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Opportunity to Display God’s Work

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In chapter 9 of his gospel, John launches into the story of how Jesus healed a man blind from birth and the aftermath of that healing. Here is how the story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1-2

Notice the assumption behind the disciples’ question: this man’s suffering is the result of sin—his own or his parents. In other words, this man is bad or was badly brought up. That’s why his life is messed up. This same assumption is still current in our society and in our churches. People are poor because they’re lazy. People are sick because they eat junk food. Some even say that natural disasters are the result of sin, often sexual sin. (You can find examples here, here, and here.) Jesus’ response sweeps away this kind of thinking.

“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

Jesus first addresses the disciples’ false assumption. He says remarkably, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Now, of course, Jesus was not claiming that this man and his parents were paragons of virtue who lived sinless lives. Imagine, however, what it was like to be a man born blind in a society where misery is regarded as proof of God’s judgment for personal sin. Since the man was born blind, the judgment fell on him at the moment of his birth. This means that either it was a judgment on his parents for some terrible sin they had committed, or it was a judgment on the man himself for some prenatal sin. In fact, the disciples were not seeing a suffering man at all. They were seeing an opportunity to hear from the Teacher about an academic discussion current among the religious sages and scholars of the day: can you sin before you’re born? To the disciples, the man himself and his misery evoked no compassion. He was merely Exhibit A in an intellectual debate. To be fair, the disciples had no idea that the man could be helped in any substantive way, but their ignorance was in part due to their assumptions about the justness of the man’s condition. To help such a man might be to oppose God’s righteous judgment.

So when Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he liberated the man from the judgment of God. He also liberated God from the inexorable logic of cause and effect. Then he explained how his disciples were to regard suffering, “…but this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It’s tempting at this point to regard God as some kind of monster who afflicts people with blindness so he can later heal them and get praise and adulation for his “mercy.” This is not at all the God that Jesus revealed. Jesus consistently blamed suffering and evil in the world on the devil and his demons, and he credits God with doing good and overthrowing the schemes of the devil. According to Jesus, the devil lies, steals, kills, and destroys, but God tells the truth, gives to all who ask, raises the dead to life, and restores all things. So God can’t be blamed for the man’s blindness. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in the question of who or what caused the man’s blindness. He focuses instead on the opportunity the man’s blindness presents, an opportunity to respond to the situation with God’s work.

And what is it that God does when faced with blindness? He heals. Again and again in the gospels when Jesus confronts suffering and oppression, he responds with love and compassion. Nor is his compassion an empty feeling of good will or empathy. He acts on what he feels. He touches lepers even though doing so makes him technically unclean. He heals the sick even when doing so angers the religious authorities because he does it on the Sabbath. He feeds the crowds of people who came out to hear him even when doing so endangers him because the people are ready to force him to be king. Jesus risked ostracism and opposition from the authorities to meet the needs of people who needed his help. Sometimes, as in this instance, he even invited opposition in order to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in power.

For Jesus, therefore, and for all who want to follow him, suffering and oppression never represents an occasion for assigning blame or railing against the results of sin. Instead, they represent an opportunity to display God’s work—to heal the sick, to deliver the mentally ill from the destructive thoughts that torment them, to provide help to the poor, to feed those who are hungry, to give drink to those who are thirsty, to alleviate suffering and pain wherever it appears.

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bible faith guilt injustice jesus religion righteousness self sin spiritual life struggle theology

Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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Christmas death death penalty guilt law murder myth religion sin suffering violence

First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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