The events of the past week have left our nation hurting, skeptical of one another and even more polarized on the topics of police brutality and social injustice. As in the wake of all tragedies and disasters, the question is being asked “Where is God in all of this?” and “If there is a [good] God, why is there suffering in the world?” The Old Testament Law painted a picture of cause and effect for sin. We learn much about the character and purposes of God in the Old Covenant, but we gloriously have records of the person of Jesus and His explanation for many misunderstandings and misconceptions of God developed by looking at that Law (and from basic human logic).
One such misunderstanding that the Jews carried throughout the generations was that all suffering and misfortune was a direct consequence of sin. This worldview and belief is still prevalent in many religious and basic worldviews today. It is exemplified in concepts like karma and “balance” in the universe. We also expect our social and political systems to respond to evil and sin with punishment to enforce the balance of good and evil where the supernatural fails.
We see brief examples of God’s sovereignty over suffering and troubles throughout the Old Testament with people like Job and the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt, but by in large people prefer to be autonomous and attribute their blessings and successes to their own efforts and character, and thus are left asking “why me” when inexplicable suffering occurs. Thankfully, Jesus explains suffering clearly.
“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 would be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'”
– John 9.1-3
Jesus had been teaching in the temple about His identity, the bread of life, and made the Jews angry by claiming to be God. Thus, Jesus hid himself from them and slipped out of the crowd because they were trying to stone Him to death. On His way out the door, He saw this man who had been born blind, begging. His disciples noticed Jesus taking notice of the man, and they piped up to ask Jesus whose fault it was that this man had been born with such a terrible disability.
The prevailing worldview of the day was so dominant that the disciples were unashamed to boldly speak out in the presence of this poor man and ask Jesus if he had somehow sinned in the womb or if his parents had sinned so terribly that he was doomed to an entire lifetime of blindness. Can you imagine? There are occasions that we cry out to God or doubt Him because of our current situations, but would you ever dare to approach someone with a handicapped child and speak to him about his sin or the possible sin of his child in utero which led to this situation? If you can, or ever have, you need to repent.
The disciples were clearly asking the cause. Whose fault was the blindness? And Jesus responded simply and profoundly: the cause was not sin. The cause was God setting up this very situation in which His works could be mightily displayed.
One of the most beautiful promises that Christians (and non Christians alike) claim is that God knitted us together and formed us while we were still in our mothers’ wombs.
– Ps 139.13
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
– Jer 1.5
God pieced each one of us together in exactly the manner He wanted us. This promise is true for all people. God has created us each for a specific purpose, for a specific life, and with an abundance of unique traits and characteristics. Even the handicapped. Even the blind. Even the broken. And God utilizes the ways He forms us for His own glory and honor.
Sometimes that glory and honor is exceptional service: vast wisdom, bold preaching, faithful obedience. And sometimes that glory and honor is through God’s dynamic intervention: healing of blindness, dramatic conversion testimonies, undeniable miracles. And sometimes that glory and honor is through God’s sustaining power and faithfulness when we are not healed or changed.
This blind man whom Jesus encountered was created without the ability of sight, in his mother’s womb, so that Jesus could heal him and so that Jesus could teach both the disciples and us an invaluable lesson. Not every bit of suffering is the direct consequence of our personal sin. We do understand from Genesis 3 and Romans 1-3 that all of creation is indeed under the curse because of sin and all of suffering is the result of the reality of sin in our world. But we must also understand that all who are in Christ have been forgiven for their sins and pardoned from the wrath of God as retribution for their sin – therefore while some suffering might be a consequence of their sin, no suffering of the believer is punishment for sin (Rom 8.1).
Some suffering is governed by God for the purification of our faith. We read throughout the New Testament that God utilizes suffering and trials to teach us perseverance and to refine our faith as through fire (1 Peter 1.6ff). We also see examples of suffering which God does not relieve for the sake of growing faith, like Paul:
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
– 2 Cor 12.7-10
Paul had some sort of physical ailment which caused him great distress. So much so that He begged God three times to heal him from it, and God refused. God used Paul to preform many miracles as a missionary and apostle, including bringing back a person from the dead. But yet, when Paul felt a need in his own body God refused to heal him for the sake of exemplifying His own strength through Paul’s weakness. Thus we learn that there are times that God will knit together a person in his mother’s womb with blindness and never heal him so as to glorify Himself in this specific weakness. God will allow us all to suffer a variety of weaknesses and trials without delivering us from them so that we will be forced to rely on Him and His strength and He receive the glory for His power through our weaknesses and trials.
As we continue to process the difficulties in our nation today, let us remember that God is not shocked or surprised by our situations. In fact, He is orchestrating our circumstances and situations for His glory. It might be through a radical transformation of our society as a whole, through a mighty miraculous work of God, or it might be to test and grow our faith as individuals. The greater problem might remain, but we as Christians in a weak and sinful society will need to rely on the strength and guidance of God to live loving, purely and rightly before God. This will strengthen and refine our faith.