C. S. Lewis wrote in his book, The Problem of Pain, “If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” The problem of suffering and disability is an issue that every human confronts, whether a believer in God or not. As we look at the beginning of this chapter, I want us to recognize that this introduction is here for a reason. What I mean is that the author could have recorded verse 1, that there was a man born blind and then gone to the miracle in verse 6. But what transpires between these verses is a discussion about the cause of suffering and disability. The Holy Spirit guided these words to be written. So there is an issue that is being dealt with as the sign is introduced to the reader.
The issue is described for us in verse 1. There is a man who is born blind. There is seemingly nothing light or momentary about a disability. Further, verse 8 reveals that he is a beggar, indicating that his parents cannot afford to take care of him. When in this condition, the disabled person would sit at the various gates of the temple complex, hoping for people to be compassionate toward him. There was no social security or disability help from the government. There was no Medicaid. His only hope was the compassion and generosity of those who passed by.
The Question (9:2)
Rather than compassion, the disciples see this as an opportunity to ask a question to Jesus. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Not a very compassionate thing to say in front of him as they move through the temple complex. Who sinned? But this is a question that every godly parent asks. What caused this? What did I do to cause this to happen to my child? Did we do something wrong? These are questions that my wife and I have asked many, many times now that we have a disabled child. We wonder about suffering. Everyone wonders about suffering, even godly people. Job wondered about suffering. So the question arises: “Who sinned?” It was a popular Jewish doctrine which asserted that physical suffering was the direct result of sin. This idea probably came from Exodus 34:6-7.
6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 ESV)
Job’s friends express this to Job in the midst of his suffering. Listen to the words of Bildad to his friend, Job.
“Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? 4 If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression. 5 If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, 6 if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation. 7 And though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.” (Job 8:3–7 ESV)
Job’s ten children had been killed in the first chapter of Job. Bildad declares that they sinned and had been delivered into the hand of their transgression. If bad things happen, you must have sinned was the doctrine of the people. We see it reflected in the question the disciples ask Jesus. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus’ Response (9:3-5)
Jesus begins with an important truth. “It is not that this man sinned, or his parents.” We must never look at suffering and equate it to direct, personal sin. Jesus erases a false notion that we can have in our minds. Imagine what we would look like if God directly punished us or our children or our children’s children every time we sinned! Everyone would be heavily afflicted with suffering and everyone would be disabled. Exodus 34:7 was spoken as a national concept, not individually. The scriptures teach that the child does not bear the sins of the parent (Ezekiel 18:20; cf. Jeremiah 31:30; Deuteronomy 24:16).
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:20 ESV)
But we also learn from the scriptures that suffering does not have easy answers. The wisdom books in the scriptures teach us that there are different causes to suffering. The book of Job teaches us that Satan is strongly at work in this world, causing evil, pain, and suffering. Satan can be the direct cause for suffering and disability. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that time and chance happen to all. Suffering and disability occurs by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, bad timing, and the like. The book of Proverbs teaches us that we can suffer because of the sinful actions of other people. They do evil and those consequences are far reaching, well beyond themselves. So Jesus says that sin on the part of the parents or the individual is not the issue. But Jesus does not offer these explanations to his disciples at this moment. Jesus does not direct them to the wisdom books to explain what was the cause. Instead, Jesus says the glory of God is the issue. Listen to what Jesus says.
“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3 ESV)
Jesus says that this is an occasion for the glory of God to be revealed. This is an opportunity for God’s works to be displayed. The point is not that God caused these things for this would reveal that God is the author of evil and shows partiality. Rather, the point is that it is through these things God’s works and power can be shown to the world. The question of suffering and disability is not who sinned. The question is how this can be used for God’s glory. Suffering requires a new point of view. Jesus can use tragedy to reveal the works of God. Jesus proved that even evil can be ultimately overcome to the glory of God when we look at the cross. The cross is the ultimate display of suffering and evil being used and overcome by God to accomplish God’s purposes and display God’s glory. Therefore, our suffering becomes the time when God’s glory and God’s power can be revealed in our lives and displayed to the world. The apostle Paul had the very same message about his own suffering.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10 ESV)
“My power is made perfect in weakness.” “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” “For the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Look at that line again in verse 10. The ESV, NASB, and NRSV read “I am content.” But the picture is stronger. The NKJV, NLT, HCSB read “I take pleasure in weaknesses…” The NIV reads “I delight in weaknesses…” Why Paul? So that the power of Christ would be seen in his life. Your imperfection is so that you will rest on the perfection of Christ.
Notice the “we” in verse 4 but the “I” in verse 5. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” (The NKJV and KJV read “I” in verse 4, but there is less manuscript support for the “I” reading). The disciples of Jesus must also work the works of the Father. The mission is not only for Jesus to display the works of God, but we also must show the works of God. The disciples of Jesus were to participate in working the works of God (9:4). Jesus said that they had a work to do together and it was to display the works of God. The suffering is the means by which the glory of God can be displayed. So this is the purpose. By whatever means possible, the works of God must be displayed.
- Present suffering does not correlate to past sinning. Friends, we must learn this truth. Jesus is very clear about this. The scriptures are very clear about this truth.
- Suffering can only have meaning in relation to God. Suffering is pointless and futile without a perspective is built entirely on God. What you suffer has no meaning and no lasting value unless it has some sort of meaning with God.
- There is always a purpose to suffering — that the works of God might be displayed in you.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2–4 ESV)
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6–7 ESV)
What was the purpose of the suffering in the book of Job? The purpose was to determine if he will trust God. Why do you love God? Satan declares that you love God because God is good to you. Satan declares that you trust God because of the good he does for you. Will you love God in suffering? Will you trust God through pain? Will you live for God even in disability?
We must adopt the thinking of Joseph. Joseph was put through all kinds of suffering by the hands of his brothers. But notice what he understands when he speaks to his brothers. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). That is the picture in a nutshell. The works of God must be displayed in our lives.
For myself, I am not to ask who sinned so that my daughter has a disability. My concern is not even to guess whether Satan has attacked our family or whether this is a matter of time and chance. I cannot be stuck on causes. I must be stuck on purposes. I must look to see how God can be put on display through this disability. What opportunities does this afford for my wife and I? How can the graciousness of God be shown to the world through this? How will my life be transformed for God’s glory through this? Here is God’s answer to the “why” question: so that the works of God might be displayed. So the question is: what will you do with your pain? Will the works of God be displayed in you?