John 9:1 tells us that as Jesus walked along the road He saw a needy man, but the disciples saw a problem. The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he would be born blind?” (9:2). Who sinned? That was the question, at least in the minds of the disciples. Someone had to have sinned. There simply was no other explanation for the man’s suffering, or so the disciples thought. Sadly, it appears that having their curiosity satisfied was of greater importance to the disciples than the need of a real human being. Lest we judge the disciples too harshly, or too quickly, how often do we do the same thing?
Stop for a moment and think about it. Jesus saw a human being with a need, but the disciples saw a dilemma. There is a huge difference! Jesus saw a blind man—a priceless creature beautifully made in God’s image exactly as God desired him to be. The disciples (who were very much like we are) saw a problem; they saw a theological conundrum. To the disciples this man was really something of a bother—a pebble that was just a bit too large to sift through their predetermined theological grid—but to Jesus the disabled man was of immense value and, therefore, worthy of His time.
Are Disease and Disability Always the Result of Personal Sin?
What exactly was wrong with the disciples’ thinking? “Sin—either in the parents or the child—must be the cause of the blindness,” they thought. “One of the three people must be guilty.” And so they asked, “Which is it, Jesus? Is it him, or is it his parents? Is he being punished for his own sin or is he being punished for his parents’ disobedience to God? Or is there some kind of strange curse upon his family?” (How exactly the blind man could have sinned before he was even born is not explained, but nonetheless the disciples asked the question.) That aside, however, perhaps the disciples were prompted by their remembrance of Exodus 20:5, which warned Israel that God visits “the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations.” Perhaps that verse was swimming around their brains and led them to make an immediate sin-to-suffering connection. In their minds, every disease, abnormality, or disability had a sin cause. That was simply the mindset in which the disciples functioned—a mindset prevalent in the Judaism of their day.
Now, there is an ounce of truth in their conclusion, but there is also a gallon of error. Let me explain. Every form of pain and suffering is the result of the curse that God pronounced upon mankind in the Garden of Eden after sin entered the world. Therefore, there is a sense in which we need to view all suffering as the result of sin. The world was once perfect; there were no diseases; there were no disabilities. But sin changed that. We no longer live in a perfect world. Instead, our world, and every person in it, is fallen. Therefore, in that sense, there is what we might refer to as a universal connection between sin and suffering.
However, the gallon of error washing over the disciple’s thinking is that there is always a cause-and-effect relationship between personal sin and personal suffering. Sadly, there are Christians today who think the same way. They are very quick to interrogate a suffering believer as to the identification of the sin for which God is punishing them, when that may not necessarily be the case. Personal suffering is not always caused by our own personal sin. We must get that straight!
Consider two biblical examples. First, consider again the Old Testament patriarch Job, who lost his ten children and all his earthly possessions in one foul swoop (or four foul attacks from the foulest of all enemies, if you will), perhaps in less than 24 hours (see Job 1:13-19). Now if we embrace the view that personal suffering is always the result of personal sin then we have a serious dilemma, since God’s own assessment of Job’s heart and life before the suffering occurred was that Job was “a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” No one was more righteous than Job, in his day, God concluded. And yet no one suffered more greatly than Job did.
A second example is the Apostle Paul. In his case it is very interesting to note that his physical disability was not the result of personal sin, but was given to him by God in order to prevent him from sinning in greater ways. Because of the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” from God, Paul wrote, “to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!” (2 Corinthians 12:7, emphasis added). The things God had revealed to the apostle when he was taken up to the third heaven were so spectacular that the very experience made Paul more susceptible to a great fall resulting from pride. Therefore, his affliction was actually a gift of God’s grace.
We do not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was and I’m glad for that because, more than likely, we would then make its application too narrow. We must come to recognize that there are thorns in the physical flesh that are given by God, not always because of sin, but sometimes in order to prevent sin, to keep us from doing something that may ruin our lives forever.