AN: I recently reread the Gospel reading of Jesus healing the man born blind. I was struck this particular time by all its implications and spiritual meat that it offers. I’ll be writing a few blog entries on this periscope, unpacking as much as this lesson presents to me. I pray that this is a particularly edifying series and appropriate for this Paschal season.
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?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1-5)
We begin the Gospel reading of the Young Man born blind with a snapshot of the ancient idea of sin and malady.
We begin to see this precedent as we page through the Old Testament and find more than a handful of correlations of how sin can lead to suffering or death. King David is perhaps the most memorable case, having committed a double sin of fornication and murder and then having lost his first child. Recently Fr. Stephen DeYoung expounded on this relationship in his Lord of Spirits podcast, as he unpacked how the actual word of blessing means “things being in proper order” as we align our spiritual posture and personal will to God’s purposes, whereas a curse is when things are out of order, out of God’s order/design due to our falling. This relationship with sin and suffering is even addressed in the Gospel of Matthew, when we see that the Paralyzed man is healed specifically by Christ forgiving the sin; Christ forgiving the man’s sin was not merely a public declaration of His Grace and divine nature, but an illustration that forgiveness of sins is too often the root of our suffering with disease being merely a symptom of it.
That being said, we see how suffering in the Old Testament seemingly has no correlation to sin. Such is the case of Job. He is a righteous man, charitable, and even at the first sight of calamity doesn’t even begin to question God dispute his wife’s jadedness. The man suffers terribly, more so than David even, but to no fault of his own. The snapshot of Job that we receive is that the devil is looking to test Job, but he does so with God’s permission. At first glance, Job’s case seems to propose an inextricable nature of suffering, how cruel and unfair life’s circumstances can be and sometimes without a particular point.
A similar case of this testing by the devil is echoed in the life of St. Anthony when he is assaulted by animals (demons) in a cave, left for dead, found and restored by a friend, and thereby goes to return to the cave to fight again. After the second encounter, St. Anthony is not assaulted again, but asks God why God didn’t fight for him the first time, wherein God answers that He wanted to see St. Anthony contest on his own first, that God was there in the gauntlet, and after his perseverance and courage would make St. Anthony’s name great across the world.
We also see in the Gospel of Luke how Jesus addresses blameless suffering using two different examples. In Luke 13, we read how Jesus speaks on the “mingling of blood” that was from Pilate, which according to Fr. DeYoung was an insurrection put down by Pilate by use of crucifying hundreds of random Jews, despite their particular allegiance to said insurrection. We also read about the tower of Siloam that falls and kills so many. In Luke, Jesus shares both accounts because His audience seems to have rationalized, “those that Pilate killed or died by the tower collapsing, probably deserved it.” Jesus uses these examples to break the wholesale assumption that all death and malady are caused by sin, and returns His audience’s attention to the necessity of repentance. While the examples Jesus has here don’t speak about the beauty, sanctification, and purification of perseverance (ie is the case for Job & St. Anthony) it does leave room in interpretation of suffering to not always be caused by sin. This doesn’t dismiss interpreting of suffering, because whatever the “cause” of suffering there is work for the sufferer and the witness to it to make something good and holy from it.
Reading these different stories, we see that there is room for nuance in our exposition of suffering. Jesus doesn’t outright criticize the opinion that someone could be born blind or sick as a result of someone’s sin (again, Matthew shows us Jesus addressing this reality). With the blind young man, Jesus sets the record straight saying that the cause of this case was not sin, but that there is another purpose behind it.
Now we arrive at the crux of our pastoral theology of suffering: suffering ought to serve some purpose. In counseling, I often share Tolkein’s account of the creation of the cosmos. There are divine powers that sing things into being, but also demonic figures (ie Sauron) that add a dissonant chord, a bad malady. The divine beings don’t make Sauron mute, but rather weave his song into the greater melody, providing a cathartic resolve in the ballad. Minor keys and dissonance are powerful tools in music, and they serve well provided there is some resolve at the end of the piece.
Suffering can be like this poor cord struck. It upsets us, but it weaves into a bigger and more beautiful composite. A season of grief and suffering is hard to endure, but it’s woven into something greater and more beautiful. Job’s answer from God is actually just that. God lists so many beautiful and incomprehensible wonders from the farthest reaches of space to the unfathomable nethers of the ocean. It’s a hard answer, but it’s a beautiful one and it’s a sight that so few figures in the Bible are privy to. After Job’s season of suffering, his wrestling with his friends, wrestling with God, he is ultimately restored, and his story is among the famous ones in Scripture.
Conversely, King David’s suffering bears a different kind of fruit. The loss of his child is on one hand the fruit of his sinful heart, revealing how murder and fornication unfolds into destruction. But that’s not the end of that tree’s life or purpose. King David then produces new fruit, the fruit of repentance. He fasts, laments, and ultimately goes to worship God. We even get a taste of David’s contrite heart through his Psalter, producing for the world beautiful psalms and poems for all men to worship God by. King David’s fruit goes from spoiled to sweet, and out of the suffering of his sin, something beautiful is born.
Suffering can be woven into something greater, which is also to say that there is an opportunity for the sufferer to orient their attention and will to God towards this purpose. When the suffering is product of sin, there is an opportunity for repentance and beauty being born from that repentance.
But in this Gospel reading of the man born blind, we see that the suffering will bear a different and even more beautiful fruit…for the glory and manifestation of God’s work and power. The curing of the young man’s blindness is truly remarkable, a miracle that astounds many. But also remarkable (perhaps more remarkable) is God’s work THROUGH the young blind man. As we continue reading, we will see that the young blind man’s testimony and dialog with the uneducated is so very bold and sophisticated. Here we have a young and uneducated man who bests the educated Pharisees and remains steadfast in his testimony, unflinching to public opinion of Jesus.
In the end, the blind man is the one who sees the light in the world that Jesus speaks of in the end of this passage. The light is seen by the one who was physically blind, while the light is too bright to those spiritually blind.
Where I’d like to conclude with this is that there is sometimes a temptation for someone witnessing someone else’s suffering (be it friend, family, or pastor) to immediately rectify and explain the suffering. While the aim of suffering should be to refashion it so something beautiful can be born of it, it really takes the work of the one suffering to come to this epiphany. The witness, however, is called to stand side-by-side in it, to not be so brash or loud like Job’s friends were. Any wisdom we think we might immediately have to share should be tempered first by compassion, a readiness to sit in the suffering with the sufferer, to hear their story, and become a companion in it. Only in this marathon approach can we hope to intercede and provide some small epiphany for them.
But ultimately the sufferer must ask for their sight restored to see such glories, such as the young blind man.