I received this question Sunday before last in a class I was teaching and then again via email today. I think God wants me to answer the question. Here is the question concerning my blog on God’s wrath and the believer (see here):
Thanks Bob. I am in hearty agreement. But how would you explain how a believer would know if he was expecting wrath or discipline (Hebrews 12, Romans 5, James 1)? It is easy to answer Biblically but not so easy to determine personally during difficult times.
Answer: you need discernment.
There are no verses in Scripture that directly answer your question. So what we need to do is apply principles found in Scripture.
If you rob a bank and then get sent to prison, that is God’s temporal judgment. If you commit immorality and get an STD, that is God’s temporal judgment. If you cheat on a test and are caught and get an F on the exam, that is God’s temporal judgment.
Example 1: In cases like these where you are clearly sinning and then something bad happens directly related to that sin, you can be confident that is cause and effect. Those are easy, in my opinion. But now for some harder cases.
Example 2: In cases where you are clearly sinning and then something bad happens that is somewhat unrelated to that sin, I’d say the problem likely was sent by God. Say, for example, you steal a few hundred dollars of petty cash at work and get away with it. But then a few weeks later you get an ulcer or you have trouble sleeping. That is probably cause and effect.
Example 3: In cases where you are not aware of a particular sin and then something bad happens that is totally unrelated to that sin and then you become aware of some sin on your part, I’d say it is possibly sent from God. Say, for example, you are a high school senior living at home and you suddenly realize that you have dishonored and disrespected your parents. Then you get rejected from the college of your dreams. That could be temporal judgment. Or it might be a coincidence.
Example 4: Finally, in cases where you are not aware of any rebellion against God—you are walking in fellowship with Him, then if something bad happens it is almost certainly not temporal judgment.
Here is the application in all of the above cases: 1) If you are out of fellowship with God (Cases 1-2, most likely), repent and get back in fellowship. See Luke 15. 2) If you are in fellowship but yet you suddenly realize you committed some sin, confess it and walk in fellowship with God (Case 3). See 1 John 1:9. 3) If you are in fellowship with God, unaware of any rebellion in your life, and then something bad happens (e.g., cancer), then pray about it. Ask God to show you if there is some secret sin in your life (Case 4). Most likely it is not temporal judgment. But it is wise to pray about it.
A few years after I graduated from seminary I learned that someone who graduated with me was now in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment. He might die. I heard that he took a brief inventory of his life. He could see no area of rebellion. Then he prayed and told God to show him if there was some particular sin in his life that led to the cancer. When nothing came to mind within a day or two, he concluded that the cancer was simply a test.
I think my seminary friend handled that perfectly. I hope if or when I get cancer that I handle it like that.