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When Muslim terrorists crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, many asked about God’s role in this tragedy. Some asked whether 9/11 was God’s punishment for America’s sin and a specific call for national repentance. The answer: yes and no. Every misery in this life results from sin. This is true whether such disasters come from the weather, from tragic accidents, or from the sinful actions of human beings. Yet catastrophes such as these do not always result from specific personal or national sins. They are evidences that we live in a fallen world. However, Jesus teaches us that regardless of the reason behind the affliction, every misery of this life is a call to deal with our own hearts before God:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1–5)

God may not always bring a disaster to punish a specific, personal sin, but He uses disaster to lead us from the miseries of sin to the cause of sin. We must repent or perish (Luke 13:5).

Westminster Larger Catechism 27–29 teaches us that every misery in this life and the next is in some way divine punishment for human sin, for our having fallen short of the glory of God in Adam. We need to feel the weight of sin by its effects so that we can see the majesty of the God we have offended. This truth prepares us to see the glory of Christ, and it drives us to faith and repentance. Here, we will consider the scope of the misery brought by sin generally, and then examine the miseries of sin in this life and in the life to come.

The Scope of Sin’s Misery

The fall brought upon mankind the loss of communion with God, his displeasure and curse; so as we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come. (WLC 27)

We are miserable. Mankind’s fall brought every kind of misery to us and to our world. The crux of our misery is that, by the fall, we lost communion with God. By breaking fellowship with the source of all goodness, we lost the right to every good with it. I grew up in California and now I live in South Carolina, but wherever I go, I ultimately live either in the state of sin and misery or in the state of grace and salvation.

Our relation to God affects our native condition. We are “children of wrath” by nature (Eph. 2:3). We are slaves to sin (John 8:34). We are willing bond slaves to Satan (John 8:44). We must escape the snare of the devil “after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). Yet we cannot escape on our own. When we pursue a life of sin and rebellion against God, we align ourselves with Satan rather than God. Instead of bearing the image of God in righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24), we bear Satan’s image in disobedience and impurity. Being who we are outside of Christ is part of the misery of sin. This is not how God designed us to live; our sinful nature contradicts our created nature.

Divine justice adds to our misery. We are liable to punishments in this world. We are liable to punishments in the world to come as well (Matt. 25:41). God is infinite and eternal. Sin committed by finite and temporal creatures must match the weight of the crime. The punishment of sin is measured by the character of the Lord against whom we have sinned.

We are miserable. Mankind’s fall brought every kind of misery to us and to our world. The crux of our misery is that, by the fall, we lost communion with God.
The Misery of Sin in this Life

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, as blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections; or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes, and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself. (WLC 28)

We are miserable in this life because of sin’s effects on us, both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, sin is miserable, and it is often its own punishment. Romans 1:18–32 shows that sin’s inward effects are part of the “wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” This text teaches us the following overwhelming facts. Apart from grace, all people suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness and do not retain God in their thinking. We should have known God by His creation and by our being created in His image. When in Adam we did not honor Him, our thoughts became futile and foolish. God gave humanity up to sexual impurity, including homosexuality, to defile our bodies (Rom. 1:26–27). In Adam, we have worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, making our own gods, and putting ourselves in God’s place. Outside of Christ, we are filled with all manner of unrighteousness and approve of those who practice such things, even though we know better deep down. The Westminster Larger Catechism summarizes all of these things by “blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections.” The greatest tragedy of the misery of sin in this life is that until God intervenes by His Holy Spirit, we do not know that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). People even count the message of Christ’s cross, though it is the wisdom of God to salvation, foolish (1 Cor. 1:18). This seals our misery.

Outwardly, sin creates misery all around us. It affects our environment, ourselves, and our relationships. God cursed the ground and all other creatures because of humanity’s sin (Gen. 3:17–18). The earth, as it were, groans under our feet because God subjected it to futility because of us. It “longs” for the day when God will liberate it from sin’s curse at Christ’s return (Rom. 8:19–23). This is why mankind always seems to have trouble harmonizing with our environment. Many evils come to our bodies in the form of disease, illness, old age, and other infirmities. We often suffer evil to our good names, whether through our own fault or through false accusations. Our finances fluctuate, our houses are damaged in storms, we lose jobs, and we face uncertain futures. Our marriages and relationships with our children and neighbors can become strained. Human beings become enemies to one another because humanity is at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7). We can have peace with one another only when God makes peace with us in Christ, who is our peace (Mic. 5:5; Eph. 2:14). The last miserable enemy waiting at the end of our road is death. We are either in bondage through fear of death, or we are deluded that death is “a natural part of life,” or we are delivered from the power of death through Christ’s death (Heb. 2:14–18).

Do the inward and outward effects of sin, which we see daily, drive us to the God who alone can remove them?

The Miseries of Sin in the Life to Come

The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, in hellfire forever. (WLC 29)

If we remain in the state of sin in this world, then its misery will follow us to the next. This is what the church has called hell or eternal punishment. Hell has two aspects. First, we are separated from the “comfortable presence of God.” This is a punishment of loss, which theologians have called “damnation.” God fills heaven and earth (Jer. 23:24). He also fills hell. If heaven is the presence of God in grace, showing mercy, then hell is the presence of God in wrath, perfecting judgment. The question, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” comforted David in his distress (Ps. 139:7, 17–18); in hell, the same question will terrify the wicked in theirs. Those who “do not know God” will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” (2 Thess. 2:9–10). Unbelievers do not experience God’s blessed presence, which is the heart of God’s covenant with His people. Instead, they “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev. 14:10). The misery of separation from the goodness of God, and all created good with Him, is perfected by its permanence.

Second, we are punished sensibly. We have only glimpses in Scripture of what the catechism calls “grievous torments in soul and body” without intermission (Isa. 66:24; Luke 16:24–26; Rev. 20:10). Scripture describes this reality with metaphors of darkness and fire. Ordinarily, these two things do not go together, since fire dispels darkness. Darkness shows the hopelessness of the eternal miseries of sin, while fire points to sensible pain. These punishments affect body and soul. All the dead will rise (1 Thess. 4:13–5:11; Rev. 20:11–15). Those in Christ will rise to everlasting life, while those apart from Christ will rise to shame and everlasting contempt (Dan. 12:1–3; John 5:28–29). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God” (Heb. 10:31).

Conclusion

If the miseries of this life are divine punishments for sin, then why do believers and unbelievers alike experience them? The miseries of this life are a precursor of hell to those who are outside of Christ. For those who are in Christ, the wrath of God is removed from them, and the miseries of this life and death itself become means of sanctification and entering glory. Believers and unbelievers may commonly suffer the miseries of this life, but they experience them differently because they differ in their relation to Christ.

We should also remember that while the misery of the fall touches every area of life, things are not as miserable as they could be. In wrath, God remembers mercy. Believers and unbelievers enjoy sunsets, eat good food, play with their children, have rain to water the earth, have friends, own houses, and enjoy many other divine blessings that mitigate the curse of sin. Instead of asking why everything does not go right in this world, we should be asking why more things don’t go wrong. God is forbearing and long-suffering with sinners. Yet let us not despise His patience in allowing us to suffer in this life without immediately casting us into hell, for suffering can encourage us to turn from sin unto Christ. “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Do we hear the warnings of our misery and receive the welcome of God’s mercy?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series. Next post.

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