Why do bad things happen to good people? Even the most secular person, I believe, is disturbed by what they cannot help but perceive is in the innate lack of justice in this situation. For Christians, who believe in a just God, and yet recognize that there is great wickedness in the world (evil which He is allowing for a time), these episodes can still be hard to bear, particularly when the innocent inexplicably suffer.
On Sunday night, Audrey and her children and I were on an island off Savannah, at the evening service at her church’s summer campground, which is situated on a marsh among trees draped with Spanish moss. The guitar-accompanied singing was rich and enthusiastic – we got to sing all the verses in the hymns, and there were some great, great old songs including the famous words by John Newton: “Amazing Grace.” We read through the Old Testament 10 Commandments, and then the New Testament pair whereby Jesus summarized the old: First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength. Second: Love your neighbor as yourself. The sermon series was on God as our Father. The text was from the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus had already instructed his disciples how to pray at that point, and he was talking about anxiety – “Don't worry about what you're going to eat or drink, or what you were going to wear.” The preacher (the church’s senior pastor) laid out – in appropriately Presbyterian fashion – three points, though they were not all alliterative. The first two observed that God provided for us and that God protected us. The last point was that God the Father disciplines us. All of these things are fully scriptural. The preacher solidly supported the first two points, and his remarks made me think about some aspects of my relationship with the Almighty that I had not considered—particularly on the second point, where he talked about the example of Job, around whom God had set a protective spiritual boundary which Satan could not cross without permission. Then, midway through the last point, the sermon veered off into what I understood to be dangerous territory: the pastor concluded with the statement that if we experienced suffering as Christians, God was disciplining us.
“The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights” (Hebrews 12:6). God wants his children to mature. We want our children – and our friends’ children – to grow up to be good folks, not only with good manners and able to care for themselves properly, but also exhibiting care and compassion for other people. Sometimes they do something wrong and it is necessary to correct them. Sometimes they simply need to be prompted to an action in a given situation where they don't know what to do. However, the English word “discipline” is often twinned with the word “punish,” and in human practice the rod of correction seems to be applied as a cane to the back as much as it is used as a pointing tool to steer in the right direction. Thus, the term discipline has gotten a bad reputation because of its frequent association with punishment. And we do know that God punishes sin. So is punishment, and more broadly, discipline, the sole reason for Christian suffering? Discipline implies only a person’s learning what to do and what not to do, it does not does not express an appreciation of what Someone Else has done and will do on humanity’s behalf. Therein lay the source of my disagreement with the pastor.
I am a historian. I think in terms of historical examples, and of suffering there are many. I know that there are frequently things in a person's lifetime that he or she cannot understand, that can be revealed to be part of a larger pattern when considered retrospectively. I also know that historians cannot comprehend the entirely of God's final tapestry of history as viewed from eternity. But I do believe, and have seen, that on a personal and on an historical level, we can see portions of His grand design which imply the intricacy and beauty of the whole. In my own life, I can look back to observe how some extreme periods of suffering were more revelatory of how God loved me (despite all I had done) than the episodes were indicative of anything I should do or punishment for something I should not have done. Too, the Old Testament saint Job was someone of whom God Himself said to the very critical enemy, "Have you considered my servant Job?" Job was a person who was *doing* everything right, who sought after God, who realized his own fallibility and that of his children and asked God to forgive them. Was he really caused to suffer for discipline!?
After the church service, while people swarmed around us getting barbecue, I accosted the pastor to ask. He responded, “No, Job was not being disciplined.” Huh? Didn’t that preclude the final point of the sermon? I tried and failed to follow up on this disconnection, telling him that discipline frequently implied (in many people’s minds) punishment. He firmly dismissed that idea, saying that the two were not the same. I agreed with him there—as aforementioned, punishment can be part of discipline but discipline is not limited to punishment. But—I’m so bad debating people, and I really couldn’t think to ask—what was the role of suffering in Job’s life? I told the pastor that I really felt like he needed to be far more specific, and define his terms, because of the common conflation of discipline and punishment. The conversation ended, leaving me quite unsatisfied. I had proven once again that I was verbally incoherent in pressing my (legitimate) point: the implication that the role of suffering was only to better/correct the behavior of the person who was suffering wasn’t resolved, and I was nonplussed at the pastor’s curt responses to my requests for clarification. Audrey told me later, “He’s not a people person.” No. (She said that he had made noticeable efforts to improve). To be fair, I’m not sure I would have been all smiles if some random person had begun barking questions at me after I’d preached for 40 minutes (!) either.
I discussed my frustration at length with Audrey on the drive home. The pastor’s summary of the role of suffering was incomplete, I knew, and to limit its work to “discipline” wasn’t accurate. Audrey soon found the word that I was searching for: Sanctification (which is a much more grace-filled comprehension of the fatherly role of God, and in keeping with the notion of God as provider and protector, than the pastor indicated).
Sometimes, in our suffering, we are punished for something we have done wrong. Oftentimes, we are taught what to do. However, in all suffering, Christians are always shown what God has done for us, and how much he loves us. And sometimes, that realization is the sole purpose of the experience. When at the end of the book of Job, the title character declaimed "I repent in dust and ashes," it was because he had seen God's glory. In suffering, the Holy Spirit supports the Christian’s despairing soul – occasionally, the individual may not feel this or see this care, being so overcome by what seems to be insuperable sorrow (witness martyrs and other victims of gross injustice or natural disaster)—but in them, God is showing His glory and giving other Christians an opportunity to serve and praise him. Suffering is ever always a process by which God teaches us, individually and collectively, about Himself: what He Himself suffered in the person of Jesus, and thereby how He loves us, and cares for us, even in the deepest, darkest nights of the soul. That is how suffering works in the process of sanctification.
A loved one dies. We suffer from a major mental illness. Dear friends lose their livelihood. An innocent person is condemned. An earthquake shatters a community. All these situations are part of living in this fallen world. God promises us in the Bible that this suffering will ultimately end. But in the meantime, he uses it to make us more like him, if we are his children. Enduring suffering makes us sensitive to others, and to consider where we might have misplaced our priorities or misrepresented ourselves. God is not vindictive, but parental towards those who call to him. Although certainly there are many aspects of Christianity that resemble soldiering, from the admonition to wear “the full armor of God,” to the lifetime training godliness requires, there are periods in which God just “leads us by still waters” like a bunch of helpless livestock, and restores our soul. When we are too weak to fight, He pulls us into His arms, whether we are aware of it at the moment (or even in our lifetime). Ultimately, everything points to the cross and the resurrection.
Suffering has a purpose in the life of someone who follows God. Without God, ordinary miseries are pointless. As this blog testifies, I don't yet handle trouble (real or imagined) gracefully, particularly when it’s “unfair.” As I learn to suffer appropriately, I understand it is not some sort of masochistic “I'm only happy when I'm miserable” mentality, but comprehension that in the normal course of life, the rotten bits (that all endure) will eventually work out for my good. I hope I will gain the courage to shed my very American addiction to comfort and cease insulating myself from the suffering of others—and fight injustice as I can. I hope too, that whatever difficulties face me and whatever callous and boneheaded things I do from moment to moment, that as a whole, my life will testify to God’s progressive sanctification of me, a sinner. I think in that aim, Audrey's pastor and I would certainly agree.