In a prayer meeting, a fellow church member asked for prayer for a man dying of lung cancer. He asked that we pray for the man’s healing of cancer, which was a fairly routine request as far as prayer meetings go. After the prayer meeting, I discovered that the man who had lung cancer had smoked cigarettes for many years. Even after the research came out and revealed that smoking destroys your lungs and increases your odds of lung cancer, the man had continued to smoke. The cancer was due to his decision to continue smoking.
In another prayer meeting, another church member asked for prayer for a woman dying of heart disease. I learned later that the woman, who was chronically and morbidly obese, had been warned by her doctor for years to begin losing weight to prevent or mitigate heart disease. She refused to change her lifestyle, and eventually succumbed to heart disease.
We all know situations like these. People have made choices, sometimes years of choices, and are suffering the consequences for them. Sometimes these decisions were unwise; sometimes, these decisions were sinful. During those prayers meetings and afterward, two questions arose in my mind, “How and should I pray for someone who is suffering the consequences of their actions, or perhaps even sins? And should I ask others to pray for me when I am suffering the consequences of my actions and sins?”
A Type of Suffering We Don’t Like to Recognize
There are different types of suffering. These types concern either the effects of the Fall harming us, or those outside of us harming us. But there is also self-inflicted suffering. There is a type of suffering, which is the temporal consequence of our sinful actions. Here we must make an important distinction: Christ, through the cross and His resurrection, has taken care of the eternal consequences of our sin. We no longer bear God’s wrath and are no longer under his just sentence, for we are legally declared righteous in His sight. Even so, God allows the temporal consequences of our sin to remain, and these consequences bring suffering.
But this suffering is a kind which we don’t like to recognize as being there. In other sorts of suffering, the one suffering is the victim of the Fall or others’ sins. In this type of suffering, we are not the victim; we are the perpetrators receiving our due. King David found himself in this type of suffering after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his killing of Uriah (2 Samuel 11). In 2 Samuel 12:1-15, David is confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan. In this confrontation, and in David’s recounting of it in Psalm 51, we find the path that we need to walk when we suffer from our sin.
After Nathan pronounced God’s judgment upon David, “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD’” (2 Samuel 12:13). When we are suffering the consequences of our sin, we must admit that we have sinned. When we suffer, the blame game becomes attractive, but notice what David says: “I have sinned against the LORD.” There is no waffling on whose fault it is, and he doesn’t attempt to say, “Well, if Bathsheba hadn’t,” he instead accepts responsibility
Accept the Consequences as Being From God
We must accept the consequences of our sin and the ensuing suffering as part of God’s righteousness ordering of our lives. In 2 Samuel 12:7-15, David receives judgment from God for what he did: (1) “the sword shall never depart from your [David’s] house”; (2) “I [the LORD] will raise up evil against you out of your own house”; (3) “And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun”; (4) “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die”; (5) “the child who is born to you [out of the adultery with Bathsheba] shall die.” Who is named as the one bringing judgment in 4 out of the 5 judgments? God Himself.
The results of God’s judgment are not pretty as conflict, difficulty, scandal, and sin mark the remainder of David’s reign. One of David’s sons sexually assaults one of his daughters; another of his sons starts a civil war; David is forced to flee from Jerusalem from a time; his leading general kills an honorable man. But under this judgment, David does not waffle; he does not blame God; he does decry how unfair it seems to be; he does not cry out and accuse God of being unjust. He accepts the judgment of God as righteous and just. When we suffer because of the sin we committed, we need to accept the judgment of God as righteous and just.
Ask God to Keep Your Consequences From Others
David accepts the judgment upon himself, but he pleads with God to not allow the consequences of his sin to fall on his son, which Bathsheba bore to him. God had pronounced through the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:14, “‘Nevertheless, because by this deed you [David] have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.’” The writer of 2 Samuel goes on to tell us, “And the LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground” (2 Sam. 12:15b-16). David pleaded with God to save the child despite God’s righteous judgment on him. When others suffer due to our sin, we can pray and ask God to keep the consequences and suffering due to us because of our sin, not fall on others. Yet, we must continue to accept God’s actions as righteous and just, even if God allows the natural consequences and suffering from our sin to fall on others. While He can withhold that suffering if he chooses, but God is not obligated to do so.
Entrust Yourself to God Even When It’s Your Fault
We must continue to entrust ourselves to God even when he allows the suffering we have made to continue to fall upon us. 2 Samuel 12:19-20 tells how David learns of his son’s death and his response: he put on new clothes, went to the house of the Lord, worshiped and then ate a meal. He accepted God’s choice to allow the consequences of his sin to fall on his son. But even as he accepted this, he worshiped God. He drew near to God.
Psalm 51 tells us of David’s experience in this time: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1). David appeals to God’s character in his petition. David does the same in Psalm 3:3-4, which recounts David’s experience during Absalom’s rebellion: “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.” When we suffer for our sins, there is a temptation to pull away from God; it feels wrong to go to him and plead with Him to help you endure the suffering which you caused, but this is precisely what David did in this situation. David continued to entrust himself to God, knowing that God would deal with him according to His character.
How Should You Respond When You Are Suffering for Your Sin?
You should follow the model laid out for us by King David. First, accept responsibility. Do not play the blame game. Do not waffle on whose fault it is. Confess your responsibility to God and accept it.
Second, accept that your suffering is part of the temporal consequences for your sin. Do not blame God for being harsh or unloving. Instead, understand that God is a God of righteousness and justice. And understand that, except for Christ, you would be suffering the eternal consequences for your sin as well.
Third, plead with God to withhold the consequences of your sin from innocent parties. Then accept God’s sovereign decision to do this or not do this. Fourth, continue to entrust yourself to God. Pray to Him and ask for His strength to see you through your suffering, so you do not grow bitter against Him and grow in your understanding that the Lord always acts according to His revealed character.
As in all things, we should look to Christ even when we are suffering due to our own sin. And we can continue to look to Him because He is interceding on our behalf with the Father and He is our advocate with the Father. Look to Christ and trust that even if the temporal consequences for your sin remain, Christ died and rose again to take the eternal consequences of your sin from you. Then, cling to Christ even more trusting in His goodness and mercy.