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(This post is part of a series on faith and suffering.)

What are the “causes” of suffering? Whenever there is a terrible natural disaster, it is almost a guarantee that a Christian somewhere is going to announce that the disaster was God’s judgment for sin. This makes me cringe, and makes us all look bad. Is it biblically accurate to say that God punishes sin by bringing a disaster? Well, I think the “causes” of suffering are variable, and we should be very hesitant to claim to know the cause of it. Let’s flush this out…

As discussed in previous posts, suffering is universal because we live in a fallen world awaiting the final redemption. Suffering is a normal part of life in an abnormal world. (Remember that the world we live in is not the way it was originally created or meant to be!)  People get sick, droughts bring famine, and earthquakes destroy homes. There is no “cause” except that this is the way life is in a fallen world.

Can suffering be the direct result of personal sin? Well, yes, choices do have consequences. But we need to be very cautious in this regard. When someone suffers, we seem quick to blame the person, don’t we? I am often guilty of this. We assume they must have done “something” (whether overt sin or poor life choices) to bring it upon themselves.  Remember Job in the Old Testament? His “friends” told him that God must be punishing him for sin. However, Job was actually innocent, and his friends were very wrong in their assessment of the situation! Much was going on in the unseen world that they were not aware of…

Jesus also challenged the traditional presupposition that suffering was always linked to personal sin. In John chapter 9, Jesus and the disciples encountered a blind man, and the disciples out rightly asked Jesus who had sinned, the man or his parents. Jesus responded that “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Or in Luke chapter 13, Jesus mentions a tower that had fallen over killing a bunch of people, and Jesus clearly refuted the idea that it happened because they were “worse sinners.”

We need to heed these lessons from Jesus, and from the life of Job. We should be very hesitant to blame suffering on personal sin, or pronounce a disaster as God’s punishment for sin. Our assumptions can be wrong. We are not God, and only God in his omniscience knows the real causes or “behind the scenes” circumstances of suffering.

Christians today, who proclaim that disasters are God’s punishment for sin, may point out that in the Old Testament prophetic books God did bring disaster as punishment for sin. However, I had an observation about a critical difference between then and now. These modern day “proclaimers” always make their proclamations AFTER the fact. After the disaster, they proclaim it as God’s judgment. This was not the situation in the Old Testament. God sent specific prophets to specifically warn the people ahead of time. Before the disasters or troubles arrived, the people were warned, and told that tragedy could be averted if they repented. God was merciful, patient, and gave the people a chance. It seems that for these modern day proclaimers, it is all about judgment and not about mercy.

There are “blessing and cursing” passages in the Old Testament, but they are specifically to the people of Israel or nation of Israel, and not to everyone. It was a different system in the Old Testament (a theocracy) and blessings then were tied to the land. Today we do not live in a theocracy, and blessings in the New Testament are more spiritual in nature as we await the return of Christ and the new heaven and earth.

Satan is another cause of suffering, whether indirectly or directly. Indirectly, because it was Satan who started it all, by tempting Eve and Adam. Directly, because Satan can target and tempt people even today. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us of the unseen spiritual realm, and that our fight is ultimately against the spiritual forces of wickedness. Satan is at work in this world.

Suffering is often the result of  “man’s inhumanity to man.” People do terrible things to each other. Sin in one person’s life can affect those around them. I’ve heard people say that certain sins are private or personal, and don’t affect anyone else. But I think that is rare! Sin changes us, and leads to ripple affects all around us.

Clearly the causes of suffering are variable and multifaceted. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that we live in a fallen world. We as finite humans should not presume to know the cause behind every incident of suffering. And we all need to be cautious about our “tendencies of blame.”  For example,  certain segments of evangelicalism seem prone to blame Satan for everything, while forgetting about personal responsibility and choice. Others are prone to judgmentalism and quick to assume personal sin is always the cause. Etc.

Does it necessarily matter what the cause is anyhow? If someone is suffering, we should seek to relieve their suffering even if they might have brought it upon themselves. That is grace and mercy! Perhaps instead of pronouncing judgment, we should be seeking to help alleviate the suffering.