There is no question that we do often bring suffering upon ourselves. We all recognize that if we break certain health principles, for example, we will probably suffer as a result. First Peter 4:15 also tells us, “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” – showing that wrongful behavior of many types can lead to self-induced suffering.
However, that’s not the whole picture. It was the limited understanding of Job's friends in this regard that caused them to presume he must have done something wrong to be experiencing such pain and misery. But the conclusion of the book of Job shows God’s displeasure with those friends and that Job’s suffering was not really caused by wrongdoing at all (Job 42:7-9).
There is, in fact, a great deal of biblical evidence to show that individuals can and often do suffer as a result of circumstances beyond their control that have nothing to do with their righteousness or lack thereof. Sometimes we suffer as a result of sheer chance. Jesus himself confirmed this in what he told his disciples when they asked about people who had suffered because of political upheaval or physical accidents:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! … 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!” (Luke 13:2-4).
Jesus continued to explain that such extreme cases should remind us of the uncertain nature of life and the need to repent, if we have not already done so; but he was adamant in stressing that such suffering may be the result of chance rather than sin.
In other cases, the Bible makes it clear that illnesses and other difficulties come upon us and are used by God to ultimately help us – as in the case of the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) – so this suffering can hardly be seen as being the result of failure on the part of others or ourselves.
There is another section of Scripture, not so well known, that can also encourage us that suffering need not be equated with God’s displeasure. The prophet Jeremiah was given a vision by God regarding the people of Judah – both those who had been carried into captivity in Babylon, and those who had not. In this vision, the people in captivity were symbolized as a basket of good figs, and those who were not taken captive as a basket of bad figs. God then told Jeremiah:
This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
‘But like the bad figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the LORD, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curse and an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them. I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.’ (Jeremiah 24:5-10)
From the perspective of those who had escaped captivity, it may have been natural to think that those who had been deported and were now suffering captivity were still the objects of God’s displeasure. In actuality, the opposite was true. Those who had suffered deportation were spared a later, more thorough, destruction and – despite their present suffering – were now closer to God and his favor than those who had not suffered, but who would eventually be punished.
We find scriptures such as these throughout the Bible – showing time and again that suffering is not a sure sign of God’s displeasure. Suffering that comes upon us may happen as a result of time, chance, the actions of others, or simply genetics. The Scriptures warn us to be sure, whenever possible, that we do not suffer as a result of our own foolishness (Psalm 107:17, etc.), and if we find ourselves experiencing ongoing problems, it is always a good idea to reflect on our lives to see if some of those problems are self-induced (Ecclesiastes 7:14). But we should never simply presume that suffering experienced by us or by others is self-caused.
If suffering does come, we should strive, like Job, to trust that God has a purpose in what he allows us to experience. As the apostle Peter assures us: “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).