John 9:1–2: “Who sinned?”
I’ve mentioned before that John sometimes packs a lot of theology into a few words; in this case, I’m going to go super deep on just two verses. This wasn’t my original plan—I was going to do the entire chapter in one post, following the ESV section headings (it’s one story)—but I found I was writing so much on just these first two verses that I’d be inflicting great pain on the universe if I carried on with the entire chapter in one post…
The verses are 9:1–2:
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?”
His disciples are assuming that the blindness must have been caused by someone’s sin, it’s too terrible of a thing not to have been caused by sin, but my guess is that they’re confused by the fact that it came at birth: how could the man have caused his own blindness when he hadn’t even been born yet? Is it possible to sin in the womb? Or did his parents do something so bad that it caused their child to be born blind?
Is God Just?
Given the prevalent thought among… well… everyone in the world, from the beginning of time until now, that good things generally happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, it’s natural that Jesus’ disciples would ask him at the beginning of this passage about the cause of this man’s blindness. I think their question is genuine. They’re not dunking on this man, or accusing him of anything, they’re genuinely curious: a man wouldn’t be blind for no reason, God wouldn’t allow that, so… why is he blind?
And I don’t think this is a case where the Jews used to believe one thing and now Christians believe something else. We maybe have a bit more clarity (due to events like this one being highlighted in the New Testament), but I think we still carry this core belief in us: God is good, and therefore good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. When we do see “bad things” happening to “good people,” we have to do something with that, so I think there are a few different approaches we take:
- We differentiate between “big things” and “small things,” and we don’t worry a lot about the small things but we get confused by the “big things.”
- We look for guilt
- We assume there must be a reason
- We question God Himself
It should be noted that these are not mutually exclusive!
How big is “big”?
Yes, sure, there are times when bad things happen to good people—we’ve learned at least that much from passages like this, and even in the Old Testament bad things sometimes happened to good people—but if something big happens… well, surely God wouldn’t be unjust! So I might stub my toe and think to myself, “sometimes bad things happen to good people.” But if I lose a loved one—especially unexpectedly, or in some tragic way—or if I don’t get the job I’d been pinning my hopes on (while someone less deserving does), or something major in life goes wrong, there’s an instinctive part of the human heart that ignores the lesson given in John 9 and starts looking for answers.
But our underlying premise in differentiating between “big” and “small” is insidious. It’s a way of saying that yes, God is just, but only when it’s “important.” Whether we realize it or not—and I don’t for a second think we typically inspect our thought process this deeply, most of this is happening at an instinctive level—we think that God is actually being unjust when He lets “small” bad things happen to good people, but we’re magnanimously willing to look the other way because it’s no big deal. We’ll let Him off the hook. (But we’ll definitely call Him to account if something “big” happens that we don’t like!)
But why do we think that He is willing to allow “small” bad things to happen to good people?!?
- Do we think some things are not important enough for Him to care about? If so, we’re questioning His level of care for His creation.
- Do we think that God doesn’t have the ability to be in control of all things, and so He has to focus on the “big things?” But that’s even worse!
If either of these things were true, Christians would have to live in perpetual fear that something is going to slip by Him, whether because He’s not paying attention or because He just couldn’t get to it because He had bigger things to take care of. And if this were the case, it would mean that every promise made by God in the Scriptures would be suspect! When He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (see Hebrews 13:5–6), we would have to think to ourselves, “well, yeah, unless something gets in the way.”
And if that’s true, it means that we shouldn’t be as dependent upon God as the Scriptures call us to be, because what if He’s not paying attention because this isn’t a big deal, or isn’t able to get to this problem because He’s too busy somewhere else? So maybe instead of depending upon Him, I should just take care of this myself…
This is what I mean by the distinction of “big things” and “small things” as being insidious.
Sometimes we take the same approach that Jesus’ disciples took: if something bad is happening, then it must be happening for a reason—and therefore, someone must have sinned. This isn’t a reaction that’s typically verbalized very strongly; the New Testament has been very clear that not all “bad things” are a direct result of sin. There are floods and famines and earthquakes, and we can’t point to so-and-so and say, “he sinned, and that’s what caused this earthquake.” And yet… and yet… when we see someone being hit out of the blue with bad circumstances, there is often a part of our minds that gets very suspicious: they must have done something, though, right?
And this is all the more tricky because sometimes bad things do happen because of sin! If a man commits adultery and gets syphilis, you can say that his syphilis is a direct result of his sin. It’s a consequence of that sin. If he then passes it on to his wife, we can’t blame her for his sin, but we can say that her getting syphilis is a consequence of his sin. Nobody is going to look at him getting syphilis and ask, “why do bad things happen to good people?” They’ll look at him and say, “he’s getting what he deserved.” (Is he, though? See below…) They might look at her, and wonder why bad things happen to good people1, but not him.
However, if John 9 is to be believed2, there are also cases where something bad happens that cannot be traced back to anyone’s sin. I didn’t quote it yet, but in the next couple of verses Jesus tells his disciples that neither this man nor his parents sinned; his blindness did have a purpose, but that purpose had nothing to do with anyone’s sin.
There must be a reason
This reaction I have much more sympathy for, because there’s a sense in which it’s true: If God is all knowing and all powerful (which He is), and in control of everything, then there is a reason for everything that happens. Everything. We can even take this passage as an example to prove that point: No, this man’s blindness wasn’t caused by sin, but yes, it happened for a reason! So when bad things happen to good people, and we respond with “everything happens for a reason,” there’s a sense in which it’s true.
There are still a couple of dangers with this reaction, however, that we should watch out for:
Never tell a suffering person that everything happens for a reason
First, if we love the people around us, we will never be flippant about their problems. If someone comes to me and says, “My house just burned down, and I lost everything!” and I respond with, “Everything happens for a reason!” he’s going to believe that I don’t love or care about him—and he’d have every right to think that!
Responding to someone’s hardship with “everything happens for a reason,” under most circumstances—I’d argue under all but the most specific of circumstances, and no counterexamples are occurring to me—is heartless and unfeeling. It is possible that this might bring the person comfort—those most specific of circumstances I was mentioning—but much more likely that it’s only going to bring comfort to myself, because I’m struggling with what this person is going through.
When it’s someone else’s problem, not mine, I’m able to have that kind of theological debate, but they’re not.
Sure, but what’s the reason?
Second, although I do believe that everything does happen for a reason, that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be a reason we’ll know about. In John 9 we come across a man who was born blind and we’re told exactly why he was born blind. Generations of Christians, ever since, have benefitted from that man’s hardship, and the lessons Jesus taught us through that man’s blindness. And there are other instances of hardship we can point to where we can draw a direct line: for example, because the Church was persecuted in the book of Acts, Christians left Jerusalem and went into all of the surrounding areas and even other countries, and Christianity spread throughout the world. Persecution is a bad thing, but a very good thing came out of that particular persecution.
But I’d argue that the vast majority of times that something bad happens we’ll never know what God’s reason was. In some cases, with the benefit of time and hindsight, we might see reasons for particular things, but typically we don’t. Two quick examples:
- After close to a century, I still don’t think anyone can look back and see a “reason” for the holocaust; I’d be highly skeptical of anyone who says that because the holocaust happened, this good came out of it.
- After a number of centuries, I don’t think we can point to good that came out of the crusades. In the [blasphemous] name of Christ Christians killed innumerable people, but we can’t look back and see how any benefit came out of that.
In either case, if we can see benefit, we can’t weigh that benefit against all of the death. It’s simply, to our eyes, unbalanced. Were there reasons for these things? Yes, I have to believe their were, but I highly doubt humans will ever be to a point, this side of Glory, where we can confidently point them out.
So I definitely believe that there is a reason for everything, but what I don’t believe is that that reason is often revealed to us. Partially because we likely wouldn’t be able to understand the complexities of this universe enough to understand that “reason” (which, I’m guessing, is typically more complex than just “a” reason, it’s a complicated series of interconnected reasons).
If something bad is happening to someone, and we’re too quick to start looking for reasons, we’re going to:
- Minimize the person’s pain, partially for the reason stated above but also because it’s likely that any “reason” we come up with would seem too small compared to the hardship (especially while they’re in it), and
- Minimize the complexity of the universe, and the God who is in control of it. In most cases, any “reason” we come up with to explain someone’s hardship will likely be a small fraction of what He was thinking, when He orchestrated circumstances the way that He did.
We have to leave room in our minds for a God who is more intelligent and knowledgeable than we are, and therefore be open to the fact that there will be things He understands that we don’t. When I say that I believe there is a reason for everything, it’s not because I know those reasons, or even a small fraction of them, it’s because I have faith in the God of the Bible.
Sometimes our reaction is much more visceral. God is doing this to me and/or letting this happen to me, therefore God is to blame. Maybe it’s surprising, but I have a lot of sympathy for this response, and the Psalms are full of people who are bringing their complaints directly to God in this way. On the whole, based on what I see in the Scriptures, I think God would prefer His children to come to Him in faith and question Him than to just ignore Him, or try to solve their problems on their own, or to try to explain things away in an intellectual manner instead of talking to Him. (And sometimes the “reason” why bad things happen might simply be to drive a person back to their God, to communicate with Him again!)
Now obviously this can be done in a bad way. Yes, there are instances of people questioning God in faithful ways, but there are also instances of people in the Bible questioning Him in sinful ways. “I love you God, but why are You letting this happen to me?” is very different from, “I don’t deserve this so therefore You must have screwed up, God.”
But I’ll say this about it: When something bad happens to you, that’s the wrong time to start trying to figure out your theology. It’s too late. If I may be permitted to oversimplify things a bit:
|A Christian’s Life …||… Their Reaction to Hardships|
|Always diligently studying the Scriptures and praying||More likely to respond to bad times with, “I love you God, but why are You letting this happen to me?”|
|Not diligently studying the Scriptures or praying||More likely to respond to bad times with, “I don’t deserve this so therefore God must have screwed up.”|
My point is that you need to have your theology in order, and a strong relationship with God, to handle hardship in a Godly manner. If you wait until the hardships happen and then try to figure things out, it’ll be too late.
Yes, God is just. … Sort of.
I titled the previous section “Is God Just?” because I think that’s what a lot of this discussion boils down to, at its heart. A number of the reactions we have to “‘bad things’ happening to ‘good people’” have, at their heart, a question as to whether God really is being just. Should He be stopping some of those things from happening? If He doesn’t, does that mean He doesn’t care, or that He’s not able to stop them? The very phrase “‘bad things’ happening to ‘good people’” makes a set of underlying assumptions:
- There are events or occurrences in life that we like (“good things”) and events or occurrences that we dislike (“bad things”).
- There are people that are “good” and people that are “bad”
- Those two things are combined together in different ways:
- “Good people” deserve “good things”
- “Good people” don’t deserve “bad things”
- “Bad people” deserve “bad things”
- “Bad people” don’t deserve “good things”
Now here is where Christianity veers away from all other religions: According to the Christian Scriptures (i.e. the Bible), that first assumption and that last assumption are true, but the middle one (there are “good people” and there are “bad people”) is not. According to the Bible, there are only bad people, no good people. (There was one good person, and He died for our sins on the cross.) All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
“Ok, yes, Mr. Holier Than Thou,” some are thinking, “I know that’s technically true, but obviously there are some people who are better than others. When we talk about ‘bad things’ happening to ‘good people,’ you know what we mean!” And I do, and there’s definitely a sense in which some people do seem better than other people, morally speaking. But the metaphor I have stuck in my mind these days is that of distance: I might be a few inches closer or further to God than some others; I can look at some people and think to myself that they’re kilometres closer to God than I am, and it seems like a huge difference. But we underestimate how far we all are from the level of holiness God requires of us; if someone is kilometres closer to God than I am, that still doesn’t seem so impressive if we’re all on Earth and God is the Sun. What’s a couple of inches, even a couple of kilometres, when the distance to God is hundreds of millions of kilometres? So yes, some people are definitely morally “better” than others, but it’s a question of scale. To God, there’s not a whole lot of difference between us.
So does that mean we all deserve to have bad things happen to us? I mean… logically speaking, it means exactly that. but we’re very fortunate that we don’t serve a God who is only logical; He is also loving, merciful, and gracious to us. I’ll speak only for myself when I say that I know I deserve much worse from God than how He treats me. I’m not even talking about eternal life (which would be more than enough); even in this life He treats me better than I deserve.
And this is what I mean by God being “sort of” just. He is just in that all sins are punished and accounted for… but He’s not just in the sense that it’s not always the right person who’s getting punished! When Jesus was punished for my sins that wasn’t just, it was Grace.
When something bad happens to me, it’s difficult to call out God as being “unfair” to me, when I consider how He is treating me with regard to my sins.
My point is not that, when bad things happen to us, we should think about Grace and just shut up and be grateful for what we’ve got. That kind of response creates surly, grumbling Christians. My point is that, in light of what He has already done for us, when “bad things” happen we should trust Him. He probably knows what He’s doing, right? Is there a reason for it? Probably, though I may or may not ever know that reason. Do I deserve it? Probably, in the grand scheme of things, but He’s not looking at things like that and I shouldn’t either.
“Consequences” vs. “Punishment”
A final point that comes out of this: when we’re talking about bad things happening to good people, we sometimes conflate “consequences” with “punishment,” whereas these are two very different things.
Earlier I gave the example of a man committing adultery and contracting syphilis; the disease would be a consequence of his actions—but I think we’d be wrong to call that a punishment. In fact, getting syphilis would not be an adequate punishment for the sin; the punishment for that adultery would be one of two things:
- An eternity in Hell, or
- Jesus taking the punishment on the cross
It would be one of those two things, nothing less. Where I come from, in North America in the 21st Century, we don’t think sin is actually this serious, so to us that level of punishment seems like overkill, but that’s because we don’t read and take seriously the Scriptures. Sin is that serious. Each and every sin. A lifetime of sins adds up to a weight of punishment that nobody could ever bear (which is why Hell is eternal)—except for the sinless Son of God, who had no sins of His own to pay for.
As Christians we should be coming to terms with how serious sin really is, and the idea that bad things happening as a result of a sin are the “punishment” for that sin actually undermines how much “punishment” would actually be required to “pay for” that sin.
Conflating the concepts of “consequences” and “punishment” also leads to bad theology. In the adultery example I gave, the man contracted syphilis and then gave it to his wife. If we were to call syphilis a “punishment” for the man, what would we call it for the wife? What is she being punished for? If we cling to the idea that the disease is a “punishment,” and she now has the disease, then we have to assume that she’s also guilty of something. I’m not saying that’s why we’d blame the woman for her husband cheating on her, but I’m saying that it does play into it.