Recently, I preached a sermon on how a good and loving God allows suffering in the world. We all know there is plenty of suffering all around us. No one is exempt. Suffering is the common denominator for the whole of humanity. It is the place at which the ground is level for all of us, sooner or later.
In the sermon (click here if you did not hear it) I was talking about the man who was born blind. The ones gathered around Jesus asked who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind. It was common in first-century Palestine to believe God was the source of all that is and if you experience suffering, it is the result of God “getting even,” as a punishment for sin. For some time in the history of Jewish thought, many held this view. The question would have surprised no one. But the answer must have shocked them terribly. Jesus said, “No one sinned! This man was born blind so that God’s glory may be revealed.” (John 9:1-12)
As I was giving the sermon I said that if we have time, we will explore more fully what Jesus meant by this notion of God’s glory being revealed in the midst of suffering. We didn’t have time and a listener asked me what Jesus meant.
Suffering is not a punishment
First, let me be purposefully redundant. Jesus is clearly teaching that no one is to blame. We don’t have tragedy or suffering in our lives because God is getting even because someone sinned. It is important to name this repeatedly because many Christians still believe this and it is not uncommon for Christian pastors to preach/teach it.
Suffering is not God’s caprice
Second, Jesus is not saying God orchestrated this situation so this boy born blind can serve as God’s latest circus trick. Jesus is not, in any way, saying what St. Augustine taught. (Much of what he said is helpful, but like the rest of us, he also said things which make you wonder what in the world he was thinking!) Augustine had this idea of delayed revelation. Essentially it goes like this: when you get to heaven, you will discover the reasons God allowed you to suffer in life. You will see God’s divine purposes for you when you reach heaven. But, you cannot see them now. That is not what Jesus is teaching in this passage and I strongly believe that view terribly misrepresents God and leads to deep anger with God at the perceived use of people as pawns in the chess game of a meaningful life.
God’s will in all that happens
Third, there is a mantra I use as a means of explaining what I strongly believe is Jesus’s teaching about God’s glory in the midst of suffering. The mantra goes like this…”Not everything that happens is God’s will, but God’s will is in everything that happens.” This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching. St. Paul has the same conviction when he says, “In everything, God is at work for good…” (Romans 8:28) In other words, this man was born blind because of some genetic anomaly not because God willed it. However, God does not sit on the sidelines of life and watch us suffer without involvement. God is in the midst of our pain and suffering and is working hard for good to come out of the most difficult situations.
We do not believe in a passive God. Our God is actively involved in ways that surprise us. In ways that remind us, we belong to God and we can trust God to do exceedingly and abundantly greater things than we can imagine. This notion that “God’s will is in everything that happens” reminds us that we do not sit on the premises of humanity but on the promises of God. God is faithful. God is for us and not against. St. Paul speaks of it repeatedly in Romans, particularly chapter 8. That is why he says, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It is not that we give thanks for the suffering but we give thanks for the ways in which God is at work in the midst of suffering.
The Kingdom of God is among us
Finally, the truth is we never get over suffering, but with God’s help, we get through suffering. The Gospel of John, like all other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), has particular themes that appear repeatedly. One of John’s themes is God’s glory – it is Zoë life. It is life as God intended it. It is life, light, and love maximized. Zoë life is the equivalent of what the other gospel writers mean when they say the kingdom of God is among us. Enter in and experience God’s goodness and grace. It is the eye in the midst of the storm. It is the place of perfect calm and peace, regardless of what is going on around us.
As I close, when I witness people of faith, in the midst of suffering, who keep on keeping on, who continue to look for the signs of life, love, and light in the midst of their suffering, I see God giving them a strength, not of this world. They have a perseverance that never seems to end. That, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching us about God’s glory in spite of, not because of, the suffering among us.
–Rev. Jeff Gannon