February 04, 2021

Is Suffering Ever a Punishment for a Christian’s Sin?

Nathan W. Bingham & Derek Thomas
Is Suffering Ever a Punishment for a Christian’s Sin?

Even after we come to Christ, our lives are marked by suffering in this fallen world. Does our suffering as Christians ever come as punishment from God for our sins? Today, Derek Thomas considers how believers should think about the pain and afflictions they bear.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Calling in from South Carolina is Ligonier Teaching Fellow Dr. Derek Thomas. He also serves as the Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church there in Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Thomas, are the trials and the sufferings that Christians experience in this life ever punishment from God for their sins?

DR. DEREK THOMAS: Yeah, that's a great, great question. And of course, it's the very question that is at the very heart of the book of Job. Job lost all of his family, his ten children, all of his wealth, and eventually his health. And his three friends only have one song and they sing it to death, as Calvin said. And that song is instant retribution. That if you suffer in any way, it must be because you have done wrong and therefore that God is punishing you for your sins. And of course, the entire point of the book of Job is to say that Job was actually innocent. Not that he wasn't a sinner, but that there was no direct relationship between his suffering and his sin. And three times in the first two chapters in the prologue of Job, we are specifically told that Job was an upright man, that he feared God, that he shunned evil, and so on. And this isn't just an assessment of the author of the book of Job; these are words put directly into the mouth of God. This is God's assessment of Job.

And it occurs again, you remember, in John chapter 9, when the disciples encounter the blind man whom Jesus heals, and they asked the question, "Who sinned; was it him or was it his parents?" (v. 2). And Jesus said neither (v. 3). So clearly in the mind and thinking of the disciples, there was a one-to-one correlation between suffering and sin or suffering and punishment. And Jesus says that in this case, neither was the case"it wasn't his fault, it wasn't his parents' fault, but that the works of God should be manifest in him. So, God brought about this suffering in the life of the blind man in order that he might become a blessing to the disciples and a blessing to us as we continue to read the ninth chapter of John's Gospel.

But clearly there are moments, there are times when we suffer because we sin, even as Christians. The passage in 1 Corinthians 11, for example, at the Lord's Supper, Paul clearly says to them that some of them are ill and some of them are dead, and this is God's punishment upon them because of their failure to repent of their sins (v. 30).

And clearly in Hebrews 12, we're told that whom the Lord loves that He disciplines (v. 6). In just the same way that we might discipline, which may involve the infliction of pain of some degree"whether it's emotional pain or physical pain"but clearly we would discipline our children. Not because we don't like them but because we love them and we want them to learn from their behavior and so even Christians, when they find themselves in trial, if they incur illness, I think that it is reasonable that we should ask ourselves, "Is there some giant unconfessed, unmortified sin in our lives?" And if there is, then clearly, we should seek to mortify that sin and confess our sin. But the book of Job and John 9 clearly tells us that there are occasions when sin and suffering are not directly related. I mean, all suffering is the consequence of Adam's sin, and all suffering is a consequence of living in a fallen world. But it's not necessarily a result of God punishing us for unconfessed or unmortified sin. But sometimes I think that is the case.