Welcome to our multi-part series Blog about common myths regarding suffering. How do we dismiss the lies and embrace God’s truth regarding suffering in our lives in order to gain strength and encouragement to endure, rather than become stuck in the bog of despair and disillusionment?
First, I write to an audience of people who believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whether it be those who have believed for a matter of days or for decades. I wish to speak to those who are children of God yet find themselves in painful and overwhelming situations.
I spent over 20 years bedridden for weeks and months at a time due to chronic pain. I have heard so many reasons and excuses for why I was in that bed. Each week in this series, I will examine another “myth” explaining why God allows suffering.
I will begin with probably one of the most common and most discouraging myths: God is punishing you.
Let’s make a major perspective readjustment here. First, if God punished those who misbehaved, then we would all suffer! Every one of us deserves God’s justice, wrath and even damnation. Thus, the necessity of the cross. But for those who are His children, you have been redeemed and His plans for you are only for good. (another time I will elaborate on the definition of “good” and the most commonly quoted verse of Roman 8:28 relating to "good"). You are fully forgiven, fully righteous and fully justified. You stand perfect before God because of His Son, Jesus Christ.
We can’t earn God’s favor by good behavior. We are only “favored” because of Jesus Christ. Contrariwise, we cannot incur God's displeasure, wrath or punishment by our misbehavior. ALL of God’s displeasure, wrath AND punishment were already poured out on Jesus! If you think your actions merit God’s favor, then you do not understand the true Gospel at all. Also, I contend that if you think you are suffering as a result of misbehavior, you still do not know the Gospel NOR the character of God.
A major problem with believing that suffering is due to God’s punishment (aside from it being a complete lie) is that it makes suffering my fault. If it is my fault, two results occur. First, I am a complete and utter failure because I got myself into this mess. I mean really, how bad did I screw up for this to happen to me? Second, if it is all my fault and I can’t change my circumstances, then there is no solution. No matter what I do, I am still sick, still divorced, still unemployed, still widowed. I feel like I got myself into a mess I can’t find my way out of. Soon discouragement, despair and hopelessness take root.
Those who believe suffering is God’s punishment might think, “this is exactly what I deserve. If people knew what kind of person I really am/was, then everyone would agree this is what I deserve.” Result? Condemnation. Perhaps the opposite occurs. You think, “I am a good Christian. I have never done anything that bad. Why is God punishing me?” Result? Pride and arrogance. Either way, the focus is on ourselves and not God. Focusing on ourselves and not God’s Truth leads to gross error and hopelessness.
In both cases, we are operating based on two major misconceptions. Misconception #1: God seeks to harm us. Misconception #2: If we do everything right in our life then we will be happy. WRONG! You will never be able to perform well enough to earn God’s salvation. Nor could you ever perform well enough to avoid God’s punishment if it were true that God causes suffering in order to punish us. God is not in heaven keeping a tally of our rights and wrongs, while we hope the balance will tip to our favor. The balance would never be in our favor and we would be doomed to a life of futility and hopelessness. I repeat, because of Jesus Christ, you are fully forgiven, fully righteous and fully justified.
This fallen world is a mess at times. We suffer illness, hurt, rejection, loss, disillusionment and a host of other painful situations and circumstances. I am not going to give you a pep talk to make you feel warm and fuzzy, nor am I going to minimize the pain you are currently experiencing. But I do want to encourage you. Remember that we have a Sovereign, gracious, loving God, Who has an eternal, perfect plan that is bigger and better than anything we can grasp. We have a very limited, finite, temporary perspective; we can’t see the final chapter yet. He is Sovereign, He loves you and He has good plans for you. We have no idea how our suffering can be used for a greater glory in Christ Jesus. God is faithful, loving, generous and gracious. He is reliable, His character is good all the time and He will carry you through this pain. His promises are certain. Does it make the pain magically diminish? Of course not! If you have a hard time believing God is for you, come and tell Him! He can handle your anger and pleas and tears. In coming to Him, you will find a limitless source of strength and hope.
Suffering as a believer is an odd paradox. I have been amazed at how intense my suffering was, yet how intensely close God was. Suffering is rotten. I hate it. Yet, I have come to know Jesus in ways I never imagined through that ugly suffering. It is one thing to be able to theologically debate why God allows suffering. But honestly, “knowing” the right answers never gave me the strength to endure or the hope to continue another day. It was "knowing" Jesus that carried me through. Yes, theology is crucial, because if our theology is wrong, and we believe lies, then we won’t ever know the true Gospel or the true Jesus. But the head and intellect don’t produce faith or hope. Jesus gives us faith and hope, which grows and is strengthened as we have a personal relationship with Him and enjoy fellowship with Him. Oddly enough, suffering breaks down my barriers that limit mine knowing Jesus. Barriers like my pride, my self-reliance, my independence. Suffering challenges me to apply the Truth of Scripture and the Truth of Who Jesus is to my daily life, thus again, growing and strengthening my faith and hope.
If you are living under the belief that your current suffering is because God is punishing you, I encourage you to reexamine. God is not seeking to harm or punish you in any way. He died for you. He paid your debt on the cross to free you from all guilt, shame and condemnation. He died to bring you salvation, freedom and hope. You are His child. I can’t say why He is allowing your current suffering. But I know His character and His promises and He is not seeking to harm you.