Innocent Suffering: A Lenten Thought
In the piety of Lenten self-reflection, the confession of our sin holds a prominent place. Especially for Lutherans who recognize that, as simul iustus et peccator, our confession of sin is comprehensive. The words of Isaiah 64 quickly become our own: “we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Such a confession is biblical and makes sense to us in a certain context, but it can also be misunderstood and misapplied. A Roman Catholic colleague once said to me (half-jokingly), “the problem with you Lutherans is that helping an old lady across the street and pushing her in front of a bus are both regarded as sin.” Once I even heard a person commenting on the book of Job, saying that Job should have suffered even more because he was a terrible sinner. In effect the speaker was siding with Job’s friends against Job. It made me wonder: Is there such as thing as innocent suffering?
During the Lenten season we also think of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. There clearly the One suffering is doing it in a substitutionary way, in the place of all sinners. While we fully affirm the rich theology of Isaiah 53, we should not lose sight of another group of Old Testament texts, texts that speak of innocent sufferers. These texts also find their ultimate fulfillment in the Innocent Sufferer on the cross, Jesus the Christ.
A classic example would be King David who authored and prayed so many of the lament psalms. He was being hounded by his enemies and unjustly so. He was innocent of the charges filed against him. Now, of course, he was not without original sin. He was a sinner like everyone else. Yet he found himself being falsely accused and he was innocent. He was an innocent sufferer. Instead of taking matters into his own hands, he delivered the matter to God in a prayer. Examples include Psalm 7 and Psalm 17.
The classic example of an innocent sufferer in the Old Testament is Job. To be sure, Job was a sinner in a theological sense like all people before God. His identity in the presence of God was pure gift, a righteousness received by faith alone. Yet here the topic has to do with the fruit of that faith, an active righteousness that works out his fear and love of God in a godly life that cares for the oppressed and flees wickedness. God himself highlighted this righteousness of Job when God pointed out to Satan the accuser: “my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3).
Satan does not agree with God. He assumes that everyone, even Job, uses God for a selfish, self-centered purpose. So Satan responds “Does Job fear God for nought?” (Job 1:9). If Satan were right, that would mean that there is no faith, no believer on earth at all. A lot was at stake. So they put Job to the test.
At the end notice what happens. The LORD’s anger burned against Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar because they did not speak of God what is right as his servant Job had (Job 42:7).
In his arguments with his friends Job did speak at times in an arrogant manner, of things beyond him, and at times he did cast aspersions upon God. Therefore Job repented when God appeared (Job 42:6). Nevertheless, at the beginning Job was an innocent sufferer. He was not suffering because he was more lawless or wicked than the friends. When reading the book of Job the reader is intended to agree with God and God’s assessment, not with Satan.
There is such a category as innocent suffering. In many parts of the world some godly Christians are suffering unjustly. They are sharing in the innocent sufferings of Jesus the Messiah, their Savior. How should they respond? A good way to respond is to pray the Psalms in and through Christ the Crucified.