On a schoolday my alarm is set for 7 am. Working from home and getting the children out of the door for 8:45, that’s fine.
This morning, though, I woke at 4:45. The reason? A fierce and vicious headache. I am occasionally prone to these, although less than I used to be. Sometimes, they are connected to the neck problem I have had since I was eighteen. However, osteopathy is progressively improving that these last few years.
Other times, they are connected to my slightly-higher-than-it-should-be blood pressure. Treatment for that is also reducing the frequency of those headaches, too.
Debbie says I always get these heads after time out with her and the children, but that can’t be the explanation this time, as the school Easter break finished last weekend. How happy we were to get the monkeys back to school. They can squabble there!
I can joke about that, but so many people I encounter live as if every adversity is a punishment. How easily we say, “What have I done to deserve this?” Here are some preliminary sketches of a response.
Biblically, this is more complex thatn simple blame for our actions. There are strands in Scripture connecting moral misdemeanours with consequences. The Deuteronomic literature in the Old Testament is particularly strong on this. God is just: righteousness will be rewarded, sin will be punished. There are lists of blessings for the upright and curses for the unjust.
Yet that is only the beginning of the matter in the Old Testament. As one of my Old Testament tutors, John Bimson, memorably put it in a lecture in 1987, the forty-two chapters of Job are designed to answer one question: is there such a thing as innocent suffering? Their answer is ‘yes’. The book does not explain innocent suffering, it affirms that it exists and is mysterious.
Jesus picks up this thread in John 9, where he encounters a man born blind. His disciples ask who sinned in order that he was born blind, him or his parents. It’s a ridiculous question, as if the man himself could have sinned before birth. Jesus detonates this nonsense and makes the innocent man’s suffering the arena where God will display his glory. There is innocent suffering, yes, says Jesus, but he develops the teaching in Job by saying that God can use it redemptively.
At the same time, what happens about the cry for justice? I have always found Psalm 73 an eloquent expression of this. The author spends the first half of the psalm lamenting the luxury and ease of the wicked, while the righteous suffer. It all changes for the author when he (?) enters the sanctuary and sees things from God’s perspective. There is a long-term picture, where evil people are placed on slippery slopes by God. This is given full eschatological rein in the New Testament, not with the judgment that all seems to be telescoped into ‘this life’ in much of the Old Testament (Daniel 12 excepted?), but with a picture of final and ultimate judgment.
We also need to qualify the idea of innocent suffering. It is true in the sense that much suffering in the world is not a direct consequence of our sin. I don’t think something as mundane as my lousy headache was, nor are earthquakes and famines, despite the tendency of some parts of the Christian world to attribute blame rather quickly. We get caught in the crossfire of a broken world.
Yet in another sense none of us is innocent. All of us face God as sinners in need of grace. We simply need to resist the temptation to make easy linkage between particular suffering and certain sins. For although God will judge sin, and although sometimes, as C S Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world, the basic truth is that the God of holy love is calling us to find his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, I need to take some personal responsibility in order to avoid feeling rough tomorrow: I’m off to get some supper now before bed!