Why Is There Suffering? Or How Can a Blind Man See?
‘As he 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 this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”’—John 9:1-5
I’ve always seen this story (and I’d encourage you to read the rest of chapter nine) as a bit of comic relief in between a lot of dramatic action. It invites us to slow down before some harder truths.
It’s a dialogue full of blaming, finger pointing and zany attempts to dismiss something that doesn’t fit our intellectual frameworks or religious certainties. It’s a snapshot of human nature in the presence of the Almighty. A miracle occurs and the people’s responses are really different: one has faith, others react in fear. One’s transformed while others are bewildered, stubborn or arrogant. Human nature at its best and worst.
Whose Fault Is It? (Wrong Question!)
Jesus and his disciples are walking when they see this blind man. The disciples ask their rabbi what happened to the guy: Did he sin or was it his parents’ fault that he was born blind?
To modern ears it seems an absurd question. As people of 2022, we believe broken bones and health challenges are part of life. But in the time of Jesus, there’d been a theology floating around (and in a few churches still does) that suffering was a result of sin. Theirs was a religious culture with many gods and forms of worship. People often believed that suffering, disease or disability came because someone had displeased the gods.
Even Jesus’ own disciples bought it. As Jews they knew the story of Job’s suffering. Job must have done something wrong, his friends said. Why else would he experience such misery?
Christ’s followers see the blind man and like Job’s accusers, ask the same question: what’d he do wrong? But Jesus is having none of it. He sees that kind of thinking as too simplistic, too narrow. Jesus said this happened so that the works of God might be displayed. Or as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, ‘Jesus said, ‘you’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.’
To them, there had to be a reason for this man’s blindness, someone to blame. A cause and effect. But Jesus said that’s the wrong question.
For us, we accept the reality of broken bones and mostly try to avoid suffering. If we have the privilege of access to good health care, we do what we need to live relatively pain-free. Today’s medical geniuses help us live with less pain or figure out ways to make our bodies function as God intends.
Though we would never wish suffering on anyone, it is a way God can, and does, ‘display his work’ in our lives. We might not be aware of it in the moment but when we pause and reflect, we can often trace his hand and see how he used a broken bone or challenging situation to draw us closer to him, to depend on him, to grow.
American short story writer Flannery O’Connor struggled with lupus throughout her short life until she died at age 39 in 1963. Each morning she’d write stories and letters, until the pain became too much and she had to rest. But she was a woman of deep faith in Jesus and once wrote of her illness, ‘In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.’
Instead of focusing on her suffering, O’Connor looked instead to what God could do and she found his presence and mercies.
What Can God Do? (Right Question!)
So if the question of who sinned for this man to be blind is the wrong one, maybe the right one is what can God do? We know from Genesis 3 that when sin came into the world, it affected God’s good design. We know that the world is not as it should be, that things are not as God intends. Just looking at the news each day we know our world is broken, especially as people struggle in poverty.
Yet the Bible also promises that God’s mercies are new every morning, that they are the best ‘medicine’ we’ll receive.
Look at how Jesus responds to the man’s ‘brokenness’. He says, ‘I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day.’ Instead of focusing on the man’s blindness as a theological problem or a cause and effect health challenge, Jesus sees this as an opportunity to display the works of God the Creator. Jesus’ urgency reflects his father’s desires for restoration while it was still day – the time of his earthly ministry.
God At Work Within Suffering
So Jesus moves from the ‘cause’ of this man’s blindness to what can happen now, asking an even better question: where and how is God at work within the suffering around us? In this case the man’s blindness is so ‘the works of God might be displayed in him’, so his sight can be restored.
So Jesus moves from the ’cause’ to an even better question: Where and how is God at work within the suffering?
‘The night is coming when no one can work.’ Jesus also understands that his opportunities to serve and do good are ‘limited’ in his earthly time as a human. He knows that healing this man on the Sabbath will bring more opposition from religious leaders.
Then in a moment that beautifully merges his humanity and divinity, as one who was there when the world began, just as God used the dust of the Earth to do a work of creation in Genesis, so Jesus does a work of creation with dust and clay for this man.
It’s as if the physical act Jesus performs arouses the spiritual faith of the blind man—he can’t see Jesus and yet he does what Jesus says to do. Somehow, he makes his way to the place called ‘Sent’—a pool which symbolised purification and restoration—and comes home SEEING!
Imagine living in darkness your whole life and suddenly being able to see mud and sky and faces and your own hands! No wonder the man’s neighbours are confused.
But here’s where the story takes its turn: even though the people know he’s been blind and now miraculously sees, they respond in very different ways. The once-blind man has faith in Jesus, the others can’t believe their eyes.
His healing creates a big controversy. Why? What’s so confronting about a miraculous transformation of a healed blind man who is now ‘like them’?
It’s interesting to note that belief doesn’t necessarily come from evidence—they all have the same evidence in front of them, that a miracle has happened. A blind man now sees and stands in front of them. Why won’t some believe?
Because not everyone knows what to do when God reveals himself; fear often keeps them from seeing God’s mercies lived out in others. Some are too set in their ways, too stubborn in their self-deception. They don’t know they need to ‘see’, as Jesus points out later, because God has given them over to the idols and desires of their hearts.
Everyone in the story seems to resist the man’s sight because of fear. The neighbours are afraid of change, the parents are afraid of Synagogue rulers, and the Pharisees are afraid of losing their power. Everyone but the man who is healed seems trapped. Their fears keep them from trusting God and entering a new way of ‘seeing.’
But did you notice another change that happens in the story? As the people’s fear and resistance grow, the once blind man’s courage to speak up does too. Before, he’d been invisible to others and voiceless because of his disability; now he not only receives his sight, he finds his voice and grows stronger with each interaction.
Sadly, though, humans often deflect and avoid facing the truth if it falls outside of what we believe is ‘possible’. We avoid suffering or blame it on someone. We’re not sure about miracles because our minds can’t make sense of them. Men born blind can’t be healed from someone’s spit.
Such resistance points to what Jesus would endure later, because that which we don’t understand or which threatens us (miracles, sufferings, different perspectives), we often try to discredit, deny or destroy, as will be the case with Jesus. The poor are blamed for their poverty, politicians discredit opponents, war shows what some will do to others they perceive as different.
Yet the darkness has NOT overcome the light. The Light of the world can and still does expose the darkness. Jesus is still in the business of transforming our lives, no matter what modern minds say.
The Privilege of Suffering with Others
As Jesus says at the end of chapter nine, those who know they’re blind, who admit their weakness and are honest about their need for a saviour, are those he’s come for. Those who’ve made a great pretence of seeing, of clinging to their need to be right, are exposed as blind.
Here, the man not only receives sight, he finds his voice, all because Jesus took the initiative with him, twice! Jesus finds the man after everyone else has rejected him. What does the man say when he sees Jesus with both his eyes and his heart? Lord, I believe!
Jesus heals the man because he is about his Father’s business of restoration. And that means Jesus, too, will suffer, for all of us, on the cross. He was blamed for our sins and took on our pain so that we might be free from fear and receive his mercies, his fullness of life.
The original meaning of the word passion comes from Christ’s suffering on the cross. Compassion literally means, to suffer with. Christ’s compassion enabled him to endure the cross for all of us, though he was without sin. And because he conquered death and became ALIVE again, he suffers with us still. He is near the broken hearted and is present with those who are hurting.
Jesus invites all of us to admit we’re blind, to receive his mercies and to offer mercy to others. That is light exposing darkness. We sit beside a friend in her hospital bed; we drop off a meal for someone who’s discouraged or support a child in a vulnerable community. We support organisations helping those recover from disasters or COVID. We pray for and give to ministries helping refugees because we hate the darkness from which they are fleeing.
This transformed life leads us to ask, ‘How can God’s works be displayed?’ We look for how he is working around the world and in our neighbourhood. And in faith we step toward a pool of healing, as we’re sent into a new place where miracles can happen.
So the question isn’t, why is there suffering? It’s, what can God do and how can we join him?