One of the reasons I believe the Bible and love the Bible is because it deals with the hardest issues in life. It doesn’t sweep painful things under the rug — or complex things or confusing things or provoking things or shocking things or controversial things. In fact, Jesus sometimes went out of his way to create controversy with the Pharisees so that more truth about himself and about unbelief would come out, so that we could be warned by examples of hardness and wooed by images of his glory.
One of the hardest things in life is the suffering of children, and the suffering of those who love them — especially when that early suffering turns into a lifetime of living with profound loss. Few things in my ministry have given me a deeper sense of satisfaction than seeing God raise up at Bethlehem a heart and mind and vision and a ministry for people with disabilities, especially children. I thank God for the coordinator of our Disability Ministry, Brenda Fischer. And I thank God for the parents who have put their minds and hearts together to trumpet a vision for such a ministry.
The Supremacy of God in Disability
You can go to our website and read the vision statement that Bob Horning and John Knight put together — dads who know what they are talking about close up. Here is the core of what they have to say:
Our vision is that Bethlehem would display the supremacy of God in disability and suffering. We want our lives to reflect an unshakable joy in the Lord that allows us to embrace a life of suffering in disability for his purpose and glory. We want to shout that life with a disability and with Jesus is infinitely better than a healthy body without him. We say, with Paul, that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). We want this to be true as individuals and in the church as a body.
Is disability hard? As fathers of children with rare disabling conditions, we can attest to the struggles men in particular face when their child has a disability. Disability is expensive — financially, emotionally, and relationally. It seems neither light nor momentary. The male myth of self-determination, control, and independence is exploded in the face of needing to turn to medical professionals, social workers and educators on issues we never dreamed of facing. To this we say, thank you, God, for not allowing us to live the lie that there is anything good or worthwhile apart from you. Thank you for showing us how much we need you! The struggles our wives endure is perhaps even deeper.
The Bible: Not Silent on Disability
The issue may be autism or Down syndrome or FASD or spina bifida or blindness or any number of rare and unpronounceable conditions — each has its own peculiar sorrows, its own peculiar way of turning decades into what you never dreamed or planned they would be. Married life isn’t what you thought it would be. Everything is irrevocably changed, and life will never be the same again. And you were not asked.
“The Bible is filled with things that God has said and done to shed light suffering and sorrow.”
What would I do as a pastor if I had to face these things — these children, these parents — with a Bible that said nothing about it? What if all I could do is think up ideas on my own about suffering and disability? What if all I had was human opinions? I thank God that this is not our condition. The Bible is permeated with suffering and sorrow. This is one of the things that make it so believable. It is filled with things that God has said and done to shed light on these sufferings and sorrows.
Light Shining in Darkness
We will see that it is not incidental to the story when Jesus says, precisely in this context (verse 5), “I am the light of the world.” We are not left in the dark about the meaning of darkness. God’s light has come into the world, and it is shining on disabilities and on everything else. God has not left us to alone to despair of any meaning, or to create our own meaning. So ask God to open your eyes, and let’s walk with Jesus, in the light, through this text of God’s word in John 9:1–4.
The Hard-Knock Life of Disability
Verse 1: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” He is a man now. But he was born blind. And it did not go easily for him. We will meet his parents later in verse 18. But they were not able to care for him any longer. So he was a beggar. We know that because of verse 8: “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’” So he was blind and he was desperately poor. Life had been very hard.
Verse 1 says Jesus saw him as he passed by. And the disciples saw that he saw him. Verse 2 says, “And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” That question is crucial. But notice, the story did not begin with the disciples’ question, or with the disciples seeing the blind man. The story begins with Jesus seeing the man: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” The disciples are engaged because Jesus is engaged.
Attentive, Merciful, Moving Toward Disability
And I would just plead in passing — children, young people, and adults — see people with disabilities. And I don’t mean see them like the priest and the Levite on the Jericho Road, passing by on the other side. This is our natural reflex — see and avoid. But we are not natural people. We are followers of Jesus. We have the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts. We have been seen and touched in all our brokenness by an attentive, merciful Savior.
If you want to be one of the most remarkable kinds of human beings on the planet — a Jesus kind — see people with disabilities. See them. And move toward them. God will show you what to say.
Redeeming Awkward Moments
When the disciples saw Jesus’s attention to the blind man, they asked for an explanation of his blindness. Verse 2: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That was probably not the most compassionate thing to say at the moment. And you will blow it too someday. Yes, you will. But Jesus is merciful (just like our parents of children with disabilities have been merciful when we have said ill-informed and insensitive things), and he redeems awkward moments and callous words.
In this case, what does Jesus do? He answers their question but not in the categories that they are using. They want an explanation for this man’s blindness. And he gives it to them. But they ask for the explanation in the categories of cause. What is it in the past that caused the blindness? But Jesus says that won’t work, and he gives them an explanation in the category of purpose. Not what’s the cause of the blindness, but what’s the purpose of the blindness? Let me try to unpack this.
Not Cause, but Purpose
They say in verse 2, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In other words, what is the cause of this blindness? The man’s sin? Or the parents’ sin? Is this blindness a punishment for the parents’ sin or a punishment for his own sin — some kind of inherited sinfulness already in the womb? Jesus says, in effect, specific sins in the past don’t always correlate with specific suffering in the present. The decisive explanation for this blindness is not found by looking for its cause but by looking for its purpose. Verse 3: Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Suffering Not Owing to Specific Sin
Ponder a moment the words, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents.” That is very significant. The point Jesus is making is not that suffering didn’t come into the world because of sin. It did. That’s plain from Genesis 3 and Romans 8:18–25. If there never had been sin, there never would have been suffering. All suffering is owing to sin. And part of the meaning of the physical horrors of suffering is to reveal the moral horrors of sin.
“God means for his work to be displayed.”
But that is not what Jesus is saying here. Nor is he not denying it. What he is saying here is: specific suffering is often — I would say most of the time — not owing to specific sin. The disciples didn’t understand this distinction, it seems — that the existence of sin in the world is the cause of suffering in the world, but specific sins in the world are usually not the cause of specific sufferings in the world.
Explanation in the Purposes of God
But that is what Jesus is saying here in verse 3: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents.” In other words, this blindness — this specific suffering — is not owing to the specific sins of the parents or the man. Don’t look there for the explanation.
Then he tells them where to look. Look for an explanation of this blindness in the purposes of God. Verse 3: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The explanation of the blindness lies not in the past causes but the future purposes.
Countering an Objection
Let me address an objection at this point. There are some pastors and teachers who dislike intensely the idea that God might will that a child be born blind so that some purpose of God might be achieved. One of the ways they try to escape the teaching of this text is to say that Jesus is pointing to the result of the blindness, not the purpose of the blindness.
When Jesus says in verse 3, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him,” he means, the result of the blindness is that God was able to use the blindness to show his work, not that he planned the blindness in order to show his work. But there are at least three reasons why that won’t work.
One is that the disciples are asking for an explanation of the blindness, and Jesus’s answer is given as an explanation of the blindness. But if you say God had no purpose, no plan, no design in the blindness but simply finds the blindness later and uses it, that is not an explanation of the blindness. It doesn’t answer the disciples’ question. They want to know: Why is he blind? And Jesus really does give an answer. This is why he’s blind — there is purpose in it. There is a divine design. There’s a plan. God means for his work to be displayed in him.
Here’s another reason that suggestion doesn’t work. God knows all things. He knows exactly what is happening in the moment of conception. When there is a defective chromosome or some genetic irregularity in the sperm that is about to fertilize an egg, God can simply say no. He commands the winds. He commands the waves. He commands the sperm and the genetic makeup of the egg. If God foresees and permits a conception that he knows will produce blindness, he has reasons for this permission. And those reasons are his purposes. His designs. His plans. God never has met a child from whom he had no plan. There are no accidents in God’s mind or hands.
Finally, any attempt to deny God’s sovereign, wise, purposeful control over conception and birth has a head-on collision with Exodus 4:11 and Psalm 139:13: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”
Purpose: Displaying the Works of God
The meaning of Jesus in John 9:3 is not obscure. He is saying to the disciples: Turn away from your fixation on causality as the decisive explanation of suffering. And turn away from any surrender to futility, or absurdity, or chaos, or meaninglessness. And turn to the purposes and plans of God. There is no child and no suffering outside God’s purposes.
“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents.” This blindness came about “in order that that the works of God might be displayed in this man.”
This is not the whole explanation of suffering in the Bible. There are dozens of other relevant passages and important points to make. But this passage and this point are massively important. Let me draw out one or two things, and then we will pick it up the next time to see what happens and to ask: Why did he use spit, and why mud, and why the washing in the pool called “Sent,” and why the reference to working while it is day, and why 41 verses of controversy? All that’s coming. But for today let’s not miss how Jesus talks about our suffering.
Ultimate Meaning Only in God
There is one main truth in the words of verse 3: The blindness is “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” That truth is that suffering can only have ultimate meaning in relation to God. Jesus says that the purpose of the blindness is to put the work of God on display. This means that for our suffering to have ultimate meaning, God must be supremely valuable to us. More valuable than health and life. Many things in the Bible make no sense until God becomes your supreme value.
For God’s Glory — Both in Healing and Non-Healing
For Jesus, blindness from birth is sufficiently explained by saying: God intends to display some of his glory through this blindness. In this case, it happens to be healing — the glory of God’s power to heal. But there is nothing that says it has to be healing. When Paul cried out three times for his thorn in the flesh to be healed, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I will put my power on display, not by healing you, but by sustaining you.
In other words, healing displays the works of God in John 9, and sustaining grace displays the works of God in 2 Corinthians 12. What is common in the two cases is the supreme value of the glory of God. The blindness is for the glory of God. The thorn in the flesh is for the glory of God. The healing is for his glory, and the non-healing is for his glory.
Suffering can only have ultimate meaning in relation to God.
From Healing to the Ministry of Dying
“God must be supremely valuable to us. More valuable than health and life.”
One last observation. Verse 4: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” This means two things. One is that the works of God referred to in verse 3 — “that the works of God might be displayed” — these works of God will be done through the hands of Jesus. Jesus is going to heal this man’s blindness. The works of God are the works of Jesus.
And second, he must do this quickly, because night is coming, and his work will be over. Jesus will turn from a ministry of healing to a ministry of dying. He will turn from the day-work of relieving suffering, and do the night-work of suffering himself. He will finally submit totally to the plan of his Father that the Son be swallowed up by the sin and suffering of the world.
Eyes to See
And if you join the disciples in asking: Why? Who sinned that this man must suffer like this? The answer would certainly be: Not him. We did. That is the cause of his suffering. But it’s not the decisive explanation. The decisive explanation is: he is suffering that the works of God might be displayed in him. The works of wrath-bearing, and curse-removing, and guilt-lifting, and righteousness-providing, and death-defeating, and life-giving, and in the end suffering-removing — totally removing.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And over every sorrow and every disability and every loss embraced in faith for the glory of God will be written in blood: “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
May God give you eyes to see that the display of his works in his Son’s suffering and your suffering and your child’s suffering are all expressions of his love.