D.A. Carson addresses a reader’s question:
Connor S. from Crystal Lake, Illinois, asks:
Hebrews 12:6-7 reads: “For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
Does this mean that hardships, sickness, disease, and the like happen because God is disciplining his children? (Moreover, what about hardships that happen to unbelievers? If this is not God’s discipline in their lives, then why do these events happen? Is it God’s punishment?) Does this mean every bad thing (or only some bad things) that happens to Christians, happens because God is disciplining us? If a Christian gets the flu, or a cold, or cancer, or gets in a car crash, or loses a job—should these hardships be seen as God’s discipline? Of course God is sovereign over all things–but when bad things happen to Christians, should these happenings be seen as God’s discipline, or God’s soverign use of evil for our good, or results of sin and the Fall, or all of the above?
We posed this question to D. A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of many books, including How Long, Oh Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition.
It is easy to think of passages in which God sends catastrophic judgment in a purely retributive way, without an ounce of cleansing discipline (e.g., the destruction and death of Saul, for whom Samuel was ordered to cease praying). It is easy to think of passages in which a human being experiences years of suffering entirely unconnected to any immediate human sin (e.g., the man born blind in John 9)—and in this case one must assume, on the one hand, that the blindness was part of living in a fallen world (he would not have been born blind had Genesis 3 never occurred), and, on the other, that in God’s providence the suffering, according to Jesus, provided an occasion for God to be glorified through the display of Jesus’ miraculous power. It is easy to think of passages in which long-term suffering (e.g., the man paralyzed for 38 years, John 5) and even death (1 Cor 11) is the direct result, not of the entailments of the Fall, but of particular sins. In the first of these two cases, the paralysis leads to Jesus’ healing miracle, and Jesus’ subsequent instruction to stop sinning lest a worst thing befall the man suggests there was a disciplining function; in the second of these two cases, so far as the record goes, we do not know how many of the Corinthians heeded Paul’s warnings and repented, but for some it was clearly too late (they had already “fallen asleep”).
It is easy to think of passages where suffering is clearly not deserved for any direct offense, and where the only “explanation” given is not so much an explanation as a powerful appeal to trust the living God whose power and knowledge are infinitely greater than ours (Job). It would be easy to list other passages with variations on these themes. It is easy to remember that in the Old Testament God declares that he is the Lord, the Healer (Exod 15:26), while in the New Testament Jesus is disclosed as the great Physician—but of course we must remember that God is also the sovereign Judge who deploys the cruel Assyrians to punish his covenant people (Isa 10:5ff), and the Apocalypse warns us to flee the wrath of the Lamb.
From such diverse passages, we should draw at least three important inferences with substantial pastoral implications.
First, we are likely to make exegetical and theological mistakes . . .
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