The Man Born Blind: God, Evil & Suffering – face to face with other’s pain…

June 27, 2008

I first preached the following sermon at a WDA Campus Ministry meeting at the University of Georgia in 2002. I have been hoping to edit it into essay form to blog for some time now. My interest was rekindled after reading Fred’s fascinating blog on Sickness yesterday, hoping to balance some of the other writing I’ve been doing on the subject in my lengthy dialogue with the text of SUFFERING & THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD over at my other blog. It is a healthy reminder to myself, and hopefully many others, that all-to-often we ask the wrong questions. I hope this blesses, challenges, and encourages you…

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Let me set the stage. You’re in the backyard of a single-story brick home on a hilly eight acres of spring-green grass. One acre is a garden, freshly planted, and needing rain. Downhill, East of the house is a small creek-bed lined with maple, white oak, and buckeye trees that seem to form a wall protecting a patch of newly planted evergreens nearly hidden behind them. All around edge the yard are log fence-posts, with fields of wheat, tobacco, and corn crops on the other side. This particular day was dark, and it looked as though it may storm. In the backyard among all that beauty stood an 8 year-old boy who was lonely, angry, and alienated, and just wanted a friend. He had been teased a lot at school for being weird, and many of his “friends” only kept him around as a scapegoat. Though his parents were not believers, his mom had taken him to Vacation Bible School at a local church to help teach him “right and wrong.” There he learned enough about God to come to the conclusion that it was God who was to blame for all his pain. That day, as a storm was fast approaching, that young boy held a pocketknife to the sky and screamed, “Come down here because I’m going to kill you. He waited around for a few minutes, in tears, and when he decided God wasn’t going to show he returned inside. That day he lost what little faith he might have had and began to live his life as though God did not exist.

Evil, pain, and suffering; the book of Job says, “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as (sure as) the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:6-7) Evil, pain, and suffering are nothing new to any of us. Paul addresses this when speaking broadly to all temptation; “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Corinthians 10:13a) And what tempts us more severely to doubt God and His goodness than the evil, pain, and suffering we face daily?

For much of my Christian life I thought about this issue as a philosophical problem, but a few years back I was struck by the truth of the matter: the problem of pain is an issue of the heart. Take C.S. Lewis as an example. Lewis wrote one of the greatest philosophical books on pain that I’ve ever read, The Problem of Pain. However, the content of his book brought little comfort in the midst of losing his wife, Joy, as any one having read A Grief Observed will attest. It is so harsh that it was originally published under a pseudonym so as to not ruin Lewis’ public persona. Those troubling pages document Lewis’s deep doubt, anger, fear, and bitterness – emotions most anyone in the same position would feel. Why? Didn’t he understand the issue? Was what he wrote in The Problem of Pain all wrong? I believe that any of us who are honest with ourselves will confess: the problem of pain is only minutely an intellectual one – it is primarily a matter of the heart. The problem is rarely that pain, evil, and suffering exist as some abstract concept, but that I am in the midst of a specific painful situation – the pain I am now facing – the evil in my midst – the valley of death I am walking through right now is what causes me to doubt. Does God love me, and if so, where is He in all of this? Why me? These are the questions we all ask, and which, I believe, God addresses in His Word.

The Wrong Question

Now, I’ll be the first to admit – the main thrust of John 9 is not the problem of pain and suffering, but the question is raised here, so it is from here we will begin

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from 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 displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. – John 9:1-7

First, let’s focus our attention on the disciples. Why might the disciples have assumed this man’s suffering was due to sin? Being Jews, they were probably well studied on a number of Old Testament passages that, taken out of context, seem to say that evil is the result of sin. Exodus 34:7 says that God punishes the guilty, “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children. (also see Number 14:18) In some cases this is true – just not always. All evil is the result of human sin – the falleness of creation, in fact, is due to Adam’s choice – yet not all of the evil in each individual’s life is due to his own, or his parent’s, sin.

Yet, I don’t believe we have to go as far as the Old Testament to find the foundations for the disciples’ false assumption. Haven’t you ever done the same? Have you watched a newscast on the AIDS epidemic and even for a moment wondered how many of the people interviewed had been practicing homosexuals, sexually promiscuous or drug users? What questions or thoughts have you when you encounter a homeless man? If I was standing on the street corner begging as this man is, might you ask yourself, “I wonder what sinful decisions this man has made to end up here. No – rarely are we so kind. We simply assume their plight is due to personal sin and poor decision-making, and walk politely on by thinking to ourselves, “Get a job!” Some of you may even say it out loud.

D.A. Carson gets at the heart of the matter in his book How Long, O Lord when he asks, “…How many illnesses are the direct cause of suppressed hatred, anger, jealousy, bitterness, guilt? How much high blood pressure, how many ulcers…would be avoided if sinful attitudes were done away with? How many deaths are the result of gluttony? How many pollution-caused deaths occur because people care more for the bottom-line that for other people? How many emotional problems have at their origin ‘dysfunctional’ families? …What about syphilis and herpes? Although many AIDS sufferers have contracted the disease from a contaminated blood supply, is there no moral lesson to be observed where the disease most commonly circulates through sexual promiscuity and the use of illicit drugs?”

The disciples’ question, therefore, is very understandable. We’ve all asked it. That is why it is so important that we listen closely to Jesus’ response:

“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

There are important things one might not notice here without either a Greek Bible or a literal translation on-hand. Notice the word “that”. I discussed this with a number of people who know Greek to make sure I was right on here and they all agreed: Jesus does not deny this man’s, or his parents’, sinfulness, but responds, “It is not THAT this man sinned… but THAT the works of God might be displayed…” Yes – there was surely sin in he and his families’ life, but that doesn’t matter because there is no necessary cause and effect relationship between his sin and his blindness, and we shouldn’t bother ourselves looking for one. In a sense, Jesus is correcting their question. Jesus is saying, “You are all concerned with who’s fault this is – you see this man as a mere object – but this is a living breathing person and the real issue is not ‘Who’s fault is this?’ but ‘What can the power of God do about it?’” Eugene Peterson actually captures the thrust of this passage well in The Message when he paraphrases it; “Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?’ 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.’

However, even more important than Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples was his response to the Blind man: presence and perspective. Jesus was WITH him, first and foremost – and not only that, but he touched him, which resulted in healing. Later, as a result of this ministry of presence He was able to offer the TRUTH – giving this man not only wholeness, but a whole new perspective; CONVERSION and REPENTANCE.

II. Presence and Perspective

The new testament documents a great many powerful encounters with Jesus. Well, if understood in light of the whole of Scripture the significance of this encounter is staggering. The disciples encountered this blind man as a project – a philosophical question to be addressed. Jesus saw the blind man as, first and foremost, a PERSON – living, breathing, hurting — and rather than asking “Why is this man blind?” he asks, “How can I help? What does this man need? First, he needs the presence of Jesus – the touch of Jesus – which brings healing and gives him sight.

I don’t think most of us have any IDEA how important the presence of others is to our daily life, let alone an awareness of the presence of God! A study by the University of Miami Touch Research Institute recently showed that… Infants born premature or of crack addicted mothers and not developing well were massaged for fifteen minutes 3 times a day. They gained weight 47% faster than babies who weren’t massaged. Nutrition and food intake were the same, they simply developed more than those who were not massaged. 8 months later, their mental and motor abilities showed better development and they had maintained the weight advantage. They had shorter hospital stays by 6 days…resulting in cost savings of approximately $3000 per infant.”

Similarly, the 13th century historian Salimbene described an experiment made by the German Emperor Frederick II to discover what language children would speak if raised without hearing any. Babies were taken from their mothers and raised in complete isolation, given only what was thought necessary for survival. They all died, unable to live without human contact. The presence of people in our daily lives is of the utmost importance!

Most of us, I suppose, are familiar with the book of Job. In it a Godly and prosperous man named Job is stripped of all he has. Now, presence is something Job’s friends, at least initially, got right. Job 2:13 says, “..they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw his suffering was very great.” Too bad they couldn’t keep their mouth’s shut – they later fell prey to the same misunderstanding as the disciples. When Job’s friends finally speak they tell him (my paraphrase), “Job, just be honest – you need to repent. If you were truly innocent you would prosper and not be in this mess, so clearly you do not fear God. In fact, you probably deserve even worse!” No wonder Job responds, “…miserable comforters are you all.” (Job 16:2) Yet consider the disciples’ question – “Who sinned…THAT he was born blind?” That question carries the very same accusations. Later the Pharisees join in; “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34) Yet much less important to the sufferer is the answer to “why?” and “who’s to blame?” than is simply the presence of God.

Job does receive real comfort, as does the blind man. He encounters God and God responds. He doesn’t get an answer so much as God’s presence, and that leads him to trust and worship. Likewise, Jesus’ presence meant healing for the blind man, and he trusted in Christ because of it. Because of Christ’s presence he was willing to see Christ for who he really was – he was given a God’s-eye view – a new perspective.

To see this we have to read further. John 9:35-38 says;

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Daniel 7:13 speaks of “one like a son of man” who stands in the presence of “the ancient of days”, and later in 8:17 Daniel bows down and worships the “son of man”. In the Bible whenever someone bows before an angel, the angel tells him to stand – but the Son of Man does not – i.e.: the Son of Man is divine. Jesus forever changed this man’s perspective, giving him a “God’s-eye view” of reality – a peek behind the veil into the heart of spiritual reality. Jesus is the divine “son of man” – not simply another healer, but the righteous judge, and he is WITH US. In fact, the name Emmanuel means “God with us” – Jesus is “God with skin on.” What else could he do but worship in response to this revelation? Now not only has he received healing through the presence of Christ, but his past suffering has been put in perspective and filled with purpose – it was ultimately for God’s glory.

And, in fact, the Gospel offers us all perspective in the face of pain and suffering. First, the Gospel lets us know that this is not the end; 2 Corinthians 4:17 – For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” Secondly, through the Gospel God shows his sovereignty even over evil. Genesis 50:20 says “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Think about that in relationship to the cross of Christ – the heart of the Gospel: the most evil event ever known, the brutal murder of the most innocent man ever born, is actually the greatest event of all time – the way of salvation for all who would ever call on Him! Lastly, the Gospel makes it clear that in Christ there is no meaningless evil. Romans 8:28 –“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Even our mistakes God can use for our good!

Think on a few other examples of how perspective affects the lives of the faithful. Job was given perspective by God when God questioned him, and when he saw God in all His glory – when he recognized God as creator, sustainer, redeemer – as totally sovereign over all of history – he was led to once again trust and worship Him in the midst of his loss. Likewise, Habakkuk asked God, “How can you, a Holy God, use the evil in this world to further your purposes? Then Habakkuk met God, God gave him a God’s-eye view – that evil will be destroyed and that he allows it in order to discipline and bring back his beloved children – those who brought the evil of their own will eventually will stand before God to account for their actions. When Habakkuk saw the big picture – that God has allowed particular evil for GOOD – he worshipped and trusted God, even in his case knowing that the worst was yet to come.

Peter Kreeft in A Case for Christ shares a short parable about a bear caught in a bear trap that solidifies this for me. Imagine a hunter encounters a bear in a trap and sympathetically decides to attempt to free him. He painfully sedates the bear with drugs, and then must push the bear further into the trap to release the tension on the spring. The bear would, meanwhile, judging by the pain he feels, surely be convinced that the hunter was his enemy even though the hunter is acting out of compassion for the bear and for its own welfare! The fact is, the bear is wrong: the pain and suffering he experiences by the hand of that hunter is for his own good, but at best he’ll only see it in hindsight. Now, isn’t there a far greater difference between God and man, than man and a bear? Is there ANY WAY that bear could have possibly understood the hunter’s good intentions? Then what makes us think we can always understand the ways of God? Haven’t we reason ENOUGH to trust God in the face of pain and suffering – His presence with us through the body of Christ, and in the gift of His Holy Spirit – God IN us – and a God’s-eye view – the Gospel of Christ, and His revelation in the Word of God; that He is ultimately in control and uses all things for our good?

In fact, these two – presence and perspective – are pulled together in Christ. Alister McGrath says, “Jesus died between to criminals…Christ was present with those who suffered and finally died. This is compassion in the full sense of the word …He identified with us right up to the end, joining us in this solidarity of suffering. To know Christ is to know a God who has gladly and willingly borne our sorrows on the bitter cross of Calvary. He became personally acquainted with our grief. God has shared our sufferings, injecting the fragrance of his redeeming presence into the darker side of our existence. God is a fellow sufferer who understands, not someone who views our situation from a safe distance, uncomprehending and unaffected.” “God is not like some alleged hero with feet of clay, who demands that other suffer while he himself remains aloof from the world of pain. He has passed through shadow of suffering himself. The God in whom Christians believe and hope is a God who himself suffered and who, by having done so, transfigures the sufferings of his people.” Not only is God sovereign over pain and suffering, and allow it for a reason, but He is present IN our suffering – He has born it himself.

Closing;

That little boy I mentioned before this all began, as many of you probably know, was I. By the time I hit 7th grade I was so depressed as to be virtually suicidal and remained so well though the 10th grade – never going through with it because I had the love of one or two close friend, who, it just turns out, were Christians. I didn’t become a Christian then, but that was when I got my first view of God, and it shook me to my foundations. I realized that IF God existed then that changed ALL of this. EVERYTHING. The things that saved me was the presence of God through those 2 friends, and the big picture – the God’s-eye view – He began to give me that year. Now when I look back over my life I can see threads of God’s work in EVERY aspect of my suffering. I feel like Chuck Colson when he says, “God uses the ‘thorns and thistles’ that have infested creation since the Fall to teach, chastise, sanctify, and transform us, making us ready for that new heaven and earth. This is something I well understand; the greatest blessings in my life have emerged from suffering, and I have seen the same process repeated in countless lives.”

When the blind man encountered Jesus and the disciples as is recorded in John 9 he didn’t need an abstract answer to a philosophical question – he needed God’s presence and healing, and he needed conversion – a changed mind centered around a HUGE view of God – a God’s-eye view of things.

Applications;

I think we can take at least two specific things away from this…

1.) First, we as disciples can learn a lesson from Jesus. Let’s not get bogged down in academic questions at the expense of the practical – we should see evil, pain, and suffering in a different light – as an opportunity for God to work through us. There are times we might ask the “why” questions – at times it might even be helpful in directing one to avoid future pain, or in seeing “the big picture” – however in the midst of people’s pain we should focus more energy on presence; being there, loving them, and healing. Sometimes the only Christ people will see is Christ in us.

2.) Secondly we can learn from the blind man – he was quick in his response to Jesus when Jesus asked, ““Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” When you find ourselves in the midst of pain seek out God’s presence in prayer, in the Word, and in fellowship with the body of Christ, but do so seeking a bigger vision of God – a God’s-eye view. Be reminded that even the devil, as is shown by the book of Job, is God’s devil and can do nothing he is not permitted to. Be reminded God allows and uses all evil, a result of the fall, for our good – as the crucifixion is the ultimate example of the ultimate evil which resulted in the ultimate good! And lastly, in our “God’s-eye view”, don’t forget that God has carried our sorrows Himself – He is with us in suffering. This is His Gospel to us.

God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C. S. Lewis

I have reminded myself over the years to never forget that behind every question is a questioner…” – Ravi Zacharias

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