Suffer Me This

I’ve got some crazy ramblings making their way through my gray matter today. This post is going to be all over the place.

The following is not standard religious thinking.

Here goes.

Fact #1: God can punish sinful people, causing suffering.

Fact #2: Not all suffering is caused by personal sin.

Therefore: Some suffering is not personal punishment from God.

You’d think that conclusion would be obvious, and to most secular people, it is. Why is that last one so hard for religious people to grok?

“Suffering financially? You must not be trusting God.”

“Didn’t get that promotion? What haven’t you repented about, son?”

Popoff_thumb[1]This thinking is so common that scamming American televangelists have learned to capitalize on this idea, seducing sheep into 21st century equivalents of indulgences: “Seed my ministry and God will break you free [of poverty/hardship/suffering] in the name of Jeeeeeeezuuuuus!”

(And by “seed”, they mean give them your money.)


Do people suffer because they have been unfaithful to God?

Two Forms of Suffering

I was listening to Messianic scholar J.K. McKee’s podcast on Lamentations:

There, McKee makes a striking observation: while the book of Lamentations exists because of God’s corporal punishment of sinful Israel, we have a counterexample in the book of Job that suggests not all suffering is a direct result of personal sin. Lamentations is a book of weeping about God punishing Israel for her sins, but the book of Job is the story of a man who suffered despite being righteous.

This suggests that God does punish evil (fact #1) but not all suffering is warranted (fact #2).

The biblical figure Job did not warrant his suffering; he did not commit a sin so great that he would suffer great illness, or that his entire family would die.

And what great sin did the Jewish people commit to inflict on themselves the Holocaust?

What terrible evil did that 5 year old commit to bring the slow, agonizing end that is death by cancer?

It should be obvious to religious people that, more often than not, suffering isn’t caused by personal sin. Suffering usually isn’t warranted. Suffering is just suffering, it happens because that’s the way the world is.

We have to hold these 2 seemingly opposing views in our heads: God does punish evil, but not all suffering is divine punishment.

Really, they’re not opposing ideas. They exist in reality: God’s punished people throughout history, but most suffering exists because that’s just the way the cold, brutal world works.

Bad things happen in this world, and sometimes God is silent; God lets it happen. That’s how the world works. Bad things occur, and God doesn’t intervene and make things better.

Isn’t sin responsible for everything?

“But Judah, sin is the cause of all suffering!”

Not so fast, please.

Sin – knowing right and wrong yet choosing wrong – is the ultimate cause of suffering, yes. Going back to our favorite examples of suffering, cancer and the Holocaust, imagine:

  • Without sin, kids wouldn’t die of cancer because there would be no disease. (That’s theological speculation, by the way. If you use the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as your moral guide, there’s a strong case that if sin didn’t exist, there would be no disease, no degeneration.)
  • Without sin, the Holocaust would not have occurred because the German National Socialists would not have killed people because of their race, as it’s a sin to do so.

Even though sin is the ultimate cause of suffering,  religious people fail to make an important distinction: personal sin. Did my sin cause me to suffer?

Not always.

Seems to me, in my almost 30 years on earth, that God is pretty hands-off when it comes to the affairs of the world.

The world tends to dole out justice just fine by itself: murder someone, you’ll be an outcast in your community, maybe imprisoned, maybe capitally punished. Commit adultery, you’ll probably lose your spouse, half of your possessions, and your family will split. And even if society doesn’t punish you, someone or something else will: murderers will be targets of vengeance, adulterers will contract sexual diseases, dictators will face the wrath of their people, and so on.

Sin has a way of catching up with people.

This leads religious people to think, if you’re suffering, it’s because you’ve sinned.

But that theology is harmful. It leads to a constantly guilty self: I am going through hardship/illness/poverty, therefore, God is punishing me.


Sometimes, suffering isn't a punishment for personal sin. Sometimes, suffering happens because that's the way the world works. And God hasn’t intervened to stop the suffering.

This sad reality has caused many people to lose faith in God altogether – Jews after the Holocaust denied a God that failed to save his people from the greatest atrocities the world has known. Evangelical Christians, like Bart Ehrman, lost faith in Messiah because they can’t work out in their minds how a good and gracious God could not only allow suffering, but cause it.

All the more reason this question of suffering must be solid, 100% solid theology, in our minds. Suffering exists ultimately because of sin, but it is often not personal sin causing the suffering.


  1. As I recall, there are a few places in the Bible where the writer complains that the righteous suffer while the sinners prosper, so that should shoot down any assumption that poverty, illness, and other types of suffering are automatically the result of an individual's sin.

    As you said, we live in a broken world. Because the world is broken, there are such things as cancer, poverty, and starvation. Many innocent people die every day, yet significant portions of Christianity continually play "blame the victim". As you might imagine, this really "grinds my gears".

    I read your blog post through twice and couldn't find anything I disagreed with. I must be slipping. ;-)

    Well done, young man.

  2. Too true, Judah. I've rolled these thoughts around so many times over the years. I mean, if you boil down "theology" to it's basest elements, these are really the only questions left with which to grapple.

    And then throw in one of the verses like Isaiah 45:7, "I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things." - and watch the sparks fly! People go nuts when you talk about stuff like that!

    I love knowing (though, not fully comprehending, obviously) that G-d is completely unlike me. It comforts me to know that He will not think, behave, change or fail the way I do daily. Many people, however, are not comfortable with this. They so badly want a god who behaves and thinks like they do that they will project themselves onto (the real) G-d. Introducing, the mechanism behind the whole of human history...

  3. And on the other hand we have the self righteous believers that atribute their suffering to the devil..."We are under attack from the adversary...."

  4. Good point, Dan's right. Many religious people blame the devil for their suffering.

    Interesting thing, suffering. Causes some people to blame self (guilt), some people to blame God (losing faith), others to blame the devil.


    All the more reason to have a solid understanding of this.

  5. Under the philosophy that Dan brought up, it becomes easier to blame an external force than it is to look at your own responsibility in a situation. It's like an alcoholic blaming the devil for liver damage.

  6. (1Co 5:4) In the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, you being gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah,

    (1Co 5:5) are to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Yeshua.

    (1Co 5:6) Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole lump?

    (1Co 5:7) Purge out the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened. For indeed Messiah, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place.

    (1Co 5:8) Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old yeast, neither with the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

    (1Co 5:9) I wrote to you in my letter to have no company with sexual sinners;

    (1Co 5:10) yet not at all meaning with the sexual sinners of this world, or with the covetous and extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you would have to leave the world.

    (1Co 5:11) But as it is, I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner. Don’t even eat with such a person.

    (1Co 5:12) For what have I to do with also judging those who are outside? Don’t you judge those who are within?

    (1Co 5:13) But those who are outside, God judges. “Put away the wicked man from among yourselves.”[1]

  7. Excellent piece! Keep teaching those that think in their rigid box a lesson!