Thursday, April 21, 2016

Does God Send Us Suffering?

"Have you considered that maybe this suffering is from God?"  

This was suggested to me when a decision to change a program in church greatly affected me.  Preference was given to those under 50 years of age, and those over 50 were basically marginalized.  "Oh, but it's for a good reason," we were told.  "We need to attract younger people to this program."  When I expressed discouragement over this, it was suggested to me that perhaps my suffering is from God.

For now, I would like to look past the fact that since both young and old are part of the church, preference should not be given to one over the other.  Instead, for my own edification and to soothe my own soul, I would like to look into whether or not God sends suffering to us today. 

So does God send us suffering?  Obviously the person who suggested this to me believes He does.  But on what is he basing his belief? Specifically, what Scriptures could he be referring to?  

Let's look at some well-known passages on this subject.

Leviticus 26:14-26 tells us that one may be chastened with adversity because of disobedience to God.  First Samuel 13:8-14 also informs us that Saul lost his kingdom when he disobeyed God and that David lost his son because of disobedience (2 Sam 11:1-12;14). While these examples prove that physical disciplining is Biblical, we must take progressive revelation into account.  These passages were to and about people who were under the law.  Under the law, God promised to physically bless His people if they obeyed and punish them if they disobeyed (Deut 11:25-28).

Personally, I believe that physical chastening is inconsistent with this government of grace. Many believers would agree that God is not blessing us physically when we do good since we are already blessed with all spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3).  But if God is not physically blessing us when we are good, then we must also conclude that He is not punishing us when we are bad if we are to be consistent.  Therefore, if we fall into sin today, we need not be afraid that God will give us a disease tomorrow.  

Some may say, "Well, what about 1 Corinthians 11:29-30?  People weren't under the law then."

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

But this reference is from one of Paul's early epistles, written before many other transitional things had been withdrawn (see also Acts 5:1-11), such as the spiritual gifts mentioned in the very next chapters (1 Cor 12-14).  If it is significant that there is no mention of these gifts in Paul's later epistles — and I believe it is significant — then it must also be significant that there is no mention of physical disciplining in Paul's later epistles.

Also, any physical disciplining God might engage in today would be completely ineffectual for the following reasons.  When Saul sinned, the prophet Samuel was there to make the connection between his sin and the loss of his kingdom.  When David sinned, the prophet Nathan was there to connect his sin to the loss of his child.  Without a prophet to make this connection, David may well have concluded that his child died of natural causes. Even the Corinthians had the Apostle Paul to tell them that there was a reason they were weak and sickly.  However, today there are no inspired prophets of God who can link the hardships in our lives, and we will drive ourselves crazy speculating on such things.

Okay, one more:  What about Hebrews 12:3-8?

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  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. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives."

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? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 

First thing to notice about this passage is that it is in the book of Hebrews, the name of which tells us whom it was written directly to and about.  Not that we can't take application from it — in fact we should! — but we can't take direct application from it.

So, "what son is there whom his father does not discipline"?  There is an answer to this question, too.  Fathers do not physically discipline adult sons.  If someone is still spanking their adult son, there is something seriously wrong with their relationship. Adult sons are not disciplined with the rod of correction, they are chastened with words of correction.  We who have received "the adoption of sons" (Gal 4:4-5) are considered full-grown sons in God's sight.  The "children of Israel" were often disciplined physically (Deut 11:25-28), but today "all Scripture is given...for correction" for adult sons such as us (2 Tim 3:16; Eph 1:5*). 

What about testing, then?  Does God send that?  For example, what about 1 Peter 4:11-14?

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

Notice the context here — "If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed..."  Was I insulted for the name of Christ when the program was changed at church?  Of course not. These verses tell us that it is not shameful to be a Christian, and that we will rejoice when Christ's glory is revealed because we have shared in His sufferings.  Nowhere does it say that these sufferings (fiery trials that test us) come from God.  Quite the contrary, it is unbelievers who insult us because we follow Christ, just as they insulted Christ Himself when He walked this earth.

But God does test our hearts for righteousness (1 Chron 29:17; 2 Chron 32:31; Ps 66:10; Prov 17:3; 1 Thes 2:3-5), and those whose works are done in faith will receive a reward in heaven (Matt 5:11-13; 6:2-5; 1 Cor 3:11-14, etc.).  

The motivation to righteousness and blessings received under the law were different than they are today, however (Rom 6:14; 7:4-6; 10:4).  Since under the law God physically blessed Israel when they obeyed Him and physically punished them when they did not, God challenged Israel again and again to obey so that He might bless them (Mal 3:10-12).  But today under grace, God has already opened the windows of heaven and blessed us "with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph 1:3), so that we, in response to this great gift, might be moved to live for Him (2 Cor 8:1-5).  Do you see the difference?  God told Israel to test Him with their obedience to see if He wouldn't bless them in response.  But today God tests us by blessing us up front, and then asks us to walk in Him in response.

So no, I don't believe that God sends us suffering today.  He does not cause us to go through difficult situations — such as losing a job, acquiring a disease, or being marginalized for being over 50 — in order to discipline or test us.  Rather, these sufferings come from this broken world around us.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:2-5).

And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:27-28).

*adoption as sons (Eph 1:5) = to place an adult son —"The apostle here used as an illustration the Roman practice of legally adopting a child, and thus not only bequeathing to him the material possessions of the one adopting, but also giving him his civil status. Thus God takes a believing sinner, regenerates him, and by means of this makes him His child (teknon, a born one). Then He takes this child and places him in a legal position as an adult son (huios). We thus become joint-heirs with Christ, having been raised to a civil status as adult sons, in which we become heirs of God, inheriting jointly with Christ all that He possesses as an heir of God the Father by virtue of His Sonship and work on the Cross. This is one object of God’s predestination. The other is that the believer is to be conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29)." — Wuest, pages 36-37.

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