Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
So runs the question of Jesus’ disciples in John 9:2. As most of us are aware, Jesus rejects their binary options and says, ‘neither!’ From this, most of us happily recognise that there is no straight line from sin to sickness. Whilst elsewhere, in John 5:14 for example, Jesus is clear that there may be some occasions in which sin leads directly to suffering – a heroin addict who dies from an OD or the alcohol dependent who has damaged their liver beyond repair would be two obvious examples – he is clear that we can’t typically go drawing straight lines from sin to suffering.
Most of us are onboard with that. Most of us recognise that a disabled person, born that way, has not done anything to cause their own suffering. Nor, Jesus suggests, have their parents. Suffering is not always, not even typically, a direct result of personal sin. I know Glen Hoddle didn’t agree, but then his denial of what Jesus said led to the termination of his England managerial career, proving that sometimes, our personal sin might lead to a bit of suffering after all (though, unlike Hoddle, we don’t think there is a straight line!)
The opening chapters of Genesis tell us that things are not as they were originally created to be. Sin’s grip on the world leads to suffering for those in the world. Which means that many will suffer and there is no personal culpability, no specific sin that they or their parents committed, that has led to their suffering. Jesus is pretty clear on that point. I, for example, was born with a submucous cleft palate that wasn’t picked up for years. As I read my Bible, that wasn’t caused by my sin (it occurred before I was born to do any sin) nor my parents’ sin. It was just a potent reminder that the world is not as it was originally created to be and, since sin came into the world in a general sense, so will it ever be until Jesus returns to make all things new. As I say, most of us are happy (and right) not to draw straight lines here.
We seem less content, however, not to draw those same straight lines in inverse. Of course, we think, suffering is not necessarily the result of personal sin. But, so reasoning that floats around the church says, God’s blessing on us is a sign of our faithfulness. How do I know I’m doing what’s right? How do I know the Lord is pleased with me? Our short answer is often: look at how he is blessing us! But, if there is no straight line from sin to suffering, why should there any more be a straight line from faithfulness to blessing?
Solomon, for 10 chapters of his reign in 1 Kings, was eminently blessed by God. But it can’t escape our notice that the sins of Solomon in Chapter 11 were present throughout the previous 10 chapters. Solomon was blessed greatly by God in spite of his apparent unfaithfulness.
Well, you might think, commentators disagree over those 10 chapters. Some think Solomon was OK. And you’re right, of course. There is disagreement. But it’s difficult to misinterpret Jesus in Matthew 5:45: ‘[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ And, of course, there are loads of examples in scripture of people who appear to be doing pretty well – dodging a lot of suffering and raking in some considerable green (or, probably, gold as it was) – who aren’t in the least bit godly or righteous. Pick most of the non-Israelite monarchs, any of the imperial leaders that span the timeframe of the Bible, they were all doing alright for cash, most of them seated in the lap of luxury and the majority of them utterly ungodly, unrighteous, God-haters who weren’t in the least bit faithful. It just isn’t the case that God’s blessing on us is a sign of our faithfulness.
This matters because it is dangerous to walk down this road. Which churches (and I use that term loosely here) across the world, at the moment, do you suppose would appear to be blessed by God most fulsomely? On this measure alone, it appears to be the multi-million dollar, prosperity gospel preaching megachurches. They have massive numbers, they pull in a lot of members, their budgets far surpass that of any church I have ever been in and they are richly (ahem!) blessed apparently. And yet, which of us would want to say they were faithful?
What do we say to the tiny church, struggling along with a membership roll barely touching double-digits, but who preach the gospel faithfully, are as active as they are able in evangelistic work, who are sharing the gospel and acting as a light in a neighbourhood where there is no other gospel witness? Do we turn around to them and say, ‘sorry lads, if you were just a bit more faithful, God would have blessed you a bit more’? Do me a favour!
If God sends his rain on the just and the unjust, he will just as readily send his money in those two directions as well. Just as he will with the numbers he puts into membership, the size of our buildings, the apparent fruit for our labours and the rest. If God’s blessings are a sign of our faithfulness, then Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are the most faithful dudes there are and ever has been! Jesus, by comparison, looks pretty unfaithful, what with having no money and being crucified on a cross an all! There is no straight line between our faithfulness and God’s blessing.
If you are being faithful to Jesus but you are seeing no apparent blessing – life is hard, you are suffering, your ministry feels like it’s going nowhere – what are you going to do? Do you pack it in because nowt is happening? Do you decide to stop doing all the normal things Reformed people think are right and start copying the prosperity shysters to pull in the punters? Do you turn away from what you are convinced the Bible teaches and, instead, start doing ‘whatever works’? Do you start beating yourself up because of your apparent lack of faithfulness because God hasn’t blessed your ministry in the way you think he should? Worse, do you blame the people in your church for not being as faithful as you because, if they were more faithful, things would be happening?
Three interrelated theological points are worth making to get us straight on these things. First up, God is sovereign over everything. Your ministry is in his hands, not yours. The success or failure of your ministry isn’t on you, it’s on him! And your ministry will achieve everything that God wants it to achieve. In that sense, there are no failures. Even those who fall into the most egregious sin, disqualifying themselves from office and hurting countless people in the process, their ministry was under the sovereignty of God, their fall was under the sovereignty of God and the Lord will work good for his people and his glory through it somehow. Even these things are purposed by him. My piddly, insignificant ministry is ordained by God and will achieve all that he wants it to do because he is the one who set it up, sustains it and – in the end – decides when it is through.
Second, the reason your faithfulness doesn’t determine your blessing is for the same reason your faithfulness doesn’t determine your salvation. If God only blessed those who were faithful, we’re all up the creek without a paddle! If that’s the way it works, none of us are getting owt! But, of course, some of us do get good things from God. In fact, God tells us to ask God to give good things to us because he wants to bless us. So, our faithfulness can’t be the grounds of blessings otherwise nobody would be blessed.
Your blessing is determined by one thing alone: will God be more or less glorified by it. Now, knowing exactly how he works all that out is well above my paygrade. He knows on an infinite level what was, is and what could possibly be. He has set the world in such a way as it works maximally to his glory (see here). He knows the circumstances that will lead to the greatest glory for him and he sticks us in the appropriate situations for it. For some of us, that will mean a pretty tough ride. But if it brings more glory to the Lord, that is what we’re all about, right? And if our glory is ultimately tied up with his, those of us who suffer for his sake now are in for some big rewards in glory. If that sounds a bit prosperity gospely itself, take it up with the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 6:9; Rev 22:12; Eph 6:8; 2 Cor 5:10; Mat 16:27; Heb 6:10; Mat 25:21; Luke 6:35; Mat 5:11f, etc, etc).
Third, as a believer in Jesus Christ, you are already counted as perfectly faithful. If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. A perfectly righteous creation. God looks on you are though he were looking on the Son. That is why we are counted as Sons of God, because we are in the Son. And so God looks at his people as perfectly faithful ones in Jesus. That is why Paul can say, in the beginning of Ephesians, that God has ‘blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’ (Eph 1:3). He hasn’t withheld anything from us in the Son.
What that means is three things. First, we perhaps need to give our heads a wobble and get a better handle on what God’s blessing actually is (another post for another day perhaps).
Second, we need to recognise that material blessing is not the best thing God has for us. He blesses loads of people – believers and unbelievers alike – with money and health and all that stuff. He is gracious to them and expects them to turn to him and give thanks to him as they ought to for it. If they don’t, that only makes their condemnation all the more severe. They takes God’s blessing but have no thought for the giver, no thanks towards him, even rejecting, rebelling and hating on him as they grasp it with both hands. The Bible has some fairly colourful things to say about those in such a position. But for those in Christ, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. What we have been gifted in the Son far surpasses those trinkets and baubles the Lord gladly gives to anybody.
Third, for those reasons, we can’t see a direct line between faithfulness and material blessing. There is a direct line between faithfulness and spiritual blessing. As a believer in Jesus, you are counted as perfectly faithful and are, as a result, given every spiritual blessing. But there is no straight line between material blessing and faithfulness. You may have a lot of money and great health, you may not. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that says anything about our standing in Christ and our faithfulness to him. It doesn’t in any straight line sort of way.