By: Duane Kelderman
John 9:1-7 & James 1:2-4
Over the past few weeks we have been considering the age old question of the sufferer: Why? Why do we suffer? We concluded that we’ll never fully know why things happen the way they do, but that we can still live by faith, with hope, and joy, and confidence.
The why question is a backward looking question. It’s concerned about the cause, the source of our pain and suffering. Today I want to suggest a whole different way of looking at pain and suffering, a different orientation, a different focus. Today we look not at the question of CAUSE, but of MY RESPONSE. Rather than looking back, today I want to look forward and ask, “Now how will I respond to what has happened to me?”
In our text today, Jesus very clearly teaches us the difference between these two approaches. The disciples come to Jesus with this blind man. And they want to know what caused this man’s blindness. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It was the impulse to understand, to figure out the cause, that fuels the question. But Jesus says, in verse 3 “It was not that this man sinned or his parents.” Jesus says, I don’t want to focus upon cause,
Well, now Jesus goes on, and how we translate this verse is important for the meaning we derive from it. The New International Version says,
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus,
“but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
He goes on, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.”
In that translation, Jesus seems to be saying that the cause or purpose of this man’s blindness was to display the work of God in his life. Some would argue, though, and with good grammatical backing, that the punctuation is a little misleading in this translation, and Jesus is actually saying something a little different. (It’s good to remind ourselves that the early Greek manuscripts had little or no spacing between words or sentences. Punctuation was scarce in these early documents.) In a fascinating article on these verses, Rev. Harvey Kiekover, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who has seen a lot of suffering in his many years of ministry, sets the words of this text out on the page the way they might have looked in that early Greek manuscript. And he goes on to argue, with the backing of respected New Testament scholars, that a possible translation would be:
Jesus answered: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents. (period. You asking the wrong question, the question of cause, the “why” question.) But in order that the works of God might be manifest in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one sending me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.”
In that translation, it’s all the clearer (though it’s not totally absent in the other translation) that Jesus wants to shift the question of the disciples away from the question of cause to the question of how will I respond?
Jesus is saying, Forget the question of “why.” It will get you nowhere. Ask “Now what? What am I going to do now? And look at what time it is. Night is coming. There is work to do. We have a mission, a kingdom coming. Get out of yourself. And as you do the work of God, people will see the glory of God in you and in this blind man. “I think this translation fits better with what I believe to be a broader call of Scripture, namely, the call to focus, not on the cause of suffering, but on how I will respond to suffering, how God can use even suffering to make me more mature in Christ.
I recently reread an interview with Dr. Paul Brand. Dr. Paul Brand may be the closest thing Protestants have to a Mother Teresa. (Years ago Dr. Brand wrote a fascinating book entitled PAIN which is the story of his life’s work primarily in India.) Brand gave his life to working with people with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, that cruel disease in which people lose sensation in their hands and feet. And so, with no pain, they have no warning system to stop them from letting their toes get run over by something or letting their fingers get caught in a door. These people’s extremities get mutilated. The physical problems for these people are immense. But that’s not as bad as the social stigma that has always gone with leprosy, since we used to think that leprosy was contagious.
In this interview, Brand was asked, among other things, whether these people’s suffering, generally speaking, had the effect of turning them toward God or away from God. Brand said there was no common reaction. Some, he said, grew closer to God, and others bitterly drifted away from God.
Which way they went, Brand went on to say, depended upon which way they looked. Those who kept looking back, asking “Why did this happen? This isn’t fair! Who’s to blame for this?” were the ones who usually not only turned away from God but shriveled up in their own world of pain and were consumed by it.
But the sufferers who grew close to God in their suffering and who transcended their disabilities in profound ways were those who could put the question of cause behind them and could focus upon their response. They were the ones who could say to themselves, “OK, this suffering is terrible, and it hurts, and it isn’t fair, there’s no justice. OK!! But now I face a challenge: Can I go on? What are the works of God I can do now? How can I be a display of God even now in my life? That’s what Jesus is saying today. The question is not who did what. The question is what will you do, while it is still day?
This is one of those messages where it’s not enough, for me anyway, to think about suffering, to reflect upon suffering. I have to listen to sufferers, to learn from sufferers, to remember conversations with sufferers who have moved me in how they have made this turn.
I remember like it was yesterday a conversation I had many years ago with my friend Nancy Van Tuinen Kalinowski. She’s given me permission to tell you her story today.
Thirty-six years ago, in a weird accident, Nancy suffered severe carbon monoxide poisoning that left her in a deep coma, near death. For days, weeks, months, Nancy lay listless in the hospital. No response. And then one day, Art Van Tuinen, her father, walked in the room, and Nancy out of the clear blue, mouthed the words, “Hi Dad.” Art fell over onto the bed overwhelmed with joy. Art ran out and got about 5 relatives to see if she knew them, and she knew everyone of them. Maybe there wouldn’t be as much brain damage as they feared.
But that was only the beginning of her recovery. Three months had already passed on that day. She would be in the hospital for another ten months, learning to talk and walk and just be alive again. And then an outpatient for another year, and then in private physical therapy for another year. It was three years before Nancy realized that she had gotten back what she was going to get back. She was able to walk with canes, as she still does to this day.
All of this happened over 30 years ago. Today Nancy is a social worker who works in a rehabilitation center. She’s also been an alcohol rehabilitation counselor. She is married to Wencel. Already before she got married a year ago, she lived independently, something no one would have ever thought possible 30 years ago.
When I had this conversation with Nancy, I probed her on the point that Jesus is making in our text today. I said, Nancy, can you identify with that? Was there some point in your journey when you made that shift from looking back to looking ahead.
“Oh yes,” she said, “I still remember the day.
I was with Mary Lou, my twin sister.
It was about four years after the accident.
I had reached my plateau in terms of rehabilitation.
But I was still obsessed with
why? why me? the unfairness of life,
pitying myself, blaming, pining about “if only.”
And one day when I was on that track, Mary Lou gently, firmly said, ‘Nancy, you must decide whether you want to keep on with all of that rot, and rot to death, or whether you are going to turn and say, “OK God, now what. Where do we go from here?”‘ Nancy said, that was the moment. Soon after that she made some key educational decisions, and gradually this new orientation took hold. Forward-looking, forgetting about why, asking what now.
Now it’s important to realize a couple of things. First, this happened four years after Nancy’s accident. Those of you in the middle of your suffering right now, be patient with yourself; be patient. This turn can take time. Also, it wasn’t just Mary Lou’s words that day. Obviously, a whole bunch of things finally came together to make Nancy see that she faced a choice as awesome as life and death. In our conversation, Nancy repeated again and again, how important the love of her family and her church was to her being able to make that turn. In all those things, the Spirit of God was at work.
What I am saying today doesn’t just apply to people who’ve suffered like Nancy has suffered. It applies to almost any situation of suffering. I think of people who have suffered prejudice of whatever kind. Victims of prejudice face that awesome choice of whether to be victimized a second time, this time by themselves, by hanging on to the causes of their plight, to blame, to accusing; or whether to declare themselves free from the prison of victimhood and go on, and work harder if that’s what it takes and run faster if that is what it takes, but not to be victimized a second time.
For all kinds of people, there is pain and suffering. Life is full of injustice and unfairness. There’s no question about that. The question is: am I going to rot in that prison of focusing upon that, for the rest of my life? Or do I believe that God is at work in the world, and that if I look forward and seek his kingdom, I will find that there’s a place, a work for me in his kingdom that is good and glorious and urgent (the night is coming)?
This is the crucial question every sufferer faces. Will I look back or look forward? Will I focus upon the cause, or will I focus upon how I will respond? I think it would be helpful and inspiring for every person listening to this broadcast today to think about one person in your life whom you really admire because that person has overcome tremendous obstacles. Everyone of you knows someone like Nancy who inspires you because of the way they didn’t let life’s pain and suffering cripple them. It may be your mother, or your father. Who is that person in your life? Whoever it is, reflect for a moment on how they were able to transcend their pain. I dare say that two things are true of that person: first, they had a crisis moment, at some point, where they decided to turn from looking back to looking forward, to turn from focusing upon the cause of their suffering, to focusing upon how they would respond. Second, I dare say that if they are capable of reflecting on this, they would probably testify that this turn, this transformation from looking back to looking forward, was first of all not so much something they decided as it was something that happened to them. As Christians, we would say, this capacity to make this turn was itself a gift of God to them. I’m convinced that this turn is such a huge thing that it really is a gift of God’s grace that we can only live into.
We all have different ways of assessing who the beautiful people of the world are. To me, the beautiful people of the world are the people who have every right, if rights is what you’re into, to pine forevermore about how bad life is, but who have decided, by God’s grace within them, No, I don’t want to focus on that anymore; I don’t even want to focus on me anymore. I want to focus on something bigger, something more grand, more beautiful, on the work that God is doing in the world, and yes, in my life.
For some of you this today, your wounds are too fresh to just make this turn. Be patient with yourself. Trust in God to lead you and guide you. For others of you, you have rotted long enough. The question is, What will you do now?
Come. There’s work to do. There’s a kingdom to build. “Night is coming when no one can work.” Persevere in the forward looking fight. And God will finish his work in you and you will be “mature and complete, not lacking anything.”