Is My Suffering a Correction for Sin?
When do I know if God is correcting me? It’s a question every believer faces eventually, and today it comes from a female listener named Hunter. This is so good. “Pastor John, thank you for your honest answer about the pandemic this year. I’m thinking especially of your special episode ‘How Do We Make Sense of the Coronavirus?’ There you concluded that some instances of suffering, including weakness, illness, and death, represent direct judgments of God for our sin intended to discipline us and bring us to repentance and restoration. I see this in passages like 1 Corinthians 11:30–32. Yet we also know from Scripture that God allows some suffering not as a specific judgement or correction, but simply to display his glory and build in us patient endurance. I see this in passages like John 9:3 and 2 Corinthians 12:8–9. So my question is this: When God brings suffering into our lives, how can we discern if that suffering should be met with patience and endurance, or with immediate life evaluation and alteration?”
Good question — so well thought through; so well articulated. First, let me say that I very much agree with Hunter that those two ways of God’s treating us are real. They are in the Bible.
Endurance and Evaluation
On the one hand, he may discern a specific pattern of sin in our lives to which he directly responds with some kind of trouble or suffering in our lives to wake us up, and refine us, and to heal us, and to bring us to repentance because he loves us. As it says in Hebrews 12:6, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” I know that experience is very hard sometimes to believe because, even though it’s taught so plainly in the Bible, the thought that God’s love for his children is bringing this pain is very difficult to feel with great affection. We need all the encouragement we can get from the Scriptures to believe that he is our Father, and that he will never cast us away, and that afflictions are for our good.
On the other hand, as Hunter points out, texts like John 9:3 intend to teach us not to assume that every affliction is directly a response to some particular sin in our life, but that sometimes we are being given in our affliction an opportunity to magnify the grace of God through faith and patience and love.
“Let every trial have its sanctifying effect of killing sin, and furthering faith, patience, and love.”
I agree with Hunter that those two divine ways of dealing with us are very real. They’re both taught in the Bible. But what makes answering Hunter’s question so difficult — namely, How do we know when we are being treated one way or the other? — is that the line between them is permeable. Another way to say it would be that those two kinds of responses from God to our situation always overlap, which means, practically, that there is never a situation in life where we should not respond with self-evaluation. She asked, “Should we respond with evaluation or with patience?” And I’m saying there’s always appropriate evaluation in the midst of affliction and, if necessary, alteration.
In other words, I’m suggesting to Hunter that, in the end, knowing for sure which of these two ways of being treated by God is happening to us is not essential to living as we ought. God may make it plain; he may. But he may not.
Goal of Every Trial
Now, let me illustrate what I’m talking about. In James 1:2–4, James says,
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Here James pictures all of us Christians meeting various kinds of trouble, which he calls trials or tests. He doesn’t distinguish whether they are coming in response to specific sins we’ve committed or not. What he says is that in every kind of trial — every kind — faith is being tested. And the aim in every trial is a kind of steadfastness that shows that God is trustworthy, and wise, and good, and valuable, and all-sufficient for our situation. Ultimately, the aim of every trial in the Christian life is to make Jesus look great by our patience, our faith, our love for others in his goodness.
Now, some of those trials may be owing to specific sins in our lives, and others of those trials may not be. But the goal is the same in both: If there are specific sins in our lives, the goal of Christ-exalting steadfastness includes recognizing and repenting of and moving out of those sins. If no specific sins are manifest, then the goal is still the same: magnify Christ through faith and repentance and love.
What I’m suggesting is that whether we can discern that a specific suffering is owing to a specific sin is not of the essence. The essence is this: let every trial have its sanctifying effect of killing sin, and furthering faith, and furthering patience, and furthering love. If the sin is known, kill it. If it is unknown, ask the Lord to protect you, to cleanse you from hidden faults (like the psalmists do, Psalm 19:12; 139:23–24), and to advance your capacities for faith and patience.
Remnants of Sin
Now, I don’t think I’m making this up, this merging of these two. I think Job is an illustration of what I’m trying to get across — namely, that even the suffering that comes into our lives as an opportunity for the demonstration of God’s worth through faith and patience nevertheless always has the secondary design to take our sanctification deeper.
When Satan asked God for permission to hurt Job, the context was that Job was a blameless man (Job 1:1) — meaning that the sufferings that came to him were not disciplinary as a response to some sin that he was walking in. It was God’s way of giving Job the opportunity to show the value of God over his health, over his family, over his prosperity. However, over time, the suffering of Job was such that it did stir up in Job the sediment of remaining sinfulness, which he later clearly repented of in Job 42:5–6: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
“The aim of every trial in the Christian life is to make Jesus look great.”
This, I think, will prove true for all of us. Whether the suffering in our lives is chastisement for some specific sin, or whether the suffering is an opportunity to glorify God through faith and patience, in both cases, we’re going to discover remnants of sinfulness in our lives, which we should repent of and move beyond. Which is why I said there’s always room for self-evaluation.
Suffer with Him
Let me close with what may be the most important thing to say. Whenever suffering comes into our lives, as the elect, loved, justified, secure children of God, there are two kinds of temptations, not just one: One is to neglect the suffering as an opportunity for proving our steadfastness of faith and patience. The other is to fear that we are being condemned and not being treated as the children of God.
I want to encourage Hunter and all of us to establish ourselves in the word of God, in the redeeming work of Christ, in the sealing work of the Holy Spirit, and in the walk of holiness, in order to grow in our confidence that we are God’s children, and if children, then heirs, for sure, knowing that we must suffer with him on the way to being glorified with him (Romans 8:16–17).