I once visited with a woman who was dying from uterine cancer. She was greatly distressed, but not only from her physical ailment. She explained to me that she had had an abortion when she was a young woman, and she was convinced that her disease was a direct consequence of that. In short, she believed cancer was the judgment of God on her.
The usual pastoral response to such an agonizing question from someone in the throes of death is to say the affliction is not a judgment of God for sin. But I had to be honest, so I told her that I did not know. Perhaps it was God’s judgment, but perhaps it was not. I cannot fathom the secret counsel of God or read the invisible hand of His providence, so I did not know why she was suffering. I did know, however, that whatever the reason for it, there was an answer for her guilt. We talked about the mercy of Christ and of the cross, and she died in faith.
The question that woman raised is asked every day by people who are suffering affliction. It is addressed in one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. In John 9, we read: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’ ” (John 9:1–3).
Why did Jesus’ disciples suppose that the root cause of this man’s blindness was his sin or his parents’ sin? They certainly had some basis for this assumption, for the Scriptures, from the account of the fall onward, make it clear that the reason suffering, disease, and death exist in this world is sin. The disciples were correct that somehow sin was involved in this man’s affliction. Also, there are examples in the Bible of God causing affliction because of specific sins. In ancient Israel, God afflicted Moses’ sister, Miriam, with leprosy because she questioned Moses’ role as God’s spokesman (Num. 12:1–10). Likewise, God took the life of the child born to Bathsheba as a result of David's sin (2 Sam. 12:14–18). The child was punished, not because of anything the child did, but as a direct result of God’s judgment on David.
However, the disciples made the mistake of particularizing the general relationship between sin and suffering. They assumed there was a direct correspondence between the blind man’s sin and his affliction. Had they not read the book of Job, which deals with a man who was innocent and yet was severely afflicted by God? The disciples erred in reducing the options to two when there was another alternative. They posed their question to Jesus in an either/or fashion, committing the logical fallacy of the false dilemma, assuming that the sin of the man or the sin of the man’s parents was the cause of his blindness.
The disciples also seem to have assumed that anyone who has an affliction suffers in direct proportion to the sin that has been committed. Again, the book of Job dashes that conclusion, for the degree of suffering Job was called to bear was astronomical compared with the suffering and afflictions of others far more guilty than he was.
We must never jump to the conclusion that a particular incidence of suffering is a direct response or in direct correspondence to a person’s particular sin. The story of the man born blind makes this point.
Our Lord answered the disciples’ question by correcting their false assumption that the man’s blindness was a direct consequence of his or his parents’ sin. He assured them that the man was born blind not because God was punishing the man or the man’s parents. There was another reason. And because there was another reason in this case, there might always be another reason for the afflictions God calls us to endure.
Jesus answered His disciples by saying, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). What did He mean? Simply put, Jesus said that the man was born blind so that Jesus might heal him at the appointed time, as a testimony to Jesus’ power and divinity. Our Lord displayed His identity as the Savior and the Son of God in this healing.
When we suffer, we must trust that God knows what He is doing, and that He works in and through the pain and afflictions of His people for His glory and for their sanctification. It is hard to endure lengthy suffering, but the difficulty is greatly alleviated when we hear our Lord explaining the mystery in the case of the man born blind, whom God called to many years of pain for Jesus’ glory.