“Now My Eye Sees You”: Suffering and the Beauty of Christlikeness
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5)
The book of Job has been described as beautiful because of its artful structure and elegant poetry—but not often because of its stark display of terrible suffering. Yet Job’s last recorded words (in the verse quoted above) reveal two ways in which God’s people can be beautiful when we suffer. As I noted in my column in the previous issue (January/February 2023), I define beauty in terms of the concept of fittingness or appropriateness (Gen. 1:26–2:25). Since promoting God’s glory is always supremely fitting, Christians can beautify their sufferings as they glorify God in and through them. A second fitting or beautiful aspect of suffering is when it furthers the ends of redemption, including spiritual growth. Job’s words suggest two ways that suffering can be beautiful in this respect.
The Beauty of a Deeper Knowledge of God
The most important way in which God’s people can grow through their suffering is by attaining a richer, deeper knowledge of him. After all, Christ himself observed that eternal life is essentially about knowing God (John 17:3). This relationship is why we were created (Gen. 1:26–2:25); it is what we lost in the fall (Gen. 3:8–24; WSC 19); it is what redemption and the gospel restore to us. But even among those who are truly his people, there are different degrees of personal knowledge of God.
Christian growth is a process that occurs over the entire course of a believer’s life. It involves several dimensions, but especially growing in a deeper knowledge of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One aspect of this knowledge is intellectual, acquiring greater knowledge about God. The second, and ultimately more important, dimension is experiential and relational; that is, actually knowing him. Someone may know a lot about someone—the current president, a favorite athlete, a historical figure—without meeting them personally, much less knowing them intimately. The same may be true of God. It is possible (and critical) to acquire an accurate store of the information that God has revealed about himself in Scripture. But simply knowing that there are three divine persons in the Godhead is not the same as knowing these persons. It is one thing to know that God is love, or that he is gracious and almighty. It is something else to experience his love, grace, and power. The goal of the Christian life is to glorify and to enjoy God (WLC 1; WSC 1) and enjoying him assumes or implies not just any type of relationship—after all, there are many unhealthy and even dangerous relationships—but a pleasant relationship, a trusting and loving relationship with him. Christ died and sent his Spirit to bring us intimacy with God.
In addition to fulfilling God’s purpose for creation and redemption, this personal fellowship with God is a great blessing to sufferers. Suffering provides opportunities for his people to know firsthand his comfort in affliction, his power in weakness, and his wisdom in perplexity. He is the God who is “near to the brokenhearted,” “a stronghold in the day of trouble; [who] knows those who take refuge in Him,” “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” “the God of all grace,” “the God who comforts the downcast,” “the God of hope,” “the God of love and peace,” and “the God who gives endurance and encouragement.” Intimate knowledge of this God can only help his people when they are suffering. Indeed, promoting that knowledge is one of the chief reasons why he permits their suffering (2 Cor. 1:8–9; 4:7–11; 12:9–10).
In Job 42:5, Job declares that he has experienced a much more vivid, intimate, and profound knowledge of the Lord than he had before his terrible trials: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The book climaxes with Job’s final encounter with the Lord himself, when “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” In Job’s case, “My eyes see Thee” was literally true; but suffering can be, and often has been, a way in which Christians have seen or experienced God in less literal but no less vivid and intimate ways. For instance, the apostle Paul, who describes God as the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” and the God “who comforts the downcast,” not only taught others but deeply and powerfully experienced for himself God’s comfort as a result of the sufferings connected with his ministry in Asia and Macedonia (2 Cor. 1:4–10; 7:5–7). Paul also suggests that the severity of his sufferings not only enabled him to experience something of the Lord’s power as the “God who raises the dead,” but that this was an explicit part of their purpose (2 Cor. 1:8–10). Is it any different for us today? In Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God, Tim Challies recounts the pain of his son’s tragic death, as well as the way he and his family experienced the Lord as the God of all comfort in the process of their grieving.
Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and He saves the crushed in spirit.” David’s time in the barren Judean wilderness whetted his thirst for God, as he wrote, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). And David’s many experiences of suffering—Saul’s persecution, his sin with Bathsheba, his son Absalom’s rebellion—also provided opportunities for him to experience the Lord’s presence, power, grace, and faithfulness in new and deeper ways (Pss. 3; 18; 32; 51; and so on). The eminent Scottish saint and sufferer Samuel Rutherford spoke for countless believers when he wrote,
O, what I owe to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! . . . Whether God come to his children with a rod or a crown, if he come himself with it, it is well. Welcome, welcome Jesus, what way soever thou come, if we can get a sight of thee: and sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bedside and draw the curtains . . . than to enjoy health, being lusty and strong and never need to be visited of God.
As varied as our forms of suffering can be, they all have the tendency to humble us and drive home how weak and needy we are, making us seek the Lord as nothing else does. We search God’s word for consolation and counsel, and we seek him in prayer for guidance, help, and strength. We look and listen eagerly, even desperately; and when he answers, we rejoice, we thank and praise him, and our faith grows. We feel his love, grace, and power in new and more intense ways, and in so doing, we know him better—and a deeper knowledge of God is always a beautiful thing. It was the sweetest part of life in the Garden of Eden; it will be heaven’s greatest blessing; it is what we were redeemed to enjoy in time and eternity. Knowing God invigorates our present worship and increases our pleasure in serving him. But that’s not all.
The Beauty of Increasing Christlikeness
Job also mentioned a second effect of his suffering and his greater knowledge of God: “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5). The gospel is not just about God’s forgiving and admitting sinners into intimate family fellowship, wonderful as that is. It is also about him transforming us into what we were originally created to be, into what Jesus, the second Adam, was and is: perfect bearers of the image of God. This process, known as (progressive) sanctification, is also the fruit of God’s grace and depends on Jesus’ saving work alone. Yet it differs from justification and adoption in several important respects. Justification and adoption are acts done fully and finally at the point of saving faith and repentance (WSC 33, 34; WCF 11, 12). But sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and occurs gradually over a believer’s entire lifetime (WCF 13; WSC Q. 35). Furthermore, justification and adoption are accomplished by God alone; believers contribute nothing. Sanctification, on the other hand, is cooperative. Believers have responsibilities to fulfill in the sanctification process, such as abiding in Christ, using the means of grace, obedience, repenting and believing, and learning and growing. Yet at the end of the day, sanctification is also the work of grace because God enables believers to do what he asks (Phil. 2:12–13), and he blesses our often feeble and inept actions, gradually enabling us to put off the old person and put on the new (Eph. 3:23–24; Col. 3:9–10), and to be increasingly conformed to our Savior’s beautiful image (2 Cor. 3:18).
Mortification and Vivification
Sanctification involves at least two aspects, which have been called “mortification” and “vivification.” Mortification is the process by which our indwelling sins such as pride, unbelief, anger, and lust are “put to death” or diminished in their power over us (Rom. 8:13; Col. 2:5). Vivification is the process by which the Spirit produces and strengthens positive Christian virtues or graces such as faith, hope, love, and humility. Theologians sometimes also distinguish between “active” graces such as love, characterized by what we do, and “passive” ones like meekness, characterized more by what we refrain from doing. Let me say it again: while believers are to do and not do certain things as part of their Christian growth, true sanctification is ultimately supernatural. Salvation is the Lord’s work, and he particularly uses suffering to promote both of these processes of sanctification and to cultivate both kinds of grace in his children (Heb. 12:11).
There is a vast difference between going through the motions (even the right ones) and being transformed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit through the power of Christ’s resurrection life (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:7–12). God makes his children “new creatures” in Christ with renewed intellects, wills, and affections. Consequently, good works like worship, obedience, service, witness, and suffering well are motivated by gratitude, and they evidence the beautiful graces of faith, hope, love, and the Spirit’s other fruit.
The author of Hebrews encourages his readers by describing suffering as a form of God’s fatherly discipline (Heb. 12:1–11). Citing Proverbs 3:11–12, the writer argues that, by its very nature, discipline is painful (Heb. 12:5–6, 11), but it is also an inevitable and blessed privilege of God’s children. Unlike earthly fathers, God always disciplines his children out of perfect wisdom and love (Heb. 12:6) and for our good, which means sharing his holiness (Heb. 12:10, 14). Believers should not, therefore, be discouraged by suffering and give up. On the contrary, we should rejoice in it as a sign that we are his children, endure it patiently, and seek to grow and be trained through it (Heb. 12:11). The great means by which we do this is “looking to Jesus,” our object of faith, source of grace, and example of triumphant endurance (Heb. 12:1–4).
Suffering will be part of life in this fallen world until Jesus returns to make all things new. Having sustained and blessed his people in their tribulations, he will eventually deliver and reward us (2 Pet. 3:10–13; Rev. 21:1–5), not least in shedding every vestige of sin and weakness from us so that we can bear his lovely image forever. In the meantime, like Job, we can learn to know the Lord better and become more like him. But this growth is not the inevitable result of suffering in and of itself. If we respond to pain with bitterness, unbelief, and disobedience, then we will decline in our closeness to God and diminish our likeness to him. It is therefore important to trust God even in the midst of pain and be wise and faithful stewards of our suffering as followers of the Suffering Servant. May the Lord grant to each of us so to steward our pain that we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and, like Job, see our God make of our suffering something beautiful.
J. D. “Skip” Dusenbury (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) is a retired pastor who continues serving the Lord and his church through preaching, teaching, interim pastoring, and writing.
Footnotes:1. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 3:263–76; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 149–55; J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: 1973), 13–37.
2. Job 42:5–6; Ps. 34:18; Isa. 40:31; 2 Cor. 1:3–4; 4:7–11; 7:6; 12:9.
3. Ps. 34:8; Nah. 1:7; 2 Cor. 1:3; 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Cor. 7:6; Rom. 15:13; 2 Cor. 13:11; Rom. 15:4.
4. Tim Challies, Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022).
5. Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 8, 21.
6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941), 527–44; A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 194–201; John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 141–50; John Piper, Providence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 635–60; WCF 13.
7. Piper uses the phrases “killing sin” and “pursuing holiness” in Providence (e.g., 583ff.).
8. Piper, Providence, 635–58.
9. Second Cor. 5:17; John 3:3–7; Eph. 2:1–3; 5:8.
10. Gal. 5:22–23; John 15:1–8, 16, HC Q. 2.