“God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” —St. Augustine
Is this how you think? “Something bad happened to me. Therefore, God must be punishing me because I sinned.”
Now, a caveat. If you couldn’t make your car payment this month because you gambled your money away playing poker, then, yeah: you’re suffering. But not so much because you were gambling—the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about gambling. No, your car’s getting repossessed because you’re a moron and did a stupid, stupid thing.
So we’ll put aside the obvious stupid choices that people make: my husband is divorcing me because I slept with his bowling team sort of thing.
Nevertheless, it is still easy to imagine that if you’re having hard times in life that you must have done something wrong. Doesn’t God hate sin? Doesn’t God punish sinners? Isn’t chastisement a part of life? Didn’t my dad give me swats when I disobeyed him, or failed to take out the trash, or talked back to him?
Job’s friends, notoriously, believed that and spend the bulk of the book of Job berating him and demanding that he confess his horrible sins—before they started in just throwing mud at him with the list of sins that he just had to be guilty of given how his life had gone to hell in a handbasket: his protestations of innocence, for them, were simply further proof of his wretchedness.
Thus, when we see someone suffer, our first thought is: I wonder what he did to piss off God. And if that someone is us, that is often our first thought. Surely, the reason I got that flat tire is because I thought bad things about that stupid driver who cut me off last week. It had nothing to do with the fact that the tire has a hundred thousand miles on it.
And the man waterpipe leading into my house sprang a leak because I had inappropriate thoughts about that pretty cashier at Wendy’s yesterday. And my child is failing chemistry because I have a bad temper.
And I can’t find work because I keep saying the f word when I get mad.
What do all of these things have in common? Besides the fact that your mind is inhabited by Job’s friends? Show of hands: how many of you have taken a course in Logic?
There is this thing called a logical fallacy: that is, very simply, an argument that uses poor—or no—reasoning. One will hear a lot of them during election campaigns. My worthy opponent is ugly and his mother dresses him funny; that’s why his proposal to lower taxes is an example of evil incarnate.
The fancy name for this flawed example is “argumentum ad hominem”: that is, attack on the man. Instead of attacking the proposal with an examination of its flaws, one instead simply attacks the individual.
Another favorite during political campaigns is to attribute beliefs to one’s opponent and then to attack those beliefs that you’ve attributed to your opponent. My opponent wants to lower taxes because he wants the rich to get richer and he hates the poor and wants to seem them suffer and squirm in agony. Also, he hates you. That sort of thing. This is referred to as a “strawman argument.”
In any case, believing that your car broke down because you ate too much chocolate cake and so God is punishing you is an example of a logical fallacy. The technical term for it is Post hoc ergo propter hoc Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”. That is, “false cause: it is a coincidental correlation, a correlation without causation: – X happened then Y happened; therefore X caused Y. God hates sin. My car broke down. it’s obviously because I ate too much chocolate cake. Mixed in with this will sometimes be the comment: how do you know this bad thing didn’t happen to me because I did xyz wrong: I’m a horrible sinner. You just don’t know. That’s another logical fallacy: argument from ignorance: you can’t refute me, so I must be right. (No, it’s just because you’re such an idiot that I’m gobsmacked—that, and it would take me more time that I wish to spend to refute you. Some of the more whacked out conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas fall into this category: it would take a book to refute it and most experts don’t have the time or think it’s worth the effort to show you why your belief that the moon landings never happened is akin to believing you’re a banana. Or that wearing garlic obviously keeps away vampires since you’ve never been bitten.
So, beyond the fact that it is illogical—a logical fallacy—to believe that your suffering is the result of you having been a sinner, your irrational belief can be refuted with the raw data of the scripture.
Look at anyone you care to in the Bible who was doing exactly what God wanted them to do. How many of them went from success to success and never had bad things happening to them?
Right. Let’s look at one of them. Moses.
When all you have is your faith in God, that’s a hard place to be. But it’s okay. God is there, whether you can feel him or see him or recognize his hand at work in your life. He’s there even when you think he couldn’t possibly be. He’s there even when you’re certain that it’s hopeless and nothing can ever be okay ever again.
Many of the biblical characters faced that moment of despair, even as they were doing precisely what they knew God wanted them to be doing. Had you supposed that that knowing God’s will and doing it is the inoculation against feeling discouraged and unhappy? Don’t be silly.
Moses met God in a burning bush and reluctantly obeyed his command to go back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites from hundreds of years of slavery. Few people have ever known so clearly what God’s will for their lives was.
And yet it was hard for him to feel happy. He was at least eighty years of age. His wife did not support him. Moses believed himself to be a poor public speaker and had attempted to use that as an excuse to get out of having to go to Egypt—a place he’d left forty years earlier as a fugitive after murdering someone.
When he arrived in Egypt, he had an audience with the Pharaoh. He performed the miraculous “signs” that God had given him. He threw his staff on the ground so that it became a snake. He put his hand in his tunic and pulled it out covered with leprosy, then made the leprosy go away.
The Pharaoh was unimpressed and chased Moses away. He refused to set the Israelites free and accused them of laziness. Worse, he gave them more work to do, making their already miserable lives as slaves even more unbearable.
Moses did what God asked him to do. Nothing worked. In fact, life got worse. The Pharaoh was mad at him, and so were the people he had ostensibly come to set free. Certainly not an auspicious beginning to his mission.
He complained to God about what had happened. Did God zap him with a bolt of lightning for his lack of faith? Nope. God comforted him and told him to keep at it, that in the end, it would all work out.
So Moses asked again. And again. And again. The Pharaoh repeatedly denied the request. Months, perhaps a year or more passed with zero progress. Terrible plagues befell the Egyptians. Finally, after the tenth try, the Pharaoh let the people go. So now all was well, right?
As soon as the Israelites left, the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army to bring them back. They fled—only to find their way blocked by the Red Sea with no way out—until God opened the sea and destroyed the Pharaoh’s army.
Then there was a shortage of food, a shortage of water. When there was food, the people complained about the lack of variety. There were challenges to Moses’ leadership; the people resorted to idolatry. There were plagues, and then when they got to the Promised Land the people refused to go into it—so God sent them to wandering in the wilderness for forty years until everyone of that generation died from old age.
Nothing went the way Moses had expected or hoped. Both he and the Israelites spent a lot of time getting familiar with despair.
And Moses was not the only biblical figure who spent a lot of time in the dark place. The Prophet Habakkuk expressed the same unhappiness. After hoping that God would do something to fix the nation of Israel’s penchant for idolatry, God explained that his “solution” was to have Babylonians invade and devastate the land. Habakkuk responded with stress and unhappiness, unsatisfied by God’s promise that the Babylonians would subsequently be judged.
Habakkuk concludes his prophecy with a poem for when nothing is going right, everything is going wrong, and nothing about your circumstances makes sense:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
And finally: when the prophet Daniel’s friends faced death in a fiery furnace they told Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, the following:
“…the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)
Trusting in God, remaining faithful to God and his calling, is not dependent upon His action or inaction. If it is, then we cannot claim honestly to love Him, because love, real love, is not dependent upon the actions of the beloved.
Of course, this is easier said, than done.