In the Christian tradition since Augustine, the most common explanation for the apparent arbitrariness of life and God’s interaction with humanity has been God’s mysterious will—his “secret plan,” as Calvin says. Whether or not a child is born healthy or a wife is killed by an intruder is ultimately decided by God. If we ask why God brings misfortune on certain people, the most common answer is that he is using the misfortune to punish or discipline them.
I concede the explanation that suffering happens as punishment or discipline is found in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Heb 12:4-11). But there are several important points about this biblical motif that qualify it as a general explanation for why people suffer.
- Nowhere is this explanation of suffering put forth as a general explanation for the problem of evil in Scripture. Indeed, the only time an explicit connection is made between divine punishment and evil in general is to deny that such a connection can be made. For example, the psalmist repeatedly complains that suffering and blessing are meted out to the righteous and the unrighteous arbitrarily. Jesus never suggests that any of the multitude of afflicted or demonized people he ministered to were being disciplined or punished. Rather, he suggests that such afflictions or demonizations were the direct or indirect result of Satan being the “ruler” of this world. (Jn 12:31). Though every person Jesus ministered to was a sinner, he uniformly treated them as casualties of war.
- There is a world of difference between encouraging Christians facing persecution to see God refining their faith in the process (Heb 12:4-11) and encouraging a mother of a stillborn child to see this as God’s way of teaching her a lesson. While we certainly must believe that God is always working to bring good out of evil (Rom 8:28), in most circumstances it is presumptuous to suggest that God specifically allows or brings about suffering in order to discipline a person. Apart from divine revelation, how could we possibly know this? But this presumption morphs to cruel absurdity when we are speaking of horrors like a man mourning his murdered wife or a mother grieving over her stillborn child.
- Even in the Old Testament when God is said to discipline individuals or nations with hardship, it is never presented as a part of God’s eternal plan. Instead, it’s depicted as a necessary response to sinful choices people were making. This is God’s “tough love.” It grieves God to do such things. He “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3:33), though in response to sin he sometimes has to.
As people who reflect on suffering in light of the cross, and as people who know God as he has been decisively revealed in Christ, we have no reason to assume there is a particular divine reason behind every instance of suffering we confront. We certainly have no reason to assume that God is punishing people because of sin—he took care of that on Calvary—or that he’s disciplining them to refine their character, though God will always use suffering to bring about whatever good he can.
We ordinarily can’t know why particular individuals suffer the way they do. But in light of God’s revelation in Christ, our assumption should be that their suffering is something we should oppose in the name of God rather than accepting it as coming from God. Hence, the only relevant question disciples of Jesus should consider is, What can we do to bring God’s redemptive will into the situation, to alleviate suffering and to glorify God? How can we respond in such a way that God’s will is further accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven”? Instead of asking “Who sinned?” we should ask, “How can we bring glory to God in this situation?” (Jn 9:1-3).
—Adapted from Is God to Blame?, pages 80-84