When his wife died, he didn’t know at first how he would survive. Although he was a minister and had helped many others through times of crisis, now he faced his own personal moment of truth. How would he reconcile his own loss with the Christian faith he claimed to believe? What would he say to his own grieving congregation?
The year was 1927. The place, Aberdeen, Scotland. The man, Arthur John Gossip, pastor of the Beechgrove Church. He was fifty-four years old and at the height of his powers.
Historians tell us that he was humble and sincere, possessing a keen wit and deeply devoted to his family and friends. A bit of an eccentric, he sometimes scandalized his staid Scottish congregation by appearing in public with a floppy fisherman’s hat perched on his head. He was a man of strong opinions who never held back from expressing them to any and all who cared to listen. History also tells us that he was beloved as a pastor and preacher.
In fact, he is remembered as a preacher primarily for one particular sermon he preached in 1927. Widely regarded as one of the greatest ever preached, it was the first sermon he delivered after the sudden death of his wife. He titled his message But When Life Tumbles In, What Then? In it, he struggled to reconcile his Christian faith with the loss of a loved one.
These are his words:
“I do not understand this life of ours. But still less can I comprehend how people in trouble and loss and bereavement can fling away peevishly from the Christian faith. In God’s name, fling to what? Have we not lost enough without losing that too?”
How right he was. “So many people’s religion is a fair-weather affair,” as he put it. “A little rain, and it runs and crumbles; a touch of strain, and it snaps.” But if we turn from faith in the time of trouble, what shall we turn to? Have we not lost enough without losing that too?
“So many people’s religion is a fair-weather affair,”
Let us begin our journey together by spending some time in the book of Job 1. That is not the only place we could begin, but it makes sense to start there, because Job deals with timeless questions of suffering and loss. Even though the story is four thousand years old, it could have been written yesterday. Most of the book of Job is poetry, and the book has been properly called the greatest poem in all human history. One writer noted that “it bears the stamp of uncommon genius.”
The book abounds with mysteries: Who wrote it? When? Where? Why? But the greatest mystery is found in the subject matter itself-the mystery of undeserved suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? For centuries thoughtful people have pondered that question. Why do babies die? Why are innocent people held hostage by madmen? Why are the righteous passed over for promotion while the wicked cheat and lie their way to the top?
The book does not answer those questions with a theory. It answers them with a story. We are invited to examine one man whose life tumbled in around him. Why did that happen and what did he do about it?
The Man Who Had It All
The book of Job has a terse, direct, simple beginning. It unfolds likes film running at hyperspeed. The frames zip by one after the other as an entire life is squeezed into a handful of sentences. The first five verses tell us three things about Job.
He Was a Righteous Man
“In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). You could talk for hours about those four phrases: blameless, upright, fearing God, shunning evil. But suffice it to say that Job was as good a man as you will find in all the Bible.
Job was as good a man as you will find in all the Bible.
He Was a Rich Man
“He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (vv. 2-3).
It is hard to know how to translate this sentence into today’s terms. I thought of Warren Buffet or Donald Trump or Bill Gates, but they don’t fit the image. Maybe I could say it this way. When Forbes Magazine printed a list of the world’s billionaires a few weeks ago, the number one family on the list came from Mexico. Its net worth was estimated at $69 billion, mostly from investments in telecom. By spelling out the details about the sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys, our text is telling us that if a list of the world’s richest people had been printed four thousand years ago, Job would have been at the top.
He Was a Religious Man
“His sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom” (vv. 4-5). Here is that rarest of all rare creatures: A truly wealthy man who loves God more than he loves his money. Not only that, but a father who takes responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his own family. The point of these first few verses is very clear: By the world’s standards, Job was successful; by God’s standards, he was righteous. Here is a man who truly had it all. He was wealthy and godly and popular. You couldn’t find a person who would say a bad word about Job. I repeat what I said earlier-He is as good a man as you will find in all the Bible.
Job loved God more than he loves his money.
That fact is absolutely crucial to understanding his story. Let me say it carefully. What happened to him happened because he was a good man! Nothing in the book of Job makes sense unless that is true. Job is a case study in the suffering of the righteous. As hard as it may be to understand, it was his righteousness and his prosperity that brought on his enormous suffering. And yet the suffering was undeserved in the truest sense of the word.
While you ponder that, consider what happens next. The story suddenly shifts to Job’s first test. The scene changes from earth to heaven. Job apparently never knew about this part of the story. While he was on the earth tending to his vast holdings, Satan was having a conversation with God:
One day the angels [the Hebrew calls them “the sons of God”] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan [the name means “accuser,” and Satan will now live up to his name] also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it” (vv. 6-7).
This passage answers a prevailing misconception about Satan. If you ask the average Christian, “Where is Satan today?” most will say that Satan is in hell. But the Bible does not teach that. If Satan were in hell today, we would have no problems at all. As Hal Lindsey put it a few years ago, “Satan is alive and well on planet earth.” In this age the earth is under his power and domination. Thank God, the day will come when Satan and all his hordes will be cast into the lake of fire forever (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10). But that won’t happen until Jesus returns to the earth. Between now and then, Satan roams about on the earth like a roaring lion, seeking men and women he can devour (1 Peter 5:8).
If Satan were in hell today, we would have no problems at all.
The Bible teaches that there is a personal being called Satan who once was an angel of God but who rebelled and fell from heaven to earth. In that rebellion he led one-third of the angels with him. Those fallen angels became the demons. From the day of his fall until now, Satan has had but one purpose: to frustrate God’s plan by seeking to destroy men and women on the earth. After all these thousands of years, Satan is still at it.
I say all of that to make the point that Satan was behind what happened to Job. Job never knew that and God never told him, but the writer of the book lets us peek behind the heavenly curtain to see the unfolding drama.
Satan Is Not the Issue
That brings us to the key passage. Notice in verse 8 that it is God who brings Job’s name up. “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him.” That’s the other side of the coin. Satan was behind Job’s trials, but God was behind Satan. It’s not Satan who brings Job up. It’s God. It is as if God were saying, “All right, Satan, you’re looking for a good man. Let me tell you about Job. He’s the best man I’ve got. I don’t think you can break him down.”
What an insight that is.
Satan was behind Job’s trials, but God was behind Satan.
Behind the suffering is Satan, and behind Satan is God. That is why, as you read the book of Job, you find that Job is complaining bitterly against God. He never brings up Satan. Satan is not the issue; God is. Even though Satan was the one who caused the calamity, he did so with God’s permission. If God had not given his permission, Satan could not have touched a hair of Job’s head.
Does Job Serve God for Nothing?
In verse 9 we come to the key question of the book: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan is accusing God of bribing Job into worshiping him. After all, Job has it all: a huge, loving family, enormous wealth, a great reputation- everything in this world a man could want. No wonder he worships God. Who wouldn’t? That’s what Satan means when he says in verse 10, “Have you not put a hedge around him?” He means something like this: “You gave him all of that and then you protect him from anything that could harm him. He’s living on easy street; he doesn’t have a worry in the world. Of course he’s your best man. He’s also your richest man. You do take care of your own, don’t you?”
Behind it all is a not-so-subtle message. You’ve bribed him with prosperity. You dangle riches in front of him like a carrot on a stick. Satan is accusing God of rigging the system. It’s as if there were a contract between Job and God that went like this:
I’ll be good, and you will bless me.
I’ll be pious, and you will give me prosperity.
This is the Old Testament version of what today is called Prosperity Theology.
This is the Old Testament version of what today is called Prosperity Theology. Note that it comes from Satan, not from God. Satan is attacking Job’s motive and God’s integrity. Here is the real question of the book of Job: Will anyone serve God for no personal gain? Satan says the answer is no. Job will worship God only when things are going his way. Thus he says in verse 11: “But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
Satan’s question is the supreme question of life. You served God in the sunshine; will you now serve him in the shadows? You believed him in the light of day; will you still believe him at midnight? You sang his praises when all was going well; will you still sing through your tears? You came to church and declared, “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” Is he still your shepherd in the valley of the shadow of death?
You served God in the sunshine; will you now serve him in the shadows?
He was good enough for you when you had money in the bank. Is he good enough for you when you have no money at all? He was good enough for you when you had your health. Is he good enough when the doctor says, “You have six months to live”? He was good enough when you were married. Is he good enough when the one you love walks out on you? He was good enough when your family was all together. Is he good enough when you stand around an open grave? It’s not hard to believe in God when everything is going your way. Anyone can do that. But when life tumbles in, what then?
Four Messengers of Misfortune
Now the scene shifts from heaven to earth. Satan has received God’s permission to put Job to the test. Notice that it happens on a “day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house” (v. 13). In a moment of great happiness, at a family reunion, when you would least expect it, Satan strikes.
First, the Sabeans steal Job’s livestock and kill his servants (vv. 14-15).
Second, a “fire of God” destroys his sheep and kills his servants (v. 16).
Third, the Chaldeans steal his camels and kill his servants (v. 17).
Fourth, a great wind hits the house where his children are feasting and kills them all (vv. 18-19).
The four messengers of misfortune come to Job one after another. Three times the text says, “While he was still speaking” (vv. 16, 17, 18). In the space of a few minutes, Job lost everything that was dear to him. His vast wealth: vanished. His empire: crumbled. His workers: murdered. His children: killed.
That’s the worst of it. When tragedy strikes, it often comes again and again. And we think, “This must be the worst of it.” Then comes another knock at the door. Just when it seems that things can’t get any more terrible, the bottom falls out again.
370 and Rising
Have you ever taken one of those tests designed to measure the stress in your life? Typically, the test lists some fifty stress-producing events and assigns a numerical score to each event. Some events have a relatively low point value:
Moving to a new home: 20 points
Trouble with in-laws: 29 points
Others produce much more stress:
Divorce: 73 points
Death of a spouse: 100 points
You simply check off the events that have happened to you in the last twelve months and then total up the points. According to the test, if your total score for a year is from 0 to 150, you have only a 37 percent chance of undergoing a severe mental or emotional crisis in the next two years. If your score is from 150 to 300, the probability rises to 51 percent. But if your score is over 300, there is an 80 percent probability that you will soon face a severe mental or emotional crisis. The stress level in your life is simply too high.
When tragedy strikes, it often comes again and again.
Something like that happened to me in 1974. That was the year the bottom fell out of my life. Within a period of less than six months, I got engaged, graduated from college, took a new job, went on a long trip, got married, moved to a new state, started seminary, and two months later my father died. My score on the stress scale was up to 370-and rising. By the end of the year I was a basket case. Everything good was bitter to me. I hated life. It had been too much to take.
But Job lost it all-not in a year or in six months or in a couple of weeks, but in a single afternoon. Tragedy is no respecter of persons. You can be on top of the world and lose it all in the twinkling of an eye. Tragedy can come to the same house again and again, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
From Weeping to Worship
The only thing that is left is to see Job’s response.
There Is Genuine Sorrow.
“At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head” (v. 20). These are the actions of a man whose heart has been torn apart. They are public symbols of inner pain, much like wearing black to a funeral.
Some Christians think it is wrong to grieve over a great loss. They believe that tears somehow show a lack of faith in God. Even in a great loss, they believe it is somehow holy to put up a good front and never show pain. They even have trouble dealing with people who show great emotion after a severe loss.
Abraham and David and Jeremiah were real flesh-and-blood men who were not afraid to weep.
I remember discussing this with a friend who told me that when his father died he never cried, not even once. He simply called the undertaker, and that was that. When I told him that I had cried many times in thinking about my father’s death, he simply could not understand it. To him, tears were a sign of weakness. But the Bible never says that. We are told that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Abraham and David and Jeremiah were real flesh-and-blood men who were not afraid to weep and cry and cover themselves with mourning garments. No one believed in God more than they did, and yet they were not ashamed to let others see their pain. We do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with our weaknesses (see Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knows what we’re going through because he was here with us. He knows what it’s like to die of a broken heart. If our Lord was not ashamed of his tears, we shouldn’t be ashamed of ours.
There is Heartfelt Worship.
“Then he fell to the ground in worship” (Job 1:20). Here is the ultimate response of the man of faith in the face of unexplainable tragedy. He weeps and then he worships. This is what differentiates the Christian from the rest of the world. They weep; we weep. They get angry; we worship. Our sorrow is just as real as theirs, but their sorrow leads only to despair, whereas ours leads to worship.
There is Profound Faith.
Verse 21 records Job’s great statement of faith. He says three things. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.”
This is literally true, as every husband who has ever been present in the delivery room can testify. All babies are born naked. We have a phrase for that. We say that a naked person is wearing his “birthday suit.” But it’s just as true at the end of life. We leave the way we enter. We bring nothing with us, and we take nothing with us. Sometimes when a person dies we ask, “How much did he leave?” The answer is always the same: “He left it all.” An Italian proverb says, “The last robe has no pockets.” You’ll never see a Brinks truck following a hearse. When you die, you leave it all behind.
The last robe has no pockets.
All we have is given to us on temporary loan. No matter how much we have been given in this life, we cannot keep it. In the end we have to give it back.
“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.”
This is the man of faith speaking. This statement rises above the first one. It is true that we leave it all behind. But the man of faith understands that all we have we never owned in the first place. All that we have was given to us by God. He can take what is rightfully his any time he wants. Because he is God, he doesn’t have to ask our permission before he takes it back, nor does he have to explain himself afterward.
“May the name of the Lord be praised.”
Job’s faith now rises to its highest level. He has lost it all: his wealth, his workers, his children. All that he counted dear in life has been ripped from his grasp. Yet in the midst of his pain, Job praises God.
Here is the great point: Job draws his argument for praise from the bitterness of suffering. His loss drives him back to the goodness of God. Every pain is a reminder of how good God has been to him.
Someone has said that “the magnitude of the loss determines the size of the gift.” The greater the sorrow, the greater the joy must have been. Every tear is a way of saying, “Thank you, Lord, for what you gave me.” In Job’s case, the more he grieves, the more he blesses the name of the Lord.
Four Simple Conclusions
Our text ends with these amazing words: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (v. 22). He didn’t ask why, he didn’t accuse God of not loving him, he didn’t claim his rights, he didn’t curse God, and he didn’t give up his faith. He simply said to himself, “If God takes something away from me, I will thank him that I had it to enjoy for just a little while.”
As I ponder this remarkable story, four conclusions come to mind.
1. Undeserved suffering often comes to righteous men and women.
This is surely an obvious lesson, and although we have heard it before, we need to hear it again. Three times the text emphasizes that Job was a righteous man. What happened to him did not happen because of any moral fault or hidden sin in his life. It is a human tendency when tragedy strikes to believe that if we had only lived a better life the tragedy would never have happened. Sometimes that is true, but more often it is not.
If the story of Job teaches us anything, it is that sometimes godly people sometimes suffer unexplainable losses. Terrible things sometimes happen to God’s people.
2. God is the source and owner of all you have.
God is the ultimate source of all that you have, and he has the absolute right to take that which belongs to him. Your house? It is his. Your job? It is his. Your future? It is his. Your health? It is his. Your children? Yes, even your children are his. They belonged to him before they ever belonged to you. Your husband or your wife? Yes, even your husband or your wife. All that you have belongs to God. And in the end, you will give it all back to him. Sometimes he will take back something sooner than you would like to give it. But that is his absolute right, for he is God.
All that you have belongs to God.
3. Your personal trials relate to God’s purpose for your life.
Your personal trials can never be caused by blind fate or bad luck. They all somehow relate to God’s purpose for your life. If this were not true, the Bible would not be true. If you don’t come to believe this, you will eventually give up your faith. When tragedy strikes, the tendency is to search for a cause, a reason, an explanation, a chain of events stretching back into the past that would explain the catastrophe you now face. But as you search for causes, you will go back, and back, and back, until at last you come to God.
And, as I say, if you do not eventually conclude that what happens to you somehow flows from God’s loving purpose for your life, you will sooner or later give up your faith altogether.
4. Trials are designed to draw you nearer to God.
The one great biblical purpose for trials is to draw you is not, “Why did this happen to me?” The deeper question is, “Now that this has happened, will I remain loyal to God?”
And that brings us back to A. J. Gossip’s sermon and the great question, “When life tumbles in, what then?” If we turn away from our faith in times of trouble, what shall we turn to? Have we not lost enough without losing that too? When life crashes in against us and all that we value most is taken from us, if we then give up our faith, where will we go and what will we do?
We have a wonderful God.
Pastor Gossip put it this way in his sermon:
“You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.”
Steve Brown tells about a seminar one of his associate pastors was leading. During one session, the associate pastor said that because God is love, no matter how bad things get, Christians should praise him. Afterward, a man came up to him in great agitation. “Dave, I can’t buy it. I can’t buy what you say about praising God in the midst of evil and hurt.” Then he went on to say what many people secretly feel. “I do not believe that when you lose someone you love through death, or you have cancer, or you lose your job, that you ought to praise God.” After a moment’s silence, the associate pastor replied very simply, “What alternative do you propose?”
We do not gain if we turn away from God in the time of trouble. If we turn away from God, we lose our only ground of hope.
Cords Stronger Than Steel
As A. J. Gossip came to the end of his sermon, he said,
“I don’t think you need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail; and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God.”
Indeed we do. And as the apostle Paul puts it at the end of Romans 8, What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing at all. Not life, nor death, nor tragedy, nor heartbreak, nor suffering. We are forever connected to his love with cords a thousand times stronger than steel. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. The question remains. When life tumbles in, what then? Through our tears, we rest our confidence in one great truth. He who brought us this far will take us safely home.