In Jonah chapter 1, Jonah ran into a terrible storm on the Mediterranean Sea. It was so bad it threatened to break up the ship (Jonah 1:4). The sailors were desperate, even throwing their cargo overboard to try to save themselves (Jonah 1:5). They expected to die (Jonah 1:6).
All this because of Jonah’s disobedience.
In Acts 27, the Apostle Paul ran into a terrible storm on that same sea. It was so bad that the ship also needed to be supported against breaking up (Acts 27:17). The sailors were desperate and also threw much cargo overboard (Acts 27:18-19). They, too, expected to die (Acts 27:20).
All of this in spite of Paul’s obedience. And this was to become his fourth shipwreck (2 Corinthians 11:25, written at an earlier date)!
Holding these two stories up beside each other reminds us of the need to be cautious as we interpret events in our life. In Jonah’s case, the sailors believed the common notion that something bad was happening because someone had done something bad (Jonah 1:7). In that particular case, they happened to be right.
But just as often, hard things happen to us on the path of obedience. We see this in the story of Job. We find it in Psalm 44, which describes a painful season of suffering for God’s people, and then says, “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way… Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:17-18, 22). Notice how Paul quotes this psalm in Romans 8:34-39, a classic New Testament passage on suffering. And, as we’ve seen, we see this all lived out again and again in the life of Paul himself (2 Corinthians 11:23-12:10, Acts 9:16).
So what about us? Here in this New Covenant era, does God still ever bring suffering into His children’s life as a result of their disobedience? Most certainly. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:29–32; see also Hebrews 12:3-11).
The question then becomes, “how can we tell whether we are suffering for our obedience or our disobedience?”
There are probably many helpful ways to answer that question, but I’ll suggest three.
1) Know the Bible. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If difficulty comes your way, and you’re unsure of whether or not God is disciplining you for some sin in your life, don’t rely on introspection alone. Turn to God’s word. Objectively, it is the standard of what is sin and what is not. Subjectively, it has the power to cut through our blindness and show us what’s really going on in our hearts.
Our own sense of right and wrong can get mixed up sometimes. God’s word is what we need to set us back on track.
2) Listen to the right people. It’s too easy to get stuck inside our own heads and interpret God’s providence in foolish ways. I remember hearing about a prospective missionary who had finally arrived in the foreign country he had been preparing for. Within the first few days, he encountered some unexpected difficulty, and concluded—on his own—that God was telling him something. He promptly flew back home. How different it could have been if he had reached out to others who reminded him that difficulty is normal, and encouraged him to persevere!
On the flip side, Hebrews 3:13 reminds us of how much we need others to help us truly see sin in our hearts: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Sin is deceitful; it lies to us. It makes us think we’re fine when we’re not. And so we need others who will speak the razor-sharp word of God to us to help us see clearly.
3) Understand that God is always disciplining us. Even if God is not disciplining us for a particular offence, as in the case of 1 Corinthiains 11:29-32, we should understand that “discipline” is a broad category. It includes not just corrective discipline but also the proactive discipline that God applies to us as He makes us more like Jesus.
None of us are finished products. We haven’t been made perfect yet. And so we all need the ongoing discipline of our Father. Even when we suffer for the gospel, God is proactively using that suffering to make us holy.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9; see also 2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
The next time you find yourself in a storm—actually, or figuratively—remember that your Father is up to something. Search the Scriptures, listen well to trustworthy brothers and sisters, and don’t forget that, whatever you have or haven’t done, no suffering is ever wasted by God. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18.)