Thursday, June 11, 2009

Swine Flu, Tsunamis, and Drug Wars: Are we right to see these as signs of sin?

A few days ago, I overhead a conversation that caught my attention. Three affable thirty-somethings, who were obviously Christians given much of their conversation, ended up discussing Mexico. This in and of itself is far from noteworthy, but it was what they had to say about Mexico that really struck me. One of the women said something along the lines of,
"They had that earthquake in Mexico City, they have these drug wars, and now the swine flu. It really kind of makes you wonder if they aren't being punished for something?"
The other two nodded their heads and made remarks of agreement.
This line of thought is not foreign to me, and I understand what they meant all too well. The fact of the matter is that I, too, am often quick to mentally label grave suffering as a form of punishment dealt out by the hand of God. It seems to make sense to us: Mexico must be caught up in some awful sin to be given an earthquake, a drug war, and a (newly labeled by the WHO) pandemic. In the same way, many people were quick to label Hurricane Katrina as God's judgment on New Orleans, and the 2004 Tsunami as an unmistakable act of God. If we are honest with ourselves, it is not only the disasters of such great proportions that cause us to think of God's wrath against sin, but also individual diseases and disabilities, financial setbacks, and untimely deaths. We can put the pieces together: people who are suffering (and usually who aren't us) are most likely being punished for some sin, whether flagrant or hidden. The problem with this line of reasoning for Christians is that it is expressly condemned in the Bible.
Please allow me to retell a story found in John chapter 9. One day while Jesus was travelling, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples, being religious people like ourselves, asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" What a reasonable question they must have thought that was, and open-minded too as they allowed for the possibility that either the man or his parents had sinned to cause his blindness. Jesus' answer refused to bend to the predetermined nature of the disciples' question however,
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Jesus then spit on the ground, made mud with his saliva, put it on the man's eyes and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. When this man did so, he went home seeing.
One man's blindness, which was so obviously the result of sin to so many, was actually meant to be the occasion for God to do an outstanding miracle. This man would actually become an outspoken evangelist for Jesus later on in chapter 9, and the Pharisees who claimed to be able to see were blinded to the work of God because of their understanding that the man's disability must have been a divine punishment (verse 34).
This story does not stand alone in teaching this lesson. In Luke chapter 13, Jesus made a similar point while talking about Siloam once again. Some of the people accompanying Jesus told him about some people of Galilee whose blood Pilate (the Roman Ruler over Israel's region) had mixed with pagan sacrifices. Such a fate would have been horrific to the Jews, not only because of the implied murder of those people, but because the blood of those who only worshiped the one true God was offered to an idol. Hearing about these people, Jesus knew immediately what the tale-bearers were implying with the news and answered their unasked question,
"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. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Here, Jesus is not emphasizing the point made with the man born blind that his disability was a gift from God meant to show God's glory, but is instead teaching that those who make judgments about the sin of others in order to explain their catastrophes need to recognize that they are just as sinful as those they are judging. Yes, there are times when suffering comes as a judgment (such as the sacking of Jerusalem foretold by the prophet Jeremiah), but there are times when it does not, and we are incapable of judging which is the case without a word on the matter direct from God. If we are to learn any lesson concerning sin from the disaster that befalls others, it is that we are just as much sinners as they are and that the possibility of imminent death should lead us all to repent of our sins and turn to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
At this point, it is possible that some readers might think I am saying that the New Testament differs from the Old Testament in its understanding of suffering, but the Bible is in harmony with itself as God's inspired word and this is not the case. The Old Testament, like the New, teaches that we cannot simply understand the workings of the world as bad things happening to bad people and good things rewarding good people.
The Book of Job deals with this issue at length as the godly and righteous man Job suffers incredible loss (losing his children, his immense fortune, his health, his high status in his community, and the respect of his wife and friends) with God's permission. Over the course of the book, Job's friends and supposed comforters becoming increasingly dogmatic and aggressive in their understanding that Job's suffering is the result of his incredible sins. Job, however, remains steadfast in his confession of innocence and his claim that he has done nothing warranting the torment he suffers. Although God eventually silences Job by leading him to understand that he is not fit to question God's wisdom and power, He also says that Job has spoken what is right of Him whereas the comforters have not. This reiterates the point made once by the narrator, and twice by God that Job truly was blameless and upright. If Job could suffer more greatly than most humans who have ever lived while remaining blameless and upright, surely we cannot use suffering alone to judge the righteousness of others. This seems to line up quite well with the prophet Isaiah's understanding of the coming Messiah, who in perfect righteousness would suffer more than any human on a cross in order to bring salvation to sinners.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes bore witness to a righteous man who perished in his righteousness and a wicked man who lived long in his wickedness. The Psalmist admitted envying the arrogant when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. The examples are plentiful throughout Scripture and it is clear that we are not to judge to judge individuals, cities, or nations by the calamities that befall them. Instead of judgment, we are to imitate our Lord by offering comfort to those who suffer. This lesson is well taught by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (chapter 1, verses 3 to 7):
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.