Some people call it karma. Others say, “He got what he deserved.” Still others use the old saying, “What goes around comes around.” It is the idea of the cycle of retribution. We like to think that in life good people will experience good things and bad people will get what’s coming to them. Even if we don’t say it, when we see someone suffering greatly, we are tempted to ponder the thought: I wonder what they did to deserve that?
This way of thinking isn’t new. Job experienced great suffering in which he lost nearly everything: most of his family, his community standing, his wealth, and his good health. Then three friends came to mourn with him and offer him comfort, but they failed miserably and part of the problem was that they couldn’t see beyond their idea that only those who do evil suffer greatly in this life.
Eliphaz went so far as to say to Job,
Is not your evil abundant? There is no end to you iniquities. For you have exacted pledges of your bothers for nothing and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have given no water to the weary to drink and you have withheld bread from the hungry… You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed. (Job 22:5-9)
This is a list of strong charges, and if Job had done such things then we would expect him to face strong justice. But Job had committed no such acts. The opening verse of the book that bears his name states, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).
Throughout the book, Job maintained his innocence against the attacks from his “friends.” Yet they kept attacking, for surely the righteous would not suffer.
Jesus’ disciples expressed the same opinion as Job’s friends in John 9. There they had met a man who had been blind since birth. Seeing this man in his infirmity, the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:1-3).
In other words, someone’s suffering isn’t always the direct result of that person’s sin. To be sure, it can be, but not always. Sometimes God brings periods of suffering or infirmities into a person’s life for a greater purpose. Yes, in the end, all things will be set right. The pursuers of sin and evil will face judgment, and the righteous in Christ will enjoy eternal bliss away from all hints of pain and suffering. But in this life sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked live without burden. The latter could be a display of God’s grace in giving a person abundant opportunity to repent of sin and turn to the Father of everything good. The former could be a display of grace that shapes our character and builds our faith in greater Christ-likeness.
After all, we look at Jesus himself: the perfect man, the one person who did no wrong and never had a wayward thought. He suffered greatly at the hands of others in order to be the Savior who would free us from sin. And Peter wrote that if we suffer like Jesus did—for living in righteous and not living in wickedness—then we will ultimately be blessed (1 Peter 3:14).
So we should train our minds to realize that just because a person suffers it isn’t karma. What goes around doesn’t always come around. Instead it is God’s greater plan that will ultimately see us blessed and see him glorified as we remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of the trials.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.