by Jo Kadlecek
When people are hurting and terrible things happen, asking why it happened is a natural response. As believers and as leaders, these are some of the hardest questions to grapple with. God invites us to bring those questions to him honestly, but as I was reading John 9 recently, I realized Jesus also invites us to ask some better questions.
John 9:1-3 recounts the story of Jesus and his disciples coming across a blind man as they walked along. The disciples ask their rabbi what happened to the guy: Did he sin or was it his parents’ fault that he was born blind?
To modern ears it seems an absurd question. But in the time of Jesus, there’d been a theology floating around (and in a few churches still does) that suffering was a result of sin. Someone must have displeased the gods.
Even Jesus’ own disciples bought it. As Jews they knew the story of Job’s suffering. Job must have done something wrong, his friends reasoned. Why else would he experience such misery? Christ’s followers see the blind man and ask the same question: what’d he do wrong? But Jesus is having none of it. He sees that kind of thinking as too simplistic, too narrow. Jesus said this happened so that the works of God might be displayed. Or as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, ‘Jesus said, ‘you’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.’
To them, there had to be a reason for this man’s blindness, someone to blame. A cause and effect. But Jesus said that’s the wrong question.
So if the question of who sinned for this man to be blind is the wrong one, maybe the right one is to ask what can God do? How might God be at work in this person or situation? Instead of focusing on the man’s blindness as a theological problem or a cause and effect health challenge, Jesus sees this as an opportunity to display the works of God the Creator. Jesus moves from the ‘cause’ of this man’s blindness to what can happen now, asking an even better question: where and how is God at work within the suffering around us? In this case the man’s blindness is so ‘the works of God might be displayed in him’, so his sight can be restored.
Jesus was at work in the blind man’s life: healing not only his eyes, but also drawing him into a relationship. And Jesus was at work through the blind man’s life, using his example as an invitation to others to realize their own spiritual blindness and need for a savior. It’s those who know they’re blind, admit their weakness, and are honest about their need for a saviour that he's come for (John 9:39-41). We all need his miraculous and compassionate work in our lives. Jesus heals the man because he is about his Father’s business of restoration. He restores sight and he restores the broken relationship between us and God by suffering for all of us on the cross. He was blamed for our sins and took on our pain so that we might be free from fear and receive his mercies, his fullness of life.
The original meaning of the word passion comes from Christ’s suffering on the cross. Compassion literally means, to suffer with. Christ’s compassion enabled him to endure the cross for all of us, though he was without sin. And because he conquered death and became ALIVE again, he suffers with us still. He is near the broken hearted and is present with those who are hurting (Psalm 34:18).
Jesus invites all of us to admit we’re blind, to receive his mercies, and to offer mercy to others. We follow in his footsteps when we sit beside a friend in her hospital bed; we drop off a meal for someone who’s discouraged or support a child in a vulnerable community. We support organisations helping those recover from disasters or COVID. We pray for and give to ministries helping refugees because we hate the darkness from which they are fleeing.
This transformed life leads us to ask, ‘How can God’s works be displayed?’ We look for how he is working around the world and in our neighbourhood. And in faith we step toward a pool of healing, as we’re sent into a new place where miracles can happen.
So the question isn’t, why is there suffering? It’s this: what can God do, and how can we join him?
Jo Kadlecek is an author and teacher and currently serves as the communication manager at Baptist World Aid Australia. She lives with her husband and dog in Sydney, Australia, and can’t remember the last time she bought a new coat.