The prophet Amos, whom we have been reading all week, has some very serious accusations for the Israelites. They have done some terrible things. He also is telling them that because of their crimes they will be punished by God with war and exile. It is a harsh book, but it still ends with comfort. Today, God says, “I will bring about the restoration of my people Israel.” Even in the midst of the accusation and punishment, there is comfort. Because God loves us.
It is a difficult theological problem, trying to consider whether what we suffer is the punishment of God for our sins or simply the random situation of life. On the one hand, God does seem to punish people for their sins throughout the Scriptures, exactly as we see here in the book of Amos, but on the other hand, people do not seem to suffer in proportion to their sins. Even here in the book of Amos, the Israelites are being punished because they afflicted the poor. So the suffering of the poor was not the punishment of God. Moreover, the punishment of God was war and exile. Surely the poor suffered through this punishment as well, the good with the bad.
So if we say that all suffering is punishment from God, we are clearly wrong, but it would also seem to be wrong to say that suffering is never punishment from God. How do we tell the difference? The classic way is to consider all the suffering of other people as simply suffering, deserving our sympathy and not our judgment, and to consider all of our own suffering as punishment, because we know our sins and we know that we deserve it.
Some people consider this method as too harsh. If I consider every sickness, every injury, every setback in my life as a punishment from God, will it be too difficult, or even impossible, to see God as love? If God loves me, why would he cause me to suffer? Then we should remember the reading today. Even before he has carried out his harsh punishment, the Lord is already speaking of restoring his people. The Lord is never out to hurt us. Everything he does is for our own good. If God is ever punishing us for our sins, then his punishment is yet another expression of his love. He loves us and does not want anything other than our good.