“R-R-R”

JOHN 9:1-12

APRIL 9, 2009

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Art Linkletter and then Bill Cosby had a television show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”   Do some of you remember the show?  Well, let me say, so could the first followers of Jesus, and sometimes what the Jesus’ disciples say makes us laugh – I mean, how could they be so dense?  But here – they do not make us laugh.  No, here, they are right on the mark.  This evening the disciples ask a question that many of us have asked.  They ask, “What is the cause of this suffering?”  and on the eve of Jesus’ great suffering let’s ask it a again.

Let me set the scene.  The man was blind.  From the very first day he was born he was without sight, unable to see.  He could hear, taste, touch and smell, but he could not see.  Of course, there might have been an advantage to not seeing.  By that I mean, he might be spared of some of our prejudices.  Unable to see, skin color made no difference to him.  Unable to see, he would not have been impressed with extravagant clothing or expensive jewelry.  And unable to see, he would not have noticed whether we were good housekeepers or poor housekeepers.  There are some advantages to not being able to see.

But on the other hand, there was much in life he had missed.  He never knew the beauty of a sunset or a sunrise.  If he had children, he could never see his child’s first steps.  And he could never appreciate the work of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh or a Picasso.  Not only that, but also he was outside the mainstream of society.  People treated him differently.  They felt sorry for him, maybe made excuses for him, and some even wondered what he had done to deserve such a fate in life.


And as Jesus walked by he noticed this man.  In fact, Jesus may have stopped in front of the man, and his stopping may have prompted the disciple’s question.  Jesus may have stopped and silently stared at the man, and the disciples may have felt awkward, maybe even embarrassed by the silence, and felt a need to say something.  Ever been in that sort of situation, where the silence is killing you, making you feel uncomfortable, so you say something, anything to break the silence?  Maybe that’s what the disciples did here.  They blurt out the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Of course, if the blind man was within earshot, it would have been an insensitive thing to say, to talk about this man as if he were not there, but on the other hand, it was a good question.  It’s a question, we might have asked.

Of course, the Book of Job should have settled this question for the disciples, but still in the first century the popular folk-theology of the Jews saw a direct, causal connection between illness and sins.  They lived in a cause and effect world.  Bad things happen to bad people.  Good things happen to good people.  In a cause and effect world, everything is orderly, predictable, understandable.  In a “cause and effect” world, those who study the hardest, excel; those who work the longest, prosper.  The Book of Job should have taught the disciples that is not how it works, it’s not all that simple, not all that predictable, not all that understandable.  After all, the best of the best, Job, did nothing wrong and yet he suffered greatly, but either the disciples never read the Book of Job, or if they had, they did not understand it, or they would have posed their question differently.

And we could get into a lengthy discussion this evening into the cause of suffering, but we will not.  People have written entire books on the subject – books like “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”  and “The Problem of Pain” and “Where is God When It Hurts?” and to tell you the truth, I’ve read all those books and they are helpful, but in the end they all throw up their hands and say, “We can explain some of it, but not all of it,” so if you want to know the why of suffering, the cause of suffering, I refer you to one of those books.  They can do a better job of handling the why of suffering than I can in the time we have before us tonight.  Instead, I want to focus our attention on our response to suffering.  How do we respond to it?  There seems to be three major options – and they go from bad to better to best and they are:  resentment, resignation, and rising above it.  Let’s begin with resentment.

I love the book Tuesdays with Morrie.  It was on the best-seller list for a couple of years and it is an inspirational, poignant and often funny book.  Morrie is dying.  He is in the last months of his life and a friend visits him regularly, one of his former students.  One Tuesday afternoon they are sitting together, and Mitch the former student says to Morrie,

 

“Okay, question.”

“What’s the question?”  Morrie says.

“Remember the Book of Job?”

“From the Bible?”

“Right.  Job is a good man, but God makes him suffer.  To test his faith.”

“I remember.”

“Takes away everything he has, his house, his money, his family ...”

“His health.”

“Makes him sick”

“To test his faith.”

Mitch continues, “Right.  To test his faith.  So, I’m wondering ...”

“What are you wondering?”

“What you think about that.”

Morrie coughs violently.  His hands quiver as he drops them by his side.

“I think,” Morrie says, smiling, “God overdid it.”


That’s how many people feel when they face suffering.  They think God overdid it and they resent it.  They resent it and they become bitter about it, and that’s about the worse thing one can do with suffering: become bitter and resentful.

The book Religion, Healing and Health, recounts a case history from Dr. Alvarez from the Mayo Clinic.[1]  Alvarez had a patient who killed himself with ill will.  The patient was healthy until his father’s death and then he and his sister argued over their father’s estate, and they went to court and the sister won.  From then on, the patient could think of nothing else, just how he had been wronged.

It became an obsession.  He detested his sister with malignant hatred.  At length, he developed symptoms of illness.  He began having difficulty with his heart and blood pressure.  Then various bodily deteriorations followed, and in months, he was dead.  Listen to the words of his doctor:

 

It seemed obvious that he died of bodily injuries wrought by powerful emotions.  The profound ill will generated in his system over a period of time had actually killed him.

 

The moral is this: if we are suffering and we resent it and become bitter about it, you we only exacerbate the pain. 

The second response is somewhat  better.  It’s not the best response to suffering, but it is certainly better than resentment.  It’s resignation.  With a deep breath, the sufferer approaches daily living with doleful resignation.  With a forced smile they say, “It’s something I have to live with.”  It’s better than resentment, and it sounds noble and pious, but resignation is not a particularly Christian virtue.

We all experience times when we believe we should “keep a stiff upper lip,” or wear a happy face button on our lapel, while we are crying on the inside.  But we don’t have to do that forever.  Take King David, for example.  He didn’t do that.  He didn’t live on a perpetual high.  Think of the Psalms we would have missed if David had simply resigned himself to his situation.  No, David complained, cried, felt abandoned – but not perpetually.


David refused to resign himself to the defeats that sometimes threatened to flatten him.  More than once, he seemed to be “down for the count, “ but he always looked beyond the obstacle or problem to God, and that leads us to the best option for responding to suffering: rise above it.

Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott were gifted writers and poets who lived three centuries ago.  They were both lame.  Byron bitterly resented his infirmity and constantly grumbled about his lot in life.  Scott never complained about his handicap.  One day, Scott received a letter from Byron that said, “I would give my fame to have your happiness.”

What made the difference in their attitudes?  Byron resented his condition and Scott decided to rise above it.

Let me tell you about the story of the Philippian jailer.  We are going to take a closer look at him in the weeks to come, as we will embark on a sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians after Easter.  Anyway, talk about suffering.  Paul had been severely beaten and thrown into a dungeon.  But instead of lying in the bottom of the dungeon and whining about God’s plan and questioning God’s sovereignty and stewing in self-pity and cursing God, Paul decided to suffer with dignity.  He and his cell-mate, Silas, sang hymns half the night.  In so doing, they marked the life of the jailer and eventually led the jailer and his entire family to Christ.

What softened of the jailer’s heart?  What prepared the soil of his soul?  He watched a Christian suffer with dignity.  Perhaps more than anything else we can do for the cause of Christ is to rise above it – suffer with dignity, suffer with an eye on eternity, suffer without losing hope.  In other words, suffer like Jesus did on Good Friday.



[1]As quoted by Norman Vincent Peale in “Rising Above Pain and Suffering,” Plus: The Magazine of Positive Thinking, Volume 48/No.3 (Part II) April 1997, 16-17.