And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” (9:2–5)
The blind man’s condition created a theological dilemma in the minds of the disciples. The question they posed, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” assumed the popular Jewish doctrine that anyone’s physical suffering is the direct result of personal sin. Therefore they saw only two possible explanations for his condition: either the sins of this man or those of his parents had caused his blindness.
But the man, having been born blind, could not have been responsible for his condition unless he had somehow sinned before he was born. Perhaps the disciples considered that a possibility, since the view that children could sin while still in the womb was widespread in contemporary Judaism. In addition, some Hellenistic Jews, influenced by Greek philosophy, argued for the soul’s preexistence. Therefore, they believed people could be punished in this life for sins they committed in a previous existence. (The Bible, of course, rejects such views.) On the other hand, if the man’s parents were responsible, it hardly seems fair that their child should be punished for their sin.
The disciples’ reasoning, although not completely illogical, was based on a false premise. Certainly, it is true that suffering in general is ultimately a result of sin in general. And it is also true that a specific illness can sometimes be the direct consequence of a specific sin. Miriam, for example, was stricken with leprosy for rebelling against Moses’ authority (Num. 12:10). Jesus had earlier warned the man He healed at the pool of Bethesda, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:14). The apostle Paul likewise told the Corinthians, who were partaking of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner, “Many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30).
Tragically, there are also times when children are forced to suffer the natural consequences of their parents’ sinful choices. For example, the eyes of babies born to women who have gonorrhea can become infected when they pass through the birth canal. If the babies’ eyes are not treated medically after birth, blindness can result. A baby’s health can also be negatively affected by the mothers’ smoking, excessive drinking, or substance abuse during pregnancy.
The disciples may also have been thinking of certain Old Testament passages in which God seems to promise punishment on children for the sins of their parents. In Exodus 20:5 God said to Israel, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me.” Exodus 34:7 repeats the warning that God “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (cf. Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9).
Such passages, however, must be understood in a national or societal sense. The point is that the corrupting effect of a wicked generation seeps into subsequent generations. This is axiomatic, an obvious reality. The idea that a child will be punished for the sins of his own parents is a concept foreign to Scripture. Deuteronomy 24:16 commands, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin” (cf. 2 Chron. 25:4). Through Jeremiah God declared, “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge” (Jer. 31:29–30). Ezekiel 18:20 adds, “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”
Subsequent generations (“to the third and fourth” [Ex. 34:7]) of children, however, have suffered the consequences of a previous generation’s disobedience. The Hebrew children of the Exodus, for example, suffered through forty years of wilderness wandering because of the sins of their parents’ generation. Centuries later, when the northern and southern kingdoms were carried off into captivity, generations of children suffered for the sins of their elders.
Jesus’ reply, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him,” exposed the error in the disciples’ thinking. There is not always a direct link between suffering and personal sin. When Job’s would-be counselors rested their case for his suffering on this wrong assumption, they caused him needless misery (cf. Job 13:1–13; 16:1–4) and ultimately received a rebuke from God (42:7). On another occasion, Jesus taught that neither those Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered in the temple nor those killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:1–5) suffered those deadly effects because they were particularly vile sinners—as His audience had smugly assumed. Instead, the Lord used those two incidents to warn His hearers that all sinners, including them, face death, and when it comes would perish unless they repented and trusted in Him.
The truth was that like Job (Job 1; 2), the blind man was afflicted so that the works of God might be displayed in him. But as F. F. Bruce notes,
This does not mean that God deliberately caused the child to be born blind in order that, after many years, his glory should be displayed in the removal of the blindness; to think so would again be an aspersion on the character of God. It does mean that God overruled the disaster of the child’s blindness so that, when the child grew to manhood, he might, by recovering his sight, see the glory of God in the face of Christ, and others, seeing this work of God, might turn to the true Light of the World. (The Gospel of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 209)
God sovereignly chose to use this man’s affliction for His own glory.
Having addressed their misunderstanding and introduced the matter of doing God’s work, Jesus affirmed it as the priority, saying to the disciples, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me.” Their focus was backward, on analyzing how the blind man came to be in his condition; the Lord’s concern was forward, on putting God’s power on display for the man’s benefit. As noted in the discussion of 4:4 in chapter 11 of this volume, John frequently used the verb dei (must) to describe Jesus’ active fulfillment of the mission given Him by the Father (cf. 3:14; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9). Here the plural pronoun we includes the disciples, who also were empowered to do the works of the Father who sent Jesus.
The phrase as long as it is day conveys a sense of urgency (cf. 7:33; 11:9–10; 12:35; 13:33). It refers to the brief time (only a few months remained until the crucifixion) that Jesus would still be physically present with the disciples. After that, He said, “Night is coming when no one can work”—a reference to His being taken away from the disciples in death. They would then be overtaken by the darkness (cf. 12:35) and unable to work (cf. 20:19; Matt. 26:56) until the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost once again empowered them to minister.
But while Jesus was still in the world, He was the Light of the world. The Lord, of course, did not cease to be the Light of the world after His death, since He carried on His ministry through the disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). Yet that Light shone most clearly and brightly during His earthly ministry. What Jesus told the disciples applies to all believers. They are to serve God with a sense of urgency, “making the most of [their] time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16; cf. Col. 4:5). The noble Puritan pastor Richard Baxter captured that sense of urgency when he wrote, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men” (cited in I. D. E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 223).
The Problem of Pain
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
“If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” This, as C. S. Lewis states in his small book, The Problem of Pain, is the problem of human suffering in its simplest form. And it must be admitted that if the Bible does not throw additional light upon this problem—if it does not reveal more about the nature and purposes of God than this statement of the problem leads us to see—then the problem is insoluable and life lacks meaning.
At some time or other every human being must experience suffering. A person causes pain by being born. Many live by inflicting pain. Most suffer pain. Eventually all experience death. It is true that believers who are alive at the time of Christ’s return to this earth will be transformed in a moment and will not die. But with this exception, it is the lot of all to suffer and die. Eliphaz spoke truthfully to Job when he told the suffering patriarch, “For hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6–7).
There is a distinction to be made even at this point, however. For while it is true that all suffer, Christians as well as non-Christians, it is nevertheless not true that all suffering is alike. Seen from the outside, a Christian suffering from an incurable disease and a non-Christian suffering from the same disease may be supposed to be undergoing the same experience. But, according to the plain teachings of the Word of God, the two are not equal. From God’s point of view the non-Christian is suffering without purpose. Or, which may sometimes be the case, he is suffering at the whim of Satan, who is merely doing as he pleases with a member of his own kingdom. In the case of the Christian, an all-wise heavenly Father is permitting suffering in a carefully controlled situation in order that he might accomplish a desirable purpose. The Book of Job alone teaches us about the latter.
But if suffering—that endured by a Christian—has purpose, surely we are not out of line in asking what that purpose is. If we are to learn from it, we must ask what it is we are to learn; if we are to profit, we must ask how. The answers to these questions are suggested to us by some of Christ’s words uttered on the occasion of his healing of the blind man, recorded in John 9.
We are told by the author that as Jesus passed by the gate of the temple, having placed himself out of reach of those leaders of the nation who were attempting to kill him, “he saw a man blind from birth.” This man had begged at the temple gate for many years, and he was apparently known to the disciples. They would have walked on. But when Jesus stopped to look at this man, they stopped too and began to ask him a philosophical question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The question they asked was the age-old question of the problem of pain, the question we have been asking. But in their mouths it took a form that immediately reveals two basic (and erroneous) assumptions. In the first place, the question revealed the pagan assumption that suffering in this life often is retribution for sin committed in some previous life, conceived in the categories of a system of reincarnation. Such views were common in the first century, even in Judaism. Many religions and cults in our own day still hold to them. The Scriptures do not support this, however. Instead they teach that the issues of eternity are settled for each individual during his own, single lifetime.
The second erroneous assumption made by the disciples was that the suffering of the blind man had been caused by the sin of his parents. This, of course, was possible. Sins of parents can be visited upon children. Blindness can result from venereal disease, for instance.
In this case, however, Jesus replied that the man had been born blind, neither because of his own sin nor for the sin of his parents, but rather that the glory of God might be revealed in him. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). This means—let us state it frankly—that God had allowed the man to be born blind so that at this particular moment in his earthly life Jesus might come upon him and cure him and that, as a result, God might receive glory. Having said that, Jesus then performed a miracle and restored the man’s sight.
Here is our first great lesson from the story. There are no pat answers to the question of human suffering. There are answers, of course—we are going to see some of them—but there are no pat answers. Consequently, we cannot say, as some do, that it is the right of every believer to be healthy. This is nonsense. Or that suffering is always the direct result of personal sin. In some cases, suffering is corrective. It is given in order to get us back on the path that God has chosen for us. In other cases, it is constructive. It is given to build character. In still other cases, as here, it is given solely that God might receive glory.
We must not make the mistake of some people who imagine that if someone suffers some great natural catastrophe, it is because God has struck him or her down for some sin. These people imagine God to be a stern, implacable judge, who spends his time watching over people in order to catch them sinning. “I am watching you,” God says, “and if you do something you are not supposed to do—whoops!—you did it! So ‘BANG’—that’s what happens to you.” This is not true. What is more, it is a scandal on the name of God. One commentator puts it this way: “God is not up in heaven trying to hit people. God is love. Anyone could testify to the fact that many times he has sinned and has not reaped the fruits of that sin. God has been gracious in a wonderful way. How tender and patient He is with us.”
Do not ever imagine that this is God’s way. For if you do, you immediately make yourself into a nasty little judge, trying to find out what another Christian has done instead of recognizing that in God’s providence all things come to God’s people, and that in many cases God simply sends suffering that he might be glorified. In these cases suffering is a great honor, and we should be humbled before it.
Calvin, the great reformer, has some wonderfully wise words for all of us who tend to judge others. First, we should note, he acknowledges that in one form or another suffering does come from sin. If there had never been sin, there would be no suffering. But when we go on from that statement to begin to link up particular suffering in some person with some particular sin, we generally err in one or all of three ways.
“Since everyone is a bitter censor of others,” Calvin writes, “few apply the same severity to themselves as they should do. If things go badly with my brother, I at once acknowledge the judgment of God. But if God chastises me with a heavier stroke, I overlook my sins. In considering punishments, every man should begin with himself and spare none less than himself. And so, if we want to be fair judges in this matter, let us learn to be perspicacious in our own evils rather than in those of others.
“The second error lies in immoderate severity. No sooner is a man touched by the hand of God than we interpret it as deadly hatred, and make crimes out of faults, and almost despair of his salvation. On the other hand, we extenuate our sins, and are hardly conscious of faults when we have committed most serious crimes.
“Thirdly, we are wrong to put under condemnation all without any exception whom God exercises with the cross. What we have said just now is undoubtedly true, that all our distresses arise from sin. But God afflicts His people for various reasons. Just as there are some whose crimes He does not avenge in this world, but whose punishment He delays to the future life, to try them the harder, so He often treats His faithful more severely; not because they have sinned more, but that He may mortify the sins of the flesh for the future. Sometimes, too, He is not concerned with their sins, but only testing their obedience or training them to patience. As we see that holy man Job unfortunate beyond all others, and yet he is not beset on account of his sins; but God’s purpose was quite different—that his godliness might be the more fully testified in adversity. They are false interpreters, therefore, who attribute all afflictions without distinction to sins; as if the measure of punishments were equal, or as if God regarded nothing else in punishing men than what every man deserves.”
God’s Purpose in Suffering
There are, then, many false views of suffering, and they must be avoided. But, when that is said, we still want to know the correct views. We still want to know why Christians especially suffer. And, to make it very personal, we want to know why God permits us to suffer in any specific instance. Here only the Word of God gives guidance.
To begin with, we are told that some sufferings are corrective, that is, that God sends some pain in order to get us back on the path he has set before us. Spankings are an illustration here. If a child has done wrong, he needs a spanking; and if he has the right kind of father and mother, he receives one. Why? Because the father and mother delight to inflict pain? Because they do not love the child and therefore do not care about him? Not at all! In fact, the opposite is the case. If they do not love him, they do not spank him; if they do love him, chastisement follows when he has done wrong. Spankings are a necessary part of the child’s training, for he must learn that an individual is not free to do whatever he wishes to do, irrespective of the wishes and sometimes the commands of others. Moreover, he must learn through obeying the parent to obey God. In the same way, some suffering is given to teach Christians that sin is wrong and to teach them obedience.
It is along this line that the well-known verses from Hebrews 12 were written. “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? … No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”(vv. 5–7, 11).
The first thing we should do when we are confronted with suffering is to ask God whether or not it is intended for our correction. If it is, then we need to confess our sin or waywardness and return once more to the path set before us.
Second, God sends the believer some sufferings that are constructive. It is by means of these sufferings that God is able to whittle away that which is unpleasing in our lives and form the character of the Lord Jesus Christ within us.
In one of his books, Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrates this process by the task of producing a statue. He writes, “The great artist Benvenuto Cellini tells us in his autobiography how he felt as he stood before a block of marble that had been brought to Florence for him to form into a great statue. Several chapters are devoted to the design and creation of the work of art which still stands in his native city as his greatest monument. Between the rough-hewn block of marble and the finished statue were all the love and care of the artist, and the infinite patience of releasing from stone the vision of beauty which he saw before he began to work. Thus the Heavenly Father is at work in the life of everyone whom he has foreknown as believing in the Savior. There is a difference between ourselves and a block of marble, however, in that we have feelings and can shrink from the strokes with which the divine Sculptor would cut away the marble so that the likeness of Christ may emerge in our lives.”
In David’s great psalm about the importance of knowing the Bible, the great king tells us that before he was afflicted he went astray, but that after his affliction he obeyed the word of God (Ps. 119:67). Affliction was a factor in his growth. So it is in the lives of many of God’s children.
Glory to God
Finally, as in the case of the man who had been born blind, some suffering is merely that the grace of God might be revealed in the life of the Christian. Job was such a person. Lazarus was another. Beyond any doubt, both of these men were sinners and both suffered corrective and constructive sufferings at many different times in their lives. Nevertheless, in the cases of their suffering that are recorded for us in the pages of God’s Word (one in the Book of Job and one in John 11), neither constructive nor corrective sufferings are in view but rather that kind of suffering that brings glory to God. In Job’s case glory was given in the demonstration, observed by Satan and all the angels, that Job did not love the Lord for what he could get out of him but because the Lord was worthy to be loved and obeyed. This was true regardless of what happened to Job personally. Ultimately Job was vindicated and received his reward.
Would God Almighty permit a man to be stripped of his family and all his possessions, to be struck with such illness that he would find himself sitting in ashes bemoaning that he had ever been born, just so that God himself might be vindicated? Would God permit a man to be struck with total blindness throughout the better part of his life so that in God’s own time he might become the object of a miracle performed by the Lord Jesus Christ? Would God permit a child of his to die, bringing suffering not only upon himself but also upon his sisters who mourned for him, just so God could be glorified? In the light of the Word of God we answer not only that God would do such things but that he has done them and, indeed, continues to do them in order that he might bring victory for himself and all believers in that great and invisible war between the powers of good and of evil. Moreover, those who know God well know this and (in part) understand it. They know that God is both perfect and loving and that he does all things well.
When suffering comes we must therefore check out these three possibilities. One, is it corrective, sent by God to return us to the proper path? Two, is it constructive? If so, we should ask him to use it in making us more like Jesus Christ. And three, is it for his glory? If the latter is the case, we must ask God to keep us faithful so that Satan and his hosts may be discomfited and others may learn that we at least are delighted to have God do with us whatsoever he pleases.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 391–394). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 687–692). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.