We can see that our suffering is sometimes a result of our own decisions or even the result of someone else’s decision. But does God ever use suffering to punish us? We always like to talk about how God is loving and merciful, and He is those things. But we can’t overlook the other attributes of God. He is also our Judge, and everyone will ultimately be judged for their lives here on earth. How can that be if God is loving? Well, it is the same concept for an earthly judge. If there were a judge who never punished a criminal, never convicted or sentenced any man no matter his wrongs, we certainly would not call that judge loving or good. We would question why he let people “get away” with their evildoings, their sins. Our Heavenly Judge is the same way. He would not be showing love, righteousness, or holiness if He never punished our sins. So there are times that our suffering is because we are being judged for our sin.
One Biblical example of God’s judgment of sin is found in Genesis 6-8 with Noah and the flood. God saw that the people on earth had grown evil and wicked, and He was “grieved in His heart.” That was not His desire for His people, but it was what the people had chosen. God decided to pass His judgment for their wickedness. His creation had strayed so far from His goodness and His fellowship that He wished He had never made us in the first place. That is how much we displease God with our sin. God decided to destroy everything and start again, saving the one family who had remained faithful to Him. And while after the flood God promised to not destroy the earth with water, He didn’t promise to not ever judge us for our sins. Our sins still require judgment.
We tend to focus on the positive story of Noah and the ark. We paint the picture of his family and the animals happily leaving the ark under the rainbow. But think about what happened to everyone else. They all drowned. They were all destroyed. For 300 days the rain water prevailed on the earth. ALL that had the breath in life was destroyed. ONLY Noah and those on the ark were saved. As Jesus tells us in Matthew 24, “For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.”
Who caused the flood? Was God in control of the rain or did it just happen and God allowed it? Was it God’s will that all those people be destroyed? It was God’s will that they walk in obedience to Him. But because they chose not to, it was now God’s will to pass this judgment on all of creation. God said, “I will destroy man whom I have created.” God created man and God destroyed man. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
We see the same judgment on sin with the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. We can see it again in His dealings with the Philistines when they captured the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 4 and 5. But those are all Old Testament accounts. God wouldn’t do that in the New Testament, would He? Check out what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. They lied to the Holy Spirit, portraying themselves as more generous than they were. And they both “immediately fell down” and “breathed their last” as a judgment of their sin. It taught the people that God was serious about the sin of hypocrisy and did not want that to take root in His church. It says that great fear came upon all who heard about it. God wanted His newly formed church to know that He was serious about sin in the church. The people learned that death, however imminent, is the consequence of sin.
Is suffering always because of judgment on our sins?
Luke 13:1-5 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you supposed that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
Evidently Roman officials had gone into the temple and killed some Galileans while they were offering a sacrifice. It was believed by the people that a death like that must have been a sign of divine displeasure over some particular sin. Those who suffered in some uncommon way were assumed to be guilty of some severe immorality. Likewise, Jesus mentions this incident of the Tower of Siloam. Siloam was an area at the south end of the lower city of Jerusalem. One of the towers guarding the aqueduct apparently collapsed killing eighteen people. Again, people made the connection between calamity and sin. But Jesus tells them that those people weren’t any more or less sinners because of how they died. Such a tragedy was not God’s way to single out a particularly evil or sinful group. Indeed, we are all sinners in need of repentance, no one worse or better than another. Though it can be, tragedy and suffering is not always a direct judgment from God.
As a continuation from the last blog, I think we can understand that sometimes we suffer just from the consequences of our own actions. But not all suffering is a result of our own choices. Sometimes we are the innocent bystanders from someone else’s actions. We don’t live in a bubble. Our actions and choices affect the world around us, both good and bad. So there are times when bad things happen to other people as a result of our sin, and therefore, there are times when we suffer as a result of someone else’s sin.
Consider again the decision made by Adam and Eve. They made the choice to disobey God when they made the choice to eat of the forbidden fruit. The consequences of their actions didn’t affect only themselves. Yes, they were banished from the garden and were going to die, both spiritually and physically, but the curse went well beyond just the two of them. It flowed down to all humankind and ultimately all creation. The one choice they made to follow Satan instead of God meant that all men were sinful and cursed. Specifically, we would always have to toil and sweat to provide sustenance and would experience the “joys” of childbirth pains. Not only were man and woman cursed, but even the ground and animals were cursed. All of creation suffered the consequences from just two people’s actions.
Another example can be found in Joshua 7:1-26.
Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai which is beside Beth Aven, on the east side of Bethel, and spoke to them, saying, “Go up and spy out the country.” And they returned to Joshua and said to him, “Do not let all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and attack Ai. Do not weary all the people there, for the people of Ai are few.” So about three thousand men went up there from the people, but they fled before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai struck down about 36 men, for they chased them from before the gate as far as Shebarim, and struck them down on the descent…Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until evening ...Then Joshua said, “Alas, Lord God, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all – to deliver us?...Then the LORD said to Joshua: “Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face? Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. For they have even taken some of the accursed things ,and have both stolen and deceived; and they have also put it among their own stuff…Neither will I be with you anymore, unless you destroy the accursed from among you.”…And Achan answered Joshua, “Indeed I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I have done: When I saw among the spoils a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. And there they are, hidden in the earth in the midst of my tent with the silver under it.”…Then Joshua, and all of Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, the silver, the garment, the wedge of gold, his sons, his daughters, his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his tent, and all that he had and they brought them ot the Valley of Achor…So all Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones.”
The Israelites had just defeated the city of Jericho and were headed over to Ai. Yet God had given a clear command in the battle for Jericho: do not take anything from that city. The victory over Jericho was great and the town of Ai appeared so weak that the Israelites sent out only a small group to battle. Instead of victory though, the Israelites had a humiliating loss. They fled in the face of their enemy and thirty-six of their men died. Joshua was actually wishing they had just stayed put on the other side of the Jordan rather than face this defeat and humiliation. But God tells him it was because ONE man disobeyed. An entire nation was suffering due to the actions of ONE man. The consequences of Achan’s theft was felt by Achan - he, his family, his possessions, and even his animals died because Achan was disobedient. But the consequences were also felt across the nation. Thirty-six families lost someone that day. The nation suffered a humiliating defeat.
So did God cause the Israelites to suffer? Was it His “will” that the nation be defeated and those thirty-six men die? His desired will was for everyone to obey His command about not taking anything from Jericho. But His permissive will allowed suffering for the consequences of one man’s sin. I always think about what the families of those soldiers who died must have been thinking. Why my child? Why my husband? We often cry out to God for “why me” and my situation. And here, the answer was the unlikeliest of reasons: because someone else in the nation of Israel disobeyed God.
Is that fair to those families who lost their loved ones? What exactly would be fair? Couldn’t God have just punished Achan without the loss of life to the Israelite soldiers to make the point that the people should obey Him? Maybe the lesson was further learned across Israel because they all suffered together. God wanted the nation as a whole to submit to His Lordship. And the nation as a whole would rise or fall based on the decisions of individuals. Achan’s decision to disobey God had consequences not just for him, but for his family, his possessions, and the nation of Israel. Our actions and decisions create consequences not to just ourselves but to those around us, and sometimes, even to the entire nation.
In the last blog I talked about how God’s will comes in two parts: His “desired will” for our lives and His “permissive will.” Now we will look at how those interact using Biblical examples, and we can study different reasons why we may suffer. Please note, that the reasons we will address here over the next several posts will not be all inclusive. You’ll also begin to see that God can use one event of suffering to accomplish several of His purposes. And sometimes, it just simply is not for us to know the “whys” of what we go through. But this will hopefully show you that God is Sovereign, and in His Sovereignty we can have hope and peace in our times of trouble. Through the life and death of Jesus, we also know that our suffering will never outdo what Jesus did for us.
The first reason we may suffer is as a consequence of our own actions. God’s permissive will must allow us to experience the consequences of our own choices. It’s not a “judgment” by God per se, but just what naturally occurs as a result of what we do. There are consequences for every action and decision that we make. And if we make those decisions to sin, then we face the results of that – and it oftentimes results in our suffering. For one example of this we are going to consider the life and death of Judas Iscariot. Judas was chosen as one of the twelve disciples. In all three gospel accounts of disciples chosen, Judas is listed as the one “who also betrayed Him.” He doesn’t even get an introduction without his label as “traitor.” But he was chosen as one of Jesus’ disciples alongside all the others, alongside John, the one whom Jesus loved, and Peter, the one Jesus renamed “Rock.” Judas was even the treasurer for the disciples so he had been entrusted with the group’s finances. We know Judas played the part of friend right up until the end, even daring to ask at the Last Supper “Lord, is it me?” when Jesus announced someone would betray Him. And we know that Judas even signified his betrayal with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Betrayal by an enemy is not surprising, and sometimes may be expected. What hurts the most is being betrayed by one of your closest friends. That’s a pain that’s extremely hard to get over. And that’s what is going on here. We know that betrayal led to Jesus’ trial and ultimate crucifixion, but what happens to Judas? Matthew 27 says that Judas was remorseful and brought back the money the Pharisees paid him for his betrayal. He even told the Pharisees, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Judas felt guilty for what he had done, so much so that he called it "sin." He realized that he had truly sent an innocent man to be condemned, not just any man, but a man he had followed and befriended. The full weight of what he had done came down on him that he went out and hanged himself.
Did God strike down Judas because of his betrayal? Was Judas persecuted by the chief priests because he had a change of heart about what he had done? Was Judas punished by the disciples for being a traitor? Judas’ demise came from Judas. He was so overcome with his own guilt and shame that he committed suicide. The natural consequence of doing something so heinous as to betray your friend results in guilt and shame. For a Christian, that guilt and shame may come from the Holy Spirit to lead us to repentance. But for those that are lost, it doesn’t necessarily produce repentance. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Consider the different responses to guilt between Judas and Peter. Peter denied knowing Jesus during the trial, not once but three times. Both men betrayed and denied their friend and
Savior. When Peter realizes his sin, he goes out and “weeps bitterly.” Peter is ashamed of himself too, but Peter uses his guilt and shame to redeem himself by repenting. And we know he never again denied the name of Jesus, even unto his own death on a cross. Judas is overcome with a worldly guilt and shame that doesn’t produce repentance and it led to his suicide.
God warns us that this will be the consequence of desiring a sinful life led away from Him. He gives us over to our sin when we continually choose that path. When we make it clear that our desire is to have a life lived outside of God’s presence, then He will give us a life outside of His presence…that means a life kept in the darkness, outside the light. It means a life without the goodness and blessings of God. Imagine how dark and lonely and cold that place would be. God gives us the consequences of our choices by allowing us to have the life we seem to be wanting. And a life that is removed from His goodness will be a life with suffering.
Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them…22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man – and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves…26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions…28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness.
In the Old Testament God declared the same truths to His nation, Israel. Judges 10:13 Yet you have forsaken Me and served other Gods. Therefore I will deliver you no more. 2 Chronicles 15:2 And he went out to meet Asa, and said to him: “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin. The Lord is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.” Psalm 81:11 But My people would not heed My voice, and Israel would have none of Me. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels.
Does God want to abandon people to their sin? In 2 Chronicles it says “The Lord is with you while you are with Him.” The Lord wants to be with Israel as long as they are with Him. In Psalm 81, He calls them “My” people to show He wants the people to belong to Him. Yet they would not heed His voice, which indicates that He is calling for them. The Lord longs for us to walk in fellowship with Him. In Judges it says, “You have forsaken Me.” It was Israel that left God for idols, not God who left Israel. God’s desired will is to have us with Him. Only when we continue to push God away, does He use His permissive will to allow us our true desire – this world and sin.
So sometimes our suffering is the natural consequence of our actions -- but not always. Stay tuned…
I had intended to post blogs to follow along with the topic of the class I’m currently teaching called Teaching Others to Defend God’s Sovereignty. However, the past few posts have strayed from that general topic of suffering so now I’m going to pick back up with it. In my previous posts, I’ve addressed that identifying suffering and evil means that God exists and questioning the existence of suffering and evil gives life value. So to even stand appalled at atrocity, we affirm that a God exists and that He is what gives life value and meaning. Otherwise we could never be outraged by tragedy. But sometimes in our eagerness to try to give consolation to someone’s difficult circumstance or tragic loss, we find ourselves declaring that things are “God’s will.” I think the heart of the message is that God is still in control in all things, but are we offering bad theology when we say that?
Is it really God’s will for us to endure things that are bad? Sometimes people may even respond by saying that if it’s God’s “will” for a tragedy then they don’t want to worship a God like that. Some people on the other side of the coin may insist that it is never God’s will for us to suffer. They will often quote Jeremiah 29:11 in their defense. It states that God’s plans are for good, not evil, for a future and a hope. Good stuff right? But we have to take it in context. First off, this is being written to the nation of Israel as they are entering their 70 years of captivity--which everyone could easily agree was not a “good” or desirable situation. But we also have to read the next verse: Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. God desired to bless Israel but more importantly, He desired for Israel to call upon His name and search for Him with all their hearts. His plans were for good, for a future, and for hope SO THAT Israel would seek Him and follow after Him. Do we always call upon Him? Do we always seek Him? What happens when we don’t?
Therefore, to determine if suffering is part of God’s will, we first need to define what we mean by God’s “will.” God has two types of will, His permissive will and His desired will. God has a perfect and good plan for our lives, His “desired will.” But He gave us free will. We have the ability to choose between our will/desires and God’s will/desires in our lives. And therefore, through His “permissive will,” we experience the consequences of those choices; otherwise our choice doesn’t really mean much. We understand that concept for the laws of nature: If you choose to jump off a cliff, you will fall because there is the force of gravity. God obviously is capable of stopping you mid-air if He so chooses, but the consequence of your free will choice to jump off a cliff is to fall. We understand that with the laws of state. If you use your free will to choose to speed, you may face the consequences of paying a ticket. So we have the same concept for the laws of morality. If you choose to sin, you will face the consequences of that sin.
There are several Biblical accounts that show us the interplay between God’s desire will and His permissive will. The first one comes from Adam and Eve. God’s “perfect, planned will” for the lives of Adam and Eve was for them to walk with Him closely and personally and live in the Garden of Eden. But He also gave them free will. With that free will, Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit. God’s “permissive will” had them face the consequences of their actions. God had established the rules up front. If they ate of the fruit then they would surely die. If the consequences for obeying God were the same as for disobeying God, Adam and Eve wouldn’t have really had a true choice. In other words, if they chose to eat the forbidden fruit but things continued the same as if they hadn’t, then they didn’t really have the option of not eating. It would have gone against what God had assured them would happen if they weren’t allowed to suffer any consequences from their choice. Therefore, as a result of their choice, Adam and Eve were separated from God and removed from the Garden of Eden. They instantly died spiritually and would one day die physically.
If God had to allow them to suffer the consequence of eating from the forbidden tree, then it begs the question – why did God put the tree there in the first place? We have to understand fully the concept of free will in order to address this appropriately. When God created man, he created something in His own image with the express purpose of walking in fellowship with Him and worshiping Him. The only way for love and worship to be real is for it to be freely chosen. God didn’t want a bunch of robots, forced to praise His name. If He created that, then our praise to Him wouldn’t be worth much. In order for our love for Him to be sincere, we have to have the option to NOT love him. And the fruit of the forbidden tree was our option to NOT love God. Had Adam and Eve never eaten of the fruit, then Adam and Eve would have chosen to love God even in the presence of the option to not love God. They would have been walking with God out of choice, not obligation or necessity or because there was no other option. In other words, you can't show your obedience to someone if there is never the opportunity to disobey.
While this shows we have free will, we do not have autonomous free will. That means that we can freely choose things but we are still confined to the laws around us. We don’t set our own rules and then get to choose whether or not to follow them. We are not self-ruling; God sets the rules. We just have the choice about whether or not we follow those rules.
God’s desired will is for us to worship Him and obey Him, but His permissive will allows us to face the consequences when we choose to walk away from Him and disobey Him.
The other day I listened to a sermon by Brad Allison from the Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. He was discussing a well-known chapter in the book of Jeremiah in its proper context. Jeremiah 29 was a letter that God gave to Jeremiah for the Israelites after they were first taken captive by the Babylonians in 597 BC. The King of the Babylonians, King Nebuchadnezzar, conquered Jerusalem and took back with him the best and the brightest of the Israelites (of which Daniel was included). And King Nebuchadnezzar took those political and religious leaders as captives with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into the Babylonian culture, religion, and education.
Jeremiah was called to write this letter to the Israelites to give them comfort and to deliver the truth that this would be an extended time of captivity. In fact, it would last for 70 years. Jeremiah uses this letter to give them instruction for how they are to live as exiles. His advice is directly applicable to believers today. In 1 Peter 1:1 Christians are referred to as “exiles” living in a foreign land that is not our home. And we will most likely be here for a while so we need to understand how to live as exiles.
Jeremiah tell us two things about our attitudes. We are to show contentment. Jeremiah tells them to engage in their day-to-day activities that are long term activities: planting gardens, forming families, building houses. Accept where you are and learn to be content in this situation. Don’t spend all your time tucked away in a corner complaining about things. And second we are to show love for our enemies. The Israelites are told to seek good for the Babylonians. I know we may complain about our society and government leaders but consider why type of people the Babylonians were and what kind of “gods” they worshiped. Babylon is even used throughout the Bible as the metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world, starting with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and ending with the destruction of Babylon in Revelation 18. It is representative of sin and enemies of God, yet the Israelites were to pray for the Babylonians, seek peace for the Babylonians, rejoice in Babylon’s successes, and grieve Babylon’s losses. God wanted the Israelites to be so committed to the welfare of this pagan nation that the Israelites should rejoice in their success and grieve in their failure. Love your enemies and pray for them. Pray for God’s good gifts to be given to these enemies of yours. And the best gift is for them to know God. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul tells us to pray for those in authority over us – which were the Romans, not Christian leaders. Paul says that from that many people would be saved.
Jeremiah also us two things about our behavior. We are not to assimilate with the foreign land where God has placed us as exiles. They were not to embrace the values or religion of the Babylonians. One of Satan’s methods in attacking the church is the assimilation from within the church to pollute it with worldliness. If he can make the church look no different than the world, then the church has really ceased to exist. Jeremiah tells them to pray to the Lord their God, not the gods of Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar’s goal was to assimilate the captives so that they would worship his gods. But Jeremiah called them to stay true to their faith, to be distinct as God’s people. And Daniel and his friends maintain their faith in Jehovah while in captivity in the face of persecution (Daniel 3 & 6) and while the rest of the Israelites did not.
Even though we are not to assimilate, we are also not to separate. Jeremiah says they are to build houses, plant gardens, eat their produce, and form families. They are called to settle into this place as permanent residents, not as temporary visitors. We are called to do the same. We are not to huddle up among ourselves and neglect the community that God has placed us in. We ought not to think of ourselves as people rescuing folks from a sinking ship. We are instead to go about seeking the good of our community, of its institutions, not just the Christian institutions but the civic community institutions as well. As we do that, we are to bring the message of hope found in the Gospel of Jesus. I even heard this put another way, “Are you too Christian for non-Christians?” Have we so insulated ourselves from the rest of the world that we neglect forming relationships with unbelievers? Are we interacting enough with unbelievers that we can put our faith in action or are we too sheltered to have our faith exercised? Are we in a place where we can encourage someone in darkness without the light of Christ or do we only pray for others that we know can pray for us? Have we isolated ourselves so much that we can't really witness to anyone because we never come in contact with anyone who needs to be witnessed to? Are we forming relationships so we can speak God’s truth into their lives? Or are we over-protecting and separating ourselves out of fear, sitting in a holy huddle hoping none of the dirty sin world gets near us? God never commands us to be afraid; He commands us to be alert. In fact, He tells us well over 100 times in the Bible to “not fear.” If we pull ourselves out of our community, then where will the lost ever hear the name of Jesus? To show Jesus' love to those who might be unlovable according to the world, we must meet the world. We are not called to seclude ourselves to save our own on the sinking ship. We are called to be the flavor, the salt. And as you know, salt does no good if left in the shaker.