I never cease to be amazed at the strange things that people believe, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs. Indeed, even with a book of words inspired by God—that most have easy access to—we can still see and hear some very strange ideas.
The reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly know it all. For no matter how much we know, there will always be more to learn. And to some degree that’s fine, as long as we commit ourselves to learning more and teaching others what we have learnt.
What is strange, however, is the way that even after we have identified a problem that others have committed, we continue to repeat those same mistakes again and again and again.
Of course, sometimes we might give them a little twist. Yet the mistakes that we find in others we easily do ourselves; we realise the mistakes in others, and yet we so easily fall into the same old traps.
We all do it, you and me alike. And to illustrate the kind of thing that I’m referring to, I want to refer to this passage from John.
B. A MAJOR MISUNDERSTANDING
Because immediately the story begins, we are faced with one of the howlers of the bible. For in the very second verse of the passage, the disciples, who had been around Jesus for a while, demonstrated their lack of knowledge, by twisting God’s ways. Indeed, faced with the man born blind, they asked the question—which the majority of Jews would have asked at that time—”Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Yes, as soon as the disciples became aware of the man’s situation, they began to look for the cause. And despite the many options that were available to them, they instantly came up with the conclusion that God was punishing the man for one of two reasons: Either he had sinned whilst he was in his mother’s womb, or that he was being punished for something his parents had done.
Now we can smile at their attitude. We may even be tempted to think ourselves superior to that of the disciples. But how often these days when something goes wrong, do we hear those words: “What have I done to deserve this?” “He was a good man, he didn’t deserve that,” or some other such saying? When something goes wrong, how often do our first instincts blame God for what has gone wrong? How often do we look to God to find out for what we are being punished? And how often do people spend hours, and days, and weeks, and years, and even decades dwelling on the reasons for what went wrong?
Now, of course, the reality is that when things do go wrong, there can be a variety of causes. And we can identify the result of sin as the cause in the majority of cases. And God disciplining us, like a loving father wanting to bring us back to the fold, can be one such cause. But then so can: The consequences of our own actions, the consequences of other people’s actions, the consequences of what the community has done, and the consequences of the way our sinful nature has corrupted the world as a whole. What we suffer can be the result of sins a long time back in the past, even before our own time, as well as being the result of recent mistakes.
But sin is not the only cause. Because we also have the testing of God, as he gives us opportunities to grow and to show our loyalty. Of which, the testing of Abraham in being willing to sacrifice his son and heir is just one example.
In other words when things go wrong, the causes of our problems—which are usually steeped in sin of one description or another—can be many and varied. And therefore God’s direct action should not always be the first to get the blame.
But let’s get back to the disciples’ question for a moment: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Now, as I said, the sad thing about this question is that it picked up the common ideas of the people of the day. It was based on God’s words delivered at the giving of the ten commandments in 1446 BC. “for I the LORD your God, am a jealous God. I will punish the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and the fourth generation…” But unfortunately, it ignored God’s words which followed: “…of those who hate me but show covenant love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5b-6).
In other words, God had said that he wouldn’t tolerate families where the father had no time for God, and the sons, the grandsons, and their sons had no time for God either. It didn’t relate to situations where the father had sinned, and the son hadn’t carried on the sin at all.
And yet despite that, there was a common saying in use eight hundred years later in the days of Ezekiel around 580 BC: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the sons’ teeth are blunted” (Ezekiel 18:2b). AT that time God responded by saying, “You will no longer use this proverb in Israel . . . Look, all life is mine; the father’s life and the son’s life . . . Only the one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:3b-4). And yet, sadly, 600 years still further on, the disciples were still expressing the same woefully incorrect sentiments.
It is not a good idea, then, to instantly blame God for his direct hand in our woes. There can be many and varied causes to the things that we suffer. Yes, at times, it may be good to do some soul searching and self-examination. But we need to be very careful when we are looking around trying to find someone to blame. Indeed, we need to make sure that we don’t fall into the same old trap that we see in others. And we certainly need to make sure that we are certain of our facts before blaming God for our predicament.
C. A SECONDARY MISUNDERSTANDING
However, whilst we can heed the warning evident in the disciples’ understanding of sin and suffering, that is not the only thing this story has to offer.
Because, Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples for their misunderstanding’ He didn’t even correct it. It’s like it wasn’t relevant, and that there were far more important issues to deal with. Instead, he simply told them the actual position of the man: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents. It was in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
Now I’m sure, the disciples would have been stunned, just as many people today may be stunned when they hear this story. After all, how could God deliberately bring or allow a child to come into the world to suffer? And I’ve heard many a people today express those kinds of thoughts.
But, in the context of this story, those sorts of sentiments not only show a misunderstanding of the situation, but they misunderstand God too. Because whilst others, including the disciples would have seen the man’s situation as a tragedy, from God’s (and Jesus’s) point of view it was an opportunity. An opportunity for the man to grow in faith, and an opportunity for the world to see God’s works in action.
Our problem is that God doesn’t see things the way we do… Or perhaps more properly, it’s the other way around . . . We don’t see things the way that God sees them, and perhaps the way that we should see them.
Now the man born blind is not the only time in the Bible where God uses a disability to work his purposes. The apostle Paul had his so-called thorn in the flesh. But the apostle Paul recognised that it served a purpose: “To keep me from exalting myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh—a messenger of Satan—to torment me, to keep me from exalting myself. I called upon the Lord three times to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7b-9). Paul in turn was then able to minister to Timothy who had a weak stomach. The words of Paul to Timothy: “Do not drink water any longer. Instead, take a little wine for your stomach and frequent ailments.” (1 Tim 5:23).
But in each case, whether it was the blind man, Paul, or Timothy, it’s not that God didn’t care about their disability or ailment. It’s just that, for God, there was something far more important that needed to be considered. God loves his creation; he loves his people. But as you know and I know, every one of us is different and responds to different things in different ways.
As a consequence, with our salvation—our eternal life with him—being God’s primary goal, what these examples teach us, is that God is prepared to use every way possible that he thinks and knows that will help us respond to him, and help others respond to him too. And that includes allowing the man in our story to be born blind.
But, most importantly, the story doesn’t end there. Because, in our example, God didn’t just allow the man to be born, and then left him alone for the rest of his life. No! He involved himself in the man’s life. And the rest of the story makes some interesting reading, not least of all because Jesus did a very unusual thing.
The story of the man born blind is a different healing miracle to most. In most healing miracles, the person who required healing, approached Jesus, and not the other way around. So, for example, in the story of the ten lepers, it was the lepers who called out from a distance for help. And in the story of the paralytic, it was his friends who went to the trouble to bring the paralytic near.
But this miracle is different. This time, it was Jesus who took the initiative, not the man. It was Jesus who approached the man first. And in fact this time Jesus didn’t even ask the man if he wanted to be healed. He went ahead and did his part in the miracle anyway.
Now, yes of course, the man being born blind is a tragedy. But then so is Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and Timothy’s weak stomach. But can we see these stories from God’s point of view? Can we get beyond the tragedies and look at them as opportunities? Can we see the lengths that God is prepared to go to, to bring his people into the fold? And, applying that further, in our own lives, can we see beyond our own personal tragedies and see them as opportunities to grow, and opportunities for God?
Thinking like God is a very radical thing. Indeed it can turn our whole world upside down. But every tragedy can be an opportunity. It’s just a matter of how we look at things. Because opportunities to grow are very much part of the way that God thinks.
D. RESPONSES TO ADVERSITY
Now, I don’t want to say a lot about the rest of the story. The important parts of the story are in those first few verses. But having got the major misunderstanding out of the way, and having shown that God did care but had a greater purpose, did it work? Was God right in allowing the man to be born blind? Was the suffering the man went through worthwhile?
Because, yes, Jesus could do certain things. He could demonstrate what it was that he wanted to do. He could spit on the ground, make some mud, and put it on the man’s eyes. (Making it clear to the blind man that he wanted to do something about his physical blindness). And he could tell the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. But the rest was totally out of Jesus’s hands. It was up to the man himself.
After all, the man could have just sat there. He could have decided that staying blind meant he could continue to earn an income begging, because he certainly wouldn’t have had any other skills to earn a living. And no-one would give money to a formerly blind man who could now see. He could even have wiped the mud from his eyes or washed the mud out somewhere different to where he was told.
But none of those alternatives happened. Indeed, the man did exactly what Jesus said. He contributed to his own healing. And consequently we’re told that he received his physical sight. But more than that . . . As the story develops, and as we watch the man take one step after another, he received more than just his physical healing.
The man’s neighbours were all excited and couldn’t believe he was the same man they had known since a baby. And it wasn’t long before the religious leaders heard about him too. And the more he and his parents were quizzed—about whether he had really been blind and who given him his sight—the clearer the man became about what had happened, and who Jesus really was.
So when Jesus finally revealed himself as the Messiah, he was able to say without hesitation, “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he paid him reverence.”
Now I don’t know about you, but at this point any discussion of whether it was fair for God to allow the man to be born blind should be tossed out of the window. The ultimate aim for all of us, is that we should have an active relationship with our God and creator. But how we get there will be different for each and every one of us. And only God knows what we need in order to respond.
As a consequence some of us may feel at times that we have had a tap on the shoulder. Some of us will have visions. Some of us will feel a presence. And some of may have a life changing experience—an opportunity to reassess our whole reason for living. But whatever our experience, it will different for each of us.
But there is one thing that is guaranteed, and that is that the hand of God will be there somewhere. So, if God knows that a certain person needs to born blind, in order to respond, then who are we to argue?
Now is that a tragedy or an opportunity? I guess that depends upon whose eyes you are looking through.
So whether it is the man born blind, the apostle Paul, Timothy, or even ourselves, the important thing is, that no matter what we are going through, and no matter what the cause, God wants us to use those experiences to help us grow.
Now that doesn’t mean that any transformation, from unbeliever to believer (and beyond) will be easy. Even the blind man had to face a very hostile reaction from the Pharisees. But despite that, and maybe because of it, he grew in faith, until he was able to come face to face with Jesus and proclaim his undying faith. And so should we.
And with that the story is brought back full circle. Because what did Jesus say was the point of the man being born blind? So that he could witness to others about the works of God.
When things go wrong, then, do we cry out, “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” Do we dwell on what when wrong because it’s like it’s the only thing that matters? Or do we realise that there are many reasons for the things that we suffer, and God’s direct hand is not always the cause.
Do we see the tragedies of life only as tragedies? Or do we see them as opportunities—opportunities to grow and opportunities for God?
The story of the man born blind is a story of a man who did not mope around when he was given his opportunity. Rather he grabbed his opportunity with both hands. And as a consequence it wasn’t just his eyesight that was restored. Similarly with the apostle Paul. Because he came to accept his thorn in the flesh, he was able to use it as a tool for growth.
And then there’s us . . . Well are our tragedies and ailments, tragedies or opportunities? Do we continue to say, “Why me?” “What have I done to deserve that,” and even blame God for all our misfortunes. Do spend time and energy consumed with the cause? Or do we see our situations through God’s eyes, as opportunities to grow in the love of God?
Tragedies or Opportunities? Two ways of looking at the same situation. Which is the one that we choose?
Posted: 6th February 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis