What We Believe

"Why Do You Complain against Him?" (Job 33:13)

Robert J. Ream

New Horizons: August 1999

66th General Assembly

Also in this issue

The Sixty-sixth General Assembly

As the boat moved slowly away from the island, everyone in it, including Louis XIV's coconspirator, heard it. Above the splashing of the oars, it fell on them from high on the prison wall—the agonizing and plaintive cry of the man in the iron mask, a cry of "Why, why, why?" heard thrice over. This is television's attempt to portray one of the scenes from Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask. In this scene, the hapless older brother of a set of royal twins is secreted away by his younger brother, who has usurped the throne.

To be sure, few of us have ever had to endure such an extremity, but everyone has been overtaken by those occasions—some serious, some not so serious—when he could not help but wonder why. Why did the car have to break down at this time? Why did it have to rain today of all days? Why was I born on this side of the tracks? Why does this have to happen to me? And sometimes in desperation we may even cry aloud as our Lord did from the cross, "Why have you forsaken me?"

But why do we ask why? That is, what prompts us to pose these questions? And, more importantly, is it ever wrong in God's eyes for us to ask why—especially of him?

The Two Whys

In thinking about questions beginning with why, have you ever noticed that there are at least two types of questions that begin with the interrogative adverb why? The first type might be called querying. Here the one posing the question lacks information and is honestly seeking knowledge. He seeks it submissively, because when one is lacking in knowledge and knows he is lacking, he must submit himself to his informer, placing himself beneath him, as it were, and relying on what he says.

For instance, suppose that in the course of a conversation someone refers to a certain questionable practice by the term hocus-pocus. Then another asks, "Where did this strange expression hocus-pocus come from?" The reply that he gets from his knowledgeable friend is, "Some think it is a corruption of what the Roman Catholic priest says during a mass at the moment of supposed transubstantiation, namely Hoc est corpus, 'This is my body.' But others think that the expression came from the jargon of medieval jugglers and tricksters." Since our querier trusts his friend, he accepts his answer.

However, what transpires when a person is not querying, but rather questioning? Here his why takes on a completely different color and is issued from a very different stance. Suppose a person is told that a dandelion is called a dandelion because the word comes from a French expression meaning "tooth of a lion." The response might be, "Why? It doesn't look like a lion's tooth to me." In saying that, he is expressing doubt, taking a stance above his informer. Similarly, we all know what it is like to have someone say to us, "Why are you doing that?" We instantly know that he is expressing doubt, because he is placing himself above us and passing judgment on what we are doing.

These two ways of asking why are also illustrated in the Bible. For example, the query is illustrated in Matthew 13:10, where the disciples sincerely ask Jesus, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" And the critical questioning is illustrated in Matthew 9:11, where the Pharisees throw this in the disciples' face: "Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners?"

Now it is this second way of asking why that becomes so reprehensible, and even deadly, when it is directed toward God. It is when we begin to question God, when we begin to elevate ourselves above him, when we arrogate authority to ourselves and so proceed to present him with our whys, that our questions become pernicious. But to see just how pernicious they are will take a little reflection.

The Implications of Questioning

When anyone questions God, there is a whole array of possible implications that may be inherent in his questioning. And if a Christian would face those implications honestly, he would certainly draw back from them in horror.

If I, under any set of circumstances, presume to question God—not to query, mind you, but to question—then, whether I want to or not, I may be tacitly implying any one or perhaps all of the following:

  1. I really don't deserve such treatment, being the good and innocent person that I am.
  2. God is neither holy nor just, since he is treating me so unfairly.
  3. If God were omniscient, he would know that it is a mistake to make me go through this situation.
  4. Perhaps God is not omnipotent and can't prevent such suffering.
  5. I deserve an answer, and God ought to respond immediately to my satisfaction.
  6. I'll be able to understand God's answer, no matter what it is, and I reserve the right to reject it if I deem it to be inadequate.
  7. I don't have to submit to God's sovereignty and providence unless I understand the need for this to happen to me.

Now it may be asserted that not all of these statements are necessarily implicit in someone's questioning of God. Perhaps that may be true, but if only one of them is valid, then grievous sin has indeed been committed. It is difficult even to conceive of the enormity of the sin of taking the ineffably great and infinitely holy One to task for what he is doing or permitting, but that is precisely what we do when we employ that little word why in a questioning manner. Our doing so is not only a sin of enormous proportion, but also, from the standpoint of the infinite and almighty Sovereign over all, a situation that is more than unspeakably impertinent; it is simply intolerable.

Christian Suffering

Of course our chastening hurts (Heb. 12:11). It wouldn't be chastening if it didn't. But never, under any set of circumstances, do we have any right to complain or pass judgment against the Lord (Job 33:13; Lam. 3:39). It is worse than folly to do so.

Is it not true that if we received what we truly deserve, it could only be called hell? As the hymn writer reminds us,

What can these anxious cares avail thee,
These never-ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help, if thou bewail thee
O'er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.
Trinity Hymnal, 1961, #567, stanza 2

It is not at all a sign of weakness that the Lord does not remove our suffering when we so desire it. As 1 Corinthians 10:13 shows, our continuing to suffer indicates that we are still capable of enduring it. If it were otherwise, God would have removed it. It cannot possibly indicate some flaw in his character, for he cannot deny himself and thus be unfaithful, as Paul says (2 Tim. 2:13).

Do we not confess this when we say with the Shorter Catechism that "God is...unchangeable, in his...wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth"? How can he be anything but wise and good and just in what he does? Furthermore, if he would not explain everything to Job, why should he explain everything to us?

We may not know how the dark thread of our immediate experience fits into the tapestry that God is weaving, but we know that the Weaver is faithful and will not make our thread any darker than we can handle (1 Cor. 10:13).

The Christian life, in point of fact, is one of suffering (1 Pet. 2:21; 1 Thess. 3:3; Rom. 8:17), and the sooner we learn that the better. Look carefully at 1 Peter 2:21 and also at 1 Thessalonians 3:3. In those passages we see that we are destined for such experiences. Some of our sufferings are "common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13) and some are distinctive to Christians alone (Matt. 5:l"12), but all are undeniably for our good and God's glory.

Therefore, it is imperative when our time of suffering comes that, instead of questioning God, we submit to him and imitate and echo our Savior in the garden: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matt. 26:39 KJV).

Dr. Ream, a retired Christian school teacher, is an elder at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 1999.

New Horizons: August 1999

66th General Assembly

Also in this issue

The Sixty-sixth General Assembly

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