By Phil Roberts
Why have you suffered the things you have in your life? Ultimately, sin causes all suffering. We shy away from the stark reality of this answer, but it is the only answer that comes to us from the Bible.
1. Suffering as a Natural Consequence of Sin. Sometimes the connection between suffering and sin is clear to everybody. The homosexual who contracts AIDS or the promiscuous heterosexual who contracts a venereal disease knows that sin brings suffering. Likewise, the thief who gets caught or the drunk who loses his arm in a wreck suffers as a direct consequence of his actions. Such suffering is merely the natural consequence of the biological and social order of the world which God has created.
The book of Proverbs focuses on this moral order of God’s creation, and is, therefore, filled with warnings about the natural consequences of sin. “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? … Those who linger long over wine” (Prov. 23:29-30; cf. also 11:6,19; 12:13; 13:21; 21:7,25; 22:8,14; 24:30-34; 26:27; 28:10; 28:17-22).
2. Suffering as Punishment for Sin. But sometimes God sends direct punishment above and beyond the natural consequences of sin. The cases of Achan and his family, of Nadab and Abihu, and especially of Uzzah who was struck dead after touching the ark, come immediately to mind. And lest we think such divinely administered punishment was limited to the OT, remember the case of Ananias and Sapphira from the NT. Even men of God such as Moses and David suffered severe punishment for their sins. We realize, therefore, that some of the things we suffer in our fives may well be punishment from God. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).
But often the suffering we experience in this life is so far removed from the sin that precipitated it – so indirect – that we fail to see the connection. And the fact that suffering does not seem to be distributed among men in any reasonable relationship to their individual sinfulness causes us to doubt the connection altogether. We know sinners who are the picture of health and devout Christians who are eaten up with cancer. We have seen car wrecks where an innocent child was killed and the drunk who caused the wreck was unharmed (cf. Psa. 73:3-9). And we all know that most of our own sins have not been followed by an clear and immediate punishment (Eccl. 8:11).
So maybe some suffering comes as a result of sin, we say to ourselves, but surely not all suffering can be explained that way. And what about the blind man in John 9:1-2? Jesus said the blindness resulted neither from his own sins nor from his parents’ sins, as the disciples had supposed.
Well the case of the blind man should certainly warn us against oversimplified explanations of suffering. But if we use the case to try to prove that there is no connection between sin and suffering, we miss the point altogether. The fact is, those disciples had very good reason to suppose that somebody’s sin caused the man’s blindness. They knew from the Scriptures that David’s son had died because of the sin of his parents. And they could surely recall how Jesus himself had healed the paralytic with the words: “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20), and how he had told the lame man by the pool of Bethesda to “Go and sin no more lest a worse thing happen to you” (John 5:14; cf. also the implied connection in Jas. 5:15-16).
I repeat, therefore, the assertion that all suffering is caused by sin. But the case of the blind man reminds us that not all suffering can be explained by such a direct principle as the disciples tried to apply. Thus we must consider some of the more indirect ways in which sins brings suffering.
3. Suffering as a Member of a Sinful Group. When Achan sinned (Josh. 7), the whole nation suffered defeat in battle and thirty-six men were killed. When he was caught, his family was executed with him. Even godly men such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel suffered along with the rest of the nation during the Babylonian captivity. Sometimes we suffer because we are associated with other people who are sinners. Indeed, some suffering comes to all men simply because they are part of the sinful group known as the human race. But the more sinful the portion of the human race that we choose to associate with, the more intense our suffering may be. Think about the suffering that Lot brought on himself and his family when he pitched his tent toward Sodom (2 Pet. 2:7-8).
The ancient writer Augustine elaborated on this point as he sought to explain to early Christians why God would have allowed them to suffer along with the pagans when Rome was sacked by the Vandals in A.D. 410. He observed that, while they might have been personally innocent of the sins that had brought suffering to the whole population, they might still be held accountable in God’s eyes simply because they had not actively fought against the sins being committed by others, but had adopted a passive and too tolerant attitude tow” sin in others. How strongly have we opposed the growing immorality of our nation?
Augustine likewise suggested that we may have associated ourselves with the sins of the world around us more closely than we would like to admit inasmuch as we often envy the sinners around us and secretly desire to live as they do (cf. Prov. 24:1-2, 19-20). We may even choose to keep quiet about sin because we realize that we reap certain benefits even from sins committed by others. We don’t know how much Achan’s family knew about the theft of goods from Jericho, but I doubt that that was the first time he had sinned, and I suspect they were well aware of his sinful practices in general, and had chosen to look the other way and enjoy the benefits of his evil.
4. Suffering to Bring Repentance from Sin. C.S. Lewis said pain is the megaphone God shouts through when he really wants to get our attention. And sometimes it’s hard to get the attention of us sinners. Amos described a series of rive judgments – famine, drought, crop disease, plague, and destruction of cities – which God brought upon the children of Israel to get them to repent of their sins (Amos 4:6-11; cf. also Lev. 26:18-33). Such suffering is partly punishment and partly warning. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that whether such suffering is a punishment for sin on the one hand, or a warning to repent of sin on the other hand, depends mainly on how we respond to it. If we harden our hearts, it is just punishment. But if we are softened and repent, we have turned what might have been punishment into a gracious warning from our Father. “Whom the Lord loves, he chastens” (Heb. 12:6). Our suffering may even serve to warn others to turn from sin (Luke 13:1-5).
5. Suffering to Keep Usfrom Sin. God may also allow us to suffer just to enable us to resist temptations we will face in the future, or maybe even to keep us from being confronted by temptations greater than we can bear. God clearly told the Israelites that that was why he let them suffer hardship in the wilderness (Deut. 8:16-17). And Paul said that was why the Lord did not remove his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Christ himself learned obedience by the things that he suffered (Heb. 5:8). James advises us to rejoice in suffering because such trials produce endurance, which in turn makes us “perfect and complete” (1:24; cf. 1 Pet. 4:14 also). And surely the perfection we attain through suffering includes the strength and self-discipline to resist future temptations.
Even the deaths of children in cases such as the infant son of David and Bathsheba and the son of the wicked Jeroboam may be partly explained as deliverance from sin. In fact, God specifically said that the son of Jeroboam was going to die because he was the only decent member of the family. He would get a decent burial and thus be delivered from the calamity that was about to overwhelm the rest of the royal house (1 Kings 14:12-16). This same principle is surely part of the explanation of the death of children when wicked nations such as the Canaanites were destroyed. Those children were, in a sense, being delivered from an inevitable life of sinful paganism.
In this same category we may even classify certain of the more trivial pains and sufferings that come to us in the normal course of daily life – pain from disease, for example, reminds us that we live in a corruptible, sin-cursed world in which all things will eventually pass away. We take warning not to trust in our own physical strength, but to look beyond this life.
6. Suffering Because of Someone Else’s Sin. Thus far we have considered suffering that is in some way tied to our own sin. But we know that sometimes the truly innocent do suffer. If you are prone to doubt this, just think how many I times you have caused an innocent person to suffer through your sins. Or consider the case of Naboth who suffered because of the sin of Ahab and Jezebel. Indeed, the more righteous we are the more we may expect to suffer through the sinfulness of others or even the opposition of Satan himself. The righteous man is an irritant to the world around him and that world rights back, trying either to conform him or to destroy him. Job suffered from the hand of Satan precisely because he was righteous. “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matt. 5:10, cf. especially 1 Pet. 2:19-24; 4:12-19).
7. Suffering For the Good of Other Sinners. Sometimes the righteous man willingly suffers on behalf of others, even when he knows they are sinners. Joseph told his brothers that the things he had suffered had been for their good (Gen. 45:5). Paul rejoiced that his bonds had led to a more fervent proclamation of the gospel (Phil. 1:12-18). But, frankly, such a willingness to suffer on behalf of others is exceedingly rare (Rom. 5:7). We should be very reticent to explain our own suffering in this way. But, if and when we do suffer for others, we then become truly Christ-like (Col. 1:24).
8. Suffering to Glorify God. Whatever the cause of our suffering, we can transform it to a higher purpose if we patiently endure. We can show that the power of God is greater than the power of Satan. Indeed, we can use the suffering that comes from sin as an occasion to triumph over sin and thereby glorify God (1 Pet. 4:16).
9. One Who Suffered for Your Sin. We may suffer for the good of other sinners in many different ways. But our suffering can never bring about the forgiveness of other men’s sins, or even of our own. The Bible does not teach any doctrine of penance, or any treasury of merit acquired by suffering saints. But forgiveness of sins is exactly what the suffering and death of Christ accomplished for each one of us. “He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24, cf. Isa. 53:4-12).
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 17, 515-516, 550
September 1, 1988