For previous parts of this series, see:
The supposition that individual sin lies behind suffering pervades a great deal of both biblical (e.g. Ezek 18) and extra-biblical thought. More often than not, however, the biblical material reflects upon the inadequacy of individual sin as a viable explanation for one’s sufferings. The prime example is Job: his friends assume that his suffering is related to some transgresssion and encourage him to confess and seek forgiveness from God, but the prologue is at pains to point(!) out that, whatever the real reason is, individual sin is certainly not the reason for his suffering.
Job is not the only counter-example. The belief underlies the disciples’ question in John 9:2–3, but Jesus’ response clearly reveals the mistaken presupposition underlying the initial question:
καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες· ῥαββί, τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος ἢ οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ;
ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς· οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ᾿ ἵνα φανερωθῇ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this one or his parents, that he should be born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this one sinned nor his parents, rather [it took place] so that the work of God may be revealed.”
Nonetheless, these counter-examples arise because the presupposition that individual sin bears consequences in this life is born out by many other passages. The book of Proverbs does contain many aphorisms which underscore the notion of retributive justice — that individual sin bears its unsavoury fruit in the subsequent course of one’s life, although they are presented as general principles. More impressive, however, are the numerous examples in the OT where individual sin is linked to retribution or suffering (e.g. 2Sam 12:13–15).
Furthermore, in spite of the counter-examples, the idea that individual sin is a cause for suffering is never overthrown. It is clear that the possibility that suffering arises from individual sin remains. Equally clear, however, is that we cannot simply assume that suffering is invariably the result of sin on the part of the sufferer. To make that assumption is to follow Job’s friends into their folly.
Consequently, counter examples serve not to overthrow the notion that individual sin can cause suffering, rather they serve to undermine the notion that there is always such a connection behind suffering. Thus, without an act of special revelation, it is rarely possible to attribute suffering to individual sin with absolute certainty unless the sin itself has clearly caused the suffering.
The pastoral consequences of this ought to be quite plain. Blind attribution of suffering to sin without substantial warrant is damaging. However, open unrepentant sin should be addressed even if it has no immediately perceptible link to individual suffering.