May 13, 2016

Suffering Well: Acknowledging Sin’s Role in Suffering

by Mike Riccardi

A while ago I met with a prospective seminary student for lunch. As is common for first-time meetings at Grace Community Church, our discussion began with testimonies of how the Lord saved us. This particular brother had a Christian friend whose very welcoming family often shared the Gospel with him and invited him to church. As friendly and as clear as they were, though, the seed of the Gospel fell on fallow ground—until the father of the family had contracted a life-threatening illness. When this young man saw how the family responded to suffering with such confidence, joy, and peace, his heart began to pay attention to the Source of that steadfastness. He began to read his Bible with greater earnestness and listen to the sermons he heard in church with greater interest. Eventually, the Lord saved him.

I tell that story because it only further legitimizes the need for Christians to learn how to suffer well—how to suffer righteously. I mentioned in last week’s post how necessary it is to be equipped with a theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of a particular trial. The fact of the matter is, the heat of an intensely trying time often clouds our vision and our judgment, so that we fail to act the way we know we should. We respond to suffering sinfully because we have not prepared to suffer righteously beforehand, when our vision is clear.

A Second Lesson

To help prepare us to fight the unbiblical thoughts, attitudes, and actions that we are tempted to have in times of suffering, we’ve turned to the example of Jeremiah as outlined in the Book of Lamentations, hoping to glean five lessons on how to righteously respond to suffering. We saw the first of those last week: One way to suffer righteously is to identify with and suffer along with those who are suffering. We are to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). A second lesson to learn in the pursuit of suffering well is that we are to acknowledge sin to be at the root of suffering.

Just as it is significant that Jeremiah identifies with the suffering of his people even though he had little to no part in bringing it about, it is also significant that in his deep mourning Jeremiah acknowledges Israel’s sin. Unlike Job, Jeremiah’s lamentations in response to suffering contain no protest of innocence. He confesses that this judgment is due to “the multitude of her transgressions” (Lam 1:5) and that she “sinned greatly” (Lam 1:8–9) and “rebelled against His command” (Lam 1:18). He goes on to say that Israel’s iniquity had exceeded even that of Sodom (Lam 4:6), and that even the prophets and the priests worked unrighteousness (Lam 4:13). He makes no excuses for the people, but accepts their responsibility for the suffering they are experiencing.

A Caveat

Now, it’s important that we make the point that not everyone who suffers suffers as a direct result of particular, personal sin. That’s an error that Job’s counselors made, and they were severely rebuked for it when God showed up at the end of the book. It’s also an errant accusation Paul’s opponents made against him in 2 Corinthians, and throughout that letter he presents his suffering as evidence for the authenticity of his apostleship, not as evidence for its falsehood.

Better Than We Deserve

However, we do need to acknowledge that on a general level, all suffering is a result of the condition of sin that we find ourselves in as sons and daughters of Adam. Had we not sinned in Adam, and had the human race never fallen into sin, we would never have known suffering (Gen 3:7–24; Rom 5:12; Rom 8:19–25).

And because of our sin, we all deserve to suffer infinitely and eternally—to a horrifying degree and all the time. When we suffer, the comfort that we do receive from the “Father of mercies” (2Cor 1:3) is just that: mercy. That the comfort is mercy implies that we do not deserve it, for mercy is the withholding of deserved punishment. One impediment to responding to suffering righteously is thinking that we are entitled to something other than suffering.

In reality, we deserve even worse than we experience. After all, “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (2 Pet 2:4). That we are all not suffering eternally in hell at this very moment is a sheer gift of God. The only difference between our sin and the sin of the angels who were damned without mercy is that our sin was graciously paid for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ (cf. Heb 2:16).

And so when we undergo suffering—even intense suffering—we should not act surprised as if we deserved something better (cf. 1 Pet 4:12). Our attitude should reflect the wisdom of what Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:39–40: “Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins? Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to Yahweh.” In our times of suffering when we are tempted to complain, we should be reminded that we are but dust and are entitled to nothing good at all. Remembering that in ourselves we are hopelessly sinful, and that even in intense suffering we are getting better than we deserve, will equip us to suffer with a biblical worldview, and thus will strengthen our joy and endurance in our trials.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • fundamentals

    Thank you Pastor Mike for reiterating these truths. This is antidote for the delusion of “it’s-all-about-me, feel-good ‘Christianity’ “………May God open eyes and hearts.

  • Vickey Singleton

    “Better than I deserve.” Only when I embraced this truth could I understand what James meant when he wrote “Consider it all joy.” Thanks again, Pastor Mike for pointing us to what should be obvious, but is so clouded by our desire to hold on to our sin.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    Today is the funeral of a friend of ours who died from leukemia. He spent the last six months of his life ministering to others the hope of Christ (via Caring Bridge and to hospital staff). Every day he would journal of what it meant to trust in Christ and considered leukemia “a gift” (his words) that enabled him to share that hope. He was an inspiration to so many. #sufferedwell

  • kevin2184

    Hi Mike…does “not” belong in the sentence, “That the comfort is mercy implies that we do not deserve it, for mercy is the withholding of deserved punishment.” If yes, then please explain. If not, then you can delete my post after fixing it. 🙂

    • Hey Kevin. Yes, the “not” belongs, though I probably could have written that sentence more clearly. What I’m trying to say is: Because (a) “comfort” is described as “mercy” from God, and (b) mercy is something, by definition, which we do not deserve to receive, therefore (c) we do not deserve comfort. Mercy is the withholding of deserved punishment. Since we deserve punishment, any time we receive mercy, we do not deserve that mercy.

      • kevin2184

        ah, got it. Thanks Mike. 🙂

  • 4Commencefiring4

    We have a friend who has suffered from MS for decades and is usually in great pain; spends most of her days in bed and in the dark because even light hurts. Venturing out into the rest of the house for an hour or so is a rarity.

    Yet she has witnessed to more people and been instrumental in bringing more people to the Lord than anyone else I’ve ever known. Online exchanges with fellow MS sufferers, even ones overseas, has brought the whole connected world to her room.

    Whenever I’m tempted to ask “Why, Lord?” when tragic news comes in any form, I remember her. God uses the “useless” to bring people to Himself. I can’t imagine her suffering this way for another 40 years–entirely possible, given her age–but even if she does, the number of people who will have been saved through her testimony will be amazing. It already is.

  • Ah, if only folks really believed they deserved worse. Sometimes I wonder if most professing Christians simply don’t believe that’s the case.