Early in his work City of God, Augustine discusses the nature of suffering, specifically, why the good and wicked seem to both suffer. If someone is supposedly good, then why would God allow them to suffer? This is important because in our modern day era that wants to see all suffering as something that we should avoid at all costs and is seemingly purposeless, we need to return to a biblical view of suffering. A Christian exile is one who handles suffering rightly.
We are going to have Augustine walk us through thinking on this.
“When the good and the wicked suffer alike, the identity of their sufferings does not mean that there is no difference between them. Though the sufferings are the same, the sufferers remain different. Virtue and vice are not the same, even if they undergo the same torment. The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke. . . . In the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation.”
Ok, a couple things that need obvious explanation.
Augustine here is saying that even if a Christian and a committed arsonist were to suffer the same sufferings (for example, both were thrown into a dungeon), this does not mean that they are equal in terms of morality. God is not using this suffering in the same way for both offenders. Augustine says that suffering endured by Christians is to test them.
But God doesn’t test people does He?
This is a misunderstanding in our day because our world wants to make this claim. But James, the brother of Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit, says differently:
2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4 CSB)
If we are Christians, suffering prepares and sustains us to pursue a life of holiness. It strengthens us to live like the exiles we are called to be. God tests in order that Christians may past the test better than they were before.
What does he mean that suffering effects condemnation in the wicked?
First of all, I want to make it clear that Augustine was not an annihilationist, he is saying here that true unbelievers experiencing suffering are led further away from Christ. This is saying nothing different than John says, “18 Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned” (John 3:18 CSB). If we look at it through the opposite lens of Romans 8, we can make more sense of it.
28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Romans 8:28-29 CSB).
The logic of this verse is something many people miss by pulling verse 28 out of its context. All things (i.e. good, suffering, things that are neither good nor bad, all of history) work together for the good of believers. And this good is defined as conformity to the image of his Son. To take the opposite view, nothing is working for the good of unbelievers, and they therefore continue on in the further hardening of their hearts.
Let’s let Augustine sum this up.
“Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, [speak evil of] God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayers and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends. But the [stirring] movement is identical.”
If you are a Christian, you are a child of God, and a child of God sees suffering as the loving discipline of a good Father performed for our good. The author of Hebrews says it well:
5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons: My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or lose heart when you are reproved by him, 6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves and punishes every son he receives. 7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? . . . 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-7; 11 CSB)
A view of suffering that is based on the Bible leads the Christian exile that is experiencing suffering to react like Job.
20 Then Job stood up, tore his robe, and shaved his head. He fell to the ground and worshiped, 21 saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. 22 Throughout all this Job did not sin or blame God for anything. (Job 1:20-22 CSB)
-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)