Some friends and I have been having an interesting conversation this week. We’ve been discussing the question, “Does God punish Christians for disobedience?” Is there a connection between the struggles we encounter and God’s displeasure with our sin?
Particularly troubling is the story in 2 Samuel where the prophet Nathan informs King David that the child he had with Bathsheba would die. The reason: God was punishing David for murdering Bathsheba’s husband Uriah so that he could have her as his wife. Then 2 Samuel 12:15 says, “…the Lord struck the child….” Seven days later David’s son died.
Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this story. I have so many questions and difficulties with it!
My questions notwithstanding, the issue that David’s story raises is: should we expect these kinds of things to happen to us? Does God still deal in one-to-one punishment? What exactly is God up to when we face hardship and suffering?
As I reflected, four texts came to mind.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:10-11
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. John 9:2-3
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. Romans 8:1-3
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:7-11
My takeaways from these texts:
1. Jesus’ posture toward sin is forgiveness rather than condemnation.
Richard Rohr says about the John 8 story: “Jesus is not upset with sinners. He is upset at those who don’t think they’re sinners.”
2. There isn’t a one-to-one connection between hardship/suffering and sin.
Sometimes crappy stuff happens in this world because God made space for chaos, human freedom, and the evil one. On the ground level of human experience, sometimes it’s difficult for us to know exactly what God is up to in our hardship – unless God gives us insight about it through prayer and other believers.
3. God’s posture toward sin is forgiveness rather than condemnation.
The death and resurrection of Jesus change things. Through the death of Jesus, God absorbs the consequences and evil of our brokenness within the Divine Community so that the verdict for believers is not condemnation and punishment for their sins but rather freedom and forgiveness.
4. God uses hardship to train us to be holy.
That’s what’s going on in the Hebrews text: the believers addressed are facing opposition and persecution from outsiders, and while such hardship is not their fault, God is using it to train them to be holy. At this point I part ways with my Reformed brothers and sisters to say that God doesn’t cause the hardship in order to discipline us; God simply hijacks it and uses it for good. Joseph’s reply to his brothers who sold him into slavery captures this idea: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
The bottom line: Jesus-followers don’t have to be afraid that God is out to get them when they sin. God has already dealt with sin in the death of Jesus by absorbing any punishment on our behalf. God is a Good Father who wants to give good gifts to his children, and is so crafty as to use the hardship we experience to train us out of our brokenness and into holiness.
How would you address this question?