26 March 2017
4th Sunday in Lent, Year A
It’s a perennial question: Why does God allow sickness and suffering? We know that God doesn’t create misery and pain, but we also know that God hasn’t used his power to eradicate it from our lives. He allows sickness and suffering to affect us. The question is: Why?
In the ancient world, the Jews thought that sickness was a direct result of sin. If you did something wrong, your punishment might include some sort of physical or mental suffering. The ancient Greeks viewed misery and pain as a sign that you’d offended one of the gods. Even today, this view of things can be found: the idea that sin and sickness are directly related.
But, from a Christian perspective, there’s no connection like that. Of course, if we eat too much and commit the sin of gluttony, we’re likely to suffer the pains of a stomach ache. But that’s not quite the same thing as saying that sickness and suffering is the punishment for sin. A stomach ache is more like a natural consequence of over-eating, not a punishment for over-eating.
From the Christian perspective, there is sickness and suffering in the world that has no relation whatsoever to sin. It’s simply there. The man born blind is an example. Jesus says very simply that “neither he nor his parents sinned;” and yet, he was afflicted with blindness even as a newborn. But God allowed this, as Jesus says, “so that the works of God might be made visible through him;” through the man born blind.
As much as sickness and suffering is an affliction, it’s also a setting or a situation in which God can work. And that seems to be why God allows sickness and suffering. After all, it’s why Jesus suffered in the desert, and at the hands of his opponents, and on the Cross. God can work through anything, even misery and pain, sickness and suffering.
But it would be a mistake to think that healing is the only way God works. Now, the man born blind was healed and sight was given to him. But Jesus didn’t heal everybody when he walked the face of the earth. No doubt, there were lots of other people who were afflicted in body, mind, or soul, but who were not touched by Jesus or healed by him. I’m sure we all know situations where someone has been seriously ill but, in spite of prayers, the person doesn’t get any better.
Now, it goes without saying that it’s good to pray for healing, and we should pray for that. But the “works” God is doing may not be the kind we’re looking for. A consistent theme in our readings today is the idea that God sees differently than people do. People look for one thing, while God looks for another.
Take David as an example. Now, being the youngest and also a shepherd, David should’ve been the last one chosen to be an instrument of God. But God doesn’t work that way. As the Prophet Samuel says, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” We could take the man born blind as another example. God chose an outcast of society to be his instrument; he chose the weak to help the strong.
And so, when we face sickness and suffering, it’s good to pray for healing, but it’s also good to pray that “God’s will be done,” however God is working. In our story today, God was at work more than just in the man born blind. He was also at work in the Pharisees, in the man’s neighbors, and in his parents.
With the man’s neighbors, their disbelief in healing was exposed. But because that was brought to light, they eventually came to believe. Their own faith was strengthened.
With the Pharisees, their misguided devotion to their understanding of the law was exposed. Their inability to see God’s goodness at work was also exposed. But they remained in their darkness. God used the suffering of the blind man to expose the far deeper sickness within the Pharisees.
And with the man’s parents, their lack of courage and faith was exposed. Perhaps they went home ashamed; we don’t know. But we know they didn’t stand behind Jesus or their son.
God uses sickness and suffering not only as an occasion for healing, but also as a time to expose what needs to be brought to light. For example, when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness or disease, a lot is revealed: our fears, our worries, our renewed appreciation for life. By those things being revealed, God is at work.
Suffering is an occasion for our faith’s “rubber to hit the road.” It’s something that reveals our human frailty and forces us to reevaluate our priorities and beliefs. Sickness makes us appreciate life, even more than we already may. And those aren’t bad things. In the end, they’re actually good. That seems to be why God allows sickness and suffering in our lives.
No matter what troubles us—whether in body, or in mind, or in spirit—it can all be an occasion for God to do his work. What God does may not be what we have in mind, but nonetheless God is at work. Of that we can be certain. The task is to see what God is doing in our times of sickness and suffering, our times of trial and angst, and to let him lead the way.
The wonderful thing God did for the man born blind wasn’t that he gave him sight; it’s that God gave him faith. He was blind, but then he saw. After a lifetime of blindness, suffering, and patience, the man came to see Jesus. And that’s what we hope for too; for ourselves and for one another.