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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 29–54 

Speak, O Lord: The Silence of God in Human Suffering

Ataloa Snell Woodin

The experience of Job is used as a base from which to explore the question of why God is silent during human suffering. The paramount conclusion reached is “because God is God,” and his reasons transcend our comprehension.


Awake, O Lord! Why do you


Rouse yourself! Do not reject us


Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and


We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.

Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your

unfailing love.

(Ps. 44:23-26 NIV) 1

You said You were the God of the universe,
Were you the God of the people within it?
Were you not the one who frees us from


I was abandoned, frightened, helpless, alone,
Where were you, God? I needed you,
You were not to be found.

In my loneliness, my heart sank.
Why did you hide your face from me?
What offense had I done to you? . . .

I was still alive and my hope did not fail me,
I struggled, I survived, my hope continued,
I had no hope, but hope. Only my hope

held me.


(Leehan, 171ff.)


“No! Don’t talk about God!” Rowena cried. “Sure, I’ve done some rotten things, but nothing to deserve this! Why would he do this to me, leave me when I need him the most? Why doesn’t he answer me?” And then she sobbed . . . and I wept.

Rowena, like many before her and many yet to come, knew great suffering. Hospitalized for a painful bowel obstruction, she developed an infection that had to be surgically drained. To ward off further infection she was given an antibiotic to which she severely reacted with respiratory failure and a skin disease that caused intense itching over her entire body. As I, her chaplain, walked through her illness with her, we spoke of God. We prayed together. We laughed. We cried. And then came the day of her greatest suffering in Intensive Care—the day that God was silent.

Where was God? Why was he silent when his child needed him so desperately? What did the silence of God mean? And why was he silent to Rowena, someone who loved him intensely?

Today’s Christian evangelicalism proclaims a God of power and of victory, a God who heals, restores, and reconciles. Along with the Psalms of old, evangelical songs boldly announce: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies” (Ps. 18:2-3).

However, personal tragedies, natural disasters and prolonged human suffering introduce experiential elements of life that appear to be irreconcilable to this theology of victory. In human experience God does not always act on our behalf. Our cries of agony continue unattended. Rather than the presence of God, we perceive only his absence.

Each of these experiences elicits the same question, “Why does God appear to be silent in human suffering?” This question will be the central focus of our study. Before embarking upon this voyage, however, it would be helpful to define the parameters of this endeavor.

A. Parameters and Definitions

First, the word silent is an inclusive term. For our purposes, I am defining silent as unseeing, unhearing, inattentive, not present, and unresponsive. Balentine, a prominent scholar of the hiddenness of God, writes, “. . . the language of God’s silence functions in contexts which are basically similar to those in which the language of God’s hiddenness in general functions” (155). Therefore, we will assume that a silent God is a hidden God, and vice versa.

Secondly, common sense dictates that, just as communication requires a sender and a receiver, so also God’s silence can be the result of two very different acts: either (1) no divine message is being sent, or (2) the receiver of the communication may be faulty. This paper will be assuming a functional receiver. Therefore, the type of suffering upon which we will be focusing is “innocent suffering”—a tragedy that cannot be linked to cause-effect or punishment, nor could it be understood as something deserved subsequent to transgression. Examples of innocent suffering today include the trauma of a parent’s sexual abuse of a small child or a passenger seriously injured in an auto accident.

Thirdly, the suffering in question includes emotional, psychological, spiritual and/or physiological suffering; for, indeed, each human is a single, integrated being wherein what affects one aspect of one’s existence necessarily affects all.

Finally, when asking, “Why does God appear silent in human suffering?” certain assumptions are implicit: (1) the question recognizes that there is a God to intervene; (2) it assumes that God is interested in human life and its quality; (3) it implies that God has the ability and power to intervene; and (4) it exposes our human judgement and expectation that God should intervene (Lockyer, 41ff.).

Yet, after looking closely at these assumptions, one is brought in direct contact with the question, “If there is a God who cares about human existence and who has the power to intervene and to alter the circumstances, why, then, does suffering continue to exist?” Why is God silent? This is precisely the question of theodicy, a subject to which we now turn.

B. Theodicy: Can God be Loving and Omnipotent?

The question of evil in the world and God’s apparent oblivion to human need in its presence poses a tremendous problem for those theologians and believers who would place belief in a God who is both powerful and loving simultaneously.

According to traditional theology, Jewish and Christian, God does not will evil directly: still, God permits it to happen. No event takes place, it is argued, without the permission of the Omnipotent. Is this answer still acceptable? Did God give permission for Auschwitz and Hiroshima? Does God give permission for cancer and other illnesses (Duquoc and Floristan, Where, 24)?

This argument, put forth by Gregory Baum, asks whether a God who is omnipotent can be loving at the same time. His implied answer is an emphatic “No”! For, it is believed “no heaven can rectify an Auschwitz” (Soelle, 149). No “higher good” can balance out such atrocity.

The Deist argument coincides with this view, believing that God is omnipotent yet personally uninvolved in the world, running the world “from a distance” (Yancey, 80).

Conversely, Baum states that “the more we believe that God is love, the more difficult we find it to believe in [an all-powerful] God” (24). This argument is supported by Kushner,

I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters . . . I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason. (134)

A third position disposes of the problem altogether by denying the existence of evil, by insisting that the world is fair. An example of this denial of evil occurs regularly on religious television when an evangelist promises excellent health and prosperity to all who ask for it in faith, thus promising blessing in exchange for faithfulness.

Yet, this is not consonant with human experience. Not all who have faith experience blessing. The fact of human existence is that life is not always “fair” to those of faith.

Other proponents of this view are Christian Scientists who attempt to avoid the problem by denying the reality of pain. Buddhists eliminate suffering by circumventing the cause of pain. They propose one cease to desire wellness; whereby suffering loses its power.

In summary, these three propositions exist within the question of theodicy:

  1. God is all-powerful, but not all-loving; therefore, evil exists.
  2. God is all-loving, but not all-powerful; therefore, evil exists.
  3. Evil does not exist.

If any two of the three propositions above are true, it is argued that the third will necessarily be false (Murphree, 20). This being true, how can these three positions be reconciled? Do alternative solutions exist? As we seek answers to these questions, we will first examine how others have attempted to work through this philosophical and religious problem. We shall then examine a major biblical text with these theories of God’s role in human suffering in mind (i.e., God is omnipotent; God is all-loving; etc.) in order to ascertain scriptural insight pertaining to a particular role God plays (apparent silence) in human suffering.

C. Theories of Human Suffering

We have previously identified the three theories of human suffering which comprise the problem of theodicy. One denies unfairness in life, and two center on God’s role in suffering (i.e., power or love/goodness). At this point since our focal question centers on God’s role in human suffering, we shall focus only on these theories of suffering related to God.

Important to Catholic spirituality is the emphasis on surrender to God. This stance is based on the theory of a “loving heavenly Father” whose plans and will are higher than our own. Therefore, according to this understanding, should we suffer loss, fall ill or encounter pain; we should trustingly surrender ourselves—body, soul and mind—to the gracious will of God (Duquoc and Floristan, Where, 23). This view upholds God’s loving goodness and his omnipotence, while still acknowledging evil.

A corollary to this Catholic spirituality is the concept that God created suffering for specific reasons, that suffering is the means to a greater good. Therefore, some believe that God utilizes suffering in the following ways:

  1. As a means of discipline to produce fruit. Just as loving parents discipline their child, so God disciplines those he loves to produce spiritual maturity (Heb. 12:7-11).
  2. As a means of growth. The author of Hebrews wrote of Jesus, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered . . .” (Heb. 5:8).
  3. As a means of enrichment. One cannot “realize the full rich life until [one has] been tested in the refiner’s fire of suffering” (Sockman, 80). Suffering enlarges our realm of experience at both ends of the spectrum. When we comprehend pain, we learn to know joy.
  4. As a means of personality development. The one who endures suffering has the possibility of a richer depth of compassion for another’s suffering.
  5. As a means of faith development. Paul Tillich once wrote that suffering “is the door, the only door, to the depth of truth!” (qtd. in Sockman, 87).

Many Christians today believe that evil is the result of the abuse of the free will given to us by God. In order to prevent compromising God’s omnipotence, those who hold this view also believe that God retains the power to prevent whatever he is willing to allow (although a mutation of this theory is that God has laid aside his power for a time, allowing human beings to act according to their wills). Secondarily, to retain the ideal of a loving and good God, the proponents of this view draw a distinction between God’s perfect will and his permissive will (Murphree, 21).

An ancient view of suffering which still thrives today is called the theory of retribution or retributive justice. Biblically, this view is a major theme throughout the Old Testament, in particular. Mosaic religion was based on an all-powerful and an all-just God. In fact, God did not introduce himself to Moses and the Israelites as the Creator-God, but as the God who redeems the oppressed. The doctrine of retribution is firmly established in the Pentateuch (Deut. 11:13-17) and later incorporated into the Shema (Lev. 26:14; Deut. 28:15) (Gordis, 136ff).

One very important distinctive separates the ancient doctrine of retribution from today’s views of justice: the ancients understood this law to function in a collective sense, whereas today’s perception places this doctrine within the arena of the individual. For example, in ancient times during the writings of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings “the ebb and flow of national prosperity and disaster is explained in terms of the people’s obedience or resistance to the word of God” (Gordis, 141, emphasis mine). However, in the time of Isaiah, this concept of collective retribution evolved into individual retribution. As it is written,

Say to the righteous that it will
go well with them,

For they will eat the fruit of
their actions.

Woe to the wicked! It will go
badly with him,

For what he deserves will be
done to him. (Isa. 3:10-11 NASB)

The understanding of individual retribution was foundational to the Psalmists, as well (cf. Ps. 25:12-13), and by the time of the Israelite’s return from the Babylonian exile the shift from the welfare of the community to that of the individual was complete. However, when this law of consequent justice was transferred from the community to the individual, it was clear that “experience contradicted it at every turn” (Gordis, 149).

In today’s world, Christians often side-step the fact that experience and retributive justice are contradictory by believing in an after-life wherein justice will reign. Meanwhile, Gordis believes that faith in divine retribution is fundamental to ethical behavior (153). In other words, whether divine justice is enacted in this or the next life, Gordis believes humans are motivated to positive behavior by fear of God’s consequent, punitive action (153). This position, foundational to the Book of Job, is proposed by Satan in the book’s initial verses. However, prior to turning to our scriptural text, let us summarize the theories of God’s role in suffering which we have examined thus far:

  1. Being all-powerful, God allows suffering because he is not all-loving.
  2. Though all-loving, God is not omnipotent.
  3. God allows suffering in order to obtain a higher good.
  4. God allows the use of free will which can result in suffering.
  5. God uses suffering retributively.

Having examined several of the major theories of God’s role in human suffering, let us now examine and reflect upon the same within the biblical context of Job, one who knew God’s silence in suffering.


A. Introducing the Text

Although there were several texts from which to choose (e.g., the Lament Psalms, The Raising of Lazarus in John 11, the Canaanite Woman in Matt. 15), Job became my text of choice for a number of important reasons: (1) The text of Job deals primarily rather than secondarily with the issue of human suffering, (2) the text also contains examples of God’s silence in the midst of suffering, (3) the Joban text is the most comprehensive text in this subject area, and (4) I related to this text on an emotional level in that much of Job’s complaints and laments were similar to those I heard and experienced as a chaplain in the hospital setting.

The reader will note from the structural outline (Appendix A) that the Book of Job is bracketed by two narrative sections in which an omniscient observer explains the cosmic setting of the circumstances of Job’s sufferings (prologue) and the final outcomes of Job’s sufferings (epilogue). Between these sections a series of three dialogs occur between Job and his three friends. These dialogs are followed by an section in which Job “teaches” his would-be comforters about El and about Wisdom, and in which he compares his past to his present, calling for justice. Subsequently, Elihu defends El, but is silenced by YHWH who challenges Job’s perceptions of YHWH’s righteousness. It is my contention that the structure of Job provides some very important clues for interpretation. We will return to this in a later section.

Volumes have been written pertaining to the literary integrity of Job as well as to the date of composition and its literary genre. These matters fall outside of the scope and purpose of this paper. Suffice it to say that introductory issues such as date of composition and authorship remain prominent in the discussion. The majority of scholars place Job chronologically within the seventh to second centuries BCE (Clines, lvii; Pope, xl; Thomas, 2; Terrien, 361). The genre of Job “escapes strict classification” because of its many and varied elements including folktale, proverb, lament, hymn, confession, legal controversy, juridical oath, and theophany (Terrien, 361). Although Habel would argue that a majority of the text is written in the tone of legal controversy, germane to our discussion is the observation that a large part of Job’s discourses are typically lament (e.g., 3:3-26; 6:2-7:21; 9:25-10:22; 13:23-14:22; 16:6-17:9; 19:7-20, 23; 29:1-31:37) (Pope, lxxi).

The problem of suffering received much attention in Mesopotamian literature, which, like Job, contained laments (Pope, liii; Clines, lixff). From its prominence in literature, innocent human suffering might well be deduced to be a major theme in the lives of Near Eastern people. Thus, we encounter Job, a man who “is in a sense the type of any and every man [sic] who experiences the mystery of seemingly senseless and undeserved suffering” (Pope, xxx). In an effort to better understand the nature and scope of suffering, let us look more closely at the ways in which Job experienced pain.

B. The Nature of Job’s Sufferings

1. Job’s suffering was emotional. Job lost his family, his fortune, and his health; greater than all of these was his emotional pain. Not only did he become a bitter, complaining man (7:11, etc.), but he was plagued with nightmares (7:14), suicidal ideations (3:3-26; 6:8-9; 7:15), and a sense of meaninglessness and self-hatred (7:16). He is haunted by the perception of a tormenting God (7:17-21) and despairs of his very life (10:18ff.). As Job’s spirit is crushed, he shows evidence of psychopathology: depression, anxiety, abandonment issues, loneliness, fears (6:4; 7:14; 21:6), hopelessness (9:20; 17:11-16) and behavioral changes (daydreaming, 29; and alteration of goals, 16:19-21) (Gerber, 144). Further, he experienced continual weeping and sleep loss (7:4; 16:16-17).

Job’s comforters only increased his suffering. They blamed him for his illness and invalidated his pain; for, as they aptly pointed out, he had the power to bring an end to his sufferings if he would simply repent of his sin (11:13-19). They contended that Job’s suffering was self-induced while Job repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. His friends could not receive his interpretation. They slandered him (12:4; 13:4).

2. Job’s suffering was physical. In addition to Job’s physical symptoms which accompanied his emotional losses (e.g., sleep loss, weeping, depression, etc.), Job suffered greatly as the result of the second wager between the Lord and Satan. Job was “afflicted . . . with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (2:7). Although scholars are uncertain as to the exact identification of Job’s disease, most agree that the text indicates that Job’s whole body was smitten with the disease (Clines, 47). In order for the trial of Job to be complete, it was necessary that he be entirely afflicted. His symptoms included festering, open wounds (7:5), blackened and peeling skin, and a fever (30:30). Job was in physical anguish.

Job’s physical pain surely affected his emotional condition, for, although the readers of Job know that his condition will not be fatal (2:6), Job has no assurance of this. Rather, he is aware that although some skin diseases could be healed (Lev. 13), there were those which were terminal (Deut. 28:27, 35) (Clines, 47). However, Job suffered at yet another level beyond the emotional and the physical.

3. Job’s suffering was spiritual. When Job first received word of the calamities which had befallen his family, his livestock and his fortune, his response was an acceptance and trust in God (1:21). Likewise, following the onset of his hideous skin disease which was added to his great losses, Job gave the same answer: acceptance of the will of God (2:10). However, a “quick acceptance of [unremitting poverty and suffering] can signify a resignation to evil and injustice that will later be an obstacle to faith . . .” (Gutierrez, 19). This surely happens to Job. Subsequent to his initial acceptance of his lot, Job recognizes the injustice of the situation (i.e., his blamelessness did not warrant his pain) and his faith is challenged. He no longer blindly accepts whatever he receives at the hand of God. Job begins to question God and his justice—and he questioned his faith.

a. The Issue of Faith:

. . . the road Job travels will show clearly that his acceptance of God’s will is not simply resignation. His full encounter with his God comes by way of complaint, bewilderment and confrontation.” (Gutierrez, 19)

Initially, Job was thrown into a quandary, and he began to question his God. “Why?” he cried (cf. Job 10). Listen closely to God’s answer: nothing. God answered with silence. He did not speak, nor did he reveal his presence to Job. Like Rowena and others in pain, Job called out to God. Job sought God. Yet, God chose not to speak. Why?

One answer of the text is obvious: God’s silence and Job’s faith in spite of that silence were the point of the wager made between God and Satan (1:6-12; 2:1-6).

The whole point of The Wager was to keep Job in the dark. If God had delivered an inspiring pep talk—”Do this for me, Job, as a Knight of Faith, as a martyr”—then Job, ennobled, would have suffered gladly. But Satan had challenged whether Job’s faith could survive with no outside help or explanation. When God accepted those terms, the fog rolled in around Job (Yancey, Disappointment, 242).

Faith demands that its object be hidden, else it would not be faith. It would be sight. “Faith is the conviction of things not seen” [hidden, silent] (Heb. 11:1). Therefore, per the Joban text, the point of the wager was to force a decision from Job: would he continue in the way of faith even when that faith was unrewarded and painful or would he desert the God of his faith as his wife suggested when she said, “Curse God and die!” (2:9).

God’s silence in our sufferings brings two options to the fore: (1) the option of a disinterested faith, that is, a faith that chooses to worship God simply because he is—not for some expectation of reward (e.g., release from suffering) or (2) the option to reject faith and its object, choosing instead to place one’s self at the center of existence. Thus, suffering creates a moment for revision of one’s life (Dotts, 61). Conversely, suffering does not necessarily lead to increased maturity. “Indeed, pain can lead to our becoming more selfish, more paranoiac, more brutal” (Cooper, 423). God’s silence in our suffering brings us to a point of decision.

Interestingly, the New Testament authors recognized this. However, their focus was upon the positive outcome of the testing (cf. James 1:2-4; Rom. 8:18-24). Peter wrote, “. . . though now you have had to suffer . . . These have come so that your faith . . . may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Peter made no promise that the suffering would cease. Neither did he suggest that pain would come only to the sinful (Chapin, 16). Nor did the apostle give assurance that God would speak to them in their sufferings. Indeed, Peter continues by speaking about the hiddenness of God, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him . . .” (v. 8). God’s hiddenness [silence] is necessary for genuine faith.

b. The Issue of Abandonment:

In order to answer why God can be silent [hidden] in our sufferings, we have looked at the narrative context of the Book of Job and at corresponding New Testament texts. Let us now turn to the poetic, wisdom genre which forms the central portion of Job.

Twice Job accused God of hiding his face (sathar) (Balentine, 65). In the Old Testament God abandons his people when they sin (Balentine, 68). However, when God hides his face (sathar) from Job, it is recorded in lament genre closely resembling God’s hiding in the lament Psalms.

Two times in the Book of Job the word sathar is used: once when Elihu argues God’s right as sovereign to conceal (sathar) himself (34:29); and a {39} second time the word is used by Job, himself, to ask God, “Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?” (13:24). As can be ascertained by Job’s question, “the ultimate consequence of God’s hiding in the Psalms (and, by implication, in Job) is separation” (Balentine, 75).

Job laments (to the point of accusation) that God is hiding from, separating from, and abandoning him. Job, first emotionally abandoned by his “comforters,” now knows what every sufferer realizes—suffering isolates the sufferer. Isolation adds the pain of loneliness and self-doubt. Much of Job’s complaint centers around the isolation of his suffering (19:13-19; 29:1-30; 15). Job has experienced the separation that results from his own preoccupation with his pain, the standard, blaming answer of retribution theology, and the well-worn tendency of the strong to denigrate the weak (12:5; 19:5) (Fontaine, 244).

Yet, another abandonment haunts his very soul: “His long familiarity with an ever-present God [has] vanished” (Terrien, 364), and, contrary to Job’s friends, the sufferer knew that he had not committed a sinful act that would cause God to withdraw his presence. For in Hebraic theology, YHWH concealed his face from human criminality and sin, as can be ascertained by the hiddenness of God in the Psalm texts. However, there is one instance in the Psalter in which the motif of divine hiddenness was unrelated to sin. This occurred in Psalm 22 (Terrien, 323). Thus, the Joban lament and the lament of Psalm 22 very nearly resemble one another in terms of the context of the lament.

In his final moments Jesus quoted this Psalm on the cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Jesus, like Job, experienced abandonment at the height of his greatest sufferings.

How does the Father abandon his Son in the hour of his passion? There is first . . . the silence of God in the face of the insults and blasphemies that are hurled at the Son and discredit him as the false Messiah. There is also the apparent passivity of God in regard to the torture inflicted . . . God seems to have withdrawn entirely from the scene . . . He allows the innocent man to be accused, condemned and executed (Duquoc and Floristan, Job, 53, emphases mine).

There are two relevant points for reflection. First, like Job and other sufferers, Jesus knew the pain of the silence and passivity of God. Out of perfect obedience to God and out of solidarity with humankind, Jesus chose to “taste the dregs of the most lacerating dereliction there can be, the anguish of being abandoned, not to say rejected by God” (Duquoc and Floristan, Job, 57).

Secondly, Jesus shouts the question “Why?” to his abba, the One whom Jesus can address in the deepest depths of distress, a cry so often squelched {40} by well-meaning Christians (Gerstenberger and Schrage, 175). Jesus voices his innermost thoughts, not to express sheer hopelessness, but rather, beating on God’s chest, he collapses into the Father’s arms. “The love of Jesus for the Father allows him to put the strongest question there is because he is so sure of being heard and answered by the Father” (Duquoc and Floristan, Job, 58). Job, too, trusts God and his justice enough that he can air his complaints and give voice to his questions. In both cases, God did not judge the questioning to be sin; rather, he heard and accepted their questions. Yet, the enigma of his hiddenness remained. For Job, this continued to be a spiritual problem with no apparent answer.

We have been looking at the various aspects of Job’s sufferings, and we have found that his whole being was affected by his afflictions. Likewise, today’s sufferers endure pain at all levels of their personhood. They may experience emotional trauma, psychopathology, illness, injury, questioning faith, anger, rage, doubts. Yet, the experience of Job validates all of these as acceptable to God.

Still, a major contributor to his emotional/mental and spiritual anguish (which had physical manifestations such as sleeplessness, nightmares, etc.) was God’s apparent silence and passivity in the face of Job’s great, yet undeserved suffering. He began to question the God of his faith, to call upon God to explain what he was doing, to give an accounting of his actions, to break the silence. Why, he wondered, am I suffering when I am blameless (1:1)? And why does God not intervene? As Job and his friends dialog, several responses to this question are proposed. Let us now examine the reasons for God’s silence in Job’s suffering offered by the principle characters of the Joban story.

C. The “Why” of God’s Silence in Job’s Sufferings

According to Job’s Friends. It’s really quite simple according to Job’s friends. God acts according to a certain principle; according to the orthodox view of divine retribution. “Their deity was a rational being, predictable and enslaved by a greater principle: justice” (Crenshaw, 360). Therefore, according to these “comforters,” since Job was experiencing great tribulation, he must have also greatly sinned. No other answer would be just. However, Habel points out that the principle of retribution as a “mechanical law of the cosmos” is refuted in three contexts within Job—in the message of the prologue, by Job’s contradictory experience, and in God’s answer (66).

Yet, the friends of Job seem unable to entertain any other alternatives. For, as Dunn pointed out, “They had no choice . . . They [were] fighting for their religious lives . . . A suffering Job, a suffering righteous man called their theology into question” (106ff.). They were . . . unable to entertain such {41} dreadful thoughts that God might confront his favored servant as an antagonist; these critics could not conceive of God as unjust . . . in the end they rescued God at man’s expense (Crenshaw, 357, emphasis mine).

Consequently, Job’s friends supported the orthodox view which held that the wicked are punished, the weak protected, and the righteous prosper (Wilcox, 15). According to their understanding, Job must have sinned, or God could not be righteous and good.

The same theology occurred in the New Testament setting of John 9, in which Jesus was questioned regarding the reason for a man’s having been blind since birth.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (vv. 2-3).

God was silent for the entire duration of this man’s infancy, childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. The man endured ostracization and blame. Still God was silent. He did not act on behalf of this person who was weak. Hence, the logical conclusion on behalf of the disciples was that someone had sinned. However, Jesus repudiates their automatic conclusion. Rather, he says, this man’s illness was designed to bring glory to God. God’s silence was necessary for his glory.

According to Job. Like Jesus, Job refuted all three parts of the orthodox view. He “holds that the wicked prosper (12:6; 21:7ff), the weak are not protected (24:2-5, 7-10, 12), and the righteous . . . suffer the same or worse fates as others (6:10; 12:4; 16:17; 10:7; 23:11-12)” (Wilcox, 15). Yet upon closer examination, it can be seen that Job continues to operate under the very view that he refutes (i.e., retribution)—simply from a different vantage point than his peers.

As can be seen in Appendix A, in the first two rounds of dialog Job not only made his rebuttals to his peers, but he also makes his complaint to the Almighty (7:7-21; 10:1-22; 13:20-14:22; 16:7-17:9). Additionally, in his final speech (30:20ff.) Job lays out his argument. These “complaints” were more than simple words of bitterness. His “crying out” (sw’, 30:20a) is not a mere cry for deliverance, but an appeal for justice. Job uses the language of litigation which he has employed throughout his complaints (9:16-19; 13:19-24; 19:6-9; 23:3-9) to demand his vindication. This is most evident in chapter 19 when Job exclaims, “Oh, that my words (millay) were recorded . . .” (19:23) and in the textually problematic, yet highly quoted and misunderstood proclamation of Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth” (19:25). In these passages, Job is appealing using juridical contexts in which millay specifically meant the argument of a case (13:17; 32:11, 14). Job is requesting more than the simple writing of his {42} words. He wants them publicly recorded for all to see (Habel, 303). Redeemer (go’el) in secular usage referred to a kinsman who intervened to maintain the rights of the family. This could involve avenging the blood of a murdered family member (cf. Num. 35:16-28; Deut. 19:6-12; 2 Sam. 14:7, 11), redeeming another from bondage (Lev. 25:48-49); regaining family possessions to ensure inheritance (Lev. 25:25-28; Jer. 32:6-11); or marrying the widow of a kinsman to provide an heir for the deceased husband (Ruth 4:3-6). From these references, it is clear that the go’el took on a legal role associated with redemption (Hagel, 304). He, further, was the defender of the widow and orphan, the advocate of the oppressed (Prov. 23:10-11) (Pope, 146).

Thus, when Job speaks of his go’el Redeemer, he is proclaiming that he knows that at some point he will be vindicated—that his innocence will be a matter of public record for all to see. He is calling for justice.

God, too, recognized Job’s error. Job renounced the theology of his friends, yet employed it himself. It is at this point that God chose to break his silence.

According to God. The final participant in the debate [God] had remained silent when under sharp attack by an angry Job, but deigned to set him right on one score: suffering cannot be construed in every instance as punishment for sin (Crenshaw, 357).

Thus, God says to Job, “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (40:8). Operating under the orthodox law of retribution, Job sacrificed God’s righteousness for his own.

Heretofore, Job had been questioning God’s justice, but now, when God confronted him, “Job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that God was a prisoner of a particular way of understanding justice” (Gutierrez, 21). In no uncertain terms, God tells Job that Job, too, has been operating under too rigid an understanding of who God is. Although the simple correlation of cursings and blessings is the starting point of much biblical teaching (Lev. 26; Deut. 27:30; Ps. 34:11:22; 1 Pet. 3:10; Gal. 6:7), God clearly makes the point that “life is much more complex than this simple formula. Human suffering is more than a system of rewards and punishments” (Zuck, 184).

As Gutierrez writes, “The world of retribution . . . is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the ‘give to me and I will give to you’ mentality” (22). Thus, God’s obvious answer to the “why” of Job’s sufferings was that it was not due to justice issues. If this was not the case, then what, according to God, was the reason for Job’s suffering? And why was God silent throughout its course?

At last God spoke. But the final blow of God’s silence was that he {43} remained silent on Job’s most pressing issue: “Why didn’t you relieve my suffering?” Or did God remain silent? When God spoke, he made what would appear to be two contradictory remarks. First, as we have already noted, God reprimanded Job for sacrificing God’s righteousness to justify his own. In this statement God disclosed that Job had not said of him what was right—namely, that God was bound by the law of retributive justice. Yet, not long afterward, God says to Job’s friend, Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7, emphasis mine). What? Now God is commending Job’s words as rightly representing him. How can this contradiction be resolved?

Let us return now to the instances in which Job spoke of God to see if they provide clues as to what Job said about God that was true. As we review the Book of Job, we can see that when Job replied to his “comforters” (6:28-30; 19:6; 9:21; 13:15, 18, 23; 23:7, 10, 12; 23:13-17; 27:2-6; 31:1-34, 38-40), his argument was one of retribution (i.e., he proclaimed his righteousness and God’s injustice). Yet, this was soundly refuted by God. What else, then, did Job speak of God?

During his second (9:1-35) and third (12:1-13:19) replies of the “Round 1” Dialog (see structural outline), Job praised God’s majesty in creation and in history. However, these praises are always couched in negative terms (e.g., “He shakes the earth from its place . . .”—9:6—and “What he tears down cannot be rebuilt . . .”—12:14). Job recognizes that “just as God is the lord of his creation (9:5-7), so also is he the lord of all [humankind] (12:10). Because God is lord, he can also destroy (12:14-16)” (Westermann, 74). Job is saying: God exalts and God abases. Job’s friends also speak of God’s abasing; however, they are quick to add that the ones abased by God are naturally the transgressors. This is precisely what Job does not say (Westermann, 75). Once again, God has refuted the argument of punitive justice.

Yet, is this the totality of Job’s discourse about God: his arguments of retribution and his acknowledgement of God’s exaltation and abasement without punitive justice? One critical speech remains in Chapter 28.

The form of chapter 28 differs radically from its surroundings. Westermann classifies its genre as pure wisdom literature (136). Many scholars believe that this chapter was an interpolation within the original text (Zuckerman, 140). However, Habel makes the point that the language of this unusual chapter reflects the language of the poet of Job (392). In fact, unusual expressions and key terms are found both in this chapter and in the closing speech of Yahweh (Habel, 392). Additionally, Zuckerman feels that “one could reasonably argue that when God appears in the Theophany [YHWH-Job Dialog of our outline], he makes much the same point [as that of chapter {44} 28] and far more emphatically” (142). It is my belief that this is not coincidental. Rather, I contend that the linguistic similarities of the wisdom chapter to the Theophany as well as its marked alteration in genre and in structure, should give the serious exegete reason to accept its legitimate origins and to note the centrality of the message of this chapter. What did Job say in this wisdom chapter that carries such import?

I agree with Westermann (136) that the entirety of chapter 28 is to be understood as an expansion of a single proverb:

Where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell? (v. 12)
It is hid from the eyes of all living, (Westermann, v. 13)
and concealed from the birds of the air . . .
God understands the way to it,
and he alone knows where it dwells. (v. 23)

Job said that God, himself, has access to true wisdom. And this wisdom is hidden from the eyes of mere mortals. Job acknowledged God’s wisdom—his right to do what he does for whatever reason—and he recognized his humble stature in comparison to his God. Psalm 115:3 is reminiscent of this message: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”

It is this statement of Job that I believe God affirmed, for in the Theophany, God makes several statements which contain the same message:

1. From 38:4-39:30 YHWH asks Job a series of questions which amount to, “Are you equal in intelligence and wisdom to YHWH?”

2. From 40:9-41:34 YHWH asks Job a second group of questions, saying, “The Creator is greater than his greatest creation (40:19). No one (not even righteous Job) can tell God how to run the universe (41:10b).” God’s wisdom is too great for mortals.

Does YHWH answer Job when he breaks his silence? God does not state explicitly why Job was afflicted, nor does he formally vindicate Job as an innocent sufferer. Job is left to deduce both his innocence and the answer to his questions of suffering from God’s Theophany and from what he already knows of God: that God’s wisdom is of a higher order than that of humans, and because of this, it remains a mystery (Habel, 579).

Thus, when God finally spoke, after all that Job had experienced—loss, grief, depression, disease, ridicule, abandonment, and hopelessness—he gave Job perspective; he did not give full disclosure. He never explained to Job why he had to suffer—why he never acted (maintained silence) on Job’s behalf. On that topic, God’s silence remained. Yet, at that moment what YHWH revealed to Job was enough (Long, 19). So God’s revelation contained both answer and mystery, disclosure and silence.

Paul spoke of this ambiguity of revelation when he said, “Now we see {45} but a poor reflection as in a mirror . . . Now I know in part . . .” (1 Cor. 13:12). Long wrote of this state of in-betweenness eloquently:

Our comprehension is at dusk, between the full illumination of understanding and the darkness of complete ignorance. We may know enough to see—even to feel—a problem, but not enough to fathom its depth or imagine the resolution.

God has given us only partial answers, and we may walk away feeling his silence. He has spoken, but he has also not spoken. He has given us what he considers to be enough, sometimes we crave more. (19)

And that craving we experience as God’s silence. There are simply some things that we will not understand, for we are not God (Zuck, 375). That which we do not comprehend we label “mystery” and we perceive as God’s silence.

D. The Results of God’s Apparent Silence:

The final chapter of Job outlines somewhat of a summation of the various outcomes of God’s apparent silence in the midst of Job’s sufferings.

[Job replied to YHWH]

Surely I spoke of things I did not

things too wonderful for me to know . . . (42:3b)

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you. (42:5)

Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes. (42:6)

Job Gained New Insight/New Relationship. At the conclusion of YHWH’s Theophany, Job reveals the first result of God’s silence in his suffering: new insight into God’s mysterious nature and a subsequently deepened relationship with YHWH. As Hartley so aptly wrote:

Clearly [Job] finds the profoundest personal answer to undeserved suffering to reside in the divine-human encounter. That God both appears to Job and speaks with him means that Job’s encounter is more than a mystical experience . . . it is a meeting with the personal God. God’s presence authenticates Job, drawing him out of his self-love to focus his affection on God (qtd. in Zuck, 77).

It was at this point that Job learned that “joy is not the absence of pain but the presence of God” (de Chardin qtd. in Dunn 109). For so long he had demanded that God justify or remove his pain, but when God came to him in the whirlwind, we hear no more of his pain. Rather, he “repents in dust and ashes.” He changes his attitude of mourning (Pope, 348).

Job Gained a Disinterested Faith. Yancey distinguishes between two types of faith. The first is a childlike faith in which one swallows the impossible. This is the “mustard seed” faith that can move mountains, a faith {46} which the Bible exhorts us to exercise. The second kind of faith is different. This faith, Yancey coins as fidelity. Fidelity is that “hang-on-at-any-cost” faith that takes over when childlike faith cannot survive the agony of urgent prayers that receive no answer, or miracles desperately needed but not available. Fidelity, which Gutierrez terms disinterested faith, holds on even when there is no sign of God’s concern—when God is silent (Yancey, 245).

Fidelity became the new-found faith of Job. Although the mystery surrounding his faith had not been removed and had in fact deepened, his attitude changed from arrogant accusation to trusting fidelity. Job had been transformed (Duclow, 16).

Through God’s Silence in Job’s Suffering, God Was Glorified. In the prologue of Job, God initiates a conversation about his blameless and upright servant, Job (1:8). The outcome of this “dialog of the superpowers” is a wager in which Satan taunts God, saying, “. . . stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (1:11) and later, “. . . stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (2:5).

This narrative sets the modern-day reader on edge, for it implies that human beings are nothing more than pawns in a cosmic chess game. In fact, it sounds as if he plays with the lives of his own creation in order to win a bet. Carson writes

Clearly that is not true. The challenge to Satan is not a game; nor is the outcome, in God’s mind, obscure . . . the wager with Satan is in certain ways congruent with other biblical themes. God’s concern for the salvation of men and women is part of a larger, cosmic struggle between God and Satan, in which the outcome is certain while the struggle is horrible. This is one way of placing the human dimensions of redemption and judgment in a much larger framework than what we usually perceive. (qtd. in Zuck, 378)

Although this provides little if any comfort for the sufferer, the story of Job testifies to a larger picture, a cosmic dimension, in our sufferings. Surely, this is attested in other biblical literature.

Why did Jesus say that God was silent so long in the life of the man born blind (John 9)? The answer, if you recall, was “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Why, too, did Jesus delay going to Lazarus without a word to Mary and Martha? Again, he delayed in silence so that those waiting might “see the glory of God” (John 11:40).

So, also, Jesus endured God’s abandonment and passivity on the cross “and having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). In much the same way, Job endured horrific pain and agony in every part of his being, yet remained faithful to his hidden and silent God. And, though never explicitly {47} said in the text, he won the wager—bringing glory to God before Satan and all of the angelic beings with him.

The story of Job and the biblical witness proclaim that our suffering has cosmic dimensions. And when that suffering is endured obediently—with questioning, yet without abandoning God—our Lord is glorified in the heavenly realms.


By-products to God’s apparent silence in human suffering which we have identified are: (1) God’s silence brings sufferers to a point of decision—will they remain faithful to a God who seems unfaithful to them, or will they “curse God and die”? (2) God’s silence offers the potential of a disinterested fidelity. (3) God’s silence cannot be assumed to be punishment for sins committed by the sufferer. (4) God’s silence can be the vehicle of his self-revelation, leading to a deeper relationship with him and an enlarged understanding of him. And (5) God’s silence can lead to a disinterested faith that ultimately brings him glory in the cosmic sphere.

However, I believe that these are all secondary to the major point of Job which is the final answer to our question. Why does God appear to be silent in human suffering? I believe that the answer must ultimately be: because God is God. He alone knows where wisdom is to be found. He alone chooses when and what to disclose. And his reasons will remain a mystery, yet one in which we can put our trust.


For Sufferers. Suffering is an experience that affects one’s total being: emotional, physical, spiritual. It brings those whom it clutches to moments of critical and agonizing questioning. God accepts and rewards the sincere “hang-on-at-all-costs” fidelity of the sufferer who rails at the injustice of pain. Jesus knew what it was to experience the abyss of abandonment, crying out, “Why, God!”—Yet, God judged him sinless. The questions of the sufferer are legitimate.

When tragedy strikes, we will live in shadow, unaware of what is transpiring in the unseen world. The drama that Job lived through will then replicate itself in our lives . . . the important battle takes place inside us. Will we trust God? (Yancey, 200)

Faith is one outcome of a two-pronged decision each sufferer faces. However, when God’s silence seems overwhelming, it was Job’s experience that God disclosed himself—not totally, but enough. God does not remain silent forever. There is reason to hope for God’s presence and answer enough to cover the need.

For Caregivers. Job’s friends were excellent examples (albeit negative) {48} for today’s caregivers! From them we can learn that the ways we, as caregivers, see suffering directly affects the kind of comfort we offer (Chapin, 14). Because Job’s friends were so convinced that his suffering was sin-produced, they became classic examples of “victim blaming.” We learned from the account of Job that the law of retribution no longer engages automatically. Further, when Job’s friends assumed that it did, God judged them harshly for misjudging not only Job, but God, himself. As caregivers, mechanically blaming the sufferer can be tantamount to blaming God.

Because they were entirely sure of their convictions, Job’s friends were lavish with their ill-timed, illegitimate advice. As caregivers, we must recognize that well-intentioned advice may do serious harm. In fact, as Job said, when one doesn’t know the answers, silence is wisdom (13:5).

Grief and pain isolate—from people and from God. Because of the intensity of this “aloneness,” sufferers may long for presence. To be present with another in their suffering is a great gift.

Finally, we must keep our original purpose in care-giving in mind. We need not answer the mysteries of suffering. Our purpose is to share in the suffering and to provide presence—nothing more, nothing less.


Why does God appear silent in our human sufferings? Perhaps it is because, at times he is. Though fearful in its prospect, the answer to the question may well be that, God in his infinite wisdom, reveals himself both in word and in silence.

Although God’s silence is effective in its results in human life—bringing us to a point of decision, offering us disinterested faith, a deepened relationship with God, a broadened understanding of who he is, and his potential glorification—in this life God never fully discloses all the answers to our questions. Indeed,

. . . if God should be up to anything like what is claimed by Christians—and if God is indeed God—then we would expect him to be up to something beyond our ability to comprehend fully (Murphree, 24).

Therefore, God remains enshrouded in mystery. The reason for God staying silent in our suffering, likewise, is only partially answered. And we long to know fully, “Why, God, can you not reveal the reason for our suffering?” Yet, the total answer to this question remains a mystery as enigmatic as God himself.

Appendix A: Structural Outline of Job


*Works cited within the paper.


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Unpublished Source

  • Bucci, Michel, Jr. “The Suffering of the Innocent: Job 2:1-10.” Senior Seminar Paper, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1988.


  1. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.
Ataloa Snell Woodin is an M.Div. graduate of MB Biblical Seminary, presently engaged as Pastor of Adult Ministries at Community Brethren Church, Fresno, CA. This paper was written as her senior seminar.

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