God Glorifies Us through Suffering

This morning I was reading 1 Peter 1 and ran across the following statements:

You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith — more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

1 Peter 1:5-7

What stuck out to me in particular is what Peter says here about the purpose, or the “so that,” of Christian trials. Scripture here seems to say that we have to face trials in order that our genuine faith, withstanding all such testing, will actually result in our praise when Christ returns. We suffer so that we can shine.

I realize that this may sound a bit off at first, but there are other Biblical examples of this kind of rationale for suffering, at least for some of it. Take Job, for instance. In Job, we ultimately see God allowing Satan to inflict great suffering to Job’s vindication. By the end of it, Job has refused to curse God and die, as his wife suggested. He may have gotten harsh with God and threw around some blame, but he never gave up or repudiated his trust. When all of the rest is concluded, God commends Job and rewards him for his faithfulness over and against any of Job’s friends. God’s point to Satan from the beginning was that Job’s faith was real, and could stand up to trial, and this claim was vindicated to Job’s glory.

The theme like this of God glorifying His suffering people in fact permeates all of Scripture. He did this to Joseph, to Moses and the Israelites, to David, to Daniel, to many others, and ultimately to Jesus Christ (who, we must recall, is every bit as human as you or I). When God’s people patiently wait and suffer what they must, trusting Him through the whole of it, He uses the occasion to reward them and bring praise and honor to the virtues which He has given them.

To some extent, we recognize such a possibility even in a non-theological way. This is the way that the best stories work, isn’t it? The greatest heroes, the ones who we love and praise and celebrate the most, are not the ones who stayed in their Hobbit holes and enjoyed a simple life with a peaceful death. Instead, the heroes who receive the most glory are those who make it through many sufferings, who face the toughest obstacles and most heartbreaking setbacks. Frodo and Sam are renowned, but not the old Gaffer.

Of course, it is not obvious that real life has to work this way. After all, this glory is highly contingent on two things: the sufferings being known to all, and the would-be heroes actually making it all the way to success. In this life neither of those seem very certain. You may feel like asking, “Will anyone ever know what I have suffered? And will I even make it?” But this is where we have from God precious promises to our comfort. For He declares to us that all of our patience and faith in suffering (and all other good works) will be publically known on the last day:

Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13, Lk. 12:2-3)

He also promises that He will carry us through to the very end, so that we know how our quest will conclude even in the midst of it:

Now the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will personally restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little. The dominion belongs to Him forever. Amen. 

1 Peter 5:10-11

So on the basis of these guarantees from God Himself we know that glory awaits us on the other side of suffering.

You may also wonder, though, how this can be? Has God not said, “I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another” (Isa. 42:8)? How can God glorify us at all, whether through suffering or by any other means? The answer to this, as with so many things, is found in Jesus Christ. God can glorify man because there was a Man—is a Man—who has the right to the whole glory of God. A human being from Nazareth named Jesus holds the name above every name, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father (John 1:14). We get to share in His glory because He is our Brother, our Lord, and our Bridegroom. We are united with Him by our baptism into His death and resurrection.

This brings us the ultimate promise and comfort. Because we belong to Christ, we will share His glory after sharing His sufferings. We have entered His story, not our own, and get to participate in His happy ending. Or, as Paul would say it:

So then, brothers, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. All those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 

Romans 8:12-17

God Glorifies Us through Suffering

Pizza Hut, Suffering, Resurrection, Fasting, and the Flesh

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

Philippians 3:10-11

Suffering and Resurrection

In my studies recently, I have come more and more to see suffering as key to the broad concept of salvation. Don’t get me wrong; right off the bat I want to point out that I don’t think suffering is some kind of requirement to be saved, or believe in something like “justification by suffering” rather than by Christ. But what I have seen is a basic order and connection being a major theme: suffering and vindication, death and resurrection.

What do I mean? Throughout Scripture, one of the ongoing realities is the suffering of God’s people at the hands of enemies, and His promise to both save them and vindicate them, prove that they were in the right, against their enemies. This can be mostly clearly seen first in the Exodus. God sees His people suffering under Egyptian oppression, declares that He is their God and they are His people, and proceeds to rescue and vindicate them. This continues to be the pattern as Israel faces many other enemies, especially those who taunt them and boast. In the Psalms there are repeated prayers for God to alleviate suffering and prove the righteousness of His people or His chosen king. This theme is also present very much in the prophets, especially Isaiah, though certainly in all the rest as well.

In between the Old and New Testaments, the theme of martyrdom in this regard grew especially strong. The Maccabean revolt etched into the Jewish worldview the importance of individuals who heroically suffered for God, even unto death, in the hope of future vindication and even resurrection. This set the context well for Jesus, who completely fulfilled this ideal of suffering and vindication in His own personal, physical death and resurrection, as the Scripture says:

He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death —
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name.

Philippians 2:8-9

And as well:

Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels. 

Isaiah 53:12

I could produce a host of other texts, but that shouldn’t really be necessary. God has always saved His people as they patiently endure suffering, and ultimately proves them right over and against their enemies. The final climax of this is resurrection to undo the suffering and shame of death, a fate which so far only Christ has experienced in fullness.

This last part is the key. Jesus in His own self summed up the redemptive motion that God had been up to with His people since the beginning: He suffered, He died, and He rose to new life. We have been saved by Christ’s fulfillment of this dynamic between God, His people, and the world.

The significance of that for our own lives in particular is the realization of how Scripture connects these things to Christians. Just as Christ suffered, those who are in Christ are expected to suffer1. Yet this suffering is not seen as simply an isolated kind of event, a problem that will happen to us with no inherent meaning or significance. Our sufferings are directly connected to the suffering Christ experienced. His death is our death, and our sufferings are His. This means that the same end that Jesus experienced after His suffering—public vindication and physical resurrection—will also be applied to us through the Holy Spirit2.

I’ll step back and sum up the idea. We are saved through Christ’s suffering and vindication, His death and resurrection. We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore our sufferings as Christians assure us that we are involved in His life, His saving life, and so our story will end in the same way as His: new life and eternal glory. Moreover, our sufferings can produce fruit in us of Christ’s resurrection life here and now, not just on the last Day.

Suffering and the Flesh

I want to look at that last statement a bit more. First Peter 4:1-2 say this of suffering:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.

What does this mean? Does suffering sanctify, and if so how? Why does it say that the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin? The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in a proper understanding of the “flesh.” Contra the NIV, “flesh” should not simply be taken as “sinful nature.” The flesh appears to be, Biblically speaking, a reference to the merely natural aspect of human nature and existence, the part of human life which is not truly distinguishable from animal life. The one who lives according to the flesh lets natural desires run his life: the drives for sex, food, survival, security, etc. None of these things are evil things, but when the desires for them are unchecked by anything higher than mere man, they run rampant and destroy. Yet “flesh” in this sense can also be used more neutrally. Jesus being descended from David according to the flesh merely means that David is His ancestor from a natural, physical point of view.

I think that it should not take much detailed explanation and defense to show how this makes sense of the use of “flesh” in Scripture. So if we tie that the concept of suffering for Christ, it is not difficult to see how suffering kills sins. When we share in Christ’s sufferings, we learn from experience to deny the desires of the flesh, and indeed the more you actually suffer and deny the flesh, the more you become able to do so, just as is the case with all learned behaviors. When we learn to deny the flesh by our sufferings for Christ, we find that we are more inclined to seek satisfaction in Him than to fulfill our natural desires. We become liberated from the constant compulsions to satisfy our desires for food, sex, security, and survival which so inhibit our abandoned pursuit of Christ as we continue to deny these desires in suffering for His sake.

Suffering and Fasting

This brings me to the most recent realization in conjunction with these themes. See, not all of us experience Christian suffering. Most of us do suffer at some time or another, death or sickness or poverty or broken hearts. Yet few of us suffer for Christ, voluntarily accepting suffering precisely because of our commitment to Him. Instead of by choice for God, we suffer by external factors which we try to escape or mitigate. This kind of suffering, while empathetic and in need of grace, is not the suffering that trains us to kill sin. But this is something of a blessing. We do not suffer for Christ because we have a degree of religious liberty, and are allowed to worship as we please. So we are free to pursue holiness and share the Gospel. On the other hand, we miss out on something, because God gives His people blessings through suffering3.

So what? Are we forced to miss out on these blessings as long as live in a safe place for Christians? By no means! For if indeed suffering for Christ sanctifies us by training us to deny the desires of the flesh, there is another way to experience these same benefits. This can be done by a discipline taught and practiced by Christ, used widely in the Church’s past, but mostly neglected today. What is this? Why, fasting, of course. 

See, fasting makes it possible to deny the flesh and seek Christ in a very tangible, voluntary, and powerful way. When we fast, we make a commitment that binds us for a time, pressing us to neglect our natural desires (particularly food, which is easily the most powerful) so that we might instead devote ourselves to prayer, Scripture, and love. When we do this regularly, we develop the habit, enriched and sanctified by the Spirit through these devotions, of denying self for Christ’s sake. This is, in fact, what Christ Himself did to prepare for His ministry. In order to maintain His strength, resist all distracting temptations, and train for the hardships of His ministry which would climax in death on a cross, He spent 40 entire days fasting. No food for over a month, denying His natural desires, His flesh, for the sake strengthening His resolve in the Spirit. This was the very first thing the Spirit led Him to do after His baptism, and the foundation of all He would do later. If He could actually dedicate Himself to God for 40 days without food—if He could push through that kind of intense hunger and desire—then He could withstand anything else He would need to do, even be crucified.

Following this pattern that Jesus Himself set down is exactly what we need. When we fast, we participate in Jesus’ life and death, His saving sufferings, and by this we kill the power of sin in our lives by the Holy Spirit. When we fast, we experience in part the benefits of godly, Christian suffering. Fasting is a powerful and necessary part of our spiritual disciplines by which we grow in Christ through the Spirit, alongside prayer and Scripture.

Oh, and Pizza Hut

I should add one more thought to this before I finish. See, while fasting is criminally neglected among modern church practice, it’s not altogether absent. It still does happen. Yet even when it does, I’ve noticed that it is rarely the traditional practice of abstaining from eating, or even any other basic human desire. I see people fast Facebook, sweets, sodas, Twitter, or sometimes even the entire Internet. These are useful and sometimes necessary fasts which can benefit our spiritual health. But I get the uneasy feeling from the sheer flood of these kinds of fasts that the full fasting of food has become a rarity, and that this is because in the American church we, well, have an idolatrous love of food. We are widely and deeply guilty of the sin of gluttony.

I believe this applies to most of you reading this, along with myself. We love food too much. We let it drive and control us. There’s a reason I often crave a Pizza Hut buffet, and every time I go I eat more by myself than many families get for a whole day around the world. There’s a reason that I cringe, fear, and delay when I think about fasting food. I am an idolatrous glutton, and for that I repent and impose upon myself a fast that I might learn to deny the flesh for Christ. Yet I am not alone, and I can only pray that more of us will gather the conviction to crucify our natural desires, even the desire for food, that we may be freed for holiness.

In fact, that last sentence is pretty much the whole point of this post. So with that I’ll end with a good quote:

Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.

St. Basil the Great

Pizza Hut, Suffering, Resurrection, Fasting, and the Flesh

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

Evil is evil. Could there be a statement more pathetically obvious, yet more profoundly ominous? We live in a world rife with evil. Every day, there is murder and mayhem on the news. School shootings have become more routine than Presidential elections, and more children on this planet are malnourished than well-fed. Many nations reek with poverty and injustice, even including parts of our own.

Yet simultaneously, as Christians we affirm the existence and immanence (which basically means closeness to our world) of a good God. This God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He is love, and He is the true life. He is the Lord All-Powerful, able to do all He decides to do, who overflows with mercy and compassion to those in need.

To most people, these two realities are at least at tension with each other, and for many they are outright contradictions. How can so much evil fill a world created, sustained, and cared for by a good and omnipotent God? The problem of evil boggles minds upon minds.

Throughout history, numerous solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed. The Gnostics attributed evil to the god of matter and good to the God of Spirit. Ancient polytheist religions imagined very many gods—some good, some evil, and none flawless—who determined the fortunes of the world. Many dualistic religions posit an evil force and a good force, equal to each other and locked in conflict. Within Christianity, we’ve had many of our own ideas. Augustine considered evil a lack of God like how darkness is a lack of light. Free will as the source of evil was the favorite answer of many throughout church history, from the early fathers to modern Arminians and Molinists. Calvinists say that evil is decreed, ordained, and made certain by God for His own purposes to His glory, though God Himself stays out of evil directly.

Certainly, no one can completely explain evil. If we could, evil could not be as evil as it really is. Without mystery and darkness, evil simply becomes an ugly tool, unlikeable but manageable and necessary to the world (an implication of classical Calvinism which I take issue with). We must always understand that we will never understand evil completely.

This all said, I’ve been reading a book named Atonement by Thomas Torrance, a proper genius. He suggests an interesting understanding of why and how sin runs as loose and rampant as it does in the world, though not an explanation of how it originated. Here is an apologetically long quote, which I will summarize and explain afterwards (all emphasis mine):

On the one hand sin is rebellion against God, but on the other hand sin gains part of its character as sin from the divine resistance to it. If God not oppose sin, there would be no really objective and ultimate difference between sin and righteousness. Thus the divine opposition to sin is a factor in the qualification of humanity as sinful before God…But, as Paul felt, the disturbing factor seemed to be that God actually withheld his full opposition to sin and allowed it so much freedom that it challenged his righteousness and deity. Yet that was in the very mercy of God, as the cross showed, for the cross reveals that God withheld his final resistance to sin until, in Christ, he was ready to do the deed which would also save us from his wrath…

A very significant fact we have to consider is that before the death of Christ the difference between man and God is given an order of relative validity, or established in the extent of its separation from God…It was established (a) by the condemnatory law which expresses the divine judgment on sin, although that law was not yet fully enacted and inserted into history, and (b) by God’s withholding of final judgment against sin, for that means that God withheld from man his immediate presence which, apart from actual atonement, could only mean the destruction of humanity.

This merciful act of God by which he holds himself at a distance from fallen men and women and yet places them under judgment establishes, as it were, the ethical order in which righteousness has absolute validity and yet in which mankind has relative immunity and freedom

Here then is the fact we have to consider: the law of God which repudiates human sin at the same time holds the world together in law and order and gives it relative stability—but sin takes advantage of that and under the cover of the law exerts itself more and more in independence of God. That is why the New Testament speaks of the law as the strength of sin, for its very opposition to sin gives sin its strength, and by withholding final judgment from the sinner, holds or maintains the sinner in continued being.

Whew, that was a long quote! So, I’ll restate and summarize his point. According to Torrance, after the fall God had a problem. If He gave Himself fully to humanity, we would be destroyed (this is because God in His holiness is a consuming fire, which would bring Hell to sinful men). The solution to this was the law: by setting up a moral standard in between God and humanity, God actually keeps us and our world in a basically stable order. We are not burned up by God’s wrath, but He steps back and withholds Himself from the world.

The problem is that this mercy—God’s holding back of Himself to keep from judging and killing us in our sins—is the very thing which sin uses to run rampant. Every step God takes back to keep us from the fire of His holiness is a step evil can use to wreak havoc while God is at a distance.

In this understanding, the law is both the mercy of God and the judgment of God, while also being opposition to sin and the very thing which lets sin run loose. With the law, God steps back from the human world so He doesn’t destroy us, though what the law says still puts a judgment on evil. But with the consuming fire of God’s holy love hanging back, sin and death have room to do what they please and wreck everything.

This is the situation of the world outside of Jesus, the problem of evil. But in Christ this problem is fixed. Jesus was and is God, and was and is human. So when He lived a perfect human life, died a substitutionary human death, and rose to a new human life, He created an eternal and safe place for God and people to live together. In Jesus, since He is perfect and sinless humanity, God can be perfectly present. The Father doesn’t withhold Himself from the Son, and the Son is not destroyed because He has no sin in Himself.

This is why Jesus is our refuge, and our salvation. When we become “in Christ,” when we are united with His death and resurrection, we get to have perfect communion with God through His human Son. Though in our sinful human flesh we would be condemned to Hell by being brought near to God, in Jesus Christ’s perfect human flesh we are raised to eternal life by being brought near to God.

In sum, then, God created the law to separate Himself from sinful man, because if He was with us completely we’d be condemned by His holy love. Yet this separation by the law is exactly the room sin and evil need to run rampant and wreak havoc on the world. This situation can only be repaired in Jesus, the only person in whom God and humanity are united without opposition. Most of the world hasn’t accepted Christ yet, though, so the world at large is still stuck in separation from God which leaves room for boundless evil. The only solution is to spread the Gospel, brining more people into the refuge of Jesus until He returns. Then the entire human world will be brought back into God’s complete presence, with the result that those who refuse Jesus will suffer the fate of God’s eternal consuming fire while everyone in Christ will be saved to eternal life.

Amen, hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

If God exists, why does evil? Is He too weak to stop it? Does He refuse? Did it catch Him off guard? These questions have challenged philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, and goodness knows I can add little or nothing to their many answers. But I just felt like sharing this thought on my mind.

In Christian circles, there are usually two answers given, one by Calvinists and one by almost everyone else. To the Calvinist, evil exists by God’s decision. He ordained before time that Satan should fall, and Adam after him. He did not directly cause evil, but knowingly set up the world with causes, effects, and stuffs which led to evil. Why did He do this? To bring Him glory in conquering and judging it. God’s glory is the greatest good for both Himself and the elect.

The problems with the Calvinist answer are many. Can the intense evil and suffering in the world really bring glory to a good and kind God? Did the same God we see in Jesus imagine the Holocaust to make Himself look good? Moreover, this reasoning smacks of utilitarianism, an unbiblical ethic system where the ends justify the means, and you can get away with anything for “the greater good.” Is God a utilitarian? That’s not what we see of Him in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, Arminians, Molinists, and self-styled “Biblicists” usually go with the free will defense. I’m sure you’ve heard it. God wants us to freely love Him, but with free will necessarily comes the possibility to do evil. He can either force us to love Him, which wouldn’t be real love, or He must allow for the possibility of evil. This is considered by many a strong and intuitive answer to the problem of evil.

Yet this approach is not without its problems. For one, how do we know free will exists? That debate is ages old, with many arguments of both sides. Moreover, if free will is real, then God has it, but we also know that God cannot sin, and indeed always truly loves. So in that case why could He not make people in the same way, free, truly loving, yet unable to sin, like He is? Besides these problems, is free will by itself a strong enough concept to bear all the weight of the world’s evil? I don’t think we can really reduce the answer to every “Why, God?!” to “That’s easy, free will.”

If these answers don’t work, then what will we say? Shall we cite Karl Barth and his doctrine of nothingness? Maybe go with Augustine in saying evil doesn’t truly exist? Somehow, I don’t think any of these work well enough. So where do we go? How do we exonerate God from evil?

Maybe we don’t.

When we look at Scripture, God never tries to explain or defend Himself on this subject. The Bible never tells us how evil came around, or why God let it. We’re completely in the dark.

In fact, in God’s fullest revelation—Jesus Himself—speaks no excuse, apology, or even rebuke. He instead did the unthinkable: He took the blame. God the Creator, as a created human being, took on full responsibility for the evil of all His creation, and He suffered the consequences. He did not fight to prove His innocence or protect His reputation, but let us punish Him as we saw fit. On Calvary humanity judged God for evil, and God submitted to their sentence.

None of this means, of course, that God actually has done anything wrong and deserves blame. What it does mean is that God is a big boy, one who doesn’t need our philosophies or even sophistry to be justified. He is perfectly capable and willing to take responsibility for the state of His world.

Of course, the other thing the Cross proves in this subject is that God definitely loves us. Whatever else may be at work, and whatever questions He leaves unanswered, we can trust that Jesus loves us. So if nothing else, we can know that God is for us.

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

Does God Want Me Sick?

Nobody likes to be sick. Whether it’s as basic as coughing and sneezing or as severe as an aggressive cancer, we hate sickness. And naturally, whenever we hate something, but it exists, we wonder how it relates to God. A good God always leaves us with questions about bad stuff. So what about sickness? What does God have to do with illness and disease?

I think this is a very relevant question, because these problems affect millions and millions of people every day. It is not as though this question is about some far off speculative matter, but about a basic struggle of human existence. Therefore I say we search the Scriptures for how God relates to sickness.

As I see it, there are a few valuable case studies in Scripture about God and sickness. The first one is Job.

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.

On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”

“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

Job 1:1-3, 2:1-8

Before I elaborate on what happens here, I will go ahead and bring up the second case. This one is a blind man Jesus met.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

John 9:1-7

And I finally would like to mention the story of Miriam and Aaron’s opposition towards Moses.

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this.

(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)

At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words:

“When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them.

When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease, and he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.”

So Moses cried out to the Lord, “Please, God, heal her!”

Numbers 12:1-13

From these three examples I think we can get a general idea of the different ways God relates to sickness. I will make a particular point from each one.

Miriam: Sickness from Judgment

This appears frequently in the Old Testament. It is quite clear that sometimes God sends sickness on people as judgment for their sins. In this case, because Miriam and Aaron pridefully challenged the position God gave Moses, Miriam was struck with leprosy. Fortunately, Moses prayed for her, and in the end God healed her. So how does this relate to sickness as we experience it? Well, it goes to show that God may send disease into someone’s life because of sin. The point of this generally seems to be to lead them to repentance, but sometimes it may simply be punishment. Examples of this in the nation of Israel and their history abound. God sent plagues when His people were rebellious and healed them afterwards. I should also point out that in this case, God’s people were always healed. Everyone who was not healed, as far as my memory goes, was someone outside of or cut off from Israel.

So should we, when sick, expect that God is punishing us for some sin? Most of the time, I would say “no.” Why? Because there was a shift in how God relates to His people with the coming of the New Covenant. In this age, in this covenant, God does not work so explicitly to communicate spiritual reality with physical happenings. The only examples I can think of in the New Testament in which God physically judged people were with Ananias and Sapphira, and with the messed up people taking the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian church. Besides these, we have no other examples of sin being judged physically in the now. This, I believe, is because we are now living in view of Christ’s sacrifice, which is the sufficient atonement for sin. We no longer need to see God execute judgment visibly on sin, because the full expression of His wrath has already been revealed. Moreover, we are clothed in Christ now, and so I do not expect we should generally receive punishments in the same way that Israel did. We currently live in an age of mercy and pardon. There will be a time again for physical, visible judgment, but this will be at Christ’s return, when the final order of things will all be set right. Now, might God still on occasion punish and send sickness as judgment? Quite possibly. But this is not, I would think both by theology and experience, to be the norm.

Job: Sickness for Growth

Next up: Job. Job’s story is quite interesting. Satan is roaming the earth, presumably looking for someone to devour, and approaches God. So what does God do? He actually suggests to Satan that he go after Job, though forbids him from taking Job’s life. Why? It seems that there are two reasons in view. In the original dialogue, it seems as though God is seeking to prove something to Satan, namely that in Job He has a truly devout follower. Yet by the end of the story, we also see that Job has grown from this ordeal. His faith has been both vindicated before Satan and deepened before God. At this point he has learned to trust in God and His justice no matter what happens. His questions are not answered, but He learns that God is truly there, even in his pain. He comes to understand that God is just even when He doesn’t simply bless the righteous and punish the wicked in this life.

From this I derive that God had two purposes in mind for giving Job into Satan’s hand. One was to show to Satan than he cannot break the faith of those who truly love God, and another was to strengthen and mature Job himself. By the end of this ordeal, Job has a stronger connection with God than he did before, and that is truly the sweetest thing that anyone can acquire. He became more wise and more content. 

These purposes, I believe, also apply to many of the sicknesses and troubles in the life of the believer. As with Job, it seems Biblical to say that God gives Satan the permission to afflict us within certain limits. The reason for many of these trials are to refine us, to make our faith better and stronger, and to prepare us for greater reward (as Job received everything back double plus better knowledge of God). We see this kind of thing in James 1:2-4, 1:12, Heb. 12:11, and Rom. 5:3-5 among many other places. When we endure suffering, God works it to our good, and sometimes what we need is suffering to reach certain good.

I should also point out in this case that God doesn’t seem to usually be the active agent of our suffering in these cases. Unlike in punishment, assuming Job is a rather normal case we would find instead that God permits secondary causes and agents to be the cause of our sickness, not directly afflicting us Himself.

The Blind Man: Sickness for Healing

The most interesting case of the three I chose to analyze is that of the blind man Jesus healed, because Jesus’ disciples in this case actually asked Jesus why this man was born blind. After all, most of the Jews of the time believed that, with very few exceptions, sin brought all kinds of suffering and righteousness brought all kinds of blessings. So in the case of a man born blind, most people would assume that either he himself sinned in the womb somehow or that he is cursed by his parents’ sin. Since we know that God does sometimes send afflictions as punishment for sin, this doesn’t seem unreasonable. But this is not what Jesus says. Instead, He tells them this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

This is quite a response. Jesus said that this man was born blind basically just so God could heal him through Jesus. Why would God choose this? Well, while we are not told explicitly, I gather from the usual themes of Scripture three possibilities, all of which probably have something to do with it:

  • This was to bring glory to God. This man was born blind so that in healing him, God would exalt His Son and Himself. Since Scripture often speaks of God doing great acts of mercy for His glory, this certainly seems plausible.
  • This was to bring about the man’s salvation. It may also be the case that God intended from the beginning that this blind man’s healing would be the means by which he came to faith in Jesus Christ.
  • This was to give the man a testimony for others. It is probably also true that God intended this event to be a way that the blind man could come to tell others of what God has done and so further glorify God and procure the salvation of others.

Also, in this case we see no indication of who/what was the immediate cause of this man’s blindness. While God’s purpose is shown in it, we are left not knowing if God sent the blindness Himself, if it came through Satan’s works, or if it was perhaps entirely natural means under the control of God’s providence. All we know for sure is that God had a plan for this man’s suffering, and in the end it brought great joy.

In application to us, we should also look in our own suffering and sickness for opportunities to advance the glory of God and salvation of people. Your illness may very well be a piece of God’s plan to save someone else, or to strengthen someone’s faith through a miracle. All sorts of things are possible, so keep an eye on Jesus no matter what happens.

Wrapping Up

There are other cases in Scripture, I am sure, that could bring out even more useful points about God’s relation to sickness and disease, but I think most of what we need to know has been covered in these. We see that sometimes God sends sickness directly, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes naturally. It may be for judgment, growth, healing, or another purpose. But I think we can say rather confidently that there is also some purpose, even if it is nothing that we could so easily comprehend. We have a strong and wise God, a God who will not permit us to suffer a moment needlessly. Rest assured that if you or a loved one is suffering that God knows what He is doing. Yet also know, just like in these texts, that we will probably never know all the answers. Job never knew why he suffered, after all, and his trouble was probably the worst here. Sometimes even if we were told the reasons we probably wouldn’t be able to actually follow along and get it all. The only time I am confident we will know is if God sends punishment, in which case He will almost certainly make the sin plain. Yet this also seems to be the least likely reason for sickness. So trust God, and know He’s got us in His hands.

Does God Want Me Sick?