John 9:1-7,13-17,34-39 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 3 "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." 6 Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. 7 "Go," he told him, "wash in the Pool of Siloam" (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. … 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I see." 16 Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided. 17 Finally they turned again to the blind man, "What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened." The man replied, "He is a prophet." … 34 To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" 36 "Who is he, sir?" the man asked. "Tell me so that I may believe in him." 37 Jesus said, "You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you." 38 Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind."
A number of years ago, I preached for the funeral of one of our members who died at a relatively young age. Many years before her death, she had suffered a severe stroke. In her funeral sermon, I preached, “There was no specific sin that caused [her] stroke, but because she was a sinner in an imperfect world, a stroke happened. There was no specific sin that caused [her] to die young, but because she was a sinner in a sinful world, death happened.”
Either I didn’t convey the point clearly or someone wasn’t listening clearly, because a few days later I received a letter saying, “How can you say that [she] suffered a stroke because of a specific sin? What kind of God do you believe in that makes someone die because of a specific sin?” The letter was signed, “Anonymous.”
At the funeral, I addressed the issue of suffering and death from a specific sin because it is an issue that plagues even the strongest of Christians. The Christian parent whose infant daughter is born with a heart defect, might ask herself if she did something in her past to cause her child’s birth defect. The Christian man who has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor might wonder if he had done something to anger God. The elderly Christian in the nursing home might question what she needs to do to make God bless her with health again.
Jumping to the conclusion that suffering is the punishment for sin is an age-old problem. Job’s “friends” accused him of committing some kind of sin so that God was bringing about divine retribution (Job 4:7-8; 8:20; 11:14-15).
The disciples of Jesus also succumb to this faulty conclusion when they come upon a man who was blind from birth. The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
How many of you, when things go south in the life of someone close to you, wonder what that person did to make God angry? How many of you, when things go south in your own life, turn your eyes to heaven and ask God, “Why am I being punished?”
This is how people thought in Jesus’ day and in Job’s day. In our day, it is a conclusion that we often jump to very quickly, as well. If someone suffers a tragic accident or lingers in an illness, then God must be punishing them for some specific sin, right?
We jump to this kind of conclusion because we want to have an answer for suffering. If any of you have spent any time with a suffering friend, you know how difficult it is to remain in their presence without trying to figure out the reason for their suffering. You know how excruciating it is to sit with your friend, who is in pain. You empathize with her. You cry with her. You want to help her figure out what went wrong and identify a solution. You want to eliminate the cause and get her life back to normal as soon as possible.
So, we make up pat answers for her suffering. “It’s for the best.” It’s all a part of God’s plan.” “God’s won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Do you realize how arrogant those answers sound? Her suffering might not be for the best. We don’t know God’s plan. And, God often gives us more than we can handle.
While we might join with the friends of Job and Jesus to offer “pat answers” for human suffering, we won’t find such easy answers for suffering in Scripture. The Bible offers a multi-faceted, balanced, and remarkably nuanced view of suffering. Some suffering appears to be the direct result of God’s righteous anger over rebellious unbelief – like the Israelites being bitten by poisonous snakes because of their complaining about food (Numbers 21:4-9). Some suffering appears to be corrective chastisement, as God changes the hearts and behavior of His people – like Jonah being swallowed by the great fish, in order to turn Jonah back toward his ministry in Ninevah (Jonah 1-2). Some suffering appears to come as a direct result of our connection to Jesus – like when Jesus assures us that we will be persecuted for our faith, just as Jesu was persecuted (John 15:18-20).
And, some suffering appears to come because we are sinful people, living in a sinful world – like with this blind man (John 9).
The disciples were somewhat correct in their diagnosis. The man was born blind because of sin. But, that doesn’t mean that he was being punished for any specific sin. Rather, blindness is one of the many different symptoms of the deadly condition of sin. Strokes, cancer, heart defects, old age, are all the symptoms of being sinners living in a sinful world. These are symptoms that infect every man, woman, and child.
We often like to think of sin as something that we do. If sin is something that we do, and suffering is a result of our sin, then we figure we can fix the problem of our suffering just by sinning less or making up for our sin. But, sin is much more pervasive than that. Sin is who we are by nature. Two sinful parents conceive and give birth to children who are sinful flesh and blood.
God doesn’t do this kind of moral calculus. He doesn’t add up our sins and subtract our righteous act, and then dish out suffering based on the difference. God doesn’t explain why bad things happen. From our point of view, there are no black and white answers. There isn’t even any gray. The reason for suffering is largely and unknowably mysterious to us.
Although, we cannot know why suffering always occurs, God does reveal to us what He has done about it. He has sent His Son to suffer satanic temptation, divine wrath, and hellish punishment in our place. All the suffering we should be enduring now and for eternity, Jesus has already suffered with us and for us. The Bible says Jesus suffered with us: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). The Bible also says Jesus suffered for us: “We do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).
Jesus is the answer to all our suffering. He was the answer to this blind man’s suffering. Throughout his life, the Jewish rabbis taught him that he was damaged goods, because either he or his parents committed some horrible sin. Then, another Rabbi approached. He taught, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” A little while later, this Rabbi made some mud with His saliva and put it on the blind man’s eyes. Then He told the blind man to wash his eyes in the Pool of Siloam. Suddenly, the blind man could see. The Rabbi had given him sight!
God often allows disabilities into our lives to help us understand that we are born full of sin and spiritually blind. It is when our disabilities force us to our knees, that we look up in faith to the Savior from our sinful condition and debilitating disease. It is when our suffering becomes so intense that we can’t endure it on our own, that the Holy Spirit opens our eyes so that we can see the Rabbi who allows us to see. He gives us spiritual sight, not with mud and spit, but with the equally humble means of water, bread, wine, and Word.
God used the cross of this man’s blindness to lead people to see the Savior who would go the Calvary’s cross. It’s too bad that many of the people who witnessed this miracle were themselves blind to the Son of Man who was standing right in front of them. God sometimes uses suffering, followed by His gospel, to open the eyes of the spiritually blind, so they might see the Savior from all their eternal suffering.
In a short time after this event near the Pool of Siloam, Jesus would go to the cross to endure the punishment of suffering. He would suffer for your specific sins, for your secret sins, for the sinfulness of your human nature. God the Father poured out His divine wrath upon His one and only Son, so that He would not have to pour that wrath out on you. Jesus endured an eternity of hellish suffering, so that through Him you might enjoy an eternity of paradise. He bled so you might be saved. He was broken so you might be made whole. He was forsaken so you might be reconciled with your heavenly Father.
Because Jesus suffered, He is able and willing to help us in our suffering (Hebrews 2:18).
When you are suffering, look to Jesus. Look to Jesus for healing from your brain tumor. Look to Jesus for strength when you are frustrated with your mom’s dementia. Look to Jesus for help after your knee surgery. Look to Jesus for comfort after your divorce. Look to Jesus for salvation in the midst of your depression. Look to Jesus for hope when you are putting a tiny coffin into the earth.
Who sinned to caused your suffering? Please remember that God does not punish us in this lifetime with suffering for specific sins or secret sins or the sinfulness of our human nature. … He already poured out His punishment on His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
God is not some distant deity in the sky. Because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, God is your Father. He loves you personally, dearly, and intimately.
Stop looking for answers for your suffering. Stop looking for reasons for your friends’ suffering. Instead, start looking to the God who became one of us, taking on our flesh and blood, so that He might suffer and save us. Christ is never blind to our suffering, our loneliness, our brokenness. He is the God who is our great comfort in the hospital room, in the divorce court, and at the cemetery. During our suffering, He is the God who says, “I am here for you. Run your hand over my back. Those stripes prove that I’m here for you. Trace your finger over my hands. Those scars prove that I love you. Put your hand into my side. That hole proves that I died for you. Stop doubting and believe. I’m here for you. I love you.” Amen.