When bad things happen in this world, and unjust suffering befalls the innocent, we often jump to the ‘Why’ question first. The disciples lived in a world where it was popular to believe that disease, birth defects, and other forms of suffering were punishment for sin — either the person suffering or his parents. We see this mindset at work in this story of Jesus and his disciples:
“As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus. But so that the works of God might be displayed in his life, we must continue to do the work of him who sent me while it is still day” (John 9:1-3).
Today, many assume the same thing: This suffering must somehow be God’s punishment. But this is not the kind of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In this story, Jesus is asked why this man is blind – why, why, why? Good question, yes; but wrong focus as far as Jesus is concerned.
Jesus doesn’t answer the ‘why’ question. He instead focuses on what possible good, if any, can be made of this unfortunate situation. The Bible teaches a different world view than the one of Karma or angry vindictive gods sending disease to punish sin. In fact, the NIV and most English translations invite confusion over Jesus’ answer. The NIV suggests that this man was born blind so that God could glorify himself in healing him. But Gary Burge rightly says, “While a sound theology cannot doubt God’s sovereignty to do as he pleases, thoughtful Christians may see this as a cruel fate in which God inflicts pain on people simply to glorify himself” (Burge, John, 272). He suggests that the “purpose clause” (Gk. hina) should instead begin the next sentence as I have it above.
Here we and the disciples learn from Jesus something like, “Why is the wrong question. It’s nobody’s fault. We live in a broken world marred by sin, where bad things happen to innocent people. There’s no use trying to blame this on anything other than the fallen world we currently inhabit. But, the good news is that I have come to usher in the first signs of God’s new world where there will be no more pain and suffering, disease and death. This work of healing, restoration and transformation is what needs to be the focus of our attention right now — while it is still day.”
“God had not made the man blind in order to show his glory; rather, God has sent Jesus to do works of healing in order to show his glory” (Burge, 273). Yes, but what about when we don’t receive God’s healing in time? What about those who don’t receive their sight back in this life? What about all the innocent ones for whom God’s glory has not been displayed in an act of miraculous healing?
Friends, we live in the time between the times — in the overlapping of the old age plagued by sin and brokenness, on the one hand, and the Age To Come on the other, when God will at last make all things new and right. We see occasional glimpses of the Age To Come, and all too many signs that the Kingdom is still not here in full.
The consolation is this: We can bring just as much glory to God when healing doesn’t come when, in the crucible of suffering and pain, we continue to trust God and commend ourselves to his mercy. For we serve a God whose greatest moment of glory and deepest display of love came during the most horrific moment of suffering of all — the Cross.
For those who are currently in the dark place of pain and suffering, remember that’s where God is able to meet us most powerfully and intimately. For “even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, LORD, for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). For the healing balm on the bite of the world’s sorrows is the merciful kiss of the Crucified Lover. Douglas John Hall is then right: “Not through power but through participation.” I close with an invitation to ponder his words:
“The theology of Bethlehem and Golgotha—that is, of the enfleshment and the cross-bearing of the divine Word—directs us from the lonely and morbid contemplation of our own real suffering to the suffering of God in solidarity with us. Because God is “with us,” our suffering, though abysmally real, is given both a new perspective and a new meaning—and the prospect of transformation. Not through power but through participation; not through might but through self-emptying, “weak” love is the burden of human suffering engaged by the God of this faith tradition. Engaged is, I think, the right word. It implies that God meets, takes on, takes into God’s own being, the burden of our suffering, not by a show of force which could destroy the sinner with the sin, but by assuming a solidary responsibility for the contradictory and confused admixture that is our life” (God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross, 113).
“Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:12-14).
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! For I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).