For the last six weeks I’ve been in a Bible study on Wednesday night called “Glorious Ruin,” a study of the book of Job. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian, the author of the study, said that there are many books written about the “why” of suffering and the “how” of suffering, but he found very few books written about the “Who” of suffering. We want to know “why” we suffer pain and sorrow, the trials and tribulations of this life. Many of us want to point out the benefits of suffering by using Scripture from God’s Word like James 1:2-4 where James writes,
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4 NIV)
You can find lots of information about “why” and “how,” but there has been very little written about the “Who” of suffering, the God of suffering. We learned in our class that it is much more important to invest time and energy into knowing the “Who” of our suffering than it is to spend our time and energy on seeking answers as to why we suffer. Let me illustrate what I mean by telling you about Marc Harreigner. Marc was shoveling snow from his driveway while his wife prepared to back their car out of the driveway. She couldn’t see him, but their small son had walked behind the car. The little boy was crushed beneath the weight of the car as his mother put the car in reverse. Marc said that the emotional pain of losing his son was crushing in the months that followed. It has been a long journey, but Marc has found solace and comfort only in seeking the Lord in his pain and intolerable suffering. He eventually quit his job in the business world, enrolled in Seminary, and has devoted the rest of his life to bringing God’s compassion to those who are alone in their desperation. Marc says,
We live in a broken world; Jesus was honest enough to tell us that we’d have trials and tribulations. Sure, I’d like to understand more about why…the ultimate answer is Jesus’ presence. That sounds sappy I know. But just wait—when your world is rocked, you don’t want philosophy or theology as much as you want the reality of Christ. He was the answer for me. He was the very answer we needed. (Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. pg 133.)
Job arrived at the same conclusion after he had lost everything and contemplated his suffering. Job was frustrated in his suffering, he was angry about his circumstance, and in Job 10 he said he would like to ask God, “Why are You doing this?” Job’s friends urged him to search his heart to try and determine what he had done to bring such suffering on himself, but in the end God let them know that what they were doing to their friend was evil. Well, God did show up, but He didn’t give Job a chance to speak. He spent all of His time asking Job questions, questions which let Job know that he knew very little, questions that convinced Job that God was Sovereign and he was not, and in the end Job said,
1 Then Job replied to the LORD: 2 “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. 4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ 5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6 NIV)
Job realized something much more powerful than any answer he could have ever been given or arrived at on his own—God is Sovereign and God can be trusted, even when we have no understanding of the “why” or “how” or “how long” of our pain and suffering. Job learned long before Marc or any of us that in the midst of the excruciating pain caused by living life it is the assurance of God’s presence that is needed more than any answer. With that said, let’s read our Scripture for this morning found in John 9:1-12.
1 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 works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works 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 After saying 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. 8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.” 10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked. 11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.” 12 “Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. (John 9:1-12 NIV)
The Scripture that we are taking a look at this morning, the story of Jesus and the blind man, is only a portion of a much longer section of Scripture running from John 9:1-41. I’ve spend the whole week reading and studying these verses and there are so many lessons available for you and me in this story. Instead of just skimming through the chapter I want us to sit down in it for a few weeks and really let these lessons soak in.
Today’s lesson about suffering has raised so many questions for people throughout the ages. “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? Don’t you care about me God?” These are some of the most frequently asked questions. What’s interesting is that these are the same questions that were being asked in Job’s day and Jesus’ day as well.
In the opening verses of our Scripture, Jesus saw a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples saw the same man, but they wanted to use him to talk about matters of theology. They said, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 NIV) The disciples, like many people today, believed that somebody had to have done something wrong to cause the man’s blindness. Many people who call themselves Christians are really much more like the Buddhist and Hindus in their belief about karma. Karma says that if you do good you will receive good in return. If you do bad you will reap what you sow in return. I’m sure you’ve heard Christian friends who are going through a tough time say, “I feel like I’m being punished for what I did.”
There is some truth to the belief that we will reap what we sow, but we have to remember that heresy is real truth with a slight twist. For example, if, after a long night of drinking you have a wreck on the Broadway Extension, there will be painful consequences that will go along with the choices you made. If you are married and you choose to have an affair, there will be painful consequences that go along with your choice. If you are taking a test at school and the teacher catches you cheating, there will be painful consequences that go along with your choice to cheat. If you smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish, and eat like a horse then you are going to have to deal with health issues at some point. I could go on, but I think you understand the point I’m trying to make. We have choices to make and sometimes we suffer the consequences of our choices. That is the truth. The error comes into play when we try to attach something we did or failed to do to every pain we suffer in life. To the disciples question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said,
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3 NIV)
There is also some truth to the statement that sin causes suffering. Since the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, what we call, “The Fall,” suffering has been a part of the fabric of humanity. There are examples in God’s Word where specific illnesses and suffering were the consequence of people’s behavior. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul was getting on the brothers and sisters in Corinth for making a mockery out of the Lord’s Supper. They had turned it into a drunken party. Because of their total disregard for the holiness of the observance, Paul said,
30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:30 NIV)
In John 5, a chapter we covered in our study of John, you might remember Jesus healing the man by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The people believed there were healing properties about the water in the pool, but the man Jesus healed had been there for 38 years in the same condition. Jesus healed him and told him to take up his mat and walk. Later in the story, in John 5:14, Jesus said,
14 Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14 NIV)
We can find illustrations of the point I’m trying to make in the Old Testament as well. Moses’ sister, Miriam, was stricken with leprosy because she rebelled against Moses’ authority in Number 12:10. In Deuteronomy, God told His people that if they refused to follow His Word that He would visit them with disease, famines, pestilence, etc. These are biblical truths, but to link every pain, all forms of suffering, to something we have done is absurd and not biblical at all. Job and the blind man in John 9 are two glaring examples that should stop every one of us from making that kind of conclusion. Neither of them suffered because of anything they did.
The disciples asking if the man’s parents could have possibly sinned to cause their sin to be born blind is something else we need to talk about. Are parent’s sins “visited” upon their children? Let me put that another way. Do parent’s behaviors impact the lives of their children? In some cases you better believe it. I’ve known children who were “crack babies” or born with fetal alcohol syndrome that suffered because of the actions of their parents. The list goes on and on of the effects of parent’s behavior on their children. The problem that arises is when we Christians grab hold of a verse like Exodus 20:5-6 and make it a governing principle for all of life. Let me read it to you.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6 NIV)
You have to remember that the Children of Israel were wondering around the desert for forty years because of their sin and their children were suffering because of the sins of their fathers and mothers. Before you make this verse the overarching principle of how you view the suffering of children you need to read Ezekiel 18:20-21.
20 The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. (Ezekiel 18:20-21 NIV)
You can also read Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Chronicles 25:4, and Jeremiah 31:29-30 which all reinforce what we’ve just read in Ezekiel 18:20-21. And to drive the point home, to play the ultimate trump card on anyone who believes that a parent’s bad behavior is always tied to the problems of their children, let’s read Jesus’ answer to His disciples when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered,
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:3 NIV)
The man was born blind not because of anything he had done or anything his parents had done, but he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. God still works in the midst of suffering today and don’t think that He only works in the miraculous. I would encourage you to study the lives of people like Joni Eareckson Tada who was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was young. What an amazing display of God’s power from her wheelchair! Or study the life of my favorite preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who battled debilitating depression and health problems his whole life. His familiarity with suffering allowed him to write sermons that have ministered to the weary and wounded like no other.
We want to try to trace our problems to their cause so that we can fix them, but not all problems can be fixed and neither is all suffering caused by something we’ve done or failed to do. God has reasons for which reason has no understanding.
You may wonder how God, who is held out to be all loving, can allow such suffering and pain as we see daily in our world? I say all you have to do is look to Calvary’s Cross. He is the God who entered our broken world, broken and torn to shreds by our sin mind you, and yet He chose to suffer with us…even to suffer for us. This is so important for us to understand because in every age there has been a corner of Christianity which says that God desires perfect health for all of His people. No suffering for God’s people? Who wouldn’t want to get in on that?! That’s absurd! That’s heresy! It is no wonder to me why this type of teaching is so attractive to the people of our day. When we feel pain of any kind our primary objective is to be free of pain…by any means necessary.
Now, before you leave here and tell somebody, “Mike doesn’t think that God heals people.” Let me assure you that I know God does heal people. Jesus healed the blind man in John 9 and I can show you many other instances where Jesus healed people in the Bible. The Lord can and does heal people today. My experience is that God uses doctors, medicine, and the healing properties He has given to our bodies much more frequently than He brings about instantaneous healing. There are also instances where God chooses not to bring an end to a person’s suffering. My concern is that people in our day desire to be free of pain so badly that they miss the opportunity that pain and suffering brings to draw near to the Father in total reliance on Him in the storms of life.
Dr. Paul Brand once wrote a book called, “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.” It is an amazing book which chronicles Dr. Brand’s career as a surgeon and medical missionary in leper colonies and other places. In an article published in a magazine called, “Third Way,” Dr. Brand says,
Frantic attempts to silence pain signals may actually have a paradoxical effect. The U.S. consumes 30,000 tons of aspirin a year, averaging out to 250 pills per person. Newer and better pain relievers are constantly introduced, and consumers gulp them down: one third of all drugs sold are agents that work on the central nervous system. Yet, I see little evidence that Americans feel better equipped to cope with pain and suffering. (Brand, Paul. Dealing With Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants. Third Way. 1994)
That article was written in 1994. Since then much stronger medicine than aspirin has taken hold in our effort to deal with pain. According to the National Institutes of Health, 76 million prescriptions for opioids were written for pain treatment in 1991; in 2011, that number reached 219 million. Overdosing is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Every single day 44 people die from prescription painkiller overdose; that’s 16,000 people a year. In 2011, 41,340 people in the United States died from prescription painkiller overdose. We’ll do anything to silence the pain in our lives.
Pain is pervasive. We suffer physical pain, but that’s not the sum total of the pain we experience. Emotional pain can be suffocating and debilitating. Mental pain, mental illness, can drive a person to the brink of despair. We’ve got to see pain as an alarm and not as our enemy. Dr. Brand identified the root problem of lepers who were losing digits on their hands and feet. It wasn’t that the flesh was rotting and falling off, it was that the leper had lost the sense of pain and in turn injured themselves in one way or another. Dr. Brand said,
If I held in my hands the power to eliminate physical pain from the world, I would not exercise it. My work with pain-deprived patients has proved to me that pain protects us from destroying ourselves. (Brand, Paul. Dealing With Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants. Third Way. 1994)
Just as pain serves as an alarm system for our body, so it should serve that same purpose for our spirit. When you and I are sick and in pain we call the doctor’s office and hope that we can get in. I’ve got news for you, the Master Physician is always available to gather you up in His arms of grace and mercy. He will walk you through the storms of life. I’ve been through some dark, dark nights of the soul when it seemed like the Lord was so distant, when it seemed like my prayers were echoing in the dark, but I’ve learned that He is the constant presence in my life. He is the Unseen hand that preserves my life, strengthens my feeble arms, and draws me to Himself even when I don’t feel His presence. He has displayed His work much more profoundly in my pain and suffering than He ever has in my victories. Won’t you bring your hurts, your sorrow, your pain to the Savior who suffered in your place and who is with you in your suffering?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
April 19, 2015