Have you ever suffered and then blamed yourself for your misfortune? Perhaps you questioned your faith? You worried that God might be punishing you for some sin or trying to teach you a lesson. If that’s what you thought, you may be suffering needless guilt.
Sometimes people do suffer for their own moral lapses or sins (Lamentations 3:39). But if suffering comes on us only because of specific sins — or to teach lessons — then God is sending us mixed and garbled signals. Suffering is painfully random in the world. Consider the innocent infants who suffer from terrible diseases. For what sin were the little ones responsible?
Why do some people who do bad things not suffer much, or seemingly not at all? Why do faithful Christians suffer? What about the unsuspecting victims of accidents or natural disasters? The suffering-for-sin idea can’t be a complete explanation for suffering. Yet it is a normal human reaction to blame victims — even ourselves — for suffering.
Jesus said that the 18 people killed by a collapsing tower did not die because they were worse sinners than others (Luke 13:1-5). Jesus turned the issue to more important considerations. He declared that all people would die — he meant spiritually — if they didn’t repent.
Jesus implied that we can reflect upon suffering, our own and others’, and see it as a general warning about the fragile nature of life. But Jesus resisted the notion that a specific instance of suffering pointed to a specific sin or lesson. He redirected thinking from the past — the why of it all — to the future, and to God’s purpose for us.
Can we know?
On the other hand, sometimes we try to give some positive and specific meaning to our suffering. We might say, “God is trying to teach me such and such.” Can we know — really know — such a thing is true?
Some suffering people sincerely believe they suffer because they are stronger than other people, and therefore are able to endure the agony. This hope also has pitfalls. Rabbi Harold Kushner described how Harriet Schiff in her book The Bereaved Parent spoke of her pain at the loss of a young son, Robbie. A counselor told her that God had let this happen because he knew she was strong enough to handle it. Ms. Schiff’s response should give us pause to think. If only I was a weaker person, she thought, Robbie would still be alive. She would rather be considered weak than for her son to die.
The “why” of suffering is too complex a question to be explained away by simplistic answers. Human suffering, especially for Christians, can be a deep and profound mystery that cuts to the heart of a person’s relationship with God.
Consider, for example, how God worked in the lives of the giants of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11. The chapter contains stories of people rescued by God from terrible suffering. They “conquered kingdoms” and “gained what was promised” (verse 33). These faithful “shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword” (verses 33-34). Godly women “received back their dead, raised to life again” (verse 35). God gave protection and brought blessings to this group of faithful.
But for some of these giants of faith, God gave no rescue or help from their immediate pain. The account in Hebrews continues: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” (verses 36-37).
Both groups consisted of people of faith. It was the same God working in both groups but allowing different circumstances — some quite tragic — to occur in their lives. This encourages us not to automatically blame ourselves if we suffer. And it also cautions us to be careful about assigning specific meanings to the tragedies and anguish of ourselves or others.