Is Suffering God’s Punishment?
Facing suffering and death is always awful. When you face it as a Christian there can be an added element of confusion; why would a good God allow or even cause something like this to one of his children? To add salt in the wound, there have been Christian teachers who have blamed the suffering person – God is perfect, so it must be that the sufferer has sinned and God is angry and punishing them, even if they’re not aware of what that sin is. And when we turn to a passage like 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, it can seem like the Bible is agreeing with that. How can we make sense of it?
The Corinthians have been doing ‘the Lord’s Supper’ badly. Instead of sharing in a meal together to remember and declare the death of Jesus to each other, the powerful and wealthy members of the church are using it as an opportunity to exalt themselves and humiliate the poorer members of the church by going in first and stuffing their faces until nothing was left (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). In response to this Paul says something shocking in verses 29-32:
For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
Is God punishing people with death in this passage? And is stuffing up the Lord’s Supper really serious enough? I mean it’s a bit overkill right? It’s not like the Corinthian church is short of plenty of other sins that seem worse. What’s going on?
What it says…
The first step to understanding a passage like this is to read what it says really carefully. Here’s the key things to notice:
- There is a judgement here. Verse 29 says that taking the Lord’s Supper this way brings people under judgement and verse 31 says that if they didn’t do this they wouldn’t be under that judgement.
- This judgement is corporate NOT individual. Although individuals are getting sick and some have even died, God isn’t singling them out for punishment. Instead the church as a whole is copping this judgement.
- The sin they’re committing is really serious. In verse 26 Paul says that taking the Lord’s Supper is to declare the death of Jesus. Paul makes it clear that when they treat the Lord’s Supper this way, the issue isn’t so much the ceremony itself as what that ceremony represents – the most precious thing in the universe. The death of Jesus. It’s not a church ceremony they’re treating as garbage. It’s Jesus and his death for them. They’re treating it as if it means nothing to them. And doing that is really dangerous. As a church they’re a hair’s breath from walking away from their salvation altogether.
- Some have fallen asleep. If someone falls asleep, they’ll wake up again. ‘Falling asleep’ therefore is a way Paul refers to the death… of Christians. He talks of a Christian having fallen asleep because of the expectation that they’ll rise again when Jesus returns. And that means Paul doesn’t see this judgement as God’s rejection of these people and their salvation. They’re still his children.
- If that’s not enough, Paul explicitly says in verse 32 that this judgement is a discipline to prevent them losing their salvation. It’s an act of tough love by God to ensure they remain trusting in him and so will receive eternal life.
So we have an instance of a church being visited by some kind of illness to shake them out of the direction they’re heading in – to despise and walk away from their salvation in Jesus and so lose eternal life. It would be a mistake to see this as a blanket statement that suffering is an act of judgement. It would be an even bigger mistake to see any evidence at all in these verses that suffering means God is ever taking his love away from someone.
But the next thing we need to do when reading a difficult passage of the Bible is to compare it with other parts of scripture.
The rest of the Bible…
The Old Testament: The Old Testament is full of countless stories of people committing a sin and God judging them for it. Pulling almost any story out of the Old Testament can lead someone to see suffering as God’s anger.
- John 5:39-40: Jesus criticises the Pharisees because they read the Old Testament but don’t coime to him for life. Jesus tells them the scriptures (the Old Testament at that point) were pointing towards him and the need for life to be found in him. The Old testament is full of shadows getting us ready for the full picture in Jesus.
- Luke 13:1-5: Some people approached Jesus and pointed out some people who had died tragically. They wanted Jesus to tell them what specific sins these people had committed to be punished like that. Jesus answered: ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ His answer is massive because it reveals the reality that all those Old testament punishments were shadows of – the real judgement is eternal separation from God. And that is dealt with by Jesus death on the cross, which we access by turning to him in repentance and trusting him. And so the Christian who trusts in Jesus doesn’t need to fear that they’ll face this anger of God, even when they sin. God’s anger at their sin has been finally and fully poured out on Jesus.
- Romans 8:28: In a passage all about suffering, Paul says that God doesn’t take away or prevent suffering from happening to his children – but that when we experience it, our loving Father is bringing something good for us out of this awful thing.
- Hebrews 12:5-10: The author says that hardship is God’s discipline (which is not necessarily punishment). God uses suffering to ‘grow us up’ (something all of us need!). It’s a painful act of love which one day, when we are raised with him, we’ll be able to look back on and know was good.
- 1 Peter 1:6-7: Peter says that suffering is God’s act of refining and strengthening our faith in Jesus and the hope we have. It’s not necessarily even because of sin.
- 2 Corinthians 12:1-10: Even Paul himself was disciplined with suffering – not as punishment for something he did or because God was angry at him, but to point his heart to his need to rely on God’s grace alone and not himself – something we all have a natural inclination towards. And Paul’s life of faithfully serving Jesus was full of hardship and imprisonment and, to the best of our knowledge, ended with his execution.
When we put all this together we can understand better what might be going on in 1 Corinthians 11. Here is a church who God loves, who have believed in Jesus and they have had their sins forgiven through trusting in him. And yet they haven’t matured. They’re treating the death of Jesus as if it’s nothing important – they’re only caring about themselves. It’s not that God has taken his love away from them. The danger is that they’re taking their love and faith away from God. They’re beginning to walk away from their salvation and the hope of eternal life. It’s a really serious thing. And so God is working this sickness many are suffering into a good thing – a strong call to come back to their senses and see their need for Jesus.
We can’t draw from this passage the belief that anyone suffering like this is in the same situation as the Corinthian church. We can’t infer that anyone suffering is because of a specific sin in their life. But what we can draw from this passage as it fits within the other passages of the Bible, is that in whatever situation we are in, God uses suffering to produce something good in us; to remind us or convince us of our need for his grace; our need for the saving work of Jesus on the cross; and the frailty of any other thing in this world we might trust in. If we have put our trust in him we might wish God had a more pleasant way of doing it, but we also know that God is actually holding onto us by his grace and will bring us through, because of Jesus.