Is Pain a Punishment?

Written by:  Duane Kelderman

Job 4; Psalm 103:10

painLast time we considered the age-old question of the sufferer: WHY? Why do people suffer?

If God is good and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen all the time?

Last time we explored what it means to live by faith, to believe even when we do not see; and then, to discover, in the mystery of faith, that we do see-one who is ever faithful despite the brokenness of life.

Today and next time, I want to consider two “answers” that people often accept in wrestling with this age-old question, “Why?” Both “answers” fall short. They’re simply wrong, profoundly wrong. But they’re worth our spending our time on because very often we live as though these answers are true. Our purpose in looking at these two answers this time and next is to unmask them, and hopefully, free ourselves from their grip on us.

Today we consider the question: Is pain a punishment? That is a tempting “answer” to the question, Why? Why do we suffer? It’s a punishment for sin. To deal with this question, we go (again) to the book of Job. Job is a book which deals with the reality of human suffering. Job is pictured as a very righteous man, but a man who suffers immensely. One day he is told that all of his servants have been killed. Later he is told that all his children have been killed. He loses all his property as his home is blown away by the wind. Finally he loses even his health.

The book is this series of dialogues between Job and his three friends, and between Job and God. And Job’s friends-in today’s text, it’s Eliphaz– take a particular view toward Job’s suffering, which is still a typical explanation for human suffering, but which Job ultimately rejects and which Scripture as a whole rejects,namely, that suffering is a punishment for specific sins you’ve committed.

The impulse to be Eliphaz, that fine “friend” of Job, is deep within all of us.

The question “What did I do wrong?” is a very real question in the face of pain and suffering. I can remember back when I was in high school. I was convinced that my acne was punishment for some sin I was committing. And I can remember bargaining with God, telling him I’ll never do this or do that again if he took my acne away. And I would be convinced that the next morning, or the next week, my face would just have to be clear. It never worked.

I talk to a person who has been married for 20 years. She wakes up one day to find out her husband has left her. She concludes God is punishing her for her sins in the relationship. She doesn’t even know what she did wrong, but she’s convinced it must be God punishing her.

Yes, the impulse to be Eliphaz is deep within us. Eliphaz is more than willing to argue his case that all human pain and suffering is a punishment for specific sins we commit and comes to us in proportion to our sinfulness.

Verses 7-9:

Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they are destroyed;
at the blast of his anger they perish.

“What have you done wrong, Job?” is the reply of Eliphaz. Never mind that Job ends up

rejecting this explanation as totally in error. Never mind that the author of the book of Job rules out from the outset such a mechanical, mathematical relationship between our pain and our sinfulness in the way he describes Job as such a person of virtue and integrity, but then describes his pain and suffering as the worst imaginable.

The incongruity between Job’s virtue and his suffering pleads the uncertainty of Eliphaz’s argument. Never mind all that. Eliphaz still articulates a view of the relationship between pain and punishment by God that has endured to this day.

Subtle variations of the same argument crop up everywhere we go.

“If you had more faith, you could be healed”
(Assumption: your sickness is due to your lack of faith).

“If you believed in God more, you wouldn’t have these problems.”
“Christians won’t have problems.”
“Non-Christians have more problems than Christians.”

Yes, there is something very attractive about this explanation, and the author of Job works to put this explanation in the best possible light.

Indeed, there are at least three things that make this argument attractive:

(The argument being: that our suffering is punishment for specific sins in our lives.)

1. We’ve all got enough sin that we can prove the argument with no problem.

Once we just accept the premise that our pain and misery is a punishment for specific sins, we can find all kinds of evidence for the premise. Eliphaz tells the truth when he says in v. 19 that we

“dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed before the moth.”

We are fragile and weak and sinful.

There certainly is no problem finding evidence for the premise if you accept it in the first place.

2. In the second place, the argument is also attractive because it is safe to say something closely related to the argument: namely, that there is, in a general sense, a connection between human sin and pain and suffering in our world.

It certainly is true that if there were no sin in the world, there would be no pain and suffering in the world. We would still be in Paradise.

3. And third, the argument is attractive because we can even go one step further and say that there is even a correlation between certain sins and certain pain and suffering.

There’s a correlation between drunken driving and lying in a hospital bed with broken bones.

There’s a correlation between having an extramarital affair and losing the trust of your spouse and the respect of your children. There’s a correlation between smoking and lung cancer.

But even though we can go THAT FAR, the question is: does Scripture teach that we can jump from that and argue IN REVERSE that every time we have pain and suffering, it is a punishment for sin?

Some of you face living a lifetime with physical pain. Does that reflect a proportional amount of evil you have committed? My brother and I grew up in the same family and are cut out of the same stock. He lives with continual back pain. I live pain-free. Is that because he’s worse than I am?

What about those floods that ravaged the Midwest area of the United States last summer? Did God bunch up all the bad people in the area and get them into the path of the flood? Or the people in Mexico who died of the swine flu last year. Did God “give them” the swine flu because they were worse people than others who didn’t die of that flu? Even though the argument has some things to appeal to, Job later rejects the advice of his friend.

No, he says. Don’t tell me that my calamity is because of my sin. . . not because I’m not a sinner, but because that’s just not the way God operates. Don’t aggravate my pain by suggesting that God is punishing me for some sin.

Jesus too resists this explanation for human suffering.

The Pharisees corner Jesus in John 9 and bring a blind man to him, and they say to him,

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

(In other words, whose sins are being punished here by his blindness?)

Jesus answered,

“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents,
but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

We’ll deal more with that incident later in this series, but the point here is: Jesus specifically rejects the premise of Eliphaz with which these Pharisees were also operating, namely, that pain and suffering (in this case, blindness) can be linked with some sin as punishment for that sin.

The Psalmist gives us a different perspective on the problem. He says,

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities
(RSV – he does not deal with us according to our sins)
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him
as far as the east is from the west
so far as he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed;
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)

It’s interesting to compare the way Eliphaz and David reason. Both begin with the fact that we are sinful. They both use the word “dust” to describe how fragile and weak we are. Eliphaz uses that as evidence that our suffering is God’s punishment for that sinfulness; David uses our weakness, our “dustiness,” as the proof that God can’t possible “deal with us” (to use his words) according to our sins; otherwise we would all live in total and perpetual misery.

The same reality leads David to a totally different conclusion.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. . .
he does not deal with us according to our sin,
nor reward us according to our iniquities.”

We are so weak that God has to adopt another way of “dealing with” us. And that is according to his mercy, his steadfast love!

You see, ultimately Eliphaz denies the reality of grace. Turn him over and Eliphaz is really saying that we earn the relative peace and well-being we have and that we forfeit it or earn it according to how good of people we are. He is saying, we determine how God will relate to us.

But that makes Christian living a bargain, a deal,not the freely chosen response of gratitude that Scripture describes the Christian life as being. Morality becomes a coin with which we buy peace from God. We obey so God won’t punish us! Morality becomes a selfish proposition. And it loses totally that quality of love freely given back to God because of his love freely given to us.

And the irony is that it’s often Christians, of all people, (the people who supposedly know what grace is), who operate most out of a “theology of works” when they (consciously or unconsciously) obey so God won’t “get them,” and who believe that when they do experience tragedy, it’s God’s punishment of them.

That exposes our misunderstanding of grace. And what’s more, we put other people and ourselves under the tyranny of guilt that God is punishing us for our inadequacies, which only reinforces our sense of inadequacy and which makes our pain and suffering all the greater.

And moreover, in conclusion, such a misunderstanding of grace and the way that God has freely chosen to deal with us exposes our misunderstanding of Christ’s suffering and death. Christ, in his suffering and death, took on the pain and punishment due all humanity because of its sin.

Is pain a punishment? There is one person for whom we can unequivocally say

“Yes, his pain was punishment by God; it was the wrath of God against sin.”

But it wasn’t even his own sin; it was ours. And the good news of the gospel is that because of that cross of pain and suffering, with us he can now be merciful and gracious, and he does not have to

“deal with us according to our sins,
nor reward us according to our iniquities.”

Christ has absorbed the wrath of God. We live in grace–total, unconditional grace.

beautiful_rainbow_1I hope each one of you knows this grace today. Grace-it’s hard to believe, really. It’s hard to believe that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us more or less. That’s a vivid statement of what grace is: Grace is the unmerited favor of God to us because he loves us. There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more or less.

And it’s especially hard to internalize this message of total, unconditional grace in our lives when we’ve been raised with and taken a pretty guilt oriented approach to all of life, when we’ve reduced the Christian life to obeying God so he doesn’t “get us.”

It’s possible to have a proper theology of grace, but live very graceless lives. Indeed, the Bible makes clear that even knowing grace at this deep level is a gift of grace, a gift of the Spirit.

May God give you the gift of grace today-he realization that God does not deal with you according to your sins, but according to his mercy.

Praise the Lord.


About Jian Ming Zhong

In short, I am a five point calvinist, amillennial, post-trib rapture, paeudobaptistic (not for salvation), classical cessationism , and covenantal. I embrace Reformed Theology and subscribe to the WCF 1647. I do not break fellowship with anyone who holds to the essentials of the faith (i.e., the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, Jesus' Physical Resurrection, Virgin Birth, Salvation by Grace through Faith alone, Monotheism, and the Gospel being the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) but does not affirm Calvinist Theology in the non-essentials. I strongly believe that God's grace and mercy are so extensive that within the Christian community there is a wide range of beliefs and as long as the essentials are not violated, then anyone who holds to those essentials but differs in the non-essentials is my brother or sister in Christ. Romans 11:36 "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be Glory forever. Amen!"
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