Article of the week: God is patient

9 April 2022

The fourth in a series of articles in which Major Howard Webber considers the question: Am I being punished?

Picture of scales

AS we have seen in previous articles in this series, God sometimes warned parents of the consequences of their idolatry, for them and their offspring. This was to deter them from idol worship, but it didn’t. They continually returned to their sinful ways, breaking their promises and reneging on the covenant they had made with God.

Over centuries God sent prophets to warn of what lay ahead if they did not change. Sometimes they heeded the warning, but it never lasted very long. God could not have been more patient.

When they first made their promises in Moses’ time, God clearly told the people of Israel what the reward would be for keeping them and what the punishment would be if they persisted in breaking them and refused to accept his correction (see Leviticus 26). It was the Israelites’ persistent provocation that finally forced God to reluctantly carry out his promise, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people.

Yet, even with their persistent sin and inevitable punishment, God made it clear that he would not abandon his chosen people. If they would humble themselves, confess their sins and seek God, he would take them back (see Leviticus 26:44 and 45).

Ezekiel 18:23 makes it clear that punishment and suffering isn’t what God desires, that he takes no pleasure in it and would rather the wicked repent and live. Although Exodus 20:5 speaks of God punishing children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation, verse 6 says that he will show his love to ‘a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’.

God is more about love than he is about punishment. When you truly love someone, all you want to do is please them. This comes before any personal pleasure or preference. So too with
those who truly love God. Disobeying God shows hatred and contempt – the opposite of love.

The view developed that suffering was always punishment from God for sin, although the story of Job’s terrible suffering should have kicked that idea into touch. His suffering was the result of the vindictiveness of Satan, with no explanation as to why God allowed it to be done to such a righteous man. Even today, when something devastating happens to a godly man or woman, the question often asked is: ‘Why has God allowed such a thing to happen?’

The Rev David Watson was a wonderful, humble man of God. After a routine visit to his doctor in January 1983 he was shocked to discover that he had cancer. The malignant ulcer in his colon was successfully removed, but the cancer had already spread to his liver and was inoperable.

People around the world prayed for David’s healing. For a while his cancer went into remission, seemingly in answer to so much prayer. Many thought – and David believed – that God was going to heal him. But the cancer started to grow again. In the midst of David’s battle with the disease, he received some highly insensitive, judgemental letters from Christians he had never met urging him to repent of his pride, double-mindedness or unbelief. Like dear Job, David didn’t need such ‘comforters’.

In Jesus’ time, Jews considered the inability of a woman to bear children to be God closing her womb in response to her alleged sinfulness. Infertility was bad enough for any woman wanting children without people adding that stigma and shame to her condition.

When a man born blind was brought to Jesus, his disciples asked: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2). In response, Jesus made it clear that his blindness had nothing to do with either his or his parents’ sin.

God does sometimes punish sin in the here and now. Examples are not just found in the Old Testament. We read about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, Elymas the sorcerer in Acts 13 and Herod Antipas in Acts 12. However, Jesus made it clear that we must never assume that the suffering or death of someone is God’s punishment.

Sometimes God uses suffering to discipline us (see Hebrews 12:10), test us (see James 1:12) or refine us (see Psalm 66:10–12) into the holy person he desires us to be. At other times, what we experience lacks any clearly defined reason. But in our bewilderment we are called to ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5).


From the editor

An early look at the editor's comment


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