Hebrews 12:5-14 (NRSV)
5And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children— “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; 6for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” 7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 12Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. 14Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
“It’s just horrible to ever tell someone that they may be suffering because of sin.” Those were the sentiments that virtually every United Methodist pastor around the table were heartily agreeing to with the exception of one. That would be me. After I cleared my throat and worked up the nerve, I asked, “Well isn’t it true that sometimes people do suffer because of sin in their lives?” By the look on the faces of a couple pastors I began to wonder if I needed to clear my face of something unpleasant, but it wasn’t anything on my face, it was what had just come out of my mouth. Obviously they were not pleased with my suggestion. Quickly, and with obvious disgust one pastor said that it just simply wasn’t appropriate to make those kinds of connections. Another also joined in to “rescue” me from such a horrifying thought, that God may actually cause someone pain because of sin in their life.
I thought I probably just needed to clarify what I meant. I assured them that I understand that not all people suffer because of specific sins in their life such as Job for example. I also assured them that I understood that we should never jump to that conclusion, which we definitely shouldn’t. Psalm 34:19 says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, …” and there are plenty of examples of the righteous suffering because of their righteousness, which is often suffering inflicted on them by the wicked. Jesus spoke of the blessedness of “those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” (Matt 5:10). The book of Revelation shows that the saints in fact are persecuted and suffer, not at the hands of God, but at the hands of the Dragon working through the beast and his minions, the forces of evil. Nevertheless, the same book also shows that the wicked do indeed suffer under the judgments of God, designed to lead them to repentance. My clarifications were to no avail; for some, to make a connection between sin and suffering was simply never appropriate. “It’s just not loving,” they say.
Jesus, however, didn’t get that memo. Once after he healed a man he told him to sin no more, so that nothing worse would happen to him (John 5:14; see also Mark 2:1-12). Of course he also acknowledged cases of suffering, such as the man who was born blind, where there weren’t any specific sins to blame (John 9). Nevertheless, the clear implication of plenty of Biblical texts is that sometimes suffering, even sickness or calamity is the result of sin. The passage from Hebrews above directly connects pain with God’s punishment and correction and His love. Even some of the more conservative commentators will shy away here by saying that discipline isn’t the same as punishment, but that is not what the text says. Hebrews 12:6 says the Lord “disciplines” and “punishes”, the latter is the same word that is used when Jesus is scourged by the Roman soldiers before he was led away for crucifixion. Both of these words are active, indicating that God is directly involved. The good news is that God does this out of love and acceptance, not hatred and rejection. It’s really a simple Biblical concept.
In His covenant with Israel God promised blessings for obedience, but on the other hand he warned them of punishment for disobedience. The punishment was meant to be corrective, and just as much as the blessings, were a sign of God’s love for His people, not his hatred for them (See Deut 28). If you think of love here as sentimentalism, then this won’t make much sense, but when you think of love as God’s loyalty to His covenant then you will begin to see. This kind of love sometimes causes pain.
As the Hebrews passage indicates any responsible parent should recognize this. It only takes two letters of the Alphabet to cause a child pain, emotional pain at least, “N” and O”. Understandably we must be wary of causing a child excessive pain, physical or emotional. Even if you completely shun the idea of physical punishment, as a parent you must at times cause your children some pain and discomfort for their own good and because you love them. You apply a lesser and more temporary pain in order to help them avoid a more serious and lasting pain.
I explained to my colleagues that God had done that very thing for me, and for it I was incredibly grateful. When I was living a life full of pride, of a religious variety, and exalting my thoughts and ways above the thoughts and ways of God, I experienced tremendous pain and hardship. For a while I thought it was the Devil, but eventually I realized that it was from God, and not because he hated me, but because he loved me and accepted me. I was wayward and headed for a worse misery than the misery I was already experiencing. It was pain that brought me to my knees, to a place of humility, and through the pain and humility I eventually received new life (see my testimony here). I can’t imagine that happening without the pain, and looking back, I thank God for caring enough to inflict it. I know all of this may sound horrible to some because “their god” would never hurt anyone. Yet I still thank God for hurting my pride and crucifying my sinful nature so that I “may share in his holiness” (Heb 12:10), and, as John Wesley so often reminded, this is “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).