Blindness, Blame, and Bad Days (A Theology of Suffering)
“Who did this!?”
You ever ask this question? Me too. There’s something about suffering that causes us to demand a reason and an answer. Who can I blame for my pain? Or why is this even happening to me in the first place?
One of my favorite stories in the life of Jesus is found in John chapter 9. This story forces us to confront two big questions about suffering that Jesus provides profound answers for.
John 9:1 – As he (Jesus) passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.
Jesus and the disciples are traveling together when they see a man blind from birth. Talk about suffering. Sometimes I can feel like I’m suffering when my two-day shipping turns into six-day shipping. Yet here’s this man who has never seen the face of a loved one. Everything he knows about what the world looks like has had to be told to him. He is unable to work and has been completely dependent on others to live every day. The point here isn’t that suffering is a contest about who has had it the worst, that is an impossible task to complete, the point is that this man is well acquainted with suffering.
John 9:1 – And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Question 1: Is suffering our own fault?
The disciples see the same blind man that Jesus is looking at and they decide it is the right time for a theological question. They ask Jesus what they believe to be an innocent question, “whose fault is this?” The disciple’s question reflects the ancient belief in Judaism that suffering could always be traced back to sin, if not in your life than certainly in the life of your parents. Suffering was not random, it was cause and effect.
Suffering = The result of your sin (or your parents).
I think this belief trickles into our lives today. We love to blame, we love to hold people responsible for their suffering, because then we can fool ourselves into believing if we don’t do what those people do, we won’t suffer like them. If only they had done A, B, or C then they wouldn’t be suffering like they are. But is this true? Is this what Jesus teaches us about suffering?
John 9:3 – Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents…”
We’ll get to the rest of the answer, but we need to pause here. Did we hear what Jesus just said? It was no one’s fault that this man is suffering. Jesus clearly denounces the popular thought of the day by saying this man’s blindness is not a result of his sin or his parents’ sin. He doesn’t say that they are without sin, but he says it was not because of that sin that he was born blind.
To always draw a direct line of responsibility from someone’s sin to their suffering is anti-Christ.
Suffering is in the world because sin is in the world. That is 100% true. But not all suffering is because of our individual sin. Do you see the difference there? Sin has broken the world and now suffering exists but that is not the same thing as saying that you are suffering directly because of your sin.
Should we blame the sufferer for their suffering? Jesus would say no.
Question 2: Is suffering random?
Okay, stick with me here on this part because I believe it will make everything in this story come together. If suffering cannot be connected to the sufferer, in other words, if we cannot blame people as the reason they are experiencing suffering, then are we simply resigned to admit that suffering is random and sometimes bad things just happen?
Many people do believe this.
Richard Dawkins is a well-known and outspoken atheist. Part of the reason for his belief system is because of his inability to square suffering with the idea of a loving God. His conclusion is summarized in the following quote:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. (From the book A River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life)
He is consistent in his belief…if there is no design for the universe then everything that happens is random and maybe you get lucky and maybe you don’t. Suffering is random, we just have to hope that we get lucky because all we will find in the universe is pitiless indifference.
Is this a good summary of the life of the blind man? I would not fault him for feeling this way one bit. Why was he born blind and not the neighbor kid? Why are people born blind at all? Suffering often feels random and cold.
This isn’t just a belief that Dawkins holds, there are also religious expressions of this same idea. Harold Kushner was an American Rabbi who wrote the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote the book after personal tragedy caused him to confront the question many of us do: If God is all loving and all powerful why do bad things happen? In short, here is his conclusion.
Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it. God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness. (From the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People)
When I read this book years ago, I really appreciated Kushner’s gentle voice and the nuance with which he approached the hard topic of suffering. However his conclusion seemingly holds no hope for us. Essentially he says we must choose between believing that God is all good or that God is all powerful. And for him he believes God desires good for his people but “cannot always arrange it”. Kushner says God is not all powerful and therefore suffering may happen to people randomly, and God ultimately does not have the power to change that. If then, we find ourselves in the midst of pain, we have no hope that God can intervene, grow us through it, or turn it around. He is as helpless as we are.
So if suffering cannot always be traced back to the sufferer, is the other option to simply admit that it is random and we better cross our fingers and hope for the best?
What if there was another option.
(Intermission) I know this is a long post. If you need to bookmark it come back later, please do. I’m hoping your sufficiently hooked by now and want to continue but this is your chance to pause here!
Suffering & Glory:
John 9:1-5 – As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Jesus says that suffering is not simply a result of individual sin. But Jesus also says that suffering is not merely random.
Jesus says that this man was born blind, this man suffered, so that the works of God might be displayed in his life.
This is an entirely difference category.
Suffering is not always and only a result of your sin, but suffering is also not merely random chance. Suffering exists so that the work the works of God might be displayed.
God is orchestrating a tapestry of glory in Jesus Christ and for the good of his people out of the ruin and brokenness of the world. There is nothing random about suffering because all suffering falls under God’s diving rule and reign and he is using it to further his kingdom and to show his grace to his people.
It is important to note that God can only do this if he is Lord over all things, including suffering. He is not powerless against it; in fact he can use the very thing the enemy seeks to harm us with for his glory and for our good. Even pain and suffering and blindness fall under his control, and he can use them for his purposes.
The ESV Study Bible says, “God in his mysterious and wise providence sometimes allows his children to go through hardship and suffering so that they can experience God’s mercy and power in delivering them.”
Jesus proclaims that this blind man was blind so that the works of God might be displayed in his life and then Jesus goes on to do that very thing for him in verses 6-7 when he heals him of his blindness.
Will God’s work in our suffering always be this outwardly dramatic? It may not be. Yet God is at work and doing a million things all of the time even if we are not aware of them. Even more than that, God in his divine sovereignty has decreed that not an ounce of suffering will be wasted.
The Takeaway: Faith
What then, for us? Does this fact make our suffering less painful or eliminate it completely? No it doesn’t. Yet knowing this truth points us towards what is most important in our suffering: faith in the one who is with us and promises to work in the midst of the brokenness we are experiencing. We are called to faith.
Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
To have faith in the midst of suffering is to be sure of what we hope for: that God is in this, he will deliver us, he is at work, and he loves us.
To have faith in the midst of suffering is to be certain of the things that we cannot see: to be certain that God is good and God is all powerful, to be certain that his promises are true and to be certain he is at work even if we can’t see it.
Are we merely to have blind faith? No. We may not understand all that is going on, but our faith is not blind, it is safely placed in the only secure place we have: Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul was well aware of suffering, and he wrote this in his letter to the Roman church.
Romans 8:18 – For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
This does not mean our suffering doesn’t matter or that it isn’t big or that it doesn’t hurt tremendously. It isn’t to say that our suffering is small or we should just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or sugar coat everything by copy and pasting a bible verse. It means that in comparison to the glory that will be revealed our suffering will not measure up.
One day, when we see the glorious works God has brought from all suffering, that glory will not compare to the pain we had in this life and we will be able to say it was all worth it because of what Jesus has done.
That doesn’t mean we don’t lament or cry out now. It doesn’t mean we don’t have pain and struggles and difficulty and doubts. And it certainly doesn’t mean we are not wounded or hurt now, but it does mean that this present suffering is not forever. Suffering is not a result of your sin and it is not merely random. God is good, and God is all powerful, and God loves you.
Suffering is about the glory of God in Jesus Christ, most prominently displayed by his pouring out of his mercy and grace and goodness on his people and ultimately by righting every wrong thing and healing every broken way.
This is where we place our faith: not in our circumstances or in our knowledge or in the fact that we always know what God is doing, we place our faith in Jesus himself and we trust who he is even when we don’t understand.
I absolutely love this quote from Charles Spurgeon.
God is too good to be unkind, too wise to be mistaken; and when you cannot trace His hand, you can trust His heart.
– Charles Spurgeon