Doubt Your Perception of Suffering

There he sat, the scum of society, a sorry piece of work begging the condescending mercy of pious passersby going in and out of the temple. Enough mercy and he could eat.

The blind man in John 9 didn’t have many vocational options. He had been born blind. And it was his own fault. As a fetus this man sinned in the womb against the Almighty. Either that or his parents had sinned and cursed him. Whichever, he was suffering his just punishment. Those who had been righteous fetuses walked by and sometimes dropped a coin in his hand.

You see, in the law and prophets God had not explained exactly why one person suffers more than another. So theologians surmised that a person’s suffering must result from a specific offense against God. Oddly, this was what Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, had surmised about Job’s suffering. God’s word to them was, “you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:8). Jesus was about to deliver a similar rebuke.

As Jesus and his disciples passed by this man, the disciples naturally wanted to know who was to blame, the man or his parents. That’s when Jesus threw another wrench into their theological system. He said, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3).

Can you hear the disciples catch their breath? Have you caught yours? Jesus said that God was to blame. The man was blind because God had a purpose in it that hadn’t entered anyone’s mind.

All those years the man and his parents labored under a perception of God’s judgment for an unknown reason. And they had born others’ disdain. Imagine what the man’s childhood must have been like. Imagine the insults, the indignities, the injuries, the poverty, the loneliness, and isolation from other children. No hope for marriage. No hope for education.

Why? Because God had something glorious to say through it. It’s just that up until this day no one saw it coming, least of all the blind man.

Jesus then spat on the ground, made mud with his saliva, put the mud on the man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” So he went and washed and came back seeing!

In that moment everything changed. The man went from life-long blindness to seeing. But even more revolutionary in its repercussions, he went from being perceived as the object of God’s wrath to being the object of God’s mercy!

This is mind-blowing. God’s purposes in his blindness turned out to be exactly opposite of everyone’s perceptions. All along people believed the man was “born in utter sin” (v. 36). But in fact he was born blind in order that God might show mercy to him and pronounce judgment on the self-righteous religious people. “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (v. 39).

Caution: we must be very careful in assessing God’s purposes in suffering—our own or someone else’s. Often we cannot see any redeeming reason for it. The same would have been true of the blind man until the day Jesus passed by. Even here we might be tempted to say, “Well, yes, but how often does that happen?” I know. I have a sister who is severely developmentally disabled. I know very little of God’s purposes in it. He often does not make his purposes public knowledge.

This story reminds us that our perceptions and God’s purposes can be very different, even opposite. If we are going to be skeptical, it’s best to be skeptical of our perceptions.