Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job sit literally alongside one another in the “wisdom literature” section of the Bible, and it is important to recognize their differing yet complementary perspectives on suffering. While Proverbs tends to emphasize the justice of suffering and how much suffering is directly related to wrongdoing, Job, Ecclesiastes vividly show how much of it is not.
The biblical story of creation was unique among ancient accounts of the world’s origin. Other accounts describe the world as coming into existence through a battle or struggle between divine beings or other supernatural forces. In these views there are multiple power centers in constant conflict and tension. That meant that the world was basically a chaotic place, a place where anything could happen, depending on which power gained the upper hand. This view has resurfaced today in the writings of scientific materialists who see the universe as the production of violent, unguided forces. In this kind of world, the most important trait is strength and power.
But Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad points out the uniqueness of the Hebrew Scriptures. There we read that creation was the result of one all-powerful God without rival, who made the world not in the way a warrior wins a battle but more as an artist crafts something of wonder and beauty. As an artist, he creates for the shear joy of it (Prov. 8:27-31). And therefore the world has a pattern to it, a fabric. A fabric is a complex underlying designed order or structure.
Biblical wisdom, according to von Rad, is to “become competent with regard to the realities of life.” Since the world was made by a good and righteous God, the fabric of the world has a moral order to it. That order is not based on power but on righteousness. Power and self-interest may appear successful in the short run, but they do not ultimately “work” in a world created by a good and just God. Therefore, cruel, selfish power is not only sinful, but stupid. It brings about loneliness, emptiness, and destruction. Faithfulness, integrity, unselfish service, and love are not only right but wise, because they fit the fabric of reality.
Except. While Proverbs points to the fact that, in general, hard work leads to prosperity, and laziness leads to want–it doesn’t always work that way. Job and Ecclesiastes supplement Proverbs’ understanding of the world. Our world has been created by God and therefore has a foundational moral order to it. And yet something is wrong with that order now. It is partly, though not fully, broken. . . . while Proverbs shows us the reality of God’s order, Job points to its “hiddenness” and Ecclesiastes to its “confusion.” At the end of the book of Job, God appears and insists that the moral order of the universe is still intact, but it is in large part hidden from human eyes. So while there is still a certain amount of “poetic justice” in which evildoers fall into the very traps of they set for others, much suffering is disproportionate and unfairly distributed. The good can and do die young.
The New Testament testifies to the same view of things. In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man and takes pains to show his disciples that he was not in that condition because of his sin or that of his parents, but in order to fulfill God’s inscrutable purposes. Thus, suffering people should not automatically be blamed for their condition.
The biblical idea not only contrasts with the teachings of karma, it goes against common sense. Psychologist Mel Lerner has demonstrated that most people have a deep desire to believe “people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.” They tend to assign blame to victims of tragedy especially if it is not possible to punish a perpetrator. This comes from a normal human impulse to make sense of things, but it also likely stems from the deep human need to believe we are in control of our own lives. People want to believe “that couldn’t happen to me–because I am wiser, I’m better, I know what I am doing.” The Bible’s assessment is less flattering to non-sufferers and kinder to those who are hurting. Much suffering is mysterious and unjust.
Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 134-35.