I was at a “Bible study” the other night, and the group was doing a little bit of emotional masturbation. One girl shared about a series of unfortunate events that she experienced that week, and so wondered what sin she had committed or how she had been unfaithful to God. Because—as we all know the Bible teaches—all unfortunate things that happen to us are the result of some sin we’ve committed. This can be the only explanation for why this sentiment is nearly ubiquitous in status quo Christianity. Right?
First, let’s get clearer on the question. The question is: As a general rule, is it sometimes appropriate to interpret our suffering and misfortune as divine punishment for some sin(s) we’ve committed?
To question is carefully worded to reflect the diction between divine punishment and natural punishment. Natural punishment is simply whatever suffering results from the sin itself (e.g., STD for promiscuity). The natural consequences of sin is punishment unto itself, which can include both physical and spiritual repercussions. This is consonant with what Paul says in Galatians 6:7-8: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” That the natural effects of sin are often deleterious should not be surprising. This is a theme that runs all throughout scripture, and is written into the programming of creation. In that sense, suffering that results from sin can be thought of as indirect punishment from God in that it reflects the spiritual law and order of God’s creation. But we should not see hardship and calamity as the direct divine punishment for our sin.
Divine punishment is not (just) whatever might be a natural consequence of sin, but circumstantial hardship, calamity, or suffering brought about specially by God as punishment (e.g., suppose someone leaves the faith and soon thereafter got into a fatal car crash, or someone who unexpectedly gets laid-off from their job, or just general sickness, or maybe financial hardship, etc.). There need be no natural connection between the sin and the suffering in cases of divine punishment.
So, again, the question: As a general rule, is it sometimes appropriate to interpret our suffering and misfortune as divine punishment for some sin(s) we’ve committed?
Answer: No. This is not the lesson we draw from Job’s sufferings. Job was, after all, “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” (Job 1:1) Fact: The idea that our misfortunes correlate with divine displeasure is thoroughly pagan and repudiated by Scripture. Jesus explicitly denies the correlation:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)
The “works of God” that “might be displayed in him” was, of course, Jesus’ miraculously restoring his sight moments later. So clear is the passage with respect to our topic that is needs no more commentary. But consider N. T. Wright’s commentary on Paul’s sufferings (2 Cor 1:8-14):
The thing he doesn’t mention explicitly, but which would be an important factor in his mind and that of his readers, is that illness and suffering in the ancient world was regularly regarded as a sign of divine displeasure. Whatever it was that Paul had gone though, it would have been easy for his enemies, or those who were jealous of him, to think to themselves that it probably served him right, that God was most likely punishing him for something or other. Not so, says Paul. These things come not because God is angry but because he wants you to trust him the more fully. Many of the greatest saints and mystics (insofar as we have any idea what ‘greatness’ means in such cases) have spoken of a sense of darkness in which they discern he call of God to trust him beyond what they can see or imagine. This is something the ancient would had not thought of. Paul was breaking new ground. He wanted the Corinthians to understand this, too, was part of the earth-shattering implication of the gospel. [Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians (WJK, 2004), pp. 8-9]
I would add, though, that not even all suffering or misfortune occurs because God “wants you to trust him the more fully.” Sometimes that might be the case, but other times it might just be because shit happens; there might not be some deep, underlying spiritual connection. This is basically what Jesus says when he responds directly to the idea that misfortune reflects divine displeasure at sin:
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 this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in 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.” (Lk 13: 1-5)
There it is, clear as day from the lips of Jesus himself: misfortune does not correlate with divine displeasure at sin. Sometimes, shit just happens, and that you are a sinner is irrelevant when it does (though it is very tempting to view Touchdown Jesus going up in flames after being struck by lightning as a legit judgement on the massively unwise stewardship of 300k). God created a world governed by natural laws, and suffering and misfortune is sometimes a natural consequence of that regularity. The same fire that warms can burn. The water that quenches you can also drown you. The tower that you build to worship in can topple over and crush your ass.
If the sufferings of Job and Paul and the words of Jesus are not convincing enough, consider the example Suffering Servant himself. Without sin, he underwent unparalleled suffering and misfortune. Indeed, even the Jews understood Jesus’ death as God’s judgment for his sin (Duet 21:23; Gal 3:13). But they were wrong. And you are wrong if you think your suffering is the result of sin or unfaithfulness.
Here’s another way of putting the point: God does not divinely punish you for your sins. The punishment for your sins has already been taken care of “through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (See Rom 8:28; Heb 10:10). Whatever else you might suffer as a result of your sin is the natural consequence of a stupid choice. In short, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45). When you stub your toe, don’t throw your head back and exclaim “Why, God?!”, or interpret evil befalling the wicked in terms of some aborted concept of divine justine akin to Christian karma.
But perhaps the most fundamental flaw to an affirmative answer to the question is that it presupposes a works-based theology: God not only judges you one the basis of what you do, but carries out that judgment in the form of punishment in the here and now. This is contrary to the New Testament teaching that we now stand completely justified before God not because of what we do, but because we live under the grace afforded to us by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1-2). We need not be anxious in our suffering for fear that it’s God’s punishment and wrath; on the contrary, we can glory in our suffering, knowing that God’s non-punitive discipline is working good in us (Rom 5:3-11). Furthermore, most references to divine judgment and punishment in the New Testament are eschatological in nature: they concern God’s final dealings with humankind (particularly those who fail to repent), not his dealings with those who sin here and now, much less repentant believers.
So if the sentiment that one’s sufferings and misfortunes are the result of one’s sin is not found in the Bible, what explains why so many Christians think this way? Perhaps they don’t actually read the Bible, or perhaps the pagan ideas that define status quo Christianity are more influential than real Christianity. Whatever the explanation, Christians that give lip service to such filthy σκύβαλον belittle the good news of the gospel. It is, to be sure, a very natural sentiment. But if it’s natural, there’s a good chance it’s pagan and not Christian. After all, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:14).