God’s Power and Human Suffering

John 9:1-7

Being a minister at a wedding reception has certain occupational hazards. I had just completed a wedding at Georgetown University’s chapel and had adjourned with the guests to enjoy drinks and hor d’oeuvres at a local bistro. As I was munching on one of those scallops wrapped in bacon that are often featured in the cocktail hour, a guest came up to me. “You’re the minister, aren’t you?” she asked. Trapped, I had to confess that I was. Then she proceeded to tell me a story of pain and woe.

Her daughter had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. When she went to see her pastor, he told her, “If you only have more faith, your daughter will get well.” When her daughter’s condition went downhill, he and others at the church asserted, “God won’t help you till you trust him with all your heart.” But, she did have faith, and offended by their message, she left the church.

She then sought out a well-known new age healer, hoping for spiritual insight and a cure. The healer advised her and her daughter to use positive affirmations. When her daughter’s condition continued to deteriorate, the healer asserted, “It’s your negativity that’s preventing your child from getting well.” Overwhelmed with guilt, she had nowhere to go.

Parents are magnets for guilt and her encounters with religious leaders only made it worse. Now, she turned to me. We talked a bit and I suggested another way to understand God’s role and her responsibility in relationship to her daughter’s illness, one that did not glibly blame victims for their misfortunes.

The encounter with Jesus gives us one vision – and a very good one – of the relationship of God, sin, and suffering. Jesus is walking along with his followers and they spy a man blind from birth. They ask a theologically appropriate question of the rabbi, “Who sinned – this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In popular religion, many people assume that there has to be a reason for everything that happens to us. Common Jewish wisdom was that sickness and poverty were always the result of sin, while health and prosperity were always the result of righteous behavior. If you’re really sick, you must have done something wrong or God is punishing you for some youthful indiscretion. As a woman who, like myself lived through the glory days of the 60’s and early 70’s, asked me, “Could God be punishing me with ovarian cancer, as a result of my wild lifestyle in the 60’s?”

Of course, our actions have consequences. Diet, weight, lifestyle, and personal choices, can shape our health for good or ill. But, Jesus is suggesting that there is no one to one correspondence in health and illness, and good and bad fortune. “Who sinned?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind!” You see, as a parent or grandparent, I can feel guilt and shame over a child’s health. “What did I do wrong? Too much sugar, too many video games, not enough cuddling or affirmation, bad genes?”

Jesus is suggesting, first of all, that we are not responsible for everything that happens in our lives. Stuff happens! The universe has both order and chaos. God doesn’t determine everything, nor do we. The poor aren’t necessarily lazy, but may be the victims of social injustice, economic inequality, poor parental decisions, or simply bad luck. Don’t assume that you are powerful enough to determine your health or the health of your children. Accidents happen – on the highway and the cellular level – that neither God nor you have chosen. God is all-loving, but not all-determining.

Jesus’ second interpretation seems just as bad as the one he is challenging. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Taken literally, it sounds like this man lived with sight-impairment so that God might be get some good press. He is purely a pawn in God’s game, an object lesson to encourage faith. In contrast, I see the passage as saying – and anything less makes God a narcissistic parent – that God did not choose this man’s illness, but that God has been at work in his life to bring healing and this healing will inspire the faith of others.

Oftentimes, people let God off the hook for acts that would lead to a jail sentence if committed by one of us. Religious leaders irresponsibly talk about God destroying cities like New Orleans in response to the Big Easy’s immorality or 9/11 as God’s wake up call to a nation that tolerates homosexuality, or AIDS as divine punishment for sinful behavior. But, what parent would do such a thing to her or his child? God’s not out to get us, God is out to love us.

Jesus finally gives his solution to the problem of evil. He puts a poultice on the man’s face, tells him to go to a healing pool, and restores his sight. Jesus’ comments reveal the heart of his ministry and our own, when we are faithful to God’s way: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

In other words, behave like first responders: when the ambulance comes to your door or the fire truck shows up at your house: they don’t ask “how did you get in this mess?” they get you out of this mess – they take you to the hospital or turn on the hoses. The answer to the problem of pain is not to explain it – although there are plenty of bad explanations – but to respond to pain and suffering with love. The answer to the problem of evil is to pray and provide comfort. The answer to the problem of evil involves creating structures of healing and wholeness – feed the hungry, provide good healthcare for everyone, visit the sick, reach out to the lonely.

We are God’s hands, and though we don’t think we can do much in response to the suffering of our world: we can do ordinary things with loving care. We can be compassionate neighbors and citizens who do all we can to ease the suffering of the world.

That day, Jesus changed the discussion – God is not punishing you with illness, God is in the business of healing. Accidents happen, there are pockets of chaos in the world, and while God does not cause these, God is at work to bring healing out of challenging circumstances. In all things God works for good. Our task, as God’s people, is to be on the side of healing, so that God is glorified, faith is nurtured, pain is eased, and our world experiences wholeness, one moment at a time.