Understanding Suffering

Understanding Suffering

Debunking Misconceptions and Embracing God’s Character

“Let us have compassion for those under chastisement. Alas, who are we ourselves? Who am I and who are you? Whence do we come and is it quite certain that we did nothing before we were born? This earth is not without some resemblance to a gaol. Who knows but that man is a victim of divine justice? Look closely at life. It is so constituted that one senses punishment everywhere.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Suffering’s veil, misunderstood,
 God’s character, ever good.
 Embrace the lessons, let love guide,
 In trials, His grace reside.
Have you ever questioned whether the difficulties you face are a result of God’s punishment for your sins or disobedience? A recent conversation reminded me of something from more than twenty years ago. My husband and I were walking a couple through the tragic loss of their son in a horrific head-on motorbike accident with a drunk driver. Their pain and loss were palpable, and we initially believed their son’s death to be recent, only to discover that several years had already passed. As we walked with them and encouraged them, we spoke specifically of the loss of my mother the same year I turned 18. However, they quickly dismissed our perspective, stating that losing a child is very different from losing a parent, and unless we experienced the loss of a child, we could never understand their pain. At the time, we could not say much more to them, but I decided to speak to my mother-in-law about whether, in her experience, there are degrees of loss. Not only had my mother-in-law miscarried, suffered a stillbirth, and lost her father, but she had also suffered the loss of a young child due to what is now believed to be encephalitis. She responded, “Loss is loss. There is no scale of intensity in pain. How you choose to deal with grief and pain, well, that is an entirely different story.” We knew something was hindering the couple from dealing with their grief, and a subsequent conversation revealed that well-meaning Christians had caused the issue with statements such as “God’s will” and “secret sin” requiring punishment. More damage was done by well-meaning Christians than the loss of their child. It is, most certainly, a common misconception that God uses suffering as a means of retribution. However, as Christians, it is crucial to understand the biblical perspective on suffering and God’s character. In this blog, we will explore the topic of suffering in light of the Scriptures and establish that God does not punish His children but lovingly disciplines them. Furthermore, we will also examine the true causes of suffering.

No Condemnation for Those in Christ
In the realm of believers united with Jesus, the entirety of our transgressions—whether from days gone by, our current moments, or those yet to unfold—has already faced its reckoning upon the cross. Romans 8:1 (ESV), “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This verse stands as a beacon of assurance and grounds us in truth: Through the profound offering of Christ, our sins have been nailed to the cross, etching a finality to condemnation, ensuring that we shall never bear judgment for them. The truth of our status in Christ means that when God looks at us, He sees only the righteousness of His Son. Now, we must assert that condemnation and punishment are distinctly different from discipline and should never be confused. In Hebrews 12:6 (ESV), we read, “For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” In other words, God’s discipline is an expression of His love for us; just as a good father disciplines his children to teach and guide them, God disciplines us for our benefit and growth and it does not cause harm and hurt. The purpose of His discipline is not to punish but to shape us into the image of His Son and lead us into righteousness. In our next blog, Understanding God’s Discipline: Separating Punishment from Correction, we will delve more into this topic.

God’s Righteousness and Justice
God’s righteousness and justice are fundamental aspects of His character. Deuteronomy 32:4 (ESV) tells us, “The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is He.” This verse emphasizes that God’s actions are always just and free from any wrongdoing, and He is completely righteous and upright in all His dealings. In Genesis 18:23-25, Abraham expressed his understanding of God’s righteousness when interceding for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He questioned whether God would sweep away the righteous along with the wicked and recognized that it would be unthinkable for God to act unjustly by punishing the righteous alongside the wicked. God’s agreement reinforces the idea that God’s justice is impartial, and He does not inflict suffering indiscriminately. Job 34:10-12 further reinforces the righteousness of God, stating, “Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding: far be it from God that He should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that He should do wrong. For according to the work of a man, He will repay him, and according to his ways, He will make it befall him. Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice” (ESV). These verses, emphasize that God is incapable of acting wickedly or perverting justice. Moreover, by considering these passages and the reason Jesus died, paying the price for sin, fulfilling the legal requirement, bringing salvation and righteousness to those who accept Him, we can confidently affirm that our suffering is not a result of God’s punishment. God’s righteousness and justice assure us that He would never cause disasters, afflictions, or misfortunes to unjustly punish innocent individuals. Rather than attributing suffering to God’s punishment, we can find solace in knowing that God is a just and righteous God who desires our well- being and offers comfort and healing in times of trial.

Jesus’ Perspective on Suffering
Historically, some people believed that sickness was a punishment from God for personal or familial sins and this was especially true for the Hebrews. The account of the man born blind in John 9 provides valuable insights into the nature of suffering. When asked whether the man or his parents had sinned to cause the blindness, Jesus responded that neither had sinned. Instead, the situation presented an opportunity for Jesus to challenge the notion that suffering is a punishment from God, and for the works of God to be made known. John 9:6-7 (ESV) then says, “Having said these things, He spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then He anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.” Jesus’ miraculous healing demonstrated that suffering and sickness is not indicative of divine punishment—this belief certainly conflicts with the actions of Jesus, who set captives free and healed the sick. Matthew 4:23-24 affirms Jesus’ commitment to doing the Father’s will and always acting in accordance with His righteousness. Moreover, God’s justice and righteousness prevent Him from inflicting suffering, such as causing sickness, as a form of punishment. We will cover more on this topic in an upcoming blog, Embracing Hope Amidst Death and Disease.

Causes of Human Suffering
While suffering exists in the world, it is essential to discern its true origins, which finds its roots in the concept of Original Sin. In Genesis 1 we see God evaluating His creation as “good” seven times. The Hebrew word translated as “good” is טוב (tov). When God assesses creation as “very good” in Genesis 1:31, the phrase means “certainly good” or “surely good.” His careful determinations of created things’ quality establish a precedent – we can trust Him fully. As the determiner of what is good and not, God rightly prohibited Adam from eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis 2:17. Yet Satan contradicted God in Genesis 3:4, falsely stating Eve would not die if she ate the fruit. Tragically, Adam and Eve failed to acknowledge God’s right to define, assess, and judge. Satan tempts Adam and Eve to disobey God’s command and their desire for autonomy brought sin into the world, tarnishing the divine order and introducing suffering as a consequence. As a result, humanity became separated from God, leading to a fallen nature and a fractured relationship with the Creator. The world became marred by disease, natural disasters, pain, and human conflict, permeating through generations and perpetuating human suffering as an inherent aspect of existence in a broken world.
The book of Job echoes with the human suffering. However, reading through Job confirms there was more at play, leading us to the major contributor of suffering. Job details the role Satan (the Accuser or Adversary) in toil and suffering. We see this view substantiated in 1 John 5:19 (ESV): “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Satan exerts a cruel influence over this world’s affairs and Revelation 12:9 describes Satan as the one who misleads the entire inhabited earth, resulting in woe for humanity. Satan causes people to suffer: 2 Corinthians 4:4 (ESV) explains, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Thus, Satan actively works to blind people to the truth and perpetuate suffering and chaos in the world.
However, the Bible also highlights contributing factors of human suffering, as a direct result of humanity’s fallen nature. Selfishness and hatred lead to actions that cause harm and suffering through the exercise of our free will and the impact of sin in the world; just like the drunk driver. Ecclesiastes 8:9 highlights victimization by imperfect, selfish, or cruel choices and actions of individuals and Proverbs 14:21 (ESV) states, “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” Ecclesiastes 9:11 acknowledges that humans often suffer because of unforeseen circumstances, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, accidents, carelessness, natural disasters, or mistakes, highlighting that time and unforeseen events can bring about tragedy and suffering.

In the face of struggles and suffering, it is crucial to understand that God’s love and righteousness refute the idea of divine punishment for our sins through suffering. The sacrifice of Christ has already dealt with our sins, ensuring no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Sickness and suffering should not be attributed to God’s punishment but rather understood within the context of human causes and the influence of Satan. As we face trials, let us seek comfort in the knowledge that God is loving, just, and always acts in accordance with His righteous nature. Remember, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and it is unthinkable for Him to act wickedly or do wrong (Job 34:10), and like Job, we should “not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22, ESV). In times of suffering, we can find solace in God’s unwavering love, knowing that He stands with us and brings comfort amidst our trials. Let us not be shaken, for in our darkest hours, God’s love remains a steadfast beacon of hope and comfort. Let this truth be your anchor, your sanctuary of faith.

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