Have you ever tried to get somewhere in your house without turning the lights on? Let’s say everyone’s asleep, and you don’t want to disturb them by turning a light on. You think you know where everything is in the room until you bang your big toe on a table.
When I first read the Bible, I was nine years old, and I remember as a little girl trying to go through our whole house with my eyes closed after I had read this story. What would it be like to not see? I wondered.
And it was really hard on the man who was born blind, hard on his parents who were already so poor, and hard on the Pharisees, but in ways they did not even realize.
Today’s passage opens with Jesus passing by near the temple and giving an intent look to a man known to be born blind. Because Jesus was looking with such concentration, the disciples noticed the man, too.
To the disciples, this man was a theological proposition.
Rabbi, who sinned, this one or his parents, in order that he would be born blind?Disciples to Jesus, John 9:2
But to Jesus, this was a man in need.
The rabbis taught, in Jesus’ day, that an unborn child could sin, or that even a mother’s sinful thoughts could cause physical disabilities in her unborn child. (The link between physical disability and spiritual wrongs went deep in people’s minds in that day).
Imagine the awful black cloud this family must have had to live under, of being considered so sinful, or their son so sinful, that he was born without sight. It was made even worse because in their poverty they could not take care of him, so he had to beg in order to make a living.
This was one misfortune heaped upon another. In their day, poverty was also viewed as lacking God’s favor—otherwise, surely the Lord would have blessed them with prosperity. They would have labored under cultural and societal prejudice for reasons they could little control.
The question about suffering and sin still weighs heavily on us today. We are still trying to explain it to ourselves, two thousand years later.
Why does God, who is described as—infinitely, eternally—loving and compassionate, allow bad things to happen?
- If God is that loving, why does God allow such awful suffering in the lives of those God loves?
- If God is that powerful, why does God not intervene when something bad is going to happen?
- If God is that good, why does God permit all the evil that seems to run rampant in our world?
We have come up with some answers, but we do not have all the answers. What you and I can understand from the Bible’s whole narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, is that
1) We live of world that groans under the burden of human wrongs. When we combine the story of what happened in Genesis 3 with the apostle Paul’s later teaching in Romans 1, and Romans 8, then we see the physical earth, and our physical lives, affected by the consequences of wrongs done in the distant past, the earliest of human history. No one could have known how tragic and disastrous the reverberations would be from that one fateful day.
I think of all the many ways pollution, waste, a careless use (and misuse) of resources sickens the whole globe, ecosystems, people, everything.
And I also think of the ways the human psyche has been twisted out of shape, making us self-protective, fearful, selfish.
2) Sometimes suffering really can be traced back to personal wrongdoing. Sometimes I do something wrong, and the result is painful to me. Often enough, my own wrongdoing causes pain in someone else’s life, too. Or their wrongdoing sweeps me into pain. Sometimes personal wrongs are done by mistake. Sometimes by faulty reasoning, or skewed values, or a warped worldview.
Most of the time, you and I do something, or say something, or are convinced of something, and we really do not know what the repercussions will be.
Sometimes we grow up in a family that is still in the throes of cyclical addiction, or abuse, passed down from one generation to the next. We will surely pass some of that down to our own children and grandchildren, even with the best of intentions.
3) Other suffering comes from wrong in the form of personal rebellion. Because you and I are so often stubborn and unrepentant, God allows consequences to increase until God has our ear, and our willingness to listen to God, to receive God’s conviction that we need to repent, and then to really repent.
4) Some suffering is training, it has nothing to do with wrongdoing (per se). Instead, it has everything to do with God’s love for us as the Lord conforms you and me to God’s character. The Lord enables us to develop the kind of discipline that will make you and me ready for anything, kind-hearted and prepared to be God’s hands in every situation.
Training, discipline, is hard work.
It involves sacrifice and effort.
And a person cannot teach themselves discipline, it always takes someone else to teach us. That is a note of caution for every parent, and every teacher. The discipline you and I do not teach the children who have been placed in our care now, will come in much more painful lessons later in life.
5) Suffering also can reveal something special about God to the world. Your response and mine to suffering teaches something to the people who see what is going on in our lives. The Lord displays God’s glory in the lives of those who suffer for the Lord’s sake.
It is this last point that Jesus explained to his disciples.
Neither this one sinned nor his parents, but rather so that the deeds of God would be made manifest in him, we must perform the works of the one who sent me while it is day, [for] night is coming when no one is able to work.Jesus to the disciples, John 9:3-4
Jesus had come to finish the work God gave Jesus to do, just as you and I have work to finish that God has given us to do as well.
Jesus went beyond the theological question and entered into this man’s reality. Jesus had something he could give that would help the man and glorify God.
What do you think about when you see someone in need?
- Teenagers in trouble?
- Children in special ed classes?
- People struggling with addictions?
- People locked in unhealthy relationships they seem either unwilling, or unable to get out of?
- Struggling marriages?
- People grappling with gender and sexuality issues?
- Those in therapy, and especially if they are taking medication?
- People on unemployment, or being cared for through social services?
- People in jail, or dealing with arrests, or fines?
The more I think about it, the longer the list gets. There are so very many people who are hurting, who are also burdened with troubles others can see, and who are judged for it. Or who become topics for discussion about statistics, about trends and reasons and solutions.
But when Jesus sees suffering, he sees a person who needs love and care, a person who needs help.
What do you and I already have that could help the people we see, and glorify God?
What Jesus said next is the theme of this whole chapter.
As long as I am in the world (cosmos), I am the light of the world.Jesus, John 9:5
This was Jesus’ whole sermon recorded in chapter 8.
Now, Jesus was going to portray his sermon in a living parable. His light was about to shine into the dark places in this man’s life and have the effect of the sun’s warmth, bringing up life from the ground.
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