Four Causes of Suffering


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“Four Causes of Suffering”
April 5, 2020
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
Pastor Nicoletti

We have had topical sermons relevant to our current situation in our evening services so far during the stay-at-home order, and we will continue in that pattern this evening.

We considered how the early church responded to epidemics two weeks ago. We considered how Martin Luther counseled Christians to respond to an epidemic last week.

Tonight, I want to shift a bit and consider how we should think spiritually about the causes of suffering in the midst of the current crisis.

And as we consider that topic, I think we need to distinguish between the big picture and the way God is at work in each person’s and each community’s individual life.

If we step back so the details of a tragedy are out of focus, it can be easier to make an assessment from 31,000 feet. But, as interesting and as important as the perspective can be at that level, we also need to live our lives on the ground. And as we do, the assessment from 31,000 feet may not be adequate for the nuances and the varieties of situations we see before us.

We will hit on a number of Scripture texts this evening, but for our jumping-off point we will turn to Ecclesiastes chapter eight, verses fourteen and seventeen.

Please listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening.

Solomon writes:

14 There is a vapor that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vapor.

And then down to verse seventeen, at the end of the section:

17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.

This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

Let’s pray.

Lord, as we consider your ways, we ask for your wisdom.
Grant us discernment.
Grant us insight.
Grant us humility in ourselves and in our knowledge.
Help us to better understand your ways, so that we can better view our own lives.
And whatever challenges we may face, help us to live in faithfulness to and reliance on you.
We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

As we approach the topic of the causes of suffering, there are four preliminary concepts we need to establish off the bat.

The first is that God did not create the world for suffering, and suffering is not the final state that God’s creation will be in the end.

God made the world good – he made the world perfect. God made the world free from sin, and pain, and sickness, and death. We are told that in Genesis 1 and 2. And God will return creation to that state in the end. We are told that in Revelation 21. The starting point of creation, and its ending point, is a cosmos free of suffering for God’s good creation and for all of God’s people – for all who trust in him.

That’s the first preliminary concept we need to recognize.

The second is that in the era of cosmic history we find ourselves in, where sickness, suffering, pain, and death run rampant in the world – in the era after God’s good creation and before God’s perfect restoration – we cannot think of God as cold and aloof from our suffering, because he subjected himself to suffering as well.

If we are tempted to see God as cold and uncaring as we discuss this topic, we need to come back, again and again, to the reality of the incarnation and the atonement. God the Son came in human form, and was subject to pain, sickness, suffering, and even death. In fact, he went through greater suffering than he will ever ask us to. And so, when we discuss how God may use suffering as a tool for good in his divine plan, we cannot forget that this is not something he coldly inflicted on us from the safety of heaven. It is something he subjected himself to as well. He has joined us in the experience of these things, through Christ.

The third preliminary concept we need to recognize is that there are levels of answers to this question, depending on how zoomed out or zoomed in we are.

We might think of there being three main levels to this question: the cosmic level, the societal level, and the personal level.

The cosmic level is the view from 22,000 miles up – the view from the orbit of a satellite. It sees the big global picture.

And at the cosmic level, as we ask what the cause of suffering and sin is, the answer can be fairly straightforward. The cause is sin. God made the world good. He made it without evil and without suffering. But humanity rebelled. We rejected God’s good plan for us. We rebelled against his loving kingship. We fought against the life he bestowed on us. And when we did, we introduced sin, suffering, pain, and death into this world. In that sense, the sin of humanity as a whole and their rejection of God’s rule over them is the cause of all the suffering in this world.

That is the view from 22,000 miles – that is the satellite’s view – the cosmic view. It tells us a lot. But it doesn’t tell us everything. We know from Scripture that while that is the cosmic cause of suffering in this world, it is not always the specific reason suffering enters the life of one individual over another.

And so, with the cosmic view established, we need to zoom in a bit further.

And so we come down to the view from 31,000 feet – we come down to the altitude of an airplane.

And from here, as we look down, things are still zoomed out, but we can see a lot more detail. From here we can consider what specific things may cause God to allow suffering to visit various societies and nations.

And we have examples of this in Scripture. But as we consider these examples, we begin to see that reason the God allows or brings suffering to one society or another can vary. Already, at the 31,000-foot viewpoint, we don’t have one simple answer as we did at the 22,000-mile perspective. And so we can read in the Scriptures of God bringing suffering to bear on the pagan nations who rejected him, or on Israel when it was being unfaithful to him, or on the Early Church when it was faithfully proclaiming the gospel. And when we think of the spiritual causes of the societal suffering in each case, and the societal outcomes the Lord was working towards, we get three very different pictures of what God is up to when he brings suffering.

And so already at this level, we must admit that a bit more remains mysterious to us. All is not revealed to us. More on that later.

That said, we may have a solid theory as to what God is doing at a societal level.

I spoke a couple weeks ago about Augustine’s comment on how God uses flies and fleas to humble arrogant people and societies. [Augustine, Homily 1.15] And it is difficult not to think of the current crisis in similar terms for at least parts of our world. The modern world, with its self-confidence, its self-exaltation, its belief in its ability to do whatever it wants … brought to its knees by a microscopic virus. It’s hard not to see judgment or discipline there.

Though even then, we need to beware of seeing the world through the lens of the culture we live in. Surely arrogant self-confidence is a major sin of our culture. But it is not the characteristic sin of every culture. And this virus does not seem to make the distinction.

Even so, even if we do have a theory we are confident in about what God is doing at a societal level with an instance of suffering, it is important for us to recognize that God doesn’t tell us what is happening at the ground-level.

In the Old Testament we are told that God may bring suffering on Israel for her sins. But then we are also told how in those instances, the righteous are often swept up with the wicked in the suffering that comes. The Bible laments that fact.

But we must be careful not to see that as just an unintended byproduct from God. We need to beware of seeing that as regrettable and unintentional collateral damage in God’s divine plan. There are no unintended consequences in God’s work in the world. There is no collateral damage. In everything God brings about – every detail – he has a plan. Not even a sparrow falls from the sky apart from his will.

And that means that when we get to the ground-level, things get especially complicated. God may bring a plague on a society as an act of judgment – that may be the right perspective from the 31,000-foot viewpoint. But it doesn’t tell us what God’s purpose is from one house to another.

Five houses on the same street may be suffering as a result of the same epidemic, but God may be working through suffering in very different ways from one house to the next.

When we face suffering, we need to consider what God may be doing at each level. We need the cosmic level: we need the view from 22,000 miles. We also need to ponder the societal level: we need to reflect on the view from 31,000 feet. But along with that, we also need to be wise and think about the ground level: what God may be doing at the individual level, from one person to the next and one household to the next.

An appreciation for those different levels is the third preliminary concept we need in place.

The final preliminary concept we need to establish is that of epistemological humility – of being humble about what we can know. That’s one of the reasons I started us off with Ecclesiastes eight, verses fourteen and seventeen.

Hear those again – verse fourteen: “There is a vapor that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vapor.”

This is the big problem before us, really. We don’t struggle so much if someone who is evil suffers. But this usually leaves us scratching our heads.

This bigger problem is when those who are righteous – by which Solomon does not mean those who are perfect, but those who are faithful followers of God – when those who are righteous suffer the fate that is fitting for the wicked. That is when we begin to ask questions.

Tonight we will talk about possible answers to the question of what God is doing in such situations.

But Solomon also reminds us that when it comes to individual cases, we must hold our answers loosely.

For he tells us in verse seventeen: “then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

Arrogance about what we can know about God’s purposes in the world is a common problem for us. We are always trying to figure out what God is up to. We always think we can nail it down.

We should wrestle with the question. We should come to some thoughts on what he is doing. But we must hold those thoughts humbly.

Our purpose tonight is not to give a final or certain answer about what God is up to. Our purpose tonight is not to give you a flow chart to figure out what God is doing in each situation around you. Our purpose is not to give an exhaustive and complete taxonomy of all of the causes for suffering.

Our purpose is to consider some of the major categories the Scriptures reveal to us about what God may be up to when suffering comes into our lives, or into someone else’s life, so that, seeking wisdom, we may strive to think rightly of those situations, and not fall into simplistic understandings of such things.

That, after all, is one of the chief points of the Book of Job. Job’s companions can come up with only two reasons as to why God would bring suffering into someone’s life … though they soon simplify it to one. And in each case, they believe – they insist – that the cause of suffering is the sufferer’s personal sin. God does not reveal to Job or to anyone else the actual reason why suffering has come to Job. The reason why God is angry with Job’s companions at the end of the book is not that they couldn’t figure out the right answer, but because they insisted on an incomplete picture of why God might allow suffering, and then arrogantly proclaimed that they knew what the cause was in Job’s life.

In a similar way, our purpose tonight is not so much to give us a formula for determining the cause of suffering in each person’s life, as it is to keep us from insisting on an incomplete picture of how God uses suffering, and then proclaiming a wrong cause for someone’s suffering, when the truth is that we just don’t know.

Those are our preliminary concepts: We need to remember God’s creational intent and his final destination for creation. We need to remember that God subjected himself to human suffering in Christ. We need to consider the levels at which we can approach this question. And we need to be humble about what we can know, and what we can only ponder.

With that in mind, let’s consider the causes of suffering that God gives us in the Bible.

And my structure for that discussion tonight will be based on Franz Delitzsch’s commentary on the Book of Job. Delitzsch is considered by many to be one of the best commentators on the Old Testament. He wrote in the nineteenth century, but many still consider him indispensable.

I’ll use his categories, with some alterations. I do not doubt that there are other ways to categorize these concepts, but this is what we will use for tonight.

And with the help of Delitzsch, we see four major forms of suffering in this life.

For each one I want to consider the cause within the person suffering, the motivation within God, the result of the suffering, and then a biblical example.

Let’s get started.

The first form of suffering is that the godless – those who have rejected the Lord – suffer for their sins in this life. They suffer, in the here and now, a foretaste of the punishment due to them for their sin.

In this form of suffering, the thing within the person that causes the suffering is their sin. It is the sin of the unbeliever that leads to their suffering.

That is the cause within the person. What then is the motivation in God for bringing this suffering onto them?

Well, the first, and the primary, reason is God’s just judgment and wrath at them for their rebellion and sin. God brings suffering onto someone who has rejected him as a foretaste of the eternal punishment they are headed for. The future judgment they have chosen of life away from God’s care begins to come into the present, and they see where they are headed. God’s motivation in this is just judgment and wrath towards sin.

But even while that is so, another motivation that can be at work at the same time in the life of an unbeliever is God’s gracious offer of redemption. In other words, God can bring suffering into the life of someone who has rejected him in order to get their attention, and to call them back to himself, so that they might recognize their sin and their rebellion, and turn to the Lord and be saved.

In each case the cause in the person is their sin. The motivation in God is just judgment and righteous wrath, as well as a warning of judgment to come and a call to repentance.

And so there are actually two possible results of this suffering.

If the person continues in their rebellion against God, then God’s judgment of them on the last day is all the more just. Those who reject God are already without excuse, for they know from what God has made that there is a God and that he calls them to faithful obedience, but they suppress the truth and they reject him. In bringing a foretaste of the final destination such rebellion leads to, the Lord gives even further warning to the non-believer who suffers. And so, if they continue to reject the Lord, their final judgment is all the more just. For they rejected his warning.

That is one possible result.

But the other possible result is that the unbeliever repents and is saved. The other possible result is that through suffering, God gets their attention, and opens their eyes to who they are and who God is, and it leads to their conversion and faith in the Lord.

So, in the first form of suffering, the cause is the sin and the rebellion of an unbeliever. The Lord’s motivation is to bring just judgment to them as a warning of what is to come. And the result may be that the unbeliever confirms themselves further in their condemnation, or that they repent and believe.

That’s the first form of suffering. Where do we see that in the Bible?

Well, we see it in Pharaoh, in the Book of Exodus. In the Book of Exodus, God again and again brings judgment on Egypt in the form of plagues. In those plagues, over and over again God shows his power, and he exposes what peril Pharaoh is hurdling towards by rejecting the Lord. God brings suffering to Pharaoh, and though Pharaoh might temporarily seem to repent, he never really turns from his rebellion and to the Lord. Though the power and justice of the Lord is on display before him, Pharaoh refuses to repent. And when God’s final judgment comes onto him, that judgment is all the more just, for Pharaoh is without excuse. He knew he needed to repent and turn to the Lord, but still he refused to.

That is one possible outcome we see in the Bible.

The other is the thief on the cross next to Jesus. This man, who is being executed, likely for violent crimes, turns from his rebellion while on the cross next to Jesus, and turns to Jesus in faith. This criminal on the cross looks at himself in his suffering, and he looks at Christ. And he declares, in Luke 23:41, that he deserves the suffering he is receiving, but that Christ does not. And then he turns to Christ and he asks Christ for mercy. He asks him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. And Jesus declares that the man will be saved – that he will be with him in paradise.

Both Pharaoh and the criminal on the cross had rejected God. Both faced just judgment in this life, due to their sin, as a foretaste from God of the judgment to come. One doubled down on his rejection of God. The other turned and was saved.

God brings suffering into the lives of those who have rejected him as a judgment and as a warning. This is the first form of suffering for us to consider.

If you are with us tonight and that describes you, then my exhortation to you is to turn from your rebellion, and like the criminal on the cross, acknowledge your sin against your Maker, ask for his mercy in Christ, and then come to the Lord in faith.

For those of us who already know the Lord, then as we see suffering in the lives of those who have rejected God, our prayer is that they would heed the warning and turn from their rebellion and live.

This is the first form of suffering.

The second form of suffering is when the faithful experience fatherly discipline from God.

And as we consider this category, we return to the four questions we asked before: What is the cause within the person? What is the motivation in God? What is the result? And what is a Biblical example?

So first: For this second form of suffering, what is the cause within the person?

And the cause within the person is their sin. It is the sin of the Christian that leads the Lord to bring this suffering into their lives.

And so, so far, this second form of suffering is like the first.

The second question we have is: What is God’s motivation in bringing this kind of suffering into the life of a believer?

And here is where the first and second forms of suffering diverge. Because if the primary motivation of God in the first form is just judgment, then the primary motivation of God in this second form is fatherly love.

When God disciplines his children – those who have trusted in him – he does it not motivated out of wrath, but out of love. He does it because the result he is working towards is to purge away their existing sin. God is working to free them from sin, to remove from them the sinful elements still at work in their heart, that they might know him more deeply and live more in the joy, the love, and peace of the Lord.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as God’s people, it is very important that we make a distinction between the first form of suffering and the second. Franz Delitszch puts it like this, he writes: “[The] suffering of the godless is the effect of divine justice in punishment; it is chastisement under the disposition of wrath, though not yet final wrath; it is punitive suffering. On the other hand, the sufferings of the righteous [of the faithful] flow from the divine love […]; for although the righteous man is not excepted from the weakness and sinfulness of the human race, he can never become an object of divine wrath, so long as his inner life is directed towards God, and his outer life is governed by the most earnest striving after sanctification. According to the Old and New Testaments, he stands towards God in the relation of a child to his father […]; and consequently all sufferings are fatherly chastisement.” [Delitzsch, 105-106]

This kind of discipline is what is described in the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews chapter twelve we read:

5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Brothers and sisters, here we see that the Lord brings suffering into the lives of his children as a form of discipline. The cause, in us, is our sin. The motivation in God is his fatherly love for us. And the goal that God has is to purify our hearts and purge the sin from us, as we grow in repentance, and faith, and love.

This is the second form of suffering.

And many Christians stop here.

In fact, Job’s comforters, whom the Lord rebuked, stopped here. But as the Book of Job and other parts of Scripture point out to us, that is not the extent of the forms of suffering the Lord might bring into someone’s life.

The third form is that the faithful may suffer because God chooses to use a trial to prove and reveal their faithfulness to him.

It is when God chooses to use a trial to prove and to reveal his child’s faithfulness to him.

This, actually, is what we see in the Book of Job. This, in many ways, is one of the main points of the Book of Job.

In the opening chapters of the Book of Job, we get a glimpse into what is going on in heaven. And there we read about what led to Job’s suffering.

And if we read those chapters, what we should be shocked to see, is that the thing in Job that led to his trials … was that he was good. It’s that he was faithful.

The Book of Job begins with God essentially bragging about Job. Job was so faithful that the Lord bragged to Satan about how faithful he was. And then, as God and Satan began to dispute this, God brought suffering into Job’s life to prove and to reveal to all – to Job himself, and to the host of heaven – the extent of Job’s faithfulness to the Lord.

So if we go back to our four questions, and we ask, “What is the cause of this form of suffering within the person?” then the answer we get is: it’s their faithfulness. In this case, it is the faithfulness of God’s children that leads to their suffering.

God brings suffering to reveal to one of his children and to those who look on – including those in heaven – that that child is faithful to him. And in doing so, God confounds his enemies – even the devil.

Some theologians, in this case, will speak of the “reward of suffering.” This is the biblical concept that sometimes, when we are faithful, God rewards us with suffering.

And in this case, that suffering is to reveal our faithfulness to him.

The fact is that we do not know our own hearts. And we often misunderstand the hearts of others. But suffering can reveal what is below the surface.

Surely you have seen this. Maybe you have known a Christian who seemed nice enough, but never stood out in a profound way. They were good and kind and you knew them – but they seemed like an ordinary Christian for the most part.

And then God brought some significant suffering into their lives. And as you were saddened by the hardship they were confronted with, you watched them respond, and suddenly the thing that most struck you was not the hardship itself … but it was the heroic faith that that Christian was meeting it with. Suddenly you saw something in them you’d never seen in them before: a heroic faithfulness to the Lord. Maybe they themselves had not seen it before, but it was then revealed to them too. Maybe even the heavenly beings were unaware of it. Maybe Satan himself was confounded by it. So God did with Job. And we have every reason to believe he still does the same thing today.

God brings suffering to his faithful children, so that their faithfulness to him might be revealed to themselves, to those around them, to the heavenly host, and even to the enemies of God – leaving them confounded.

We might object that this is not fair. But if we respond that way, we are missing the significance of this. Sure, Job was comfortable and prosperous before calamity entered his life. But then, he himself became an instrument by which the Lord confounded the devil. His heart became a cosmic battleground between the Lord and the spiritual forces of darkness. What could be a greater honor than that? How much more value is there in that (from an eternal perspective), than in simply continuing on in physical comfort and prosperity?

Thus in Job we see the third form of suffering.

Finally, the fourth form of suffering is when God’s people are called to suffer for the kingdom of God.

Here again, the cause of the suffering within the Christian who suffers is their faithfulness. But now the motivation from God is not so much to reveal what was hidden in the person’s heart, but to extend the witness of his kingdom. It is to present to unbelievers a picture and a testimony of the Lord. It is a way in which Christians are called to preach the gospel of Christ by their deeds, as they follow in Christ’s footprints. The goal of God in this suffering is that others would see the testimony for God, and that God’s kingdom, as a result, would expand.

We see this play out in the life of the Apostle Paul. Again and again Paul suffered for his testimony for Christ. And as he did, the gospel he was proclaiming became known more and more to those who heard of his hardships.

This is the form of suffering that faces persecuted Christians. This is the form of suffering that faced the martyrs.

God brings suffering into the life of his people so that their faithfulness would testify to others and expand his kingdom.

Thus we have the four major forms of suffering the Bible presents.

What now do we do with them?

Well, first, when we (or others we know) face suffering, then there is a place for us to reflect on and wonder what form of suffering we may be facing. We should examine our heart for sin. We should consider what the Lord might be doing through our hardship. We should keep a spiritual and cosmic perspective on the hardships we face. That is a good thing for us to do.

But second, keeping these categories in mind should make us all the more humble as we wonder at what God might be doing. We cannot know what God is up to.

We cannot know if the suffering in the life of a non-Christian will lead to greater judgment or to their ultimate repentance. We cannot know for sure if the suffering a Christian faces is because of their sin, or because of their righteousness, or because of some other purpose the Lord is working out in his kingdom.

As Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes, we must be humble in our assessment of the works of God. We must not be like Job’s companions.

Third, we should appreciate the varied ways the Lord is at work in a crisis like the world faces today.

We know that the cosmic cause of this epidemic, zoomed out from 22,000 miles away, is the sin that our first parents brought into this world. In that sense, all the brokenness around us is judgment for our sin.

But then, as we come down to the view from 31,000 feet, we may see some nuance. Perhaps God’s purposes in one nation are different from his purposes in another. Perhaps his purposes in one community are different from his purposes in another. We should be attentive to these differences, and not be too quick to proclaim that we know what the Lord is doing.

And then, as we come to the view on the ground, we must be ready to accept the complexity of all that God is doing. In one house he may be bringing judgment that will harden the heart of one who has rejected him. In the next house he may be leading a rebel to repentance. In the house after that he may be sanctifying one of his children. In the house beyond that he may be displaying the faithfulness of one of his saints. And in the house that follows that, he may be using the suffering faithfulness of one of his children to preach the gospel to those who look on.

Which brings us to our fourth point: That whatever might be going on, when suffering comes, God is at work for good, and we should trust him.

When he judges a rebel, he is acting in justice, and he is warning them of the path that they are on. When he disciplines one of his children, he is at work for their good. When he is proving one of his children’s faithfulness, he is honoring them among his people and even among the heavenly hosts. And when he calls them to preach by their deeds in the midst of suffering, he is calling them to a greater role in his kingdom.

In every form of suffering, God is in control. In every form of suffering God is good.

And that leads to our fifth and final point of application.

On one level, though we are so often desperate to know what God is doing, we don’t really need to. Because our calling – whoever we may be – remains the same.

When suffering comes, we are called to look to the Lord in faith, for he is the one who will get us through.

When suffering comes, we are called to cast off any sin that might be hindering us from following Christ, for sin will only drag us down.

When suffering comes, we are to look to the Lord for comfort, for he is the God of all comfort, and Christ has suffered himself – so he knows what we are going through. We can pour out our hearts to him and he will hear, and he will comfort us.

When suffering comes, we are to look to the Lord for the strength to persevere – the strength to get us through – for he will enable us to make it through hardships that we never could on our own.

And finally, when suffering comes, we remember that so long as we cling to Christ, suffering will never be the end of our story. For we await God’s cosmic solution to suffering, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and we will dwell in joy with him forever, and everything sad will come untrue.

For that is the promise of the gospel.

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009.
Delitzsch, Franz. Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes: Volume IV: Job. Translated by Francis Bolton. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1866 (Reprinted June 1982). (Especially pages 104-109)
Packer, J. I. “God’s Wisdom and Ours” in Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 1978.