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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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Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

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This is something that is really hard for me to write about because it cuts so close to my own natural proclivities. My wife and my children know that I speak the truth when I confess that I am defensive. I easily bristle at slights, often even when they are meant as jokes or completely unintended. I know rationally that such defensiveness betrays insecurity and an ego that is easily wounded, that my guard goes up because I do not want to appear vulnerable, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to remain open and affable when berated or insulted. Nevertheless, I continue to strive against defensiveness.

Jesus was not defensive. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone more mild-mannered while facing his harshest critics. After Jesus accused his detractors of being children of the devil—harboring in their hearts the same antipathy toward life and truth that characterizes the devil—they said to him:

“Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

John 8:48

To understand the full impact of this insult, we need to put it in more contemporary terms. In calling Jesus a Samaritan, the Jewish leaders were questioning the legitimacy of his birth as well as his racial purity, something they regarded as very important. In effect, they were calling his mother a whore and claiming that he was not really Jewish. “You are a half-breed bastard,” we might say today.

Likewise, in calling him demon-possessed, the Jews were questioning his mental stability. They were calling him crazy, or, more politely, mentally ill.

Jesus carefully frames his response in a way that patiently answers their charges while preventing them saying he is self-aggrandizing. It is a very delicate matter to claim to be God’s unique son in a culture where such claims are regarded as blasphemous! Jesus defends himself without being defensive. Later, of course, he faces much worse: insults, blows, torture, and an ignominious death. He says nothing in his own defense but suffers cruelly and unjustly for a purpose greater than his own life.

His followers quickly gain a reputation for the same kind of attitude. When they are beaten, they rejoice (Acts 5:41). When they are put to death, they pray and forgive (Acts 7:59-60). When they are imprisoned, they sing (Acts 16:25).

It is in this context of a willingness to suffer rather than fight back that we must understand Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians in I Corinthians 6:1-11. The believers in Corinth were taking disputes to the civil courts instead of resolving them among themselves. In our litigious and rights-obsessed culture, this seems only fitting. Why shouldn’t we go to court and involve lawyers to resolve disputes? That’s how we avoid bruises and bloodshed. But Paul has no quarrel with the civilizing influence of the courts. His concern is for the unity of the church, and what he finds is a willingness to assert individual rights against that unity. The unity of believers is so paramount that it takes precedence over our own sense of injury. “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks. “Why not rather be cheated?”

This same impulse to privilege personal justice over collective unity has done great harm throughout Christendom. Where I see it most in the online world is in comments from Christians defending some supposed biblical point of view with all the condemnation and vituperation they can think of. Whose purposes does that kind of behavior serve? It is not loving toward the one with whom they disagree, nor is it attractive to those outside the faith. When we fight—for conflict is inevitable—let us do so with vigor but also with grace and love, as those who value the bonds of Christian intimacy above our own righteousness.

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