The Why Question (John 9)

Today we are going to take a look a topic that has great personal meaning to me (Karl Meszaros).The problem of pain, or as we like to say, “Why does bad things happen to good people?” I find the way Jesus deals with those dealing with pain and suffering to be highly useful.  John 9 dives headlong into the problem of pain and how Jesus views it. While I understand that the problem of pain isn’t the primary focus of this passage, I do believe there are some instructive things here that Jesus says about pain and suffering. John 9: 1-11 reads as follows:

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.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

When we read a passage of scripture like this, there are several things we can take from it.

  • We could talk about the importance of faith in healing.
  • We could talk about the Jesus being the light of the world.
  • We could discuss the how the Pharisees viewed the healing.

For me what stands out is the disciples' question: “Who sinned?” In other words, whose fault is this? There has to be an explanation, right? Stuff like this doesn’t just happen. We live in a world where a night club is shot up and many people die, where a 2-year-old is attacked by an alligator in what is supposed to be the happiest place on earth for children. Behind their question is that has haunted many a theologian and philosopher.  Why does a loving God allow so much pain in this world?

For me, the son of a stripper, this question has special significance. I’ve spent almost my entire Christian life on this question. Answers aren’t always forthcoming. As I’ve been around this church over the years and I’ve gotten to know many people in the congregation, I’ve realized how many struggle with pain and loss. There have been several members who have had struggles with cancer. People who have dealt with extremely sick children.  In Children’s Church, we had two of our kids lose their mom to a car crash. For me personally, my world was shaken when my best friend suffered a widowmaker heart attack.

Let firstt set some ground rules. When I’m talking about pain and suffering, I’m not merely talking about just physical ailments. Rather, my topic is more on the whole scope of undeserved human suffering - things like disease or illness, wrecked personal relationships, or discrimination. What I’m not discussing are the consequences of sinful decisions.

Growing up, one of my big influences was Stephen King. I read him voraciously. King is a guy, who like me, struggles with the why question. Several of his books are built around it: The Stand, Desperation, 11.22.63, and especially the Green Mile. The Green Mile has for me been a haunting book. It discusses the murder of two young girls. A man blessed by God with healing abilities, John Coffey, tries to heal them and ends up going to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit.  The Green Mile ends with this passage.

I look back over these pages, leafing through them with my trembling, spotted hands, and I wonder if there is some meaning here, as in those books which are supposed to be uplifting and ennobling. I think back to the sermons of my childhood, booming affirmations in the church of Praise Jesus, The Lord Mighty, and I recall how the preachers used to say that God’s eye is on the sparrow, that He sees and marks even the least of His creations. When I think of Mr. Jingles, and the tiny scraps of wood in that hole in the beam, I think that is so. Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as any Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless Abraham would have sacrificed his own son if actually called upon to do so. I think of John saying that Wharton killed the Detterick twins with their love for each other, and that it happens every day, all over the world. If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say ‘I don’t understand,’ God replies, ‘I don’t care.’

It’s that last part that gets me.  The thought that God doesn’t care if I understand or not. I think that sometimes that’s my fear - that he doesn’t care at all. When Job complains to God about the unfairness of his treatment, God replies with a three chapter response that does not answer the question. God simply points out how God is the creator of the universe.  There are no words of comfort, nothing to reassure, nothing to tell Job that everything is going to be all right.  God speaks like a deistic God.

There are more times than I care to admit to that I begin to think that God doesn’t care. That we are all just being used as chess pieces on some cosmic chess board.  I fear that God only cares about me to further his goals. Let me be clear: I don’t think this is the final answer.  However, I want to state the problem in both the logical and personal sense. Let’s keep that in mind and I’ll come back to it.

The Theology of Pain

What we think of pain and suffering really matters. I’m not sure that any other part of theology has more practical implications than how we view suffering. It’s often very hard how to tell what faith people believe in from their lifestyle.  On the other hand, what we think of pleasure and pain has a direct effect on our lives.

There are those who will say that because we are sinners we deserve are lot in life and it’s just the way things are.  I do think there is some truth to that. Our sinful actions do have consequences.  However, generally speaking, Jesus doesn’t lecture those who are suffering or are in pain. Instead, if they had a sin issue, he would first heal. Then he would correct their behavior. When Job complains to God that he didn’t deserve his suffering, God acknowledges that Job spoke correctly. He never plays the, “You are a sinner. You’re getting what’s coming to you, and I don’t owe you a thing” card. It’s also something you don’t hear Jesus say when he comes across someone in pain.

There is the other end of the theological spectrum that says that we can control the amount of pain we deal with.  With enough faith, we can eliminate pain in our lives. My wife’s mom died of lung cancer when Kimmie was 19.  I was discussing this with someone once who said that she didn’t die of lung cancer.  She died of a lack of faith.  Either her, or someone around her lacked saving faith. In effect, we had an unknown murderer in our midst. That's not helpful, and it's certainly not biblical.

When I think of theology of pain, I often think of C.S. Lewis.  He wrote one of the great theological volumes on the subject called the Problem of Pain.  When his wife died of bone cancer, Lewis re-thought all of his theology.  He wrote a second book called A Grief Observed, and in it he noted, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”  

What Lewis observed is it doesn’t really matter what you believe when things are going well.  What really matters is what you do when the chips are down. When things were going well for Job, he may have had a very pleasant view of God.  It’s when he lost his wealth, family, and wealth that we learn who Job was and what he really believed.  So given all that, let’s take closer look at why we aren’t pieces on a chess board.

Pain has great value

Pain gives us a standard of accomplishment. Many of us who enjoy sports realize that some of greatest sports successes come on heels of crushing defeats.  Without the agony of defeat, there can be no thrill of victory. When I water ski or sail, there is always pain involved. The pain allows me to sense the growth and achievement. As I’ve listened to sailors talk about some of their experiences crossing oceans, they will often talk about being tested and coming through.  Often times, they call these some of the greatest moments in their lives.

It’s one of the things that the movie Inside Out got right about emotions.  Most of our happy emotions are tinged with sadness. There is a part where Joy realizes that one her most cherished memories, being surrounded by her hockey teammates and parents came after she lost a big game.

Sadness: "It was the day the Prairie Dogs lost the big playoff game. Riley missed the winning shot, she felt awful. She wanted to quit."

Joy: Sadness: "Mom and Dad... the team. They came to help... because of Sadness."

Pain also tells us that something is wrong. Leprosy is a disease that causes it’s victims to not feel pain.  They hurt themselves doing every tasks like cooking or opening a door. Some of the worst types of cancer are those that don’t cause pain.  They are silent killers. I would think that had Kimmie’s mom suffered debilitating pain, the moment the first cancer cells formed, she might still be alive. The pain of a heart attack is what allowed Anthony to get to the hospital in time.

Without pain, we wouldn’t fix the problems with ourselves and our world. Some of my biggest growing moments in my friendships and marriage have been when I’ve been told my flaws. Could you imagine being able to watch video clips of starving children and not responding?

Pain has value, but pain also gives us meaning. Without pain, without loss, the important things in our lives wouldn’t have meaning. The pain that we experience when we lose someone or something, shows that they had value to us.

“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. It remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.” Dietrich Bonhoffer

Why do we suffer?

So pain can be valuable, and pain can remind us what is meaningful in life, but it still doesn’t answer the question, “Why do we suffer?” In Batman V Superman, Lex Luthor makes an observation:

"God takes sides! No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy's fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful."

You might not expect a comic book movie use a theological argument that is centuries old.  I would argue that Lex has an improper view of God and suffering. There are several reasons why we suffer.

“There will be two things we must cope: evil in our hearts and death” – Nicholas Woltstorff

The most obvious is the Fall.  When Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, sin enters the world.  With sin, comes death. From that point, just like Adam and Eve, we continue to sin.

The second big cause of pain is free will. God allows us to love and choose him.  He wants us of our own free will, to engage him in a relationship on his terms. To allow us to do so he must also, by necessity, allows us to NOT choose him and to try to relate to him in our own terms. With free will, we have to deal with the evil in our hearts.

There’s no getting away from these two things (evil in our hearts and death). I think of the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew.  Both experienced the storm. There is no escaping the storm. We can only build on God’s word, that by his grace, we survive it.

Does God Care?

So let’s go back to my original Stephen King quote and question: Does God care?  Are we just pieces on a chess board? There have been times in my life where I’ve been tempted to conclude that he doesn’t care. I think about the children in Bethlehem who Herod killed. I think how the disciples were executed one by one. And I think of poor Job who was used by God as an example. These are hard for me to process emotionally, even if I understand them theologically.

In my better moments, I understand that Stephen King is mistaken. God may not give all the information that I want, but I think he gives me all the information that I need and can handle. We will never know on this side of eternity why my wife’s mom was taken so early. The truth is that even if we knew why, it wouldn’t ease the loss. The world and its problems are just too big and I’m merely a finite man. I have to trust that God knows what he’s doing.

I also think about Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb. I think about Jesus weeping ("roaring" is probably the best translation. Jesus was both sad and angry at the devestation of death). In that moment we know that God cares.

I also think about God given up his only son.  God didn’t keep himself separate from this world’s troubles and pain; he through his son right into the mix.  He did it to one day ultimately end pain and suffering.

Phillip Yancey is often asked to speak at places where great tragedies have taken place.  He was once asked to speak to parents of children from Sandy Hook elementary school.  This where a gunman walked in and killed 20 children ages 6 -7.  Yancey had this to say about the meeting:

One more, final question came from the audience on my last night in Newtown, and it was the one I most did not want to hear: “Will God protect my child?” I stayed silent for what seemed like minutes. More than anything I wanted to answer with authority, “Yes! Of course God will protect you. Let me read you some promises from the Bible.” I knew, though, that behind me on the same platform twenty-six candles were flickering in memory of victims, proof that we have no immunity from the effects of a broken planet. My mind raced back to Japan, where I heard from parents who had lost their children to a tsunami in a middle school, and forward to that very morning when I heard from parents who had lost theirs to a shooter in an elementary school. At last I said, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t promise that.” None of us is exempt. We all die, some old, some tragically young. God provides support and solidarity, yes, but not protection—at least not the kind of protection we desperately long for. On this cursed planet, even God suffered the loss of a Son.

Sometimes I wish for more answers. Sometimes, like Job, I want to question God face to face. But, let’s revisit why Jesus says the blind man suffered. Jesus says that “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  Jesus really doesn’t tells us what that means. What Jesus does is refocuses the question from “Why?” to “What now?” When asked about Galileans killed by Pilate, Jesus doesn’t answer why it happened. Instead he points them towards repentance.

Like Job, I think I’ve learned that rather than asking “Why?” I now ask, “Given the situation, how should I respond?” I don’t know why I was given the childhood I was given. What I can control is how I live my life. I can learn and grow from it. I can also make sure that my children are given a better childhood. Christian author Joni Eareckson Tada will never know why she became disabled after diving into a rock, but she could control her life afterward.

However, I’m thankful to be able to worship a God who doesn’t place a wall between him and his creation. I’m thankful that I serve a God who is loves us enough to send his son in our place. I’m thankful that one day the groaning of creation will be replaced by new Earth and a new Heaven. Frankly, I’m glad that he’s in control and I’m not.

For me, when push comes to shove, I echo the words of Joshua: "Choose this day whom you will serve…but, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."