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Today I would like to correct a misconception about God that many people hold: The idea that God doesn’t cause suffering. The idea that God doesn’t cause suffering is a false idea. He does.
Maybe in the face of some tragedy you’ve heard a Christian say, “Why did God LET this happen?” The implication is that God certainly didn’t CAUSE this to happen, so why did he LET this happen.
I’m not sure where this idea comes from. Perhaps it’s due to a shallow understanding of what it means that God is good and holy. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of reading what the Bible actually says. I mean, when Adam and Eve sinned, what did God do? He cursed the world. He caused thorns to infest the ground, and he put pain into childbirth. That’s God causing suffering. Yes, he did it because mankind had sinned, but that doesn’t change the fact that God chose to put things into place that cause pain.
There are countless other examples in the Bible where God is the direct cause of some kind of suffering, be it mental or physical.
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I AM saying that God causes suffering. I am NOT saying that God is evil in any way. As the Scripture says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). That is the truth.
When the surgeon uses the scalpel open an incision through which a tumor can be removed, that doctor causes suffering. But you wouldn’t begrudge that doctor one bit if it was you he was hurting. You’d thank him profusely for saving your life. This is the type of suffering that God causes. Suffering that has a purpose.
Every time we experience pain in this world, God is reminding us that this is not our final home. Though amazing and often stunningly beautiful, the world we live in is ultimately a world broken and polluted by human sin.
God intends pain to remind us that the world is wrong. God uses pain to remind us where this wrongness came from—sin. It would be a mistake, however, to say that every time we experience pain God is pointing us to a specific, personal sin that we need to repent of. That also is a false idea.
In the Old Testament, there was a faithful man named Job, whom God tested. Job lost his family. Job lost his health. And when his friends came to comfort him, their advice was that he should repent of whatever secret sin he had committed. They thought this amount of suffering must be a call from God for Job to repent of some specific sin. But that wasn’t the case in Job’s story. God was testing the faith of his servant, not rebuking him.
It comes down to this. Human sin has caused the universe to malfunction. Sometimes the suffering we experience simply serves to remind us of this fact. Sometimes God intends the suffering we experience to test our trust in him. But other times, God sends suffering into our lives so that we will reject some soul damaging behavior that we’ve begun to practice.
Our sermon reading for today is a Psalm that was written by King David. It was apparently written to be used in the Temple, a song to be sung while offerings were being laid on the huge fiery altar that stood in the outer court.
This Psalm contains the following flow of thought: Guilt leads to suffering, suffering leads to repentance, repentance leads to salvation –and all these things come from the LORD.
Psalm 38:1-8 (ESV)
38 A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering.
1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
2 For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
5 My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
7 For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
In the beginning of this Psalm, David calls out to the LORD for relief from the LORD’s righteous rebuke. David describes the mental and physical anguish that his own guilt has brought upon him. Though his sin is the reason for his anguish, David says that God is the one delivering the pain. “[God’s] arrows have sunk into [him]”, “There is no [health ] in his flesh because of [God’s] indignation”, “[God’s] hand has come down on [him].”
This is essentially David’s description of what his guilt makes him feel like. It’s pretty intense. If you’ve ever experienced debilitating guilt over something you’ve done, you might empathize with some of the things David says here. Guilt has a real effect on a person’s ability to enjoy life. Guilt has a real effect on health, and on our ability to function with other people.
But this isn’t to say that guilt is a bad thing. It’s not. Guilt is actually a good thing. And the suffering that guilt brings is a good thing too. Like the blade that turns the soil up and enables the spring planting, so too, guilt and suffering open the way to new growth.
Or think about it like this. Guilt and suffering are like those little yellow road markers that vibrate and rattle your car when you start to move out of your lane. Yeah they’re not so enjoyable, but they’re good. They wake you up to the danger.
In Lamentations 3, verse 32 it says…
“32 Though [God] causes grief,
Yet He will show compassion
According to the multitude of His mercies.
33 For He does not afflict willingly,
Nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33 ESV).
God doesn’t cause suffering willingly, but out of necessity. He doesn’t send suffering into our lives for the fun of it, but when it needs to be done to wake us up, then so be it. He does it.
In 1 Corinthians 7, verse 9 it says…
“…I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10 ESV).
Guilt leads to suffering, suffering to repentance, repentance to salvation –and all of these things come from the LORD.
Look at verses 9-17. David prays…
Psalm 38:9-17 (ESV)
9 O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
14 I have become like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes.
15 But for you, O Lord, do I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!”
17 For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever before me.
Here David says that God knows his situation. God has listened to his prayers. And even though David’s health and strength are failing, even though David’s friends and family have abandoned him, even though his enemies are constantly plotting against him, HE KNOWS that God has heard his prayer for help. And David has confidence that the LORD will answer that prayer eventually. And so, David waits.
It looks like David has been numbed by all the suffering he’s experienced, but that’s not completely the case. He doesn’t hear the words of others, and he doesn’t talk back, not because he’s numbed beyond feeling, but because he’s WAITING for the LORD to come.
Sometimes it takes a while to get through to a person. Texting in the car is dangerous. First common sense tells us this. Then there’s a public ad campaign to make sure we understand that looking downward and using both hands to hold a cellular device may impair our ability to steer a moving vehicle. Then they make a law that says, “We will fine you $124 if we see you texting while driving.” But just stand on a street corner for five minutes and you’ll see plenty of people with phone in hand. Sometimes things don’t sink in until tragedy takes place.
The sinful human heart is stubborn and slow to learn. This is one of the reasons why God may let suffering rest on a person for a time, as David here describes. Sometimes we think of sin like it’s something that isn’t really that dangerous. We think, “I’m different. I can handle this. This won’t get out of control.” But sin is always out of control when it isn’t rejected and suppressed.
And so God lets suffering rest on us.
David knew this. He describes the weight of God’s hand pressing down on him, because of his sin. But David is moved by his suffering to repent. And even though God’s hand is still pressing down on him, David is confident that God WILL have mercy. God will relent.
If our guilt brings suffering, we shouldn’t try to hide from it. Shouldn’t try to drink it away, or somehow medicate ourselves away from facing God’s rebuke. But instead, following David’s example, we should accept our guilt, and own it. That’s the path to freedom. When we accept personal responsibility for our actions, then we can confess our sins to God and find forgiveness in Christ.
David pictures guilt like arrows that the Lord had shot into his sides (verse 2). He describes these wounds as stinking and festering (verse 5). When you try to ignore guilt, it just begin to fester. The sharp pain of the arrowhead progresses to the fevered, tender pain of spreading infection. Is the answer to just medicate so you can’t feel the pain? NO! The answer is to address the problem!
David does this in verse 18.
Psalm 38:18-22 (ESV)
18 I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
19 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good
accuse me because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!
Earlier David admitted that his sin was the source of his suffering. The reason why God’s hand was pressing down on him. But that wasn’t the open confession that we find here.
Here David says, “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin”. This is a full confession. True confession of sin includes both outward expression, and inward depression. You don’t hide it, but admit it to God. You don’t cherish the sin in your heart, you feel sick to your stomach that you did it. You never want to touch that sin again.
That’s what David expresses here. And it leads to an immediate change of mind for David. He knows that God has promised forgiveness through the coming Messiah. And so his tone changes as soon as his confession takes place. While he was talking about how sinful he was before, now he talks about how his enemies are hating him wrongfully, doing evil to him even though he’s following after good. Now that’s a big shift from what David was saying about himself earlier!
Where does this shift come from? Forgiveness. David trusted in God’s promise of forgiveness, and so he is counted as righteous. Counted as good.
When guilt over our own sins brings us to confession and depression, the same promise of forgiveness that lifted David, also lifts us. And we know more details about the Messiah than David did! We know his name is Jesus. We know all that he suffered on the cross to take our sins away. We know, by heart, many of the ways he reassured his followers that they were forgiven. He comes to us personally, each time we come to the Lord’s Supper.
Guilt leads to suffering, suffering to repentance, repentance to salvation—and salvation to strength.
Look at verse 21 again. It’s important to see how David ends this Psalm. He’s still crying out to the LORD. His suffering isn’t over yet. He says,
“21 Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!” (Psalm 38:21-22 ESV).
He still feels abandoned, though he knows he isn’t.
He still feels like God is far from him, even though he knows that’s not true.
He feels desperate, crying out for the LORD to help him quickly! Be he knows, now or later, the Lord is his salvation.
It’s important for us to remember that our emotions are just tools which help us to navigate and experience life. But they don’t always reflect reality. We can feel abandoned, but know that we aren’t. We can feel lost, but know we are safe in the Lord’s hands. Thank God our reality is not based on our wavering emotions! Thank God our reality and our salvation is founded on the sacrifice that Christ made in our place. Emotions change. History doesn’t.
We started this meditation today by openly stating that God causes suffering. We end by reaffirming that statement, and adding to it the following verse from Hebrews 12.
“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11 NASB).
Prayer: Father in heaven, help us to learn from whatever suffering finds its way into our lives. Help us not to get comfortable in this world of sin. Help us always to look forward to being with you in heaven. Father, if you send suffering into our lives with the purpose of rescuing us from a sin that is particularly dangerous to us—help us to understand what you’re doing. And lead us to full repentance, and complete peace in Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen.