While preparing a lesson the other day, I came across G.K. Chesterton’s introduction to the book of Job. As you may know, he wrote some pretty intriguing things, and here’s one of them:
“For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. They will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good. This, which has happened throughout modern commerce and journalism, is the ultimate Nemesis of the wicked optimism of the comforters of Job.”
From “Introduction to THE BOOK OF JOB”, G.K. Chesterton
Among other things, the book of Job teaches us important lessons about suffering not always being a direct punishment for sin. It shows us how relationships can be destroyed when we believe otherwise. That is, when we believe that when one suffers he or she must have sinned badly to deserve it, and when we act upon that belief to pronounce sin upon the suffering, we damage relationships because of our false premise.
However, Job is not the only place where this topic is addressed in the Bible. Probably my favorite teaching of Jesus on this topic comes from the book of John, where Jesus and His disciples saw a man who had been blind since birth:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?”
“It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.
John 9:1-3 NLT
For those in the first century who subscribed to the false belief that suffering has a one-to-one correlation with sin, a situation like this presented a real puzzle. Clearly, a newborn baby hadn’t sinned. While God gives each of us a conscience, infants don’t have the recognition of moral choices, nor the ability to even manage their own actions, much less choose to do something right or wrong. They cry when they are hungry, and sleep when they are tired (which rarely seems to be when their parents want to sleep!).
So, in order to reconcile this discrepancy in their belief, the disciples proposed another variation of the suffering-sin corollary, which I suspect was a running hypothesis in that day: What if the blind man’s parents had sinned instead, and giving birth to a blind child was some sort of punishment for their actions? (Note that, when we have hitched our wagon to an incorrect understanding of the world, trying to defend it against the facts often becomes increasingly difficult. However, there’s a temptation to keep papering over a failed theory with more and more exceptions, rather than revisiting, revising, and even replacing the incorrect belief.)
Jesus’ response is beautiful. He breaks the correlation between this specific affliction and a particular sin. He shows us that the blind man’s condition was neither useless nor pointless. At the same time, he turns the message back to God. He shows that there is purpose in the pain, and significance in the suffering.
God’s reply to Job (see Job 38-41) reminds us that we are too finite and too simple to fully grasp the vastness of God’s knowledge and power. There is no way that we can expect to boil down His decisions to simple logic, based only on what we observe. Job’s friends, as well as Jesus’ disciples, had tried to over-simplify what they saw into a simple, but incorrect, equation: “personal sin is the only source of personal suffering”.
To be clear, I’m fully convinced that sin is still the reason that suffering exists in this world. Genesis 3 explains how God’s created perfection was broken by the sin of human beings. It is only the rigid correlation between personal prosperity and one’s own righteousness that fails to appreciate the pervasiveness with which sin has destroyed this world and the lives of those who walk here. If we subscribe to this incorrect connection, we also miss out on seeing the omniscience and omnipotence of God in using even our collective failures (along with their consequences) as part of a greater purpose.
Even today, human beings (including myself) try and understand all of the reasons why bad things happen. We try to “help” God out, by attempting to explain the specific purpose of a given affliction or disaster. Sometimes, He lets us sputter along on our own, as we proclaim our conjectures in ignorance of what we are too simple to comprehend. Other times, He shows us (as He did to Job) that His perspective and power overshadow our own meager capabilities to understand, in ways that are far behind our comprehension.
Trusting God through the pain and trouble is not easy. I’m not trying to offer a trite answer to somehow help us all understand why bad things happen, nor to pretend that I can ease the pain of those in the middle of trials. However, I do propose that God offers answers to those who will ask (like the disciples), seek (like Job), and knock at the door of Heaven. Those answers may not all arrive in this mortal life, but what we do learn gives us the encouragement to trust God for the remainder.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.