Yesterday I started a series of posts prompted by everyone’s favorite pastoral question: “Why is this happening to me?” It is a very honest question when we are suffering, and it is perfectly fine and appropriate to ask. But it is often difficult to answer. One of the reasons it is so difficult is that it is often masking other questions that are stewing just beneath the surface. Questions like this one:
“What did I do wrong to deserve this?”
The typical Reformed/Calvinist response to this question is to answer with another, “A better question is, what have you ever done to deserve anything good?” This question is meant to bring the one suffering to reflect on the seriousness of our sin, the unimpeachable holiness of God, and that any good we experience is the result of sheer undeserved and unmerited grace, whether common or saving. No one is in a position to have an expectation of “good.” We have done everything to deserve punishment for our sins, and have done nothing to deserve the reward of “good.”
If you have spent any time on my blog, you know that I am not your typical Reformed/Calvinist! Theologically, I fully agree with the facts of the depravity of our fallen nature and the utter sinfulness of our heart, soul, and mind. I fully agree with the fact that God is absolutely holy and therefore cannot take part in, harbor, or ignore sin; He must punish it wherever He finds it. I fully agree that any good we experience is only the result of God’s common and/or saving grace. These are facts plainly attested to throughout Scripture and are therefore, to me, beyond dispute.
But from a pastoral perspective, I find this response frankly wretched. It too easily leads to the assumption that if only your theology was more biblical, you would not have these gnawing questions. Really? Ever read the Psalms? Habakkuk? Job? Those who struggle with these questions are in the company of the finest saints in Scripture! Elsewhere (here and here) I have addressed the thought that just because something is true, does not make it the right truth to share at that moment. In fact, the right truth at the wrong time can do just as much harm as telling untruth anytime (you think about that)!
“What did I do wrong to deserve this?” The only reason this question is asked is when there is no discernable connection between choices we have made and the circumstances of our suffering. In a world where people are fallen and bent towards evil, we will inevitably fall victim to the harmful choices of others that we had nothing to do with. In that sense, the answer is “nothing.”
When I was a teenager a friend of mine and I went into Boston for the day. While we were walking down the street, we were jumped from behind and attacked by a gang (apparently because I looked similar to a member of a rival gang). What did I do wrong to deserve that? Nothing. I fell victim to the reality of original sin.
The next year my house burned to the ground on Christmas morning. The tenants who lived on the first floor of our three story house had plugged everything in their living room to a single extension cord—Christmas tree, window lights, TV, stereo—and ran the cord under the living room rug. The wire burned through the floor until it got to the tree; then boom! the tree just exploded. 5 minutes later the house was gone. We lost everything we had accept the pajamas we were wearing. What did we do wrong to deserve that? Nothing. It was not a matter of fault on our account. It was a matter of poor choices of others and natural evil (i.e. fire).
It is important to let our Christian brothers and sisters know that in such cases as these, these types of circumstances are not the result of being singled out by God for divine retribution. For the Christian, divine retribution was fully meted out at the cross. God is just, there is no double jeopardy, He cannot punish for sin twice.
In each of these cases, there is however, a sense in which there was a singling out.
When I was mugged my friend and I were singled out by God to be shown protective grace. In the middle of the attack, the leader suddenly called everyone off once he realized I was not who he thought I was. He actually apologized. When does that ever happen?
When my house burned down, we experienced God’s protective grace again literally experiencing His promise in Isaiah 43:2, Isaiah 43:2 (ESV) when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. It was that experience God used to open my eyes to His sovereign love for me. I could have died. Nothing I did deserved His protection. Statistically, I should have died. He not only singled me out saving me physically from that fire, but singled me out in Christ to save me from what would be a far worse fate—paying the price for my sins to a perfect and holy God who would not let the least of them go unpunished.
So when you the question comes up, “what did I do wrong to deserve this,” don’t respond with pat answers or paragraphs from your favorite systematic theology textbook. These more often serve to separate us from the person who is suffering than encourage us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Tell them that we live in a world that is broken and marred by sin and that sometimes we get knocked down by the evil in it; and sometimes we get knocked down hard. Tell them that there was nothing that singled them out to experience such evil at the hands of men or nature. It could just as easily been you. Look for the signs of grace—common and saving—and show them how God is with them in this time. Tell them that God promises that when (not if) we walk through the fire He walks with us and will keep us from being consumed. Then incarnate that for them by sticking with them, supporting them, and walking with them.