READ : John 9:1-4
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work . . . .”
John 9:1-4 rsv
All of us do it. We wonder about tragedies, don’t we? We ask ourselves why such terrible things happen. We grope for answers.
I’m thinking today of some of the events that have affected me like that. A missionary wife I know was home in the states on furlough when she received word that her husband and her two sons had been killed in an auto accident in Africa. In one stroke, she lost her whole family. In grief, in pain, in tortured confusion we shake our heads. How could such a thing happen?
A dear minister friend of mine was involved in a terrible automobile accident. A drunken driver swung out to the wrong side of the road on a curve and struck his car head on. My friend’s mother, wife, and daughter were all killed. The loss was devastating. We search in vain to understand. “Why, Lord? Why?”
I can come closer to home, in my own immediate family. Our oldest son, bright, athletic, promising, was stricken with encephalitis when he was six years old and left with serious disabilities for the rest of his life. Why all this potential lost? Why this young life struck down? When that son died, another went through the torment of mental illness. The pain for him and for all of us as family members was more intense than anything we had known before. Our hearts cried out with anguish and bafflement. Why did it have to be this way? Is there some reason hidden to us? Here’s the most troubling thought: Have we done something terribly wrong to bring such tragic happenings upon us?
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
That seems to be a question that crops up in every age, among every people. In the presence of terrible suffering, who’s to blame? Jesus faced a question like that once. He met a man who was blind from his birth, who had never once seen the light of day. His disciples noticed that he was watching the man, and they asked him a question. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 9, verse 2: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Let’s try to follow the reasoning, the feeling that may be behind this question. The men asking it are Israelites. They believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They know that this is not a universe ruled by chance. They reject the idea that the events in our lives are random and meaningless. There must be some reason why a thing like this should happen.
At the same time, they shrink from assigning the cause directly to God. As the psalmist puts it, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). The Lord is good to all, and has compassion over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). Would such a God ordain, they wonder, that one of His human children should be born with sightless eyes, should never see a mother’s face or the loveliness of the world?
We can identify with that question, can’t we? We know God now as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who gave His Son so that we might live, the God of amazing grace. Shall we say that this loving heavenly Father causes one of the little children precious to Him to be born blind? Something in all of us resists that thought, right?
What other explanation can there be? Does it have something to do with the presence of sin in the world? Is it because of human evil that such tragic happenings occur? Is it true, as one ancient Jewish rabbi taught, that “there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity?” Well, if we have to blame someone, it seems more fitting to blame ourselves than the Lord of love. So the disciples asked, “Who is to blame?”
Now it’s obvious that in some difficulties that overtake us, we are to blame. If we insist on smoking two packs a day for twenty-five years, we have only ourselves to blame if we’re overtaken by lung cancer. We did it to ourselves. If we abuse alcohol for a lifetime, and then suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, there’s really no one else to blame, is there? If we break the law consistently, and are imprisoned as a result, we may rail against society, or criticize our family upbringing, but we know that, in a deep sense, we are responsible for our actions and their consequences.
But it’s much harder to see this or say it regarding a newborn baby. If all suffering is the result of sin, how does that apply in this case? There were apparently some in Jesus’ day who thought that a child could somehow sin in a pre-existent condition. Or maybe, if that didn’t happen, it was because of some sin in the lives of the parents. The disciples asked, “Which of these is the true explanation here?”
THE WRONG QUESTION
Jesus said something in response for which I’ll always feel grateful. He gave no support to the idea that all tragedies are caused by sin, that every terrible affliction is a kind of judgment. In answer to the question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither, it was not that this man sinned or his parents.” He’s not implying, of course, that they are sinless, perfect people, either the parents or the child. They share the brokenness, the bent toward disobedience, common to us all. But Jesus expressly denies that the child’s being born blind was a result of some family sin. He is obviously not on the side of the blamers.
Remember Job, the Old Testament believer who suffered such overwhelming losses? First his flocks and herds, then all his children and then his own health. It’s hard to imagine anyone more grievously afflicted than Job. What compounded his suffering was the fact that three friends came to visit him, presumably to comfort, but proceeded to blame him for all that had happened. One argued like this: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). Another had the cruel insensitivity to say that Job’s evils merited an even worse fate. “Know then,” he preached, “that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (Job 11:6). In other words, “Job, you’re getting off easy!” They told this suffering man that “destruction and misery were the wicked man’s portion from God, the heritage decreed for him” (Job 20:29). They hinted strongly to Job that if he would confess his many evils and turn from his wicked ways, God would make things more pleasant for him.
But God was not in the counsel of these would-be comforters. His word about these misguided friends was, “You have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7). Always remember that, friends. If people are telling you or implying to you that you have endured awful agonies because you’re such a wretched sinner, don’t believe them. That’s not God’s explanation. You have Jesus’ word for it. That’s not the way it is.
It’s as though Jesus is saying here that “who’s to blame?” is the wrong question. If you ever try to deal with someone brought low by affliction and tragedy, don’t get into speculation about whose fault it is. You’re not there to explain. You’re not there to assign responsibility. You’re there to listen and love, to weep with those who weep.
HOW GOD WORKS
But Jesus has something more to say, something gloriously positive. Listen again. “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” It was as though the Lord said, “Don’t try to assign causes for suffering and calamity. That’s not your business.” Rather, be open to God’s purposes in those very events. Don’t focus on the past and try to figure it out. Focus on the present and how God may be at work in this situation now. And think about the future, what He may yet do. Jesus doesn’t satisfy our curiosity about what has happened and why, but He does help us to find meaning in what we suffer. And He comes to be with us in it.
I mentioned a little earlier a son of ours who struggled for years with mental illness. How many painful questions arise during years like that? Why did he have to suffer in that way? Why should he lose so much time? Why get so far behind in the normal course of life? He has felt at times that opportunity has passed him by. Where did he go wrong? Why these years so full of turmoil and frustration? When he has wrestled with questions like that, he has seemed to go around in circles and get nowhere.
He has been on a long, slow road to recovery, and in recent years has found a great measure of peace. He has a heart for people who have gone through experiences similar to his. For the last few years he has led a support group of such recovering young adults. Many have found that group to be a means of uncommon encouragement and support. They testify to that. Our son is seeing all that he has been through in a somewhat different light now. Out of the anguish, infirmity and stress, he has become a kind of wounded healer. God is using his life to bless the lives of others.
In the case of the blind man, Jesus was about to restore his sight and make of this formerly blind man a radiant witness to the Lord’s power. The works of God were really going to come to light in his life as Jesus gave him sight.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying “That’s why the man was born blind” or “That’s why our sons suffered as they did.” Jesus’ word is not so much providing an explanation as opening up a possibility. It’s a call to search for some gracious purpose of God in our pathos and pain, some way in which He may be at work redemptively.
In our family, we have long since given up asking why such things happen. We’re concentrating, as other sufferers come to do, on how to cope, how to carry on, what to do in the situation. And we’re learning to believe that though God doesn’t give us an accounting of His ways, He does give us glimpses now and then of His gracious purpose, even in the sad things of life. He lets us see, sometimes in the long perspective of the years, how He has been wonderfully at work.
But we’re not able to sit around and wait, are we? Life goes on. Insight and comfort come, not as we sit on our hands, but as we do what we can for those who have gone through great sorrow, as we stand by the stricken ones, as we reach out to touch them, as Jesus that day touched this blind man. That opportunity, or those like it, come every day and we need to seize them. As Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day. Night comes when no one can work.” So we leave with God the time and way in which He will make it all clear. For the present we labor in love. We do what we can. As Kipling says, “We fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.”
All these sufferers I’ve talked about today have one thing in common: In the midst of all they’ve gone through, they have known and trusted Jesus Christ, and they have experienced His comfort and surrounding help in the times of special need. They have begun to see something of His glory breaking through. And I pray that in all you may have to face, it may be so for you. God bless you!
Prayer: Father, some sharing this message today may be going through deep waters, experiencing great sorrow and trouble and perhaps pressure to blame themselves or someone else. Help them today to find a better way. Help them to keep in touch with the power and grace of Jesus Christ, to see how You are at work in their situation, to see new possibilities opening up for them and to experience the strong comfort which You give. In the name of Jesus. Amen.