Yesterday, I posted an article by this same title. It was my 1st attempt and could have done a better job. Let me try again. If some cobwebs remain in my brain from yesterday I will not mind your iron-sharpening-iron comments provided they are helpful and laced with generous doses of grace as we—together—grow in grace and truth.
One of the marks of balanced biblical counselors (hopefully!) is we recognize that the body and spirit do affect one another and understand (both in mind and increasingly in practice) that not all suffering is sin-related directly, though obviously there was no pain, suffering, or death before the Fall of Man and its resulting curse. The classic passage to turn to in order to demonstrate there should be no automatic cause-effect relationship in our minds between suffering and personal sin, which has become a foundation stone for our family, is John 9:1-3. However, today I direct your attention to a few Old Testament examples not written by observers of sufferers, but by the sufferers themselves. Consider these glimpses at raw emotions in suffering written in autobiographical form.
In light of this I offer two principles for your consideration as well as Scripture passages to meditate on for personal and/or small group study—food for your soul—some things to wrestle through with me. Consider the bullet points merely observations to get you started.
1. Severe life trials are not always directly caused by specific sin and may lead to inner trials of faith (doubt) and mental anguish (despair). We need to recognize that “soul struggles” and “mental trials” are part of living in a fallen world. God stands ready to help and strengthen us in times of human weakness as we await—with an imperfect, but growing faith—for all of creation to be set free from the corruption of sin and soul-wearying effects of the curse (Ps 30:10; Rom 8:21).
Consider Job 1-3, and the reality of human suffering and grief not caused by sin.
- Job, a blameless man, responded to the first phase of his indescribable suffering and loss (death of ten children and loss of all material wealth) in submissive worship of God (Job 1:20), though overcome with intense grief.
- Job’s response to the second phase of his suffering (physical affliction of his own body on top of immeasurable loss) was seven days sitting in silence. I think “numb” might be a good word for it.
- Afterward, doubt and despair filled his heart and mind including regret over his very existence and longing for death. There is no “denial” here, no hiding of the reality of his pain.
- What else do you discern in these chapters concerning the relationship between outward, life trials to inner “soul struggles”?
- Also, be sure not to miss the revelation of Satan as the secondary cause of Job’s troubles, the sovereign God being the primary.
Consider Psalms 42 and 43.
- Read both psalms, underlining all descriptive words related to the psalmist’s soul struggles, anguish, despair, and trial of faith. List the ways he suffered and the effects suffering had upon his person.
- What truths does he “talk to himself” about?
- How are his cries to God demonstrations of faith? Rather than seeing these as marks of unbelief, is it perhaps better to understand the psalmist’s turning to God in anguished prayer is an act of raw faith?
- Is there any indication that God rebukes him for his honest, prayerful lament?
Consider Psalm 31:9-11.
- A spirit of grief produces physical weakness, weariness of soul (spiritual weakness), and a multitude of tears. What does this teach us about “the grieving process”? Is it biblically compassionate to expect a person to simply “snap out” of deep grief? And does God even expect this? Or does He deal with us in patience while knowing our humanity is but dust (Ps 103:14)?
- It seems that distress (feeling cramped in a narrow space), accompanied by physical, mental, and emotional strain, is useful as it drives us to self-emptying and God-dependent prayer. What evidences of this do you see in the whole psalm? What circumstances have caused his distress? See the verses before (vv. 1-8) and after (vv. 10-24).
There is so much more to be said about God’s good purpose in suffering completely unrelated to any sin-cause, but the above studies will begin to move us down the road in thinking less simplistically.
2. Sometimes—not always, as stated above—physiological, mental, and emotional struggles are the result of spiritual problems (sin and its corresponding discipline).
Consider Psalm 32:3-4.
- A hardened heart filled with unconfessed sin may be a cause of physical weakness.
- Thankfully, this unrepentant heart is no match for God’s gracious discipline. Verse 5 continues, “I acknowledged my sin to You.”
Consider Psalm 38:1-10.
- God’s discipline of our sin (Your arrows, Your hand, Your indignation, etc.) includes a heaviness of spirit (conviction) that should drive us to repentance (Cf. 2 Cor. 7:10).
- Loss of physical health may be a disciplinary consequence of sin. Underline all the powerfully descriptive words used by the psalmist.
- Hopelessness and despair are sometimes the result of our stubborn resistance to the correction of God for our sin.
Consider Proverbs 12:25.
- Anxiety (related or unrelated to sin) often leads to depression.
- Depression may be relieved by edifying speech from others. Can you think of other Scriptures that teach this same truth? How can we minister to one another when depression is experienced?
So what have we learned?
If we are going to be faithful to the Scriptures and compassionate as we counsel one another then we must realize there is a connection between body and spirit and how life’s troubles affect both. We must also distinguish between sin-related suffering and that which we endure—by God’s grace and according to His wisdom—as part of living in a fallen world, a world not yet fully redeemed. Here’s how I’ve tried to clarify it elsewhere, in a BCC interview:
Every form of suffering that we experience is connected to sin—at least indirectly. However, not every one of our struggles is the result of specific, personal sin. What do I mean? Before sin entered the world, human life was perfect because perfect fellowship with God was constant. But following Adam’s rebellion, the curse that God pronounced upon man, woman, the devil, and the earth has far-reaching consequences. For example, all disease is a result of sin because before sin there was no disease. But not every disease that you and I suffer from is a direct result of our own personal sin. There are unexplainable ‘life struggles’ that come to us according to the sovereign plan of God and His desire to redeem sinners by His grace and conform us to the image of Christ. Then there are forms of suffering that we bring upon ourselves through our own sin, by means of the Law of the Harvest: ‘you reap what you sow.’ And, of course, there is the deepest issue of all: the powerful desires of our depraved hearts and our struggle against residual sin.