Jesus was no stranger to suffering.
Not only did Jesus experience all the typical pain of life (hunger, pain, sickness, death of friends and family), he also lived under an oppressive regime which commonly used violence to keep the masses under control. In 6 C.E. when Jesus was about 10 years old, the Roman army killed Judas of Galilee and lined the roads around Sepphoris (4 short miles from Nazareth) with the corpses of 2,000 crucified men. Growing up so close to Sepphoris, it’s a safe bet that Jesus would have heard about the deaths. He might of even had family members or, at the very least, known people whose family was directly involved in the rebellion.
Knowing that Jesus experienced the hardship of life (harder, I would say, than myself or many others here in the USA), it’s worth paying attention to what he says about suffering. When I go to a place to worship I try to ponder on this topic in deep thought in order to emphasize with the struggles he endured. As in, does he consider pain and suffering to be part of the divine plan of God? A method of purification or a teaching moment? Or does he offering some other reason as to why pain and suffering happens?
In what is now the fifth post in a series about the “Sovereignty of God” I would like to look how Jesus on this topic. (For those just now joining, you can find the first four posts here, here, here and here.) I know this is a HUGE topic so please forgive me if I seem to skim over things. My goal is to look at the overall message of Jesus to capture the jest of his viewpoint.
In reading the four Gospels, one thing that stands out is Jesus’ battle with the forces of evil. He is constantly driving out demons and rebuking the forces of nature. Sadly a lot of modern folks in the West skip over these parts as they don’t believe in the supernatural. Rather they think that these verses are remnants of a lesser culture where people believe in all kinds of false things. To these folks, the main point of the Gospels is Jesus’ teachings about love, acceptance and ethics.
However if we are to take the Scriptures seriously, we must admit that this world in which we live has an invisible supernatural element to it (a view, BTW, that majority of the world throughout the ages has held). In his book God at War, Greg Boyd gives a convincing argument that the Scriptures were written with the believe that God is at war with evil, pain, and death. This means that Jesus’ actions of healing the sick and casting out demons were not philosophical actions, but rather battles against the forces of evil.
As such, we can then safely say that Jesus didn’t view sickness, pain, suffering or any other form of evil as being part of God’s divine plan. They were not teaching moments or ways of purifying the soul. Rather they are things that are contrary to the heart of God and should, therefore, be attacked and driving out. (This, by the way, is not to say that all forms of sickness and pain is caused by demons as some may say. Rather the point of this is that Jesus is at war with evil rather than using evil as a tool.)
Below are some verse in which Jesus talks about the problem of suffering:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” -Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)
This passage shows that there were people in the 1st century (like today) that though that death, pain, and suffering was connect to how righteous one was. In other words, those who did not sin were spared pain/suffering while those who did sin experienced such items.
Jesus fights this mentally head on by informing the questioners that sin played no part in the suffering/pain/death experienced by these folks. Rather it was human freedom (Pilate’s massacre) and natural law (falling tower) that caused the death/pain/suffering. This is huge as Jesus could have said that the pain/suffering/death was all part of God’s divine plan and that folks just needed to trust God. Yet, Jesus – God himself, I might remind you – didn’t tell them that.
Now there is a passage that some will use to claim that Jesus did say that God causes sickness for his glory. However that passage (John 9:1-7) isn’t as clear cut as some would like. But first the passage in question:
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. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. – John 9:1-7 (ESV)
At first glance it looks like the “God-is-using-sickness” crowd has won. However things are not always as they seem. As most of you know, the Gospel of John was originally written in 1st century Greek. Translators then translate the words into English so that we common people can read them. These translators, no matter how hard they try, are biased people (like all of us) who hold to certain theological views. Most of the time these views don’t really matter as the passages are fairly straight forward. However there are times when there are times when the there is no direct ancient Greek to modern English word. It is during those times that one’s personal theology and worldview effects how one translates the Scriptures.
John 9:3 is one of those passages. Translators who hold to a “God controls everything” viewpoint (which is the most dominant view of things) tend to translate the Greek with a view that God caused the man’s blindness for the express purpose of giving himself glory. However there is another way of translating this verse that fits better with the overall passage. Here’s two examples:
Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.” –The Message
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered, “but let the works of God be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day…” – truthortradition.com, relying on the works of Greg Boyd and others
Under this alternative translation, John 9:3 goes from Jesus telling folks that God caused the man’s blindness to Jesus fighting the blindness as something that does not fit within God’s plan. This view, in my option, fits better within the overall story of Jesus as a God at war with the pain and suffering of a fallen world.
In looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, I see a God who is fighting against pain, suffering, death and evil rather than one who is using it for his purpose. I know this view doesn’t fit within the typically “God-is-in-control-of-everything” view of the Sovereignty of God. However I do think it fits within the consent and participation view of God’s Sovereignty – a view, I might add that is as ancient, if not more so, than the “God-in-total-control” view.
I also know that some of you might look at the above and say “Josh may have a point with the Gospels, but I know that St. Paul says…” To those folks, I will say that I try to read the read the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus rather than Jesus through the lens of St. Paul or any other author. This means that when I’m in doubt, I will always go back to the words and action of Jesus as he is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). And when I do so, I find a God who is a war with evil not a God who is using evil as a pawn. Hence why I reject the “God-in- total-control” view of life and embrace the consent and participation view of God’s Sovereignty.