Human Suffering and the Sacrifices of Righteousness, By Femi Aribisala
What does it profit a man if he never suffers, never goes through tribulation, never has to endure affliction, but at the end of it all he is separated from God?
The man died in the hospital after a long and protracted illness. The doctor conducted a post mortem examination and concluded that the cause of his death was cancer. But the word of God is contrarian. It insists no man has ever died of cancer, but that sin is the one and only cause of all death.
James says: “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15).
In the world, we are taught to fear things that are not dangerous, and to love sin, which is deadly. We are afraid of pain and sickness; things that adversely affect the body, and not afraid of things that adversely affect the soul. However, Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).
Confronted with a choice between sin and suffering, we are inclined to choose sin. So, we tell lies in order to avoid persecution. We steal, in the wrong assumption that, by so doing, we are preparing for our future. We fear men, and lose sight of God. Thereby, God becomes a mere abstraction for us.
Paul insists tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the sword are not deadly, for the simple reason that they do not and cannot separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:35-39). Jesus himself demonstrates that even physical death cannot bring about such separation. Jesus did not stop loving Lazarus once he died. He continued loving him even in death, prompting him to raise Lazarus from the dead.
The fact that a man is going through trials, or is in pain, does not mean God has rejected him. Therefore: “Be on guard! Turn back from evil, for God sent this suffering to keep you from a life of evil.” (Job 36:21).
As a matter of fact, when a man is going through the paces; when he is in the crucible; that is actually when the presence of God is most manifest in his life. God promises: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.” (Isaiah 43:2).
The devil tempts us in order to make us sin. It is not so much that he is simply interested in punishing us, but that he is convinced that when we suffer affliction, we are prone to sin. Therefore, the affliction itself is of little consequence, even to the devil. The question is whether we are going to sin or not as a result.
The devil says: “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life.” (Job 2:4). Therefore, he attacked Job and brought about the loss of his children, the loss of his wealth and the loss of his health.
When Job was confronted with this calamity: “his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job 2:9-10).
Instead: “(Job) arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20-22).
Job’s experience demonstrates that suffering can only give a man flesh wounds; it cannot kill him. No man ever died because he suffered: men die because we sin.
This is what Jesus is determined to teach us in his story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus the beggar suffered but lived. When he died, angels carried him aloft to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man, on the other hand, lived in pleasure but died. When he died, he ended up in a place of turmoil. The message is insistent: it is sin that kills and not pain and suffering.
Paul warns Timothy that in the last days, perilous times would come, not because men would suffer, but because we would sin. Sin is the real enemy of the soul. The battle of sin is the battle of the soul. It is the battle where, if we fail, we shall be separated from the love of God. It is the battle where, if we are not careful, Satan might prevail over us.
But suffering and shame and distress and peril and nakedness and sword provide no triumphs for Satan, “for in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” (Romans 8:37).
Indeed, Jesus teaches that some sufferings are actually instruments of blessing: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Therefore, the value of the grace of God is that it addresses the real danger, which is sin and not suffering. Jesus did not go to the cross that we might not suffer. On the contrary, like Jesus, the believer is appointed to suffering. Jesus went to the cross that we might be cleansed from all sin. What does it profit a man if he never suffers, never goes through tribulation, never has to endure affliction, but at the end of it all he is separated from God?
How then can we make sure we don’t enjoy sin? How can we ensure that sin is not profitable to us? The psalmist has the answer: “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.” (Psalm 4:5).
The sacrifices of righteousness are unpleasant. The flesh cannot stand them. They require that we: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” (Romans 13:14).
They require that we do not: “repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9). They require that we are not: “overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Accordingly, Jesus says we must not resist our oppressors: “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” (Matthew 5:39-40). Paul also says: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink.” (Romans 12:20).