Read Psalm 38.
In John 9, Jesus and His disciples come across a man who had been born blind. The disciples quickly ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (v. 2). Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned… but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3).
I read this exchange, and my heart is relieved. I don’t want to believe that God punishes sinners with physical pain—at least not in this life. I want to believe that God is solely in the blessing business. There will come a day when He will judge people, but that day is not today. I want to believe things are this simple, because I want to make sense of my own life, and because I want to believe my own sins have no real consequences.
But in Psalm 38, David says to God, “Your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down on me. Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin” (vv. 2–3). David is suffering physical pain, including festering wounds (v. 5), as a result of his sin. But it isn’t simply that David did something wrong, and he’s now reaping the natural consequences of his actions. David attributes his pain to the “arrows” of God, as if God shot him from heaven to bring him low.
Well, David’s theology of suffering was primitive, my mind rationalizes. He wasn’t there centuries later when Jesus set the record straight. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:3). Case closed.
Except that wasn’t all Jesus had to say on the subject.
On a different day, after healing another man suffering under the weight of physical pain, Jesus said, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). The “something worse” may be an allusion to eternal punishment, but the rationale of Jesus’ warning is straightforward: “Sin caused your recent suffering. Don’t let it cause any more!”
The apostle Paul also affirmed that sin can bring physical punishment from God here and now. When he found out that the wealthier Christians in Corinth were gathering early to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper, not waiting upon the poorer members of the church, he told them:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. (1 Corinthians 11:27–31)
When God punishes Christians for their sin, He does so as a Father discipling His children. It is ultimately for our benefit, to prod us back onto the good path He has laid out for us. “Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (v. 32).
David got this message. Even though he understood that his pain came from God—that God was directly punishing him for his sin—he also knew that God was his only hope: “LORD, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior” (Psalm 38:22).
As Christians, we stand as people forgiven. We should fear no condemnation, because Christ paid the final penalty for our sins on the cross (Romans 8:1). But that does not mean that our sins don’t matter or that they can have no earthly consequences. (To believe those things would be to ignore whole swaths of both Testaments.) When we make light of our sin, we make light of our Savior. We were saved to be holy, not so that our lack of holiness would not matter.