Sick-of-Home or Sick-at-Home: COVID-19 and a Reminder of God’s Intentions for Your Suffering (Continued)
This is part two of a three-part series on God and our suffering.
We are officially in the waiting period during the current COVID-19 crisis. The virus has impacted the world more than anyone would have ever anticipated. How long this crisis will continue is uncertain. Some are guessing weeks, others months, and still others over a year. While most of us in the United States are now accustomed to prolonged stays within our houses, I wanted to continue writing on the topic of suffering. “Why?” you might ask? Because I have found it is much easier to learn about suffering before you suffer. While many have greatly suffered during the current crisis, there are countless others whose lives have not been dramatically impacted yet. It is for these people I continue to write, not knowing whether an escalation of suffering is coming or if the current crisis will indeed end by mid-April or May.
As we pick up from the last blog post on suffering, we will continue in this post to look at God’s purposes for suffering in the lives of human beings. While I originally thought this would be a two-part series, the length of these articles has forced me to make it into a three-part series. Previously we saw how most in our culture have the same view of suffering. We called this the Earth-Mirrors-Heaven view; the idea that our life on earth is an indicator of how God feels about us. However, we saw the bevy of people in the Bible (Noah, Moses, Anna, Peter, Paul just to name a few) who experienced prolonged suffering and opposition in their life with whom God was pleased. Those figures showed us how both of the following graphics aren’t necessarily true like we unknowingly believe in our gut.
Even after knowing this, we still have not spoken about the actual reasons for suffering. That is where we will begin today – with general reasons for suffering in this world. The Bible claims these reasons for suffering are universally true in the life of every person, whether they follow Jesus or not. In many ways, these reasons work as shadows that lurk behind every heartbreak we encounter. From there, we will examine God’s purposes for suffering in the life of the person who does not have faith in Christ. Finally, we will move to suffering in the life of the Christian, but that won’t be touched until the final article set for this week.
General Reasons for Suffering
These reasons for suffering are true in every case. Whether you find out news that you have cancer, get your wallet stolen, experience a deadly pandemic, or the loss of a loved one – these reasons are universally true.
1) The Fall
- Bible: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)
- Explanation: The Bible gives a specific reason that accounts for all suffering. It claims that all suffering has its ties back to Adam and Eve’s first sin. Most Christians call this “The Fall.” Notice what Paul says in the book of Romans: because our first parents’ transgression, sin came into the world and death/decay through sin. Here’s something very important to note: this means humanity was not created to suffer. That is not in our biological make-up. For those of you who have been to funerals or children’s cancer hospitals, you know these never feel normal. And they never will. Adam and Eve’s sin made them sinners by nature, passing it down to all those after them (including you and me). This is why the Bible can say we are born sinners – not because we pickpocket the doctor as he pulls us out of the birthing canal – but because our natures are corrupted. We are born with a heart that wants to rule itself, not submit to God’s good ways. We are both heartbreakers who will sin against others and the heartbroken who will be sinned against.
2) “That’s Life” Living in a Fallen World
- Bible: Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:13-15)
- Explanation: This is one of those verses that many unfamiliar with Christianity would not expect to find in the Bible. It comes from the Wisdom portion of the Bible (Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). These books seek to familiarize the reader with suffering and teach them how to suffer well. One of the books carries the distinct tone of someone who realizes he just can’t win in this life – Ecclesiastes. In chapter two, Solomon (the author of the book) writes about how he looked out into the world and witnessed that living a life that revolves around the Lord pays off in most situations (“Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly”). Yet at the same time, anger and confusion well up inside him. He notices how the wise have it no better off than the fool: “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” He is essentially saying, “What the heck?!? Have I loved God for nothing?!? I’m suffering just like the wicked man!!” Solomon felt like he had been Clark Griswold-ed – expecting a nice, fat Christmas bonus but instead getting a one-year membership in the Jelly-of-the-Month Club. What is Ecclesiastes doing here? It makes more sense if you see that the book is written from the viewpoint of earth looking up to heaven (the opposite of a book like Job that begins with the perspective of heaven looking down). In Job, you know what’s going on the whole time because you so the exchange between God and Satan in the first two chapters. Ecclesiastes does not give you that vantage point. Solomon dares to remind the reader of what we all truly long for – a life without toil, frustration, pain and death – and how that longing is a good thing! However, that kind of life cannot be expected in the present age. If you live long enough, you will suffer. You will bury people you never dreamed you would bury, and you will lose more than you ever thought you could lose. However, the place your heart really longs for will be realized one day if you are in Christ. Until then, hold on to Jesus and His Word with all you have and take Ecclesiastes’ final words with seriousness: “The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
Specific Reasons for Suffering
To the surprise of some, God does not give the same promises for all humanity regarding suffering. In other words, the way the Bible’s storyline does not allow a person to read promises in the Bible to anyone and everyone in pain. There is one major dividing line Scripture insists on that differentiates suffering into two camps: those who have repented of their sins and those who have not. This is what makes Christianity so different – it is impossible to throw out fortune cookies about how to deal with suffering. Whether a person knows the Lord or not makes all the difference in whether there is any hope in their suffering or not. Let’s look first at those who might not know the Lord. What are some reasons for their suffering?
Reasons Non-Followers of Christ Suffer
1) A warning shot for final judgment
- Bible: There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
- Explanation: In the above passage, you will note how some people came to Jesus with some CNN headlines. The governor of the province, Pontius Pilate, had punished several Jews for an unknown act. Their punishment? Death by sacrifice. Pilate killed these men and mixed their own blood with the blood of the animals they sacrificed to the Lord. This was an atrocity in Jewish culture! The people wondered, “were the men who suffered this fate worse sinners?” You can understand where they’re coming from – that was a horrible death. They reasoned these dead men must have had some secret sins no one knew about for God to destine them for that kind of suffering. However, Jesus’s response catches the crowds off guard. He essentially says, “No way!” before citing another freak accident that happened closeby. Jesus describes another event where people were out for a stroll in a nearby city. Tragically, a tower came crashing down on a few innocent bystanders. 100% accident. Jesus essentially tells them, “It’s not because of their wickedness they suffered this fate.” But then he drops the mic: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Wow! Confused? Here’s what he means: every ounce of suffering a non-Christian feels works like a warning shot, an appetizer, of a much more painful judgment to come. Maybe you who are reading this would not consider yourself a follower of Jesus – hear this warning. You think the pain and suffering you feel is bad? Can you imagine longing for it as if it were enjoyable? This life is as good as it gets for you. Every experience of suffering acts as a warning of greater judgment, getting louder and coming closer with every moment a man or woman does not repent. It does not have to be that way though — Jesus Christ calls all humanity to turn from their sins and escape this wrath to come.
2) To show the religiously lost they do not know God after all so that they would be saved
- Bible: “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 5:3-5
- Explanation: Out of all the ones on the list so far, this reason is the biggest stretch to find in the Bible. I honestly do believe it is there, and in multiple places. The text above comes from 1 Corinthians, where Paul is rebuking the church for their arrogance in how they had avoided church disciplining of a man who who was currently in a sexual relationship with his mother-in-law. They probably thought they were being tolerant, or that they were “loving” the man by not doing this. However, Paul reminds them the kindest and most loving thing they could do was exercise church discipline on the man. In doing so, they were figuratively “handing this man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.” But what does he mean by that? He means the church would stop treating him like a Christian and would let the man chase after his sin, knowing the pain, suffering, and heartbreak is going to come. Not if you’re like me, at first that does not sound very loving. But look at how Paul clarifies it: “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Paul is saying that God may use the suffering this person encounters because of their sin to show them they did not know Jesus in the first place. When they begin to taste the bitterness of their life of sin, they may remember the sweetness of what they heard about the grace of God in Christ. Therefore, the suffering these people go through alerts them to the fact that they may have been religious people, but not Christians. Maybe a modern-day analogy will help. In the South, many people think as long as a person genuinely repeats a sinner’s prayer or responds to an “altar call,” they are a Christian. The Bible would be very wary of that. It assumes that mankind is so lost, we even use religion and Christian-ish things to still love their sin and stay in control of our own lives. Many walk around who have repeated prayers and walked aisles, but they show no evidence of what the Bible would call a Christian. I was one of those between the ages of 8 and 16. Therefore, we see God is so merciful that sometimes he uses suffering in the life of someone who looks like a believer but is not to lead them to the gospel of Christ.
Reasons Followers of Christ Suffer
To be continued…