If there’s a God, why do we suffer? Sometimes the answer is impossible to find. However, the Bible gives us a clear picture of the causes of most of our problems…
My subject for this part of the series is probably going to be even less popular than the last one. However, if we really want to know where suffering comes from, we have to face facts, and not our own opinion of what we think God should be like.
I know it’s politically correct to think that if there is a God, he smiles and winks at everything except fundamentalism, but like it or not, God judges sin, God punishes sin, and God disciplines some who sin. This explains a lot of what we go through in life. It’s not as though we have not been warned: there is abundant warning in the Bible of not only the consequences of our actions, but punishment for them.
We don’t necessarily get ‘zapped’ the moment we do something wrong, and I must stress that I believe there is forgiveness for anyone who is really of a mind to change their ways. God is patient with us, and wants us to come to the point where we change, but he does not give a limitless license to do wrong. The Bible teaches “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows…” (Galatians 6:7).
We can clearly see punishment for sin first in the Old Testament. We think of bad luck, or the devil as the one who delivers negative or destructive events into our lives, but the Old Testament shows that God himself can afflict people with war (Exodus 22:22-24: Leviticus 26:6); terror (Leviticus 26:16), calamity (Jeremiah 14:16); disaster ( 1 Kings 9: 8-9); disease (Deuteronomy 28:22); and plague (Amos 4:10).
Consequences of our choices and the way we live can even be seen in the “ten commandments”, where we are told “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20 12). The obvious implication is that failing to honor our parents may be the cause of a short life, and therefore also the possibility of suffering on the way to that death.
We are given a very intimate and personal view of the consequences of sin when we look at the life of David, who sinned by committing adultery and having an innocent man killed. In his suffering, David prayed, “Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand. You rebuke and discipline men for their sins…” (Psalm 39: 10-11). David suffered physically in punishment for his sin, which can be seen in detail in several Psalms. He was willing to own up to his wrongdoing, and to repent of it, and we need to do the same, without delay.
For those of you who are inclined to believe the New Testament but not the Old, and in that way dismiss the notion of consequences for our actions, be warned that Jesus is quoted many times as referring to the Old Testament as though he believed it to be true. As an example, look at his words to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken…And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
There really was punishment for sin in Old Testament times. However, such consequences did not end with the beginning of the New Testament.
First of all, the writer of Hebrews warned that we will not escape punishment if we reject God’s offer of salvation from our sin (Hebrews 2: 2-3). This is speaking of the “everlasting destruction” of those who have refused to know God (2 Thessalonians 1: 8-10), and the “eternal punishment” which Jesus himself spoke of many times (example Matthew 25: 46).
More immediately, suffering the consequences of sin is possible in this life. Jesus, having healed an invalid, told him “See, you are well again. Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you” (John5: 14).
A determined unwillingness to repent of sin can either incur direct judgment, or cause the removal of God’s protective hand. When Christ wept over Jerusalem, he said to the city “The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and hem you in on every side…They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:41-44).
We make the mistake of thinking that it’s only “bad” sin that leads to punishment, such as murder or being a politician, but that’s not how God sees it. Luke wrote, “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13 1- 5).
The book of Revelation, and other lengthy passages of scripture, are full of warnings of God’s coming judgment upon the earth, but they also warn of consequences for this life when we are in opposition to the Almighty, as in the case of King Herod. He received praise from men instead of passing it on to the Lord, and “an angel of the Lord struck him down” (Acts12: 21- 23). It is a huge mistake to think of God as some doting old man who wants us to get away with anything “as long as we are sincere” and “don’t hurt anyone”. He has his own very high standards, and will judge us by them.
SIN CAN BE A JUDGMENT
Us humans sometimes think we’re having a good time in our sin, and that since God hasn’t sent judgment yet, He’s not going to, right? Wrong! Amazingly, sin itself can sometimes be a judgment or punishment from the Lord, or perhaps we could call it a ‘down-payment” of judgment. This is spelled out clearly for us by Paul. Examining the state of those who had turned totally against God and to their own wickedness and empty philosophies, he explains that “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans1:24). The result of a stubborn heart bent on living against God’s ways is that He gives us over completely to the consequences of our actions. We think we are gaining freedom: in fact we are losing freedom, health, dignity, and worst of all- any relationship with our Creator that we may have had.
Paul continues, showing that God then gives people “over to their shameful lusts” (verse 26). He “gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (verse 28).
Many people are thinking in these days that sexual freedom and the total rejection of God for atheism is a sign of freedom In fact it is just the opposite: they are losing any link with their Creator-the one who loves them and sustains them: the only one who can give them eternal life, and they are receiving a down-payment of judgment, that is, God is giving them over to a way of life in this world which is destructive to the individual, to the family, and to society, and which is well on the road to destruction.
DISCIPLINE OF THE BELIEVER
I want to stress that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Those who receive God’s forgiveness of sin by turning from their ways and receiving His son will escape condemnation and “eternal judgment” However, we are not given a license to sin, and we are still open to discipline or punishment if we live in sin. Some Christians think that God will not punish his children, but it’s clear from the New Testament that he will and does punish us when it’s necessary, and when we have failed to respond to His patience and kindness.
Christ himself said “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Revelation3: 19). This fact is echoed by the writer of Hebrews, quoting from a Proverb which states that the Lord disciplines those he loves, “and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12: 5,6). The Greek verb translated “punishes” here means “to whip”. This is not speaking of a little word in the ear, but something much stronger which will or should gain our attention and bring us to repentance, if we are wise enough, in touch with the Spirit of God and His Word, and if we are willing to humble ourselves. (The subject of my next post in the series will include “humbling”).
The author of Hebrews goes on to explain that “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (verse 10). He says “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (verse 11). He also encourages us to “Endure hardship as discipline” (verse 7). We can safely say that according to Scripture, God not only allows hardship into our lives, but sometimes introduces it. What might be the nature of that hardship? Perhaps you can fill in your own blanks, but be careful not to ascribe all suffering to God’s discipline, and remember that God loves you – he is not cruel or uncaring. Refer to previous subjects in my “Suffering” series.
DOES GOD PUNISH US PHYSICALLY?
If it’s hard for you to “accept that a loving God would allow suffering”, let’s look at another example from the Bible (if you can’t believe what the Bible says, you’re on your own: you will have to make up your own explanations for suffering, just as Mr. Darwin did, and just as many others have).
Paul confronted the Corinthians on several issues which were giving the church there a bad name. He said “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good’ (1 Corinthians 11:17). One of those issues was their attitude towards the Lord’s Supper, which was far from dignified. Read the passage for details. The relevant fact to us here is that because of their abuse of the supper, Paul said, “many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” -died- (verse 30). Paul went on to clarify that “When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined, so that we will not be condemned with the world” (verse 32). Here again is Biblical evidence that the Lord is willing and able to afflict us physically, when we get to the point that it’s the only way for him to bring us to repentance, or if he feels that we need to be punished. I know that many Christians reject the idea of God punishing us, but it is Biblical, and I’ve felt that punishment in my own life. I believe that God punishes in order to discipline.
There is a rather extreme example given in the book of Acts, in which a couple associated with the church – professing Christians – lie about their giving. Both drop dead on the spot, their lives taken by the Lord. (Read Acts 5:1-11).