One of the good things to come out of suffering is this: It forces
those who cannot see any sense in it to grapple with the mystery, and
strive to squeeze some meaning out of it. Almost everyone who writes
on suffering does so out of their own personal encounter with this
mysterious monster. In the book When It Hurts Too Much To Cry,
Jerry Fallwell begins with this account. He tells of Clifford who left his
good paying job to come to Lynchberg to study for the ministry. He
had a wife and two small sons. He was an excellent student, and
Fallwell was proud to have such a caliber of man in his school.
One Saturday night just after Cliff had finished with family
devotions someone fired a shotgun through the living room window
and Cliff was killed instantly. Fallwell arrived in a few minutes to see
the most senseless thing he had ever witnessed, and he could not help
but question God, and wonder why He would allow such a terrible
thing to happen. He gave it a great deal of thought, and the only
conclusion he could come to was that it is an unsolvable mystery with
no sense whatever on any level known to man. In the light of this
tragedy he rebukes those who deal with suffering superficially. He
writes, "I think Christian leaders often do their people a disservice
when they spout glib and shallow cliches to people going through some
of these dark experiences!"
There are many people who do this. He has had others in this same
category. One of their fine students was going home and picked up a
hitchhiker. The student was killed and dragged into the woods where
his body was found. He has other horror stories as well, but the point
is, you cannot look at the victims of serious suffering and not ask the
question why? The disciples of Jesus could not help but wonder when
they saw a man who had been blind from birth-why? Why would any
man have to enter the world never to see it? Why is there such
meaningless suffering? It is the most simple question to ask, but
unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.
The disciples see no profound complexity in the situation. They are
confident they have narrowed down the answer to one of two
alternatives. Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born
blind? Jesus could have taken either, and they would have been
satisfied, but instead, he took neither, and said it was not personal or
parental sin that caused this suffering. Jesus through a monkey
wrench of complexity into their simple solution to the problem of
suffering, and by so doing he taught them, and teaches us, one of the
most important principles we can learn on the subject of suffering.
The principle is this:
I. SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO SUFFERING ARE SUPERFICIAL.
Show me a simple solution to the problem of suffering, and I will
show you a heresy that will fit neither the revelation of God, nor the
experience of man. Simple solutions are none the less the most popular
and widely held by the intelligent and ignorant alike. Here
are the disciples of Christ who are hand picked by the Master
Himself, and they view suffering with the same old worn out theory
held by the friends of Job. They assume that such a terrible fate as
being born blind had to be the result of somebody's sin. It was so
logical and obvious to them that they did not even see the cruelty of it.
They are asking, who is guilty for such an awful thing: His parents or
himself. In other words, who do we blame when this horrible reality.
What kind of parents must they have been to give birth to such a
monstrosity as a blind baby? Or what kind of a low life scoundrel
must he be that God would punish him at birth for the sins he foresaw
that he would commit?
I hope the disciples at least asked their question out of ear shot of
this poor blind man, for there are very few things more cruel than to
make suffering people feel guilty for their own suffering. Both the Old
Testament and the New Testament reject this theory to account for
suffering, and it is superficial, but it is still often promoted. Fallwell
tells of his personal friends Dr. and Mrs. Rudy Holland who
discovered their young son had a brain tumor. Surgery removed it,
but 11 months later it returned. This time it was much larger and
inoperable. They were told their son had less than a year to live. They
heard of a new technique developed at Boston Children's Hospital,
and they took their son there. The surgery led to all kinds of
complications, and he was in the hospital for months. He did
eventually come home but was kept alive by synthetic hormones.
Then a cyst that had formed ruptured, and he was in a coma for 32
days. After being out of it for a month he lapsed into it for another
month. He lost most of his memory and was going blind. Fallwell says
that you can't put into words the kind of suffering this family had to
endure. Imagine the cruelty of trying to figure out whose sin it is they
are suffering for.
We want life to be simple, and we want to have easy answers that
give meaning to life. We want life to be black and white where the
good guys are escaping suffering, and the bad guys are getting their
due reward of judgment. If life was only like the movies, but it is not,
and often the real life story has the bad guys getting by with murder,
and the good guys being the ones getting murdered. So it was with
Able, John the Baptist, Stephen, and on and on. Simple answers are
not always false, but they are so often foolish and cruel when applied
to specific situations.
Do people go blind because they mix up a pile of gun powder and
then light it? Of course they do. Do they go blind because they stare at
the Sun too long? Yes they do. People go blind for all kinds of foolish
things they do. They cause their blindness by the choices they make.
But to take what we know to be true and make it the truth, and apply
it to every blind person, is to be cruel. If we see a blind child and say, I
wonder what stupid thing this kid did to become blind, then we are the
ones being foolish. There are hundreds of reasons for why people are
blind. Those who assume that there is only one reason, and that is that
they did something evil or stupid, are a part of the problem in the
suffering of the world.
Simple answers are convenient, but they are often worthless or
cruel. Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen To
Good People writes, "I once read of an Iranian folk proverb, ' If you
see a blind man, kick him; why should you be kinder than God?' In
other words, if you see someone who is suffering, you must believe that
he deserves his fate and that God wants him to suffer. Therefore, put
yourself on God's side by shunning Him or humiliating Him further.
If you try to help him, you will be going against God's justice." It is
simple solutions like this that make so many religious people cruel and
without compassion. It is true that many people become stronger through their
suffering, and they become great examples of how it can strengthen
character. But it is a major mistake to try and apply this to somebody
else's tragedy. If a family just hears that their teenage daughter has
been killed in an auto accident, and you try to comfort them by saying
God wants to make you stronger, you are being cruel. You have no
business trying to interpret other people's suffering. If they ask you
for an opinion, you can share your theory, and they can take it or
leave it, but to impose your unasked interpretation on people based on
ignorance is to be a part of the problem. It is as foolish and superficial
as someone standing at the cross asking, who did sin, this man or his
parents that he should meet with such a violent end? This question
might fit the two thieves for they were suffering as a direct result of
their crimes, but Jesus was innocent. You can say that two out of
three ain't bad, but it is bad when you apply a simple solution to a
situation where it is superficial and does not fit the facts.
This was just what the friends of Job were doing for days, and they
were making his life miserable, and they were completely wrong. Now
the disciples are doing the same things with this poor blind man. They
were not so cruel as Job's friends, for they did not spend days rubbing
his nose in it, and making him feel guilty. But they believed the same
simple falsehood that all suffering is connected with specific sin. Old
errors die hard, if they ever die at all. They usually become so
ingrained in the minds of people that even after they are rejected they
continue to affect the attitudes.
The book of Job ends with God's rejection of Job's friends simple
solution to his suffering. It would have ended with God's judgment on
the friends had Job not interceded on their behalf. God was angry
with their superficiality which they so dogmatically defended. Now we
are seeing history repeating itself in our text. Jesus is again rejecting
the simple solution to specific suffering by saying it has no connection
with any specific sin in the sufferer or his parents. By doing this Jesus
shut down the number one most popular explanation for suffering of
all time. The vast majority of the human race has always clung to this
simple explanation of suffering, that it is the punishment for sin. Let's
II. THE SIMPLE SOLUTION IS SO SUCCESSFUL.
The reason for its popularity is its simplicity. It basically
eliminates the problem of suffering altogether. If all suffering is a
result of the sin of the one suffering, then where is the problem? All is
as it should be, and justice is being done, and all it fair. Everybody is
reaping what they have sown. Life is no mystery at all, but is perfectly
sensible and orderly.
That is why billions cling to the doctrine of reincarnation. It is the
simple solution to suffering perfected in a system. All that seems
unjust and unfair when innocent people suffer is easily explained.
They are suffering for sin in a previous life, and so there is no
problem. Every miserable situation you can imagine can be accepted
by these people, for even though they may be innocent babies who are
suffering, it all makes sense because they were sinful scoundrels in
their previous life, and their present tragedy is just what they deserve.
The simple solution allows people to live in the midst of horrible
suffering and feel no guilt when they don't lift a finger to help relieve
the pain, because everything is really just as it ought to be, for
suffering is the just punishment for sin. The simple solution eliminates
all mystery. There is nothing to wonder about and question, except
maybe, is it the sufferers sin or the parents sin that is being punished?
In other words, the simple solution is a denial of the problem of
suffering. There is no problem because there is no such thing as
innocent suffering. Once you eliminate the whole concept of innocent,
unjust, and unfair suffering you have, in essence, eliminated evil.
The one thing all simple solutions to suffering have in common is
that they deny the reality of evil. Like Christian Science they
conclude that evil is just the result of the wrong way of looking at
reality. If we look at it properly, they say there is no evil. Evil is an
error of the mind. Christians fall into the same trap when they try to
justify all suffering by quoting Rom. 8:28 and say, "All things work
together for good." They imply by that that all things are good, and
do not stop to realize that what they are doing is denying the reality of
evil. If all things are really good, then there is no such thing as evil.
This is pure heresy along with all the other simple solutions to
suffering. It calls evil good, and makes a mockery of all the suffering
innocent people have to do.
This theory makes it good for Judas to betray Jesus; good for
Christian men to have affairs; good for people to drink and drive
killing innocent people, and on and on we could go calling all evil good.
This, of course, will not stand up in the court of reality. Evil is real,
and the innocent do suffer, and there is no way to call it good. Rom.
8:28 is not saying that all is good. It is saying that God will not
abandon us to evil, but will in every situation, even the most evil, work
with us for good. But no matter what good comes out of the evil, it
does not justify the evil. Any theory that rejects the reality of evil is
not biblically valid, and that is what all simple solutions to suffering
What we need to see is that because something is true, it does not
mean it is the truth. This is what leads every simple solution to the
level of heresy. It is a partial truth exalted to the level of an absolute
where it becomes a falsehood. It is obvious that there is much truth to
the idea that sin leads to suffering. Adam and Eve lost paradise, and
began the suffering of the human race because of their sin and
violation of the will of God. There is no end to examples of how sin
leads to suffering. This simple solution, however, breaks down very
quickly when we see Abel being murdered by Cain. All of the sudden
we see the good guy dying while the bad guy lives. Now we have
innocent suffering, and the mystery of suffering begins. Abel did not
die because of his sin, but because of Cain's jealously. It was not good,
but evil, and it happened to a righteous man, and God did not stop it
or prevent it. The Bible very quickly thrusts us into the problem of
suffering, and just as quickly rejects the simple solution to suffering.
The greatest sufferer of all time was Jesus, and He was sinless. He
was the only truly innocent sufferer whoever lived. He suffered
completely because of the sins of others. John the Baptist was the
greatest born of woman in the Old Testament, but he was still a
sinner. But who would have the audacity to say he was beheaded in
his 30's by Herod because he deserved it? He died because of the sin
of others in their opposition to righteousness. Stephen, the first
Christian martyr, was also a young man and a righteous man. He
was still a sinner, but who would dare suggest that he was allowed to
be stoned by God because of sin in his life? This tragedy had nothing
to do with Stephen's sin. Maybe he did lose his tempter that week,
and maybe he had a struggle with envy or lust, or any number of sins,
but nothing could be more superficial than to suggest that his suffering
and death had anything to do with his personal sin.
The most popular solution to suffering of all time fails to make any
sense in these and millions of other situations. You will find it still
believed in high places, however. The minds of the Apostles were sold
on it until Jesus set them straight. Jesus said the blind man was not
blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents, but that the work of
God might be made manifest in his life. What a shock this was to the
disciples. Here was a man who was not sinless, but his sin had nothing
to do with his blindness. This is true of most people who are blind, and
most people who have any disease, handicap, or affliction. The reason
we have compassion on these people in Christian lands is because we
have rejected the idea that people suffer because of their sin. We
recognize that they are victims of evil, and do not deserve their
suffering. If they did deserve it, then all of our Christian compassion
that tries to relieve their suffering would be putting us in opposition to
This being the case, we need to reject another major false concept
that grows out of the simple solution of suffering. If all suffering is due
to sin, then it follows that the innocent will not suffer. If all suffering
is the deserved punishment for sin, there will be no suffering on the
part of those who do not deserve it. In other words, the simple
solution promises freedom from suffering to the innocent and the
righteous. This is the very thing which the Bible does not promise.
The simple solution denies the reality of evil, and that the innocent
suffer. The Bible, however, reveals that much suffering is unjust and
unfair. Peter preaches the Gospel and 3,000 souls come to Christ.
Stephen preaches the same Gospel and 3,000 stones come flying at him
to knock the life out of him. One gets souls, and the other gets stones.
There is nothing fair about this. Many innocent people suffer the
pains of life and do recover, but many do not, and the simple solution
does not deal with this aspect of reality. It ignores it, and that is why it
is so superficial. It is blind to unjust and innocent suffering.
The Bible does not ignore this reality. It makes it clear that this will
be a major battle of life. God does not promise that life will be fair. In
fact, He promises that it will be very unfair because of the power of
evil. All He promises is that He will be fair, and that those who endure
the unjust suffering of life will be greatly rewarded. Jesus says we can
even be glad and rejoice in unjust suffering for we know that our
reward in heaven will be great. Jesus prepared his disciples to expect
to suffer for being righteous. It was just the opposite of the simple
solution that relates suffering to sin. He said much suffering will be
related to not sinning, and they will be persecuted because of their
being godly and not going along with the unholiness of the world. All
through history Christians have had to suffer just for being what God
wanted them to be.
Christians have come to believe that they have some kind of
promise to be protected from the trials and tragedies of life. This
view leads to rebellion and rejection of God when it is proven false by
serious suffering. A mother who lost a son in battle wrote this to her
pastor. "I never intend to step inside a church again. It has failed me.
It has lied to me. It has taught me to believe that God would take care
of my boy and bring him back in safety as I prayed. I have prayed.
My boy is dead. What do you have to say to me now? I hate God. He
cannot be trusted." This has happened to millions of people who have
swallowed the simple solution to suffering. They believe that only the
sinful will suffer. The innocent and godly will escape suffering. When
reality comes crashing in on them they blame God. Their false ideas
of God lead them to be angry at God when they should be angry at
themselves for neglecting to read everything God has revealed in His
Word, which is a promise that in this world you will suffer.
The simple solution to suffering has created more atheists than any
other tool of the devil that I am aware of. You read the works of the
great unbelievers, and you find that the god they are angry at is the
god that is created by the false and superficial ideas of suffering.
When this spider web of theory cannot hold the weight of reality, they
reject God for not keeping promises He never made. A good portion
of the world's suffering is caused by this simple solution to suffering.
People believe it is the truth, and when it turns out to be a lie they
blame God. Mark Twain wrote a whole book blaming God for the
rotten things in this world. He was raised to believe that God would
not allow bad things to happen to good people. When he grew up and
saw it wasn't so, he rejected God. Nobody had any right to give that
false concept of God to any child. It is a lie, and it will lead to the
rejection of God who is the only ultimate answer to the problem of
False ideas about suffering are the cause of much suffering. I agree
with J. B. Philips who wrote about the false idea that godly people will
not suffer. He writes, "It seems to me that a great deal of
misunderstanding and mental suffering could be avoided if this
erroneous idea were exposed and abandoned. How many people who
fall sickly say, either openly or to themselves, "Why should this
happen to me? I've always lived a decent life."
"There are even people who feel that God has somehow broken His
side of the bargain in allowing illness or misfortune to come upon
them. But what is the bargain? If we regard the New Testament as
our authority, we shall find no such arrangement being offered to
those who open their lives to the living Spirit of God. They are indeed
guaranteed that nothing, not even the bitterest persecution, the worst
misfortune, the death of the body, can do them any permanent harm
or separate them from the love of God. They are promised that no
circumstance of earthly life can defeat them in spirit and that the
resources of God are always available for them. Further, they have
the assurance that the ultimate purpose of God can never be defeated.
But the idea that if a man pleases God then God will especially shield
him belongs to the dim twilight religion and not to Christianity at all."
The fact is, the godly often suffer even more than the ungodly. The
poet put it,
The rain falls on the just and unjust fella,
And sometimes more on the just,
for the unjust
Steals the just's umbrella.
There is no promise that life will be fair, but only that God will.
Jesus says in Luke 21:16-17, "You will be betrayed by parents,
brothers, relatives and friends and they will put some of you to death.
All men will hate you because of me." That is not much of a promise
of a fair life. But then in the next verse Jesus says, "But not a hair of
your head will parish." This is His way of saying that its an unfair
world, and unjust suffering is inevitable, but in God's ultimate plan no
child of His will lose one minute thing because of the power of evil.
Jesus says in John 16:2, "A time is coming when anyone who kills
you will think he is offering a service to God." Jesus did not hold back
any punches. He told His disciples there were no guarantees that they
would escape anything by following Him. He ends the chapter by
saying in verse 33, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may
have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I
have overcome the world." Jesus was so realistic about life, and that
is why He promised trouble. But He was also reassuring, for He
promised final victory and present peace in Him.
Paul was a great sufferer of all kinds of unjust pain, and it was not
because of sin, but because he was a servant of Christ. He writes in II
Cor. 11:23-29 that he was in prison frequently, had been flogged often,
been exposed to death many times, received whippings, and was
beaten with rods, once was stoned, three times shipwrecked, and
suffered frequent dangers and pressures. Who sinned, was it Paul or
his parents that he should have to suffer so much pain? The simple
solution to suffering will gladly accept either alternative just as long as
sin is the cause of his suffering. The biblical answer, however, is like
the answer of Jesus concerning the blind man. The answer he gave is
neither. Paul's suffering was unfair and unjust, and not punishment
for sin. It was the price he paid to do the will of God in taking the good
news of salvation to a lost world.
Are we to conclude that suffering is not due to sin, but instead due
to being an opponent to sin, as Paul was? Not at all, for this would be
to replace one simple solution with another, and when it comes to
suffering all simple solutions are superficial.