Sin and human suffering

I shared a few months back on the topic of God and our suffering and I want to pick up on this theme again this morning – this time with a focus on the role of sin in our human suffering.

There are different understandings of where suffering comes from:

  • For instance, some say it’s only in our minds and if we can just get our minds to think straight that will solve the problem (Christian Science).
  • Others say that we suffer because of karma. That is, you get what you deserve in this life, in part, based on what you did in your former life (Hinduism).
  • Others say that the forces of good and evil are equal and locked in a never ending fight which causes us to suffer (Dualism).

But as Christians we confess that –

1. Human suffering and death are rooted in sin

We learn from Scripture that the sin of Adam and Eve brought suffering and death (Genesis 3). Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).

Scripture also teaches that we all sin, so we are all a part of the problem (Romans 3:23). And we are also taught that all who sin die, so we all experience the suffering that sin brings (Romans 6:23; James 1:15).

But not only this sin has opened the door for powerful forces of evil to rule this world, so that Satan is now called “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19). And even the non-human creation is disordered and broken due to sin as we read in Romans 8:20-22.

So suffering and death are symptoms of sin’s work and presence in the creation and in our lives.

2. But how sin and suffering are connected in our individual lives is complicated

How many times have you asked, “Why am I going through this suffering?” “What did I do?” We often think, “If I do good I shouldn’t suffer. It’s only when I do bad that I should suffer.” We think life in this world should be fair. But this isn’t how the fallen world works.

It can be true that when you sin, you will suffer immediate and specific consequences for itProverbs 10:4 tells us that “a slack hand causes poverty . . ..” If you don’t work, you will suffer lack. As a general rule, there are consequences. In Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32 those who abused the Lord’s supper experienced sickness and death as a specific judgment from God for what they did. (See also John 5:14)

But not always!!! Yes, you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7) but you may not experience the consequences or full consequences of your sin until the final judgment.

So there’s no automatic one-to-one correlation between your sin and your specific suffering in this life. There might be at times, but more often than not, I think, there isn’t.

Scripture talks about this when it asks, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (i.e. Psalm 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1). And we all know of people who are notoriously evil who live the good life and those who are relatively innocent who suffer greatly.

Here are some examples of the latter from Scripture:

  • Joseph suffered due to the sin of his brothers, who sold him into slavery and also due to Potiphar’s wife who falsely accused him of sexual assault, which got him thrown into prison (Genesis 37-40)
  • Job’s suffering was terrible, but God specifically said it was not due to his sin. God described him as “a blameless and upright man” in Job 1:8
  • Jesus said of the man born blind, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
  • And of course, Jesus, the sinless one, was murdered on the cross.

Luke 13:1-5 says, “There were some present at that very time who told Jesus 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.’”

Jesus does not accept that much sin brings much suffering. There’s no one-to-one correlation between our sin and our suffering in this life.

As Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches us, life isn’t fair. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”

Rather, we are all caught in a complex web of sin where our actions affect each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways. So even though our sin might not cause us specific suffering, it can cause others to suffer. For instance the drunk driver who walks away unharmed from an accident, but in the other car several people are killed. And in just the same way the sins of others can cause us to suffer

Think about it we’re all affected by Adam and Eve’s sin. We are born into a world full of sin and suffering. As I said before, Potiphar’s wife sinned, but it was Joseph who went to jail (Genesis 39). And if someone commits adultery, many people’s lives are wounded, not just those guilty of the sin. We have to acknowledge that we have all have sinned in ways that have damaged others and in turn we have suffered because of the sins of others.

3. But there’s hope!

Suffering is real. It’s not an illusion. But it isn’t linked to an endless cycle of karma and reincarnation. Nor is it woven into the fabric of the way things are. And because this is true, God can bring an end to suffering. God is able to overcome it.

In the present, God can use suffering to accomplish his purposes. As Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline (or times of difficulty and suffering) seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God can transform suffering to bring about his will. For instance, God used Joseph’s suffering. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:4-5). His brothers did evil, but God brought good out of it. In like manner, God used Jesus’ suffering to bring us salvation.

And the salvation that God brings about through Jesus will bring an end to suffering. It’s hard to even know what life would be like without sin and suffering, but we have a portrait painted for us in Isaiah 25:6-8. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces . . ..”

On that day, we will say, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, referring back to Isaiah 23, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Suffering is not the final word. Sin, suffering and death will be no more.

4. Victory in the midst of our current suffering

Suffering will end, but until then we will still suffer in various ways. We live in the time of the “already and not yet.” The kingdom of God has come, but it’s not yet all the way here; redemption has come, but it’s not yet all the way here. We have the reality of salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and new life by the Spirit of God. But not the fullness of it. This comes when Jesus returns, when evil is defeated and when all things are made new, including our bodies.

Until then Christians suffer the same kinds of things everyone else does. Paul says in 1 Corinthian 10:13 that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (NRSV). And Christians will also suffer in ways that are not “common” to all people – persecution for our faith.

We must beware of teachings that diminish the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we don’t have God’s power working in and through us now. And we must beware of teachings that exaggerate the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we need not suffer now because we are saved. One version of this is the so-called health and wealth gospel. Such things await the fullness of the kingdom.

Even though suffering will continue for now, Christians can experience victory in our suffering. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Since we know that God can use our suffering for good and we have hope for a future without suffering, we can have joy by the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering (James 1:2-4, Matthew 5:11-12, Romans 5:3-5).