This post is meant to offer guidance to common “what now” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon “Surprise: Luke 1:5-25,” preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday March 5-6, 2011.

In this sermon we saw Elizabeth and Zechariah deal with suffering in the form of infertility. The Bible goes out of its way to emphasize this suffering was not the result God punishing this couple (v. 6). Yet at the same time we also saw Zechariah experience God’s discipline for his sin of unbelief (v. 20). Two different kinds of bad things were happening, but we can be sure the unpleasant emotions (anger, shame, grief, overwhelmed, confusion) blurred the line between the two in the mind and heart of this couple.

During difficult seasons, we can experience the same confusion. It feels like everything is against us and we can’t catch a break, so we assume God is punishing us for something we did wrong. The Psalmist felt that way (Psalm 102:10) in his suffering (v. 1-9) even when there was no indication of his sin or God’s anger in the passage.

We want an answer, we’re mentally spent by our circumstances, so we lump all our struggles into the big basket of sin because it fits well with how miserable we already feel. The problem is it makes God feel far away and dangerous instead of a “very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).” It is easy and it feels right, but it costs us a lot in terms of hope.

We see in Zechariah a “gritty” example of what happens when we resist the urge to interpret life as God’s punishment. Zechariah was afraid to hope. For years he and Elizabeth held onto hope to the end of every monthly cycle, only to have their hope dashed with “not pregnant.” What suffering are you facing and what are the reminders that tempt you to fear or resent hope?

Zechariah acted on his hopelessness in sinful unbelief. Can you blame him? Because of this God disciplined Zechariah by making him mute (v. 20) and deaf (v. 22) for 9 months. How has your experience of suffering increased temptation for you?

Yet because Zechariah did not blame God for his suffering (based on Jewish beliefs he probably wrongly blamed himself) or label his suffering punishment, he could trust God during his discipline. This is really the key part of the battle for most of us. When you are going through hard times, do you consider whether your difficultly is sin or suffering?

Zechariah continued to live by faith. Where’s that? Zechariah was intimate with his wife; something often emotionally painful for a couple who longs for a child but has given up on hope. Zechariah and Elizabeth still had a vital role to play in the fulfillment of God’s promise. We also see his in that the Zechariah’s mouth was filled with praise when his tongue was loosed (v. 64). What daily tasks or seemingly “unspiritual” activities can you continue to do as an expression of trust in God and love for others?

We are not setting Zechariah up as the hero of this story. It is story of the coming Messiah and God graciously making His coming known. But Zechariah is an example of resisting the temptation to allow our suffering to distort our interpretation of life and God. It is by resisting temptation to interpret that we are able to see, participate, and rejoice in God’s activity around us.

As you reflect on this passage, I would encourage you to pay close attention to how you interpret hardships. If we call the consequences of sin suffering, then we become the perceived victim of our own sin and resent God for not comforting us. However, equally devastating is when we call suffering the consequences of sin, and perceive God’s condemnation when He offers His comfort.