Is All Suffering Discipline?
When Jesus called His disciples, He warned them that they would face persecution and physical suffering for proclaiming the gospel. He did not say that any and all suffering they experienced would indicate God’s “discipline” of them. Suffering for the sake of the gospel will indeed refine our characters and strengthen us in obedience. We are not being punished to be purified; we are purified because we are persecuted for Christ’s sake.
Still, many Christians feel more comfortable looking within for answers to their suffering. “God can do nothing wrong; therefore I must have done something wrong for this misfortune to strike me.”
Such thinking is akin to a pattern psychologists describe in abused children who suffer at the hands of their parents. They will almost always assume that they brought the abuse upon themselves. I suspect that in a similar way it’s easier to think that God “sends” suffering because either we deserve it or it’s part of God’s “plan” for our lives, than to think we are at the mercy of a somewhat random existence. We want to feel God is always responsible for whatever happens in our lives. If this is not true, then we cannot find meaning in our suffering, though I will argue that we can give meaning to our suffering.
A better way to understand all this, I believe, is not to say, “This tragedy is a part of God’s plan,” but rather, “Now that this has happened, God has a plan.” If by my own recklessness or some tragic accident I end up a quadriplegic, my hopes (and God’s hopes) for my life will not end, but they will be drastically altered. God will work with me and my family to help us rebuild the story of my life. Because this happened, God will help me develop a plan and give meaning to my new reality.
When struck by Parkinson’s disease, actor Michael J. Fox fought to find meaning in his misfortune. His crusade against this dread disease drew his family closer together and resulted, through his foundation, in making more funds available for Parkinson’s research than any other source in the world! He has reshaped the broken pieces of his life into something splendid. In his autobiography he insists that he would not want to go back to the person he was before Parkinson’s struck him. The suffering, he says, has changed him for the better. Should we then conclude that God sent Fox his disease in order to change his life and improve the prospects for a cure? Fox does not believe that. He believes (as I do) that he was a victim of forces that did not target him personally.