Sin and suffering

When we see someone suffering, we may have compassion for them. That’s good. But even then, a less charitable thought may sneak in: I wonder what they did to deserve it?   

We do that, it seems, to preserve a sense of order and predictability. We don’t want to see people suffer, but if they do, we want to know that there’s a reason for it. Nobody wants to live in what seems like a capricious or unfair world. Because if that’s the case, we might well be suffering’s next victim, and are powerless to do anything about it.

Some such thought may have been behind the disciples’ question to Jesus:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:1-2, CEB)

You have to wonder if the man could hear the disciples’ question. Perhaps he thought, Come on, people — I’m blind, not invisible. Don’t talk about me as if I’m not there. But perhaps he was used to be treated as invisible, a social outcast, more a case study for theological conversation than a real person with thoughts and feelings of his own.

John doesn’t tell us how Jesus or his disciples knew that the man had been blind from birth. It’s possible that his was a well-known story among the locals, a tragic example of whatever moral lesson people wanted to make of the tale. As the Book of Job illustrates, it was as common then as it is now to blame suffering on the sufferer, or on something his parents did. And as Job also illustrates, it’s possible for people to be dead wrong in making such a presumption.

The disciples’ question probably wasn’t an idle one, as if they were musing about the weather. Their folk theology wasn’t getting them very far in trying to understand the blind man’s plight; blindness had reduced him to a life of begging. If he was being punished for his own sin, did he somehow sin before he was born? Could God really punish him for that? If it was his parents’ fault, was it fair for him to have to suffer so greatly for something he didn’t do?

But Jesus answers with a third possibility that they hadn’t imagined: “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (vs. 3). 

Jesus’ answer absolves the blind man and his parents of responsibility. So much for the strict moral order of a universe in which suffering has to be someone’s fault. But on the other hand, it raises an even more uncomfortable possibility. Is Jesus saying that God caused this man to be born blind just so that, years later, he could make an object lesson out of him?

That question, again, wants to make sense of suffering: So, if neither the man nor his parents are to blame, then…God is?  But such an idea seems to fly in the face of the whole tenor of the story, and indeed, the theme that runs right through the gospel of John. Jesus is the light, sent by the Father into a world of darkness. And God does not create darkness: he creates light from out of the darkness.

I appreciate the wisdom of Lesslie Newbigin here: “The attempt to ‘make sense’ of a world which is under the power of sin and death by probing back into its antecedents is doomed to frustration.” We can only go so far in trying to shed the light of our own logic on matters that can only be addressed by divine sovereignty and providence.

In a darkened world, light must be received from without as an act of grace. And acts of grace must be received with gratitude.

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