People who, in Job’s case, were really trying to love him and trying to live for him. His suffering was real, and yet God seems to treat it so casually. Speak to that concern that people might feel when they hear a story like this.

Christopher Ash
I’ve always felt that the little passage in Job 5:7–11 is a really helpful one for helping us understand this. James is writing to Christians who are clearly suffering a lot, and he’s encouraging them to be patient and to wait for the Lord who is at hand. Very soon he will come. The Judge is at the door. And then he talks about the example of suffering and patience, and he speaks then of the steadfastness of Job. He goes on to say, “You’ve seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” For most of us, if somebody said the book of Job is about the compassion and mercy of God, we would be a little surprised. Exactly as you’ve just said, Matt, it doesn’t feel like it. But actually, it is the compassion and mercy of God that humbles Job, that takes him through that. By the end he says, “Now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). The blessing of the end, in some wonderful way, is a deeper thing than anything that we could have had. I suppose for Jesus that’s the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). And for us, our trials, like 2 Corinthians 4:17 says, they’re a light and momentary thing, even though at the time they can feel heavy and slow. But the time will come when we see that God has been unfailingly kind. I think the book of Job is good because it just says to us, Hang on a minute. The way I think God ought to run the world isn’t the way that infinite goodness and wisdom and power does run the world. Maybe I’m wrong.

19:26 - What Should We Make of Job’s Friends?

Matt Tully
It’s almost like it’s a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, of the suffering that we experience in our lives. There is more to the story that we just can’t see yet perhaps. What should we make of Job’s friends? That’s another one of those issues that I think is sometimes perplexing to readers of the book of Job. We have these long dialogues and conversations that are going back and forth. Most of the book is that. Something I’ve wrestled with is that sometimes things that they’re saying actually feel like they’re pretty good. It’s pretty right and it makes sense. And yet we get a pretty strong condemnation of what they’ve said. At the end God rebukes them. What’s the main message that they’re trying to communicate to Job? Why is it not correct?

Christopher Ash
It’s very puzzling because as you rightly say, if you are going through a study Bible you can put ticks in the margin of a number of things. There’s something that Eliphaz says in his first speech, I think, that Paul more or less quotes in one of his letters—that God confutes the wise when they think they are being really clever. They say all sorts of things which are true, and I think what they get wrong is that they’re not true for Job. They assume if you’re suffering you must have sinned. There’s no place in their system for innocent suffering. In the big story, there’s no place in their story for the cross of Christ. “Who that was innocent ever suffered?” they say. At which the New Testament says there is One who was innocent who suffered. And if he hadn’t, there would be no grace for us. So, that’s the really big thing they get wrong. There are other big things they get wrong. There’s not much waiting and not much praying and waiting. I don’t think they had ever been at the prayer meeting. The “How long, O Lord?” isn’t part of their way of relating to God because it’s all pretty immediate: If you do the right things, God will bless you pretty quickly. If you do the wrong things, you’ll get clobbered pretty quickly. So there’s no place for innocent suffering and not much place for waiting. I think the reason the speeches are there is because they’re so like what we instinctively want to say. It’s sort of a warning to us. I read it and I think, Yeah, that seems sensible. And then at the end God basically gives it a big thumbs down in the last chapter. So I’m thinking, Hang on. I need to be careful about this.

Matt Tully
I’m struck by something you just said. Much of what they said is, in the abstract, maybe true and right and even biblical. We find other passages that would seem to say the same things. And yet, they weren’t necessarily true of Job and his circumstances. How would you apply that in your own thinking and how you would offer counsel and interact with those who are suffering around you?

Christopher Ash
I think it’s a caution against assuming that things going well means somebody is walking with the Lord, and it’s a caution against thinking that suffering means they must have sinned. They might. Sometimes my suffering may be a consequence of my individual sin. There are some fairly obvious ways that that could be the case. But it doesn’t necessarily. I think it helps because often when people are really suffering, they wonder what they’ve done to deserve it. I’ve had people say to me, I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this. And this is Christian people who know in their heads that that’s not how it works. But they feel, I must have done something. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Just that sense that this is the expectation of a normal Christian life, that there will be undeserved suffering as part of it. Of course, we want to encourage one another to repent of any sin we’re conscious of and to search our consciences, but the fact that we’re suffering doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some sin we especially need to repent of. So I think it has huge pastoral implications. I’ve come across people who teach, basically, that Job’s comforters were right, that Job deserved what he got, and we need to learn to be like Job. It seems to me they’ve turned the message of the book completely on its head.

Matt Tully
Is that something you have ever personally struggled with—the feeling in the midst of suffering that you must have done something to deserve this, that God must be upset for some reason?

Christopher Ash
I’m not sure that I have. I may have done, but I vividly remember a good friend who was the same age as me saying that. He had been a Christian for a long time and he said, I wonder what I’ve done to deserve this. That was from someone who had some great suffering in their family.

Matt Tully
What do you think that reveals about the way that we as Christians can think about suffering and God’s disposition to us?

Christopher Ash
I suppose the right thing is we understand the shadow of death. Death is the consequence of sin. Death is God’s judgement on human sin, a shadow of death. Every illness, a pandemic, everything of that kind is God’s judgement on human sin. Not usually one for one, as it were, but the second half of Romans 5 clearly teaches that. We get that right and we understand that that’s why our bodies are dying because we are in a world under the judgement of God. But, in Christ there’s no condemnation. We’re not being punished because the punishment has all been paid by the Lord Jesus. I just think we need to say that to ourselves and to one another again and again.

26:19 - “Why Did You Bring Me Out from the Womb?”

Matt Tully
In Job 10 we find what I think are some of the saddest words in all of the Bible, words that, sadly, maybe even some of our listeners have resonated with at certain times in their lives. Speaking to God Job says, “Why did you bring me out from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me and were as though I had not been carried from the womb to the grave” (Job 10:18–19). Can you speak for a minute to the person who, if they were being honest and talking with you directly right now, would say that they can resonate with those feelings. They at times have felt like I wish I had not been born. What would you say to that person?

Christopher Ash
I suspect that’s not that uncommon. Job 3 is very similar. I remember preaching on Job 3 at the church where I was a pastor. We didn’t sing. It was so dark. We read some of the story of William Cowper, the hymn writer and poet. We looked at some of Jeremiah’s laments. I think we read Psalm 137. It was a really helpful evening. It was a Sunday evening, I remember it well. It was helpful because it said to people, Actually, there are times in the Christian life when we will feel like this. I have felt like that. I thought, I wish I had never been born. I wish I could just die. It’s not the same as being suicidal; it's just a wishing. I wish I wasn’t around. I suspect it’s not that uncommon, but it’s helpful to find it in Scripture on the lips of a man who—he says wrong things and he has to repent of that at the end of the book—but essentially God says about him, This is my servant. He’s a righteous man. He’s the one who can pray. He’s the one who’s going to be blessed and honored at the end. I just think it’s deeply encouraging.

Matt Tully
I think some people who maybe have never struggled in that way and to that depth, but then also people who have struggled in that way and have felt those feelings, maybe it’s easy to think, That’s a sign of a lack of faith and a lack of trusting God. If you feel that way you are by definition not trusting God the way you should be. What would you say to that? Is that the case in every situation?

Christopher Ash
I think it’s very difficult. The danger is that we feel we must say the right thing so that everybody thinks everything is right with us. There’s an honesty here. I think part of the reason Job’s speeches are so long is that we need—not just our thinking, but our feelings—need to be drawn into the drama. It’s not a light thing to say, I’m trusting God. It’s best when it’s said through our tears. And we don’t want to stop there. Job doesn’t stop there. He has these wonderful rays of sunshine which break through: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15), and of course, the famous one in Job 19:25: “I know that my Redeemer lives.” So you get these great shafts of light coming into the darkness. You don’t want to stop there and just think, Okay, this is my settled position. I wish I was dead. But, to think I’m going through the valley—it’s like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress—I’m going through the valley of the shadow of death, and I may need to go through that more than once in different ways, but as I go through it I learn not just to be reminded of but to feel the gospel comfort. I think we help one another with that. I love it when Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress hears a voice ahead of him in the valley singing Psalm 23 and he thinks, Oh, there’s someone else here. If God can be with them, maybe he can be with me.

31:03 - God’s Relationship to Our Suffering

Matt Tully
One of the things that I find most interesting about Job’s responses to his friends, as he is wrestling with the suffering and wrestling with their responses to his suffering, is how often he jumps right over Satan’s role in his suffering. I don’t even know if he mentions Satan all, and he instead attributes all of his suffering directly to God. One example is Job 12:7–10. Can you just read those four verses for us and explain what the significance of that is?

Christopher Ash
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.
Does not the ear test words
as the palate tastes food?
Wisdom is with the aged,
and understanding in length of days. (Job 12:7–12)

He has no doubt that he has done it. He mentions Leviathan in chapter 3, and I think there’s good reason to think that Leviathan, who fills chapter 41, is a vivid way of describing Satan. I think there’s a hint that Job has some sense that there may be an evil, supernatural power. And, of course, he’s right to say that God has done it.

Matt Tully
I think that’s the question that people struggle with: When I’m suffering, maybe on account of someone else’s sin that is often a cause of our suffering—another human has sinned against me in some significant way—we cannot always know how to think about God’s relationship to that suffering that we’re experiencing. We don’t want to blame him for it, but Job kind of seems to blame God for his suffering, in a sense, or at least isn’t shy about attributing it ultimately to God. How should we think about that issue?

Christopher Ash
I think with great care. Job does, at the very end, repent of some of the things he said. It’s not that he’s suffering because he has sinned, but in his suffering he does sin in what he says. He says some wrong things, even though basically he’s right. He’s a righteous man, he’s a believer. He has to repent when the Lord speaks to him at the end. He has to say, I’m sorry. I said things I shouldn’t have said. And he does say some things he shouldn’t have said. He says it from a righteous heart, and he’s grappling to try to understand what is going on. He believes that God is God; he believes that if something happens, God must be behind it; he believes there’s no autonomous power separate from God that can do anything. He’s right about all that, but we who have heard the heavenly scenes in chapters 1 and 2, we know more than Job knows, so it’s easier for us when you’ve tracked through those heaven scenes.

34:41 - Who Is Job’s Redeemer?

Matt Tully
Let’s turn to some of that sunshine that you mentioned. It does peek out at different points, and that most famous line that is probably familiar to most of our listeners is in Job 19:25, and it’s a little mysterious as well: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” That’s a truth that seems to give him hope, but what is he talking about? Who is this Redeemer?

Christopher Ash
Job 19 is an astonishing speech. He laments that God is like an archer, firing his arrows at him and attacking him. It’s like there’s little Job in his one-man tent, and the entire armed forces of the United States attacks him. He’s saying it’s a bit of overkill here; does it really need to happen like that? And then you see he has some understanding—you get a hint of it in chapter 16, and then again here in chapter 19—he has some understanding that God being against him is not the whole story. In some sense, ultimately, God will prove to be his redeemer, and will stand up for him and vindicate him, which is exactly what God does do at the end of the book. So he’s got that belief that ultimately God will justify him and declare him to be righteous. I think that’s what lies behind it.

36:25 - Practical Applications for the Book of Job

Matt Tully
Taking a big step back and thinking about application of this book—this incredible, beautiful book that we can study and understand the literary allusions and connection, the connection to the rest of Scripture and the story of Jesus—but ultimately, we also want to have it impact us and help us view God and our suffering differently. Speak to two sides of the coin: on the one hand, how can we use the story of Job as a lens through which to view our own suffering? But on the other side, what are ways in which we shouldn’t view our suffering through the lens of Job and apply it incorrectly?

Christopher Ash
I think the way that we should—taking that first—is that Romans 8:17: those who suffer with Christ will be glorified with him. That’s a core New Testament teaching: we take up the cross, we walk with Jesus, we suffer with him. Job helps us to understand that and to feel that undeserved suffering of Christian people, and also to identify with the persecuted church as well. That’s a really big way, pastorally, to apply this book. I read Job’s sufferings and I think, I shouldn’t be surprised if in some way this is me. For most of us it’s nowhere near as intense. In the book of Job everything is big and intense. For most of us, it’s not as grand. But if it’s a little bit like that, it shouldn’t surprise us. Concerning how it shouldn’t be applied, I think the key difference is to remember the difference that the cross of Christ has made. There’s that wonderful description in the book Revelation of Satan being cast out of heaven, which I take is describing the victory of the cross. He doesn’t now have the access that he did before the cross. He can still call out his accusations—he’s still the accuser of the brethren—but he’s the defeated accuser. In the book of Job he’s under God’s sovereignty, but after the cross of Christ he’s utterly defeated. He knows that his time is short. We need to remember and take heart from the victory of the cross. There’s a sense in which Jesus says to Peter, “Satan has asked for permission to sift you” (Luke 22:31), and it seems clear that permission was given to sift Peter and the disciples. And he did. They came through the sifting by God’s grace. We should expect that in some way, that we’ll be sifted. I wonder sometimes whether the COVID thing—it’s not quite like persecution—but I wonder if there’s a sifting going on in many of our churches, a sifting out of genuineness. So that shouldn’t surprise us, but never forget the victory of the cross.

Matt Tully
What a great reminder to end on, talking about a difficult book—as you said before, a scary book—but ultimately a book that does point us to Christ, our hope and the person that we ultimately trust in. Christopher, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us.

Christopher Ash
It’s very good to be with you.


Popular Articles in This Series

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.

View All


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.