Suffering: Who’s to blame?

Listen here.

There is a story in the gospel according to John which begins like this: Jesus was walking along when he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” These days, we’re not quite so quick to blame people for being differently abled or ill. And yet when my mother, Ruth, had multiple sclerosis, I lost count of the number of people who became frustrated, even angry, with her. “But she’s such a good person!” they said, “How can she be so sick?” “But we’re praying!” they said, “Why isn’t she getting better? Is she praying, too?”

As her disease progressed, others came to visit. “What an opportunity,” they said, “no doubt God is asking you to transcend your suffering, write a book, and increase our understanding.” But she became quadriplegic: she couldn’t hold a pen; and then her hearing and eyesight failed. Her damaged nervous system meant her skin always felt on fire. She was in extreme pain, she was terribly fatigued, she struggled to concentrate, and she suffered depression. And as she continued to confound the hopes of those around her—hopes of recovery, healing, restoration, transcendence—most of her friends gradually disappeared.

She was a Christian, an ordained Baptist pastor, and a theologian who prayed faithfully to the end; and yet, she never was healed. And she never did write that book, or transcend her suffering and pain. Instead, she read and re-read the book of Job, and she walked the long hard lonely road with Jesus. Teacher, who sinned, Ruth or her parents, that she suffered so much?

That is the question at the heart of Job, the question that Job’s friends are determined to answer. Look at your life, they say, look at your sin and repent; for God is a just God and fair. God does not inflict suffering on people without cause, they say, so confess, turn back to God, and you will be healed. In other words, Job’s friends, like so many people, believe at a deep level that people get what they deserve; that people earn their suffering.

For most of the book, Job, too, has this worldview. This is why he rails against God: for he knows that he is innocent, and that therefore he should not suffer. But we are told from the start of the story that there is a malevolent force stalking the earth, causing pain and suffering, and that God does not stop it. Any expectation we have that people get what they deserve should be shaken to the core, for Job’s suffering never was punishment: and to be asking God to justify suffering is to be asking the wrong question. The story shows that suffering can happen to anyone. It happened to Job, a man singled out by God as uniquely honest and faithful; it happened to my mother, Ruth, a good and faithful servant; and it happened to Jesus, the perfect human.

For Jesus indeed suffered. God’s beloved son was rejected by family, friends and hometown. He was condemned by religious leaders, scapegoated by the mob, and executed by the military. He knew loneliness, he knew excruciating physical pain, and he knew what it is to feel forsaken by God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried out from the cross. Suffering is not foreign territory to Jesus our Saviour; instead, it is integral to his life and his ministry.

To those of us who are suffering now, this is good news. It means that Jesus has already travelled the road of suffering. He knows it well, and he has promised to travel it with us again and again, even to the end of the age. And we know that as we walk with Jesus, we are walking to the cross and beyond; we are walking into God’s abundant and overflowing resurrection life, whether in this life or the next. In other words, we are not alone in our suffering; it is not a judgement; and it is not the end of the story. Jesus is with us, and goes before us, and is waiting for us on the other side.

We also know that Jesus’ Spirit is among us, here and now. This Spirit is poured into his followers and is present every time two or three gather in his name. And this points to something else: that, as people filled with his Spirit, then, like him, we are called to journey with those who suffer. We are not to wonder what they might have done to deserve it, nor wonder how they might have avoided it, nor blame them if they are not healed. We are not to shun them, whether out of judgement or fear; we are not to place heavy expectations on them. Instead, like Jesus, we are called to bless them: To bless the grieving, the poor, and the humble; to touch those whom others are too scared to touch; to minister to the sick, to give rest to the weary, and to carry one another’s burdens. We are called to walk with those who suffer, blessing them every step of the way, just as Jesus walks with and blesses us.

“Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” My friends, this is and always has been and always will be the wrong question. As Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And God’s works will also be revealed in us when we are a community which sticks by those who suffer, and offers them support, and showers them with blessings, and embraces them with a full and wholehearted love. Ω

A reflection on Job, John 9:1-3, and suffering given to Sanctuary, 14 October 2018 (Year B Proper 23, BP23) © Alison Sampson, 2018.

Image credit: “Job” (bronze, 1945), by Ivan Meštrović. Installed at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. Photograph by DA Sonnenfeld – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 


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