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Guilty Sufferers

Guilty Sufferers

JANUARY 26, 2023

/ Articles / Guilty Sufferers

Philip Yancey wrote a book titled Where is God When it Hurts? His answer is that when we hurt, God is right there with us.

“He has been there from the beginning…He has joined us. He has hurt and bled and cried and suffered. He is with us now, ministering to us through his Spirit and through members of his body who are commissioned to bear us up and relieve our suffering for the sake of the head” (Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts, p. 260-261).

That is such wonderful and comforting news.

Yancey wrote about cancer patients and lepers, about Joni Tada’s diving accident that broke her neck, and about John Donne’s living through the Black Death. He shows the fallacy of assuming, like Job’s friends did, that suffering is always due to some sin on the part of the sufferer.

Like in every other of the 15 – 20 books and dozens of articles I’ve read on suffering the examples and case studies Yancey used address how God cares for and ministers to innocent sufferers, those who suffer through no fault of their own.

God is with them. Cares for them. God shares their suffering.

But what about those who are responsible for their own suffering? Does God care about them? Is God with those who suffer because of their owns sins and crimes?

Does God offer hope for guilty sufferers?

I work with two prison ministries, Metanoia Prison Ministries and MINTS Seminary-in-Prison. Every one of the men I meet with are suffering, suffering because of something, often something horrific, that he did. Does God care about their suffering?

Did Jesus come to join them in their suffering? Did Jesus hurt and bleed and cry and suffer for the suffering of criminals who are, after all, just getting what they deserve?

My friend Kelly Kapic released a new book recently, “You’re Only Human.” He wrote:

Because of some relationships that God brought my way, I have had occasion to visit prisoners….A prisoner named Miguel (not his real name) reflecting on suffering and related challenges, once said to me, “it is easy to make sense of lamenting to God when we are talking about people who haven’t really done anything. We can understand their grief, their complaints and confusion before God amid their suffering and aches. But what about those who have done things, terrible things. Can they lament?…

[Who is Miguel?] He is someone’s son and another’s father; a military veteran and former community member; a gentle, soft-spoken man; a murderer. So, what is true about him? Who is he? Is he a man who wickedly killed another person? Yes. Is he a child of God who throws his entire hope on divine love and forgiveness? Yes. But what is most true about him? This isn’t a debate about whether or not he should be in prison; it is a question about his identity. He now spends his time studying the Scriptures, in prayer, unevenly loving his neighbors within a rough context. Who is Miguel? (Kapic, You’re Only Human, 90-91).

This passage is part of a section dealing with the question of “sinner or saint?” and the internal conflict of those who live in the now but not yet reality for the Christian, those who, as Paul describes himself in Romans 7, do what they do not want to do and don’t do the things they want to do.

One answer to the question “who is Miguel” is that he is a guilty sufferer. His suffering is real. He is separated from his mother and his children. He is locked up behind fences and razor wire. And he lives with the reality that he took another man’s life from him.

He is suffering, but his suffering was brought on by his own actions. Does God care for him in his suffering?

Most of the prisoners I’ve known struggle with deep, painful regret for their crimes. They know that their actions hurt others. They also know the theological truth that God has forgiven them. They even know that God loves them. He has to, doesn’t he?

But many find it hard to believe that God likes them, that he wants to be with them, that he has compassion for them, or that he cares that they suffer. The world tells them that they are scum and just getting what they deserve, that no one cares if it’s hard. What is the saying? “If you didn’t want to do the time, you shouldn’t have done the crime.”

I talked to a man recently who told me that he pictures God looking down on him with his arms folded and a scowl on his face. God might love him but what he most feels for him is deep disappointment and disapproval. This man said that he does not believe that he has the right to bring his suffering to God. All he can do is endure.

That’s probably what many of us think about criminals. It is true, after all, that they are getting what they deserve for their crime. They are, in fact, guilty. If they are suffering, well that’s just too bad.

But here’s the thing, if Jesus didn’t come for guilty sufferers, then he didn’t come for anyone. We are all guilty sufferers. It is true that someone may be innocent of the thing that caused a particular incident of suffering, but he or she is guilty nonetheless, guilty before a holy God.

And what does Jesus think of guilty people?

In his book Gentle and Lowly: The heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers Dane Ortlund wrote:

Time and again it is the morally disgusting, the socially reviled, the inexcusable and undeserving, [including criminals] who do not simply receive Christ’s mercy but to whom Christ most naturally gravitates. He is, by his enemies’ testimony, the ‘friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34) (Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 26-27).

Later, commenting on Hebrews 4:14-16, Ortlund wrote:

It is in “our weaknesses” that Jesus sympathizes with us. The word for “sympathize” here is a compound word, formed from the prefix meaning “with” … joined with the verb to suffer. ”Sympathize” here is not cool and detached pity. It is a depth of felt solidarity such as is echoed in our own lives most closely only as parents to children. Indeed, it is even deeper than that. In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t—not that his invincible divinity is threatened, but in the sense that his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress. His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain (Ortlund, 46).

Does Jesus care about guilty sufferers? Is he there with them in their suffering? Does he invite them to lament like innocent sufferers do? In a word, yes. He cares about all his suffering children, even criminals locked up in prisons.

Why am I sharing this? It is because in my experience it is not only incarcerated Christians who wonder if it’s okay to bring their lament to God when they are in pain because of things they have done. Criminals are not the only guilty sufferers.

I don’t know what your particular situation is, but I know that most of us, at some time, have done things, sometimes really bad things, that have resulted in painful consequences. We have lost relationships with people we love, our health, or financial security. We find ourselves in deep suffering through no one’s fault but our own. And we may wonder, does God care about my suffering? Is there any word of hope from the Lord for me?

The unequivocal answer is yes! God cares! The Lord is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), even when our hearts are broken because of our own foolishness or disobedience.

We may still need to go through a time of difficult discipline, but we never do so alone. Peter’s invitation to cast our anxieties onto the Lord because he cares for his children (1 Peter 5:7) includes the guilty. When the writer of Hebrews said that “God will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) that promise is for all believers, even the guilty. When Paul wrote that “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38) that “nothing” includes our own sins and crimes.

Are you suffering? God invites you to call to him, to lament your pain. Are you suffering because of your own sin? The invitation remains. Call out to God who cares for you.

In Gentle and Lowly, Ortlund wrote about Jesus’ attitude toward sinning Christians, believers who have messed up, again, who suspect that God is deeply disappointed with them, who “wonder if they have shipwrecked their lives beyond what can be repaired” (Ortlund, 13).

How does Jesus respond to a guilty Christian? He is meek and humble and gentle. “He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him Is not a pointed finger but open arms” (Ortlund, 19).

Are you suffering, even due to your fault, due to things you have done? Come to Jesus. His arms are open toward you. You are welcome with him.

Barry Smith

Barry Smith

Barry’s aim is to prepare the Church to minister well in prisons so that prisoners are prepared to minister well in the Church. This is accomplished through service in complementary […]

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