Hebrews 12:6-7 reads: “For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
Does this mean that hardships, sickness, disease, and the like happen because God is disciplining his children? (Moreover, what about hardships that happen to unbelievers? If this is not God’s discipline in their lives, then why do these events happen? Is it God’s punishment?) Does this mean every bad thing (or only some bad things) that happens to Christians, happens because God is disciplining us? If a Christian gets the flu, or a cold, or cancer, or gets in a car crash, or loses a job — should these hardships be seen as God’s discipline? Of course God is sovereign over all things—but when bad things happen to Christians, should these happenings be seen as God’s discipline, or God’s sovereign use of evil for our good, or results of sin and the Fall, or all of the above?
We posed this question to D. A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of many books, including How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition.
It is easy to think of passages in which God sends catastrophic judgment in a purely retributive way, without an ounce of cleansing discipline (e.g., the destruction and death of Saul, for whom Samuel was ordered to cease praying). It is easy to think of passages in which a human being experiences years of suffering entirely unconnected to any immediate human sin (e.g., the man born blind in John 9) — and in this case one must assume, on the one hand, that the blindness was part of living in a fallen world (he would not have been born blind had Genesis 3 never occurred), and, on the other, that in God’s providence the suffering, according to Jesus, provided an occasion for God to be glorified through the display of Jesus’ miraculous power. It is easy to think of passages in which long-term suffering (e.g., the man paralyzed for 38 years, John 5) and even death (1 Cor 11) is the direct result, not of the entailments of the Fall, but of particular sins. In the first of these two cases, the paralysis leads to Jesus’ healing miracle, and Jesus’ subsequent instruction to stop sinning lest a worst thing befall the man suggests there was a disciplining function; in the second of these two cases, so far as the record goes, we do not know how many of the Corinthians heeded Paul’s warnings and repented, but for some it was clearly too late (they had already “fallen asleep”).
It is easy to think of passages where suffering is clearly not deserved for any direct offense, and where the only “explanation” given is not so much an explanation as a powerful appeal to trust the living God whose power and knowledge are infinitely greater than ours (Job). It would be easy to list other passages with variations on these themes. It is easy to remember that in the Old Testament God declares that he is the Lord, the Healer (Exod 15:26), while in the New Testament Jesus is disclosed as the great Physician — but of course we must remember that God is also the sovereign Judge who deploys the cruel Assyrians to punish his covenant people (Isa 10:5ff), and the Apocalypse warns us to flee the wrath of the Lamb.
From such diverse passages, we should draw at least three important inferences with substantial pastoral implications.
First, we are likely to make exegetical and theological mistakes when we take any one of these passages and treat it as if it explains all suffering. The biblical account of Job does not nicely explain why people were falling ill and dying in Corinth because of their unworthy approach to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ exhortation to the healed paralytic in John 5 cannot be repeated to the man born blind in John 9. Examples could easily be multiplied. Just as wise pastors will not formulate church practice on, say, divorce and remarriage, based on only one passage, but will instead attempt a responsible integration, so also wise pastors will not fasten on a “one size fits all” passage about suffering and interpret all suffering through that one lens. A Christian would be foolish to think that every instance of suffering he or she undergoes must necessarily be the result of God’s disciplining hand arising out of a particular sin — just as a Christian would be foolish to overlook the possibility that God may be inflicting suffering in a disciplinary fashion.
Second, in any suffering, or in any other event for that matter, God is doubtless doing many things, perhaps thousands of things, millions of things, even if we can only detect two or three or a handful. A godly woman in her middle years is diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. What is God doing? My little brain can imagine several possibilities. At one level, he may be providentially allowing the effluents of the Fall to take their course, a constant reminder that it is appointed to all of us to die, and then face judgment (Heb 9). He may be preparing her for eternity: it is a great grace to know when you are going to die, and prepare for it. He may be shocking her 20-something son, who is living his life indifferent to the gospel, to prod him into self-examination and repentance. He may use her testimony about the joy of the Lord even in the midst of suffering to call another of her children into vocational ministry. He may be using her as a way to teach people in her church what it looks like to “die well,” anticipating several other deaths in the next two years. He may be teaching her minister-husband to slow down and care about his family, and in principle other people, instead of being endlessly busy with “the ministry.” He may be sparing her from living long enough to witness the moral destruction of her daughter. Her funeral may be the means by which several of her unconverted relatives, for whom she has been praying, will come to faith — conversions for which she would happily give her life. Perhaps one of those converts will become a Christian pastor of rare gift whose ministry of proclamation will touch thousands. Perhaps she is hiding some deep bitterness and hate in her life, and God is using this means to confront her.
I’ve barely started a list of possible things God may be doing, and I have a small brain. What does the omniscient God think he is doing? In other words, sometimes we have to cover our mouths and confess, in faith, that we cannot possibly grasp all that God is doing when someone suffers. So why should we think in antithetical terms about how God must be doing this but not that, when in reality he may be doing this and that and that, and that and. . . ? But he is trustworthy; we know that, for he sent his Son to suffer on our behalf.
Third, it follows that when we face suffering of any kind, we should use the occasion for self-examination. God may be speaking to us in the language of a wise heavenly Father who chastens those he loves. Such chastening may be God’s response to specific sins in our lives; it may be a more general way of toughening us up in this broken world so we will stop thinking that God owes us good health, or that our clean living and organic food guarantees us long and robust life. Or it may be that God has a bet going on with Satan himself: think Job. So our self-examination ought to be honest, and any repentance should be forthright — but we should not whip ourselves into thinking that the crippling accident we just endured was a function of our sin. Even if it were, the remedy is always the same: flee to the Cross, and trust our good and gracious and holy God. And it’s not inconceivable that we may conclude, with Job, that this suffering cannot be God’s punishment for specific sins in our lives.
We sometimes observe that hard cases make bad theology. But easy, formulaic answers to questions of suffering are invariably reductionistic — and they make bad theology, too.