If I’m Suffering, Is God Punishing Me?
Her adversaries have become rulers;
her enemies relax.
Certainly the LORD caused her grief because of her many wrong acts.
Her children have gone away,
captive before the enemy. (CEB)
A young man named Don came to see me for pastoral counseling. As he shared his story, I could sense that he was deeply distressed. As his tale unfolded, I could understand why. “I was fired from my dream job,” he said. “My fiancée broke off our engagement. And my friends don’t want to have anything to do with me. Why is God punishing me?”
Many of us have felt just like Don at one time or another. When our lives are coming apart, when we’re enduring suffering, we cry out, “Why is God doing this to me? Why is God punishing me?”
If we look to Scripture, Lamentations offers one answer. There are times when God does cause his people grief because of their wrong acts. As Hebrews affirms, God disciplines us so we can become more like him (Heb. 12:7-11). So, it’s possible that our suffering is the Lord’s way of helping us to grow in holiness.
But the Bible also reveals that sometimes our suffering is not a result of our sin. Consider the example of Job. He suffered greatly, losing his substantial wealth and his family. His friends urged him to admit that it was divine punishment because of his sin, but Job resisted, insisting that he had not deserved his sorrow. In the end, the Lord rebuked Job’s friends, revealing that they had not spoken rightly about God when they said he had been punishing Job (Job 42:7-8). (In fact, it was Satan who had caused Job’s suffering; see Job 1.)
Truly, suffering in general is a result of the brokenness of the world, that which finds its root cause in human sin (see Genesis 3). But this does not mean that every instance of personal suffering is a direct consequence of one’s own sin. Often, our pain comes from the mere fact that we live in a world that is not what God had intended.
Moreover, sometimes it seems true that our difficulties are the result of our own bad choices. In the case of Don, as I asked more questions about why he had lost his job, his fiancée, and his friends, I learned that one day at work he had become enraged with his fiancée, who was a colleague. So he punched her in the face. As a result, she dumped him, his boss fired him, and his friends, most of whom were coworkers, didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. Don was attempting to blame God for his suffering, because he didn’t want to confront his own failure.
In many cases, we will not know the precise reason for our suffering. But the good news is that God can and will use it for good in our lives, if we let him. Hard times can draw us closer to the Lord. They can help us deal with things in our lives we’d rather ignore. They can soften our hearts and make us more humble. They can increase our empathy for others in pain. Suffering can open up new ways for us to experience God’s love and comfort. Moreover, our pain can lead us more deeply into the heart of God, who chose to bear our sorrows, who came in Christ to suffer for us that we might enjoy the fullness of life.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever wondered if God was punishing you? Why or why not? How has God used your suffering to help you grow to be more like him?
PRAYER: Gracious, merciful God, I will never get to the point where I understand the cause of all suffering. Your ways are not my ways, and my judgment is limited. Nevertheless, I pray that you help me to know what I should know and to be satisfied with not knowing what I don’t need to know.
I thank you, dear Lord, for using suffering to make me more like you. I can think of times when you used the pain of my life to open me up to your grace in new ways. I can even see how some of the most painful events of my life have been ultimately some of the most redemptive. Thank you for being a God who works together in all things for good, including my good.
I pray in the name of Jesus, who suffered for me. Amen.